I was born and spent my early years in the far North of Scotland very close to John O Groats. My father was from inner city Manchester, having moved for work as a radio operator in the shipping radio station nearby. He was a fish out of water in our small town; full of people who had lived there all their lives, and many of whom had never lived or visited anywhere else. He decided to take up golf – partly to have something to do and partly to try and fit in. He wasn’t very good; and has gone down in folklore as the only member of the club to lose his iron in the rough, never mind most of his balls. But he did spend a lot of time practicing, both at the local course and in our garden.
It meant that golf balls featured a lot in my childhood. They were everywhere. On our lawn, over our fence and in the streams and fields nearby. Finding golf balls for my dad was a regular source of pennies for us kids.
Often they were old and broken and I was fascinated by the insides. They are filled with layer upon layer of tiny elastic bands, wrapped tightly together. The outer shell is actually quite fragile, but it is this tight layering that makes them strong and enables them to survive being hit time after time before they eventually crack.
Whenever I think of children, and what they need in order to have the best possible start in life, I think of golf balls. The elastic bands, layered one on top of each other time and time again, remind me of the interactions children crave from warm and loving relationship with their parents and care givers, and how they flourish as a result. Eye contact, smiles, kisses, cuddles, giggles, tickles, singing, conversation, noticing and responding to tears, or tiredness, or sadness, or worry or fear. Tuning in when they have had enough or want more of whatever is happening in that moment – letting them lead the pace and intensity of the interaction. Predictable and stable routines, being read to, being played with, being celebrated for their unique individual selves………Each and every one of these interactions, no matter how small, represents another elastic band that helps build their strength and resilience to cope with whatever hard knocks come their way in life.
Of course, for children in abusive and neglectful environments, they have few if any of these experiences. From the outside they can look just the same as any other child, but there is little or nothing protecting them from the fragility of that outer shell. That is why just one positive relationship with a caring adult can make such a difference; as every interaction counts in building up the layers. Most importantly it is why we should never underestimate the power of those relationships where ever they exist; and those places of sanctuary that provide safety and predictability. Each and every one of them adds something, no matter how small.
It is also why we need to get to a position in society where these acts of kindness, acts of noticing and acts of reliability are elevated and valued for the contribution they make. With our most in need children, panic sets in and there is an assumption that therapy holds the answer. It can, of course, play a part. However, what can be achieved in a weekly or fortnightly session of an hour, compared with what can be achieved every minute of everyday by those closest to the child hits home when we think of just how many elastic bands a golf ball needs to protect it’s fragile outer shell.