The Growth of Love : Five Essential Elements of Child Development

By Dr. Keith J. White

Date Posted: Monday, 15 June 2009


Keith is married to Ruth and they have four grown-up children, and two grandchildren. They live at Mill Grove in a residential community in East London, which has been the home of Keith’s family for over a hundred years. During that time 1,200 children and young people have lived there. Keith has been involved in social work and child care all his working life. He was a member of the Barclay Committee, President of the Social Care Association, and Chair of the National Council of Voluntary Child Care Organisations. He is currently on the Care Standards Tribunal, chairs Redbridge Children’s Network, Christian Child Care Forum U.K, and Child Theology Movement. He is a visiting lecturer at Spurgeon’s College, and a faculty member of the Asian Graduate School of Theology. He has taught on social work courses in the UK including Bangor, North Wales, and the Royal Holloway University. He has degrees in English, Residential Care, and Theology. He has written books and articles on a range of subjects, and lectures worldwide. Living at Mill Grove gives plenty of scope for play, not least on mountains, boats, pianos and chess boards.


The Growth of Love : Five Essential Elements of Child Development


This article is adapted from a paper given to the Annual Forum of the Christian Child Care Forum in April 2008. The theme of the day was: “Love: a Four Letter Word”, and the purpose of the paper was to introduce my book, ‘The Growth of Love’. The participants in the forum were professionals engaged alongside children and young people who also shared a Christian commitment. The readership of goodenoughcaring is likely to be broader than that, but I hope that the substance of the paper and the book is still relevant and appropriate.


Novelists such as Niall Williams, the author of, Four Letters of Love , have no hesitation in using the word “love”. His later novel, As it is in Heaven  tells of a loving relationship between a man and a woman, each with trauma in their pasts, and the effect that the birth of their baby girl has. By the end of the story the three are together: mother and father with the child by her presence leading them to understand that:

“though we live in the impotency of our dreams to make better this world, the earth and its stars spin through the heavens at the rate of our loving and is made meaningful only in the way in which we give ourselves to each other.”  (Page 310)

We are not surprised when novelists, poets and dramatists use the word love: they are allowed to!  How often have you heard the quote about love from The Velveteen Rabbit , for example?

“Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”   “Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.  “Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.”

Likewise we are not surprised to learn that Janusz Korczak, the Polish carer who gave his life to be with the Jewish orphans entrusted to them as they headed to the gas chambers, also used the word in the farewell speech he gave to each child leaving his orphanage in Warsaw:

“Unfortunately I can give you nothing but these few poor words.
I cannot give you God, for you must find Him in quiet contemplation, in your own soul.
I cannot give you a Homeland, for you must find it in your own heart.
I cannot give you love of Man, for there is no love without forgiveness,
And forgiving is something everyone must learn to do on his own.
I can give you but one thing only –
A longing for a better life, a life of truth and justice: even though it may not exist now, it may come tomorrow.
Perhaps this longing will lead you to God, Homeland and Love.
Goodbye. Do not forget.”      (Page 144)

And really radical teachers like Paulo Freire find the word non-negotiable:

“It is impossible to teach without the courage to love, without the courage to try a thousand times before giving up …We must dare, in the full sense of the word, to speak of love without the fear of being called ridiculous, mawkish, or unscientific, if not antiscientific.”

(Freire, P. Teachers as Cultural Workers, Cambridge MA: Westview Press, 2005, page 5)

But for some reason it has become a seemingly inappropriate four letter word to use in the United Kingdom when we think of children, childhood and our engagement with them, or their relationships with each other and the world that is their home. Once you realise this you come to see that the word has become noticeable by its absence.

Perhaps one reason is that its meaning is so difficult to pin down.  This makes it unsuitable if you are trying to define project learning outcomes.  How would Ofsted measure it, for example?  If this is a partial reason for its demise, then we would do well to ponder whether the most important things in life (including childhood) cannot be measured: quite a sombre thought when it comes to the way we understand and evaluate education and care provision for children in the UK today!

With this in mind, here is a book which is inescapably and unapologetically about love. As we allow it centre stage it may remind some of us of the dramatic encounter between Nicky Cruz and David Wilkerson:  “I could kill you, preach!”  “Yes, you could Nicky.  You could cut me up in a thousand pieces and every piece will say ‘I love you’.”

Christian Child Care Forum and Love

It so happens that the period during which the book, The Growth of Love , has been gestating coincides almost exactly with the lifespan of the Christian Child Care Forum (CCCF).  And the roots of both can be traced back to somewhere near 1979, the International Year of the Child.  And what The Growth of Love  and CCCF have in common, when they use the word love, is the desire to understand, respect and nurture children in a way that is at one and the same time, fully Christian, and also fully professional. No compromise either way.

The book is offered to both professionals and Christians:

to professionals who find they must use many different terms and frameworks although they realise deep down that love is at the heart of what they know of the needs and nature of children and childhood;

to Christians involved in supporting, teaching, nurturing and caring for children as a means of connecting or re-connecting their life and faith with their vocations and work.

CCCF is guided by a vision of what you might call a “Good Childhood”:

“a society in which children and young people have a rightful place, and responding in love from common Christian perspectives, to the needs of children and families.”

Christians believe that they have been entrusted by grace with one of the profoundest insights into the very heart of things when they glimpse the love of God as revealed in the life and death of Jesus.  Charles Wesley wrote memorably that “love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all”.

“Christian theology gives a unique privilege to the language of the personal and love”, said Rowan Williams in a lecture on plural society at Westminster Cathedral on 17th April 2008.  It reminded me of one of my African novelist friends at university.  He told me that although it was far from politically correct to say so, and that although I could therefore never quote him as saying it, his view was that not until his people heard the Christian Gospel of the love of God in and through Jesus, did they had any idea of what this kind of love meant.

One of my abiding concerns is that as Christians engaged in forms of child care and children’s ministry we seem either to have forgotten, or are reluctant to share, some of the treasures that are our heritage.  Perhaps familiarity has something to do with it; perhaps we are anxious about how we are seen and supported in and by a plural society and culture.  Whatever the reason, just think of what is lost if we forget the following:

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; and love your neighbour as yourself.”

That Thomas Barnardo in his very first encounter with a child,  Jim Jarvis, told him on that historic occasion “the story of Bethlehem’s Babe”.  He told him of Jesus’ tenderness and compassion, His sympathy and mercy, of His love for children…”

The perspective of time and history is in sharp contrast to short-termism, or the opium of being caught up in a consumer-inspired concern only with what we eat, drink and wear.  Faith reaches into the depths of primal time, and leads us to contemplate the very end of history; pre-birth and after death.  What is it that lasts through the whole of a child’s life and after death?  Certainly not learning objectives; not even tongues or prophesy, but love.  Love is stronger than death.  Love never ends.

There are many, many more resources to be found throughout the Scriptures and in a variety of models in church history, all with love as an implicit dimension to what is described.

Whatever label is used to describe our contemporary society: modern, rational, secular, multi-cultural and the like, it will be a poor day for our children if we lose our grasp of this rich store of teaching and inspiration about love.

This leads me to introduce the book.  I hope that many will read it for themselves. A list of its contents, and the first chapter can be found at:  For many years I have been working and reflecting at the interface between child development theory and child theology.  And the book has come out of the creative interplay between them.  The framework of five key words has already been used widely by professionals of various faith commitments and none.  It is intended to facilitate communication between all engaged with children, rather than to defend a particular perspective or position.



The Growth of Love  : a summary of the book


Chapter 1 : Mill Grove 

The Growth of Love  is an attempt to reflect on thirty years of practical experience alongside children and young people living at Mill Grove.  There is a brief description of Mill Grove for those who do not know about this little Christian extended family in East London. This is where I have seen love grow and develop.  I do not know how or why this is, but because of the long-term nature and commitment of those who have welcomed, lived alongside and cared for about 1200 children in need since 1899, it has been possible to observe this love spanning lifetimes and the whole of the world.  Enough said, but please remember that the name Mill Grove is deliberately intended to avoid any labelling: it is sui generis, and defies categorisation.  It is a work of faith with no government funding or subsidy: a radical model of what child care looks like when rooted in the same family, house and neighbourhood over a period of 108 years.


Chapter 2 : Perspectives 

The reason for writing the book was not to propose or develop new child care theories, but rather to find a way of gaining a better understanding into what I had been privileged to witness throughout my lifetime: the growth of love in and between children and young people who had been badly hurt emotionally in their early years.  Forgiveness of a parent who had abandoned her children; long-lasting relationships and marriages standing the test of time; close and empathetic bonds between those who lived together throughout their childhoods although they were not related by blood; self-worth and esteem that grew until it was possible to help others; care and love for those less well-off.

In attempting to understand how all this might have come about, I use two primary frameworks, or perspectives: psycho-social and theological.  The questions that drive the book are, “How has love grown?”  And in the light of this, “What sort of environment best nurtures the seeds of love?”

There are two working definitions of love at the outset: one from the work of Dr John Bowlby, and the other from the Apostle Paul.  Bowlby has in mind a “warm, intimate and continuous relationship, in which both (mother and child) find satisfaction and enjoyment” (page 15). Incidentally because the book and my practice owe so much to John Bowlby, whom I met as a research student at Edinburgh University, it was a great joy and encouragement when John Bowlby’s son, Sir Richard, agreed to write a foreword to the book and to endorse its contents so warmly.

St. Paul famously describes love as “patient, kind; not envious, boasting or proud…not self-seeking, or easily angered.  It keeps no record of wrongs; it protects, trusts, hopes and perseveres.  It never gives up.” The psychologist Dr. Jo-Joy Wright delighted in the fact that the book and its themes resonate so richly with the notion of “hesed” the steadfast, covenant loving-kindness of God described so often in the Hebrew Scriptures.

These definitions encapsulate much, if not most, of what professionals and Christians believe about the essence or nature of love. I don’t think we need detain ourselves any longer at this point: we know what we mean. We are not talking about romantic or sexual love; perverted forms of human feelings as represented by the word “paedophile”; nor about something that is engendered by formal education, psychology or care, however informed and well-intentioned. A critical point to make here is that if we do not affirm what we mean by love as Christian professionals, then other definitions will prevail by default.

The book does not go into detail about how the two perspectives, psycho-social and theological, can be mutually illuminating, and how they might be related to each other conceptually.  But it is important to say that neither is the junior partner.  They are invited to challenge and critique each other.  But I would like to draw your attention to a section on theological contributions to theory (pages 39-44), and to invite your reactions.  It calls for a fundamental revision of the relationship that takes seriously the reality of pre-birth, death, the search for meaning and love, the limited nature of cognitive and other forms of development in helping humans come to terms with death, and the overwhelming significance of grace in Christian theology and the lives of Christians. Put simply it calls for some radical rethinking of the theoretical basis of much of our work with children.

And this call comes at a good time, for over the past five or so years there has been a flourishing of thinking and writing about children and childhood from various theological perspectives.  I have had the privilege of working alongside groups doing this on every continent, and of reading some substantial contributions from scholars and theologians.  Christian professionals need no longer operate in a theological mist or vacuum.  I commend to you particularly the work of the Child Theology Movement (  Recently CTM has been working alongside international Christian children’s organisations helping to develop their theological base and practice, and I hope that this will begin to happen in the United Kingdom too.

Given this, how does this love grow in babies and children?  And if we know how it grows, what sort of environment best nurtures such love?  In seeking answers to these questions we bear in mind children in every type of setting and situation, from those in settled and caring families, to those who find themselves in unpredictable, uncaring, chaotic if not abusive contexts, wherever they are in the world.  If we are to find alternative or substitute environments for children who are deprived of love, what pointers or principles can we find?


Chapters 3 to 7 : The Five Key Themes or Components of Love

I have been working on the five themes described in The Growth of Love for a long time.  They derive from a study of all the relevant literature and clinical experience that I could lay my hands on, professional and theological.  In choosing five words I was attempting to identify readily accessible and understandable, non-specialist themes that would resonate within both professional and theological communities. They are intentionally inclusive and allusive, rather than restrictive.  They are security, boundaries, significance, community and creativity.  They come best in this order in my experience, but are not a form of progression such as, say, Erikson’s stages or Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Put together they represent much of what we mean by the word “love”, but also the key elements in the environment of the growing child that nurture this love:

Security: bonding, attachment and particularly the experience of “being held”.

Boundaries: predictability, discipline, patterns, routines, space, privacy, safety.

Significance: I-Thou; respect; reciprocity; self-worth, esteem and identity.

Community: associations, clubs and groups beyond the initial significant others.

Creativity: life, spontaneity, dance, colours, rhythms, play.

Each theme forms the basis for a chapter, and of course it has been necessary to list them (you can’t have simultaneous chapters!), but I stress that they are not to be seen as in a fixed order or associated with particular stages of child development. In fact they are not mutually exclusive, and creativity could be said to be a dimension of the other four. Love grows in a myriad individual ways and combinations, but these words encapsulate much of the world’s wisdom on how it grows.  They are not prescriptive.  And they are not simply an exhaustive list of needs or even hungers.  Resilience theory and observation shows that somehow children can learn to give and receive love without all of these being in place. So I, like the love I am trying to describe, have tried to break free of regimented and institutionalised child development theory, while at the same time drawing from the best of it.

Somewhere among them there should be aspects of every psycho-social theory, and theological insights.  If these aspects and insights have not actually been named in every case then the intention has been to clear space for them, so that they can be appropriately located. The five themes have been tested out on every continent for ten to fifteen years.  That does not put them above contradiction or refinement, but it does mean that in however small a measure they can be said to work.

I would like to highlight one discovery made during the writing of the book.  Another project in which I have been engaged over the past 21 years has been a new presentation of the Bible.  It is intended for ordinary people who want to read the Bible for themselves, but who have little or no knowledge of the content or the way in which the Bible is arranged.  In the process I have worked at providing simple notes that a Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist or agnostic, might find useful in reading the text if English is their second language.  So I have found myself immersed in the whole of the Bible text for a number of years.  In writing about the five themes, I have drawn deeply from this vast reservoir.  My discovery is that the Scriptures are full of life-giving water if we are seeking that which will nurture the seeds of love. Each of the five themes has been, in my view immeasurably enriched by the insights and light thrown on them by the biblical material.

You will recall that some of the pioneers of psychiatry drew heavily from Greek stories (an obvious example is Freud and the so-called “Oedipal complex”).  What we still need to do is to reframe and rediscover some of our child development theory in the light of the great stories and literature of the Bible.  And we have to find a way of allowing the Bible to connect with the children and young people we seek to help, and of them connecting with it.  When this happens it is as evocative, alive, real and resourceful as ever.  It connects with the deepest fears, anxieties, longing and hopes of all people.  Don’t overlook it or take it for granted!

That said, whether or not we are believers and drawing on this biblical material, if we are to participate in creating the best environment in which the seeds of love can take root and grow (a good childhood? good enough parenting? a child-friendly society?) then these five themes will be among the best guiding principles.  Certainly if we were to ignore them or work against them, love would be threatened and at risk.  As the five themes have been explored in groups around the world they always seem to resonate, to make sense and to provide memorable – because simple  – principles that can be applied in their own way and culture whether in parenting, teaching, social care, church, formally or informally.


Chapter 8 : Caring Adults

This is a chapter that seeks to apply the themes to the assessment and understanding of the needs and qualities of the adults who consider choosing to be alongside children.  Jo-Joy Wright has provided a model of how this can be done, and it is listed in an appendix.


Chapter 9 : Risks to the Growth of Love 

Sadly there are many factors that undermine or threaten the growth of love in children around the world and through history and I try to discuss some of those in our contemporary world.  In doing this I try to go beyond the obvious factors such as war, disease, famine, paedophilia, abuse and so on, to examine some of those factors and frameworks that we may take for granted or even consider to be beneficial. Love demands that we look more deeply and widely at the contemporary environment than conventional research and policy.

When we place love at the centre of our endeavours and perspectives, it shines light on every aspect of our lives and work.  It may cast a warm and encouraging light, or provide a searchlight revealing hidden flaws and contradictions.  In the United Kingdom  we have long proceeded in the realms of child care and education without the centrality of love.  So we invent terms like “Every child matters”, “corporate parenting”, “safeguarding children” “looking after children” without setting them in a more overarching and holistic context.  If this seems overly critical of our own principles and practice it is because I am concerned to seek to get our own house in order rather than assuming a spurious moral superiority over other parts of the world, other cultures and traditions.

At the launch of the CCCF at Portcullis House on 14th March 2001 I was the recipient of criticism of criticism form no less than a Lord Bishopbecause I had described aspects of life in the United Kingdom  including the church that were not child-friendly.  Yet the UNICEF report on children’s wellbeing in the UK published in February 2007 did not give us any grounds for complacency.  And the recent Good Childhood survey of 11-15 year olds which concluded that 10% suffer from mental health problems, and 27% of 14-16 year olds admit feeling depressed, gave sombre food for thought. Sadly I have seen little reason to change my views.  There is much that is child-unfriendly in the United Kingdom despite the best intentions of many.

If we put children and love at the centre some surprising potential conclusions emerge: perhaps the very things that we prize and cherish unintentionally undermine the growth of love.  I remain haunted and challenged by the hymn of Graham Kendrick, “Who can sound the depths of sorrow in the Father heart of God?”  The line “We have sacrificed our children on the altars of our gods” comes far too close to modern day realities than I care to admit: perhaps it has always been so.


Chapter 10 : Villages and Compost Heaps 

In looking ahead we must of course avoid positing a golden age or being nostalgic about times past.  We are concerned to be hard-headed and real in a fast changing set of currents in the 21st century.  What should a government concentrate on?  What should professionals, faith-based organisations and churches set out to do?

I cannot see how any single initiative can serve as a panacea, given the five themes on the one hand, and the variety of human experience, on the other.

So I have come up with something that may seem rather open-ended and lacking in specifics in a culture that is so outcome focussed, and seeking to tick boxes.  Love thrives in what I term “villages” or “social compost heaps”.  So the key is not “the family” or “education”, or children’s centres, or parenting, or whatever else you care to single out.  Children thrive where there is a rich texture of interwoven relationships, institutions and groups, formal and informal. I suppose some would link this in some way with ideas of civic society. The scary thing is that the way modern urban life is going such “villages” may well be threatened.  Or if this seems too bleak an analysis they are not being created and nurtured.

What I have in mind is not about outcomes and intentional actions, government initiatives and guidelines, and certainly not about services and the extension of government interference in everyday life.  It is much more about creating space in which love can thrive:  warm and safe space, rather than services. Love is not all to do with giving and receiving in a conscious way, but more often than not spontaneous and serendipitous discoveries and relationships.

One of the most precious gifts that adults can give to children is reliable, creative personal space, where adults are content and relaxed in each others company, and where children can be, and play and experiment in such a social context without being the objects of attention, teaching, care, admiration or concern.  Not age-appropriate activities and lessons, but space in which children can be themselves without fear of neglect on the one hand, or zealous concern and activity on the other.

In many extended families and communities worldwide much of this space exists either in reality or potentially. Adult relatives or neighbours come together regularly for a number of practical reasons with children able to play together in the middle of it all.  This is a model for me of the setting in which love thrives best.

It is the essence of a child-friendly society.  The child can be in the midst of everything without being the focus of attention. For example: a crèche around a crib on Christmas morning with the adult worshippers surrounding the group of babies, toddlers and little children.  Yes, really!

So let’s be clear about this: I am seeking models, not policy statements or instrumental solutions. This is a significant point: should we focus on models of integrated practice and excellence rather than get into the numbers game?


Some possible implications for Christians and Christian organisations


The model of church as a “village” or part of a “social compost heap”

Church it seems to me offers a possible model for future action: not rigid institutional concepts and structures, but a community of people drawn from different walks of life and cultures, ages and profiles. Try as I might I keep coming back to the fact that unless churches and church function as models of these “villages” or “social compost heaps” then there is going to be an immense crisis in the United Kingdom in future generations.  Contemporary trends are undermining much of what I have in mind by a range of factors that interweave with and affect each other.  I will not detain you with an analysis now.  But it is imperative that churches model what it is to welcome and accept children, and to be child-friendly.

And in saying this I see the work and practice of Christian organisations, and families, as part of church, not para-church. Which places and projects seem to you to be most like the communities that characterise love or good enough caring?  If we can’t point to any in our organisation then a stark choice confronts us: to cease the pretence of calling ourselves Christian, or to change direction immediately and begin the long-hard slog of creating and sustaining alternative, pioneering models.  The government and contemporary policy-makers urgently need integrated practice models that work.

These models will implicitly challenge prevailing policies and methods. They cannot be servants of government and in its pay.


Rethinking education and care

I won’t rehearse the arguments here, but I agree with John Westerhof that modern education and schools are at best like hothouses, and at worst like factories. We are going to have to develop new models, and this will require new language.  Again it is for churches to model new forms of learning and care, where love has its rightful place, and where we do not automatically prefer reason and utility to the giving and receiving of love.

The examples of Montessori, Cavaletti, Berryman and others are the basis for new models.  Barnardo was a pioneer in his day, and societies always need pioneers who are willing to venture into new, uncharted territory and find new ways of living, that others can learn from.


Covenant lived out

I have been influenced greatly by Iris Murdoch’s philosophy of morals, which is based on the assumption that ethics require an idea beyond utility: something that transcends the everyday.  And my belief is that love cannot thrive in children and childhood where there is no covenant or idea of covenant.  The marriage covenant is not theologically speaking a human invention, but something on earth that mirrors or embodies the covenant at the heart of the Trinity, and between God and His people. This is not to hark back to a golden age, or to assume that marriage as we have known it will again be the social norm.

It is simply to state the obvious: there have to be places and families where children can see and experience covenant love in action.  My concern is that Christian organisations are being squeezed into the mould of contemporary society and conforming to its norms rather than being transforming vehicles through which covenant love is lived out, incarnated and en-fleshed.

Love will not thrive without this.  If we are serious about the growth of love then there will be serious changes and sacrifices ahead.


Parenting is for everyone

At the beginning of the book I tell a story about a time in Switzerland when I realised that I was experiencing what it meant in practice for a village to parent three nursery school children.  By virtue of driving through this village (Trogen in Appenzell Canton) we had become temporary parents ensuring that they crossed the road safely.  In the United Kingdom parenting is largely confined conceptually to the nuclear family and one or two parents; or to the corporate parent.  The parenting role of every villager is not acknowledged.  We are expected to pass by on the other side.

So parenting has to be redefined, rediscovered and re-modelled. If life at Mill Grove has taught me anything, it is that it takes the whole community if there is to be good enough parenting.

I gave the first version of this paper at a conference of Christian child care organisations.  Readers of this revised article may or may not be Christians.   For those of other faiths or none, I would ask forgiveness if it seems parochial or biased.  It seems to me that love requires us to be real about who we are and what we really believe, and equally important to respect and relish the views and beliefs of others.  So I would warmly welcome your response.
Keith J. White
27. ii. 2009