Jonathan Wood: Greatest gift isn’t a given

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One eight-year-old boy, originally from a very chaotic and neglectful home, had already had four placements with different foster families when he came to The Place2Be.

The latest was with warm, loving foster parents, who already had two children a little older than him. They had thought about Christmas carefully, selecting the right presents, keeping it fair, striking what they thought were the right notes – of consideration, inclusiveness and celebration.

To everyone’s dismay, including the little boy’s, it was a disaster.

Unable to receive their love, he kicked out, destroying his presents and others, as well as any sense of a happy family Christmas. How difficult it would have been for them to anticipate that their kindness might actually evoke all those experiences of unkindness he had already suffered.

The Place2Be’s role was to work with the foster parents and the child to help them repair this damage, and make sense of it in terms of the child’s previous experience.

The family came to understand that gifts can stand in as a symbol for what we have not been given. And the more generous the gift, the more strongly a sense of disappointment and the need for compensation can follow – for both the giver and the receiver. How much more amplified will this be for a child who hasn’t even received the basics yet?

Giving is fraught because while gifts are symbolic, we are not always clear what we mean by them. If I spend more on you, does that mean that I love you more?

Perhaps the child is asking for a different way of giving.

Jonathan Wood is national manager at The Place2Be, Scotland