I’ve always believed that how we look after the vulnerable is the essence of a civilised society, hence my career in psychology and my interest in promoting wellbeing. I’m not comfortable with any narrative that assumes individual responsibility alone will be sufficient. I’m a striver but that’s not the only reason for my successful transition from a council house to a professional career. There are many reasons why it is more difficult for some to be self-sufficient and it’s not all about personal qualities, a hostile environment is an equally a tough barrier to the good life. Here’s a little story of a couple of recent incidents that brought this home to me in a very emotional way.
I recently moved to a small coastal town in Norfolk. It’s a brilliant place to live, so close to nature and fabulous bird life. One odd thing though, is that Mallard ducks have moved out of the countryside and into town. Natural ponds are getting rarer and food is harder to find so they have become dependent on living in the streets and people’s gardens. Many of my neighbours complain about them, without realising we are partly responsible for their plight. The mantra here is don’t feed the ducks then they won’t come into town, let them look out for themselves. I’ve been watching the 2 ducks which have settled in our street, the courtship phase was very cute and they found our block of flats a good place to come begging. Twice a day they would hop over our low wall and strut up and down until someone saw them and put out some food. At this point I was following the mainstream and wasn’t one of the feeders. Then a few weeks ago we saw the female duck with 9 ducklings but within days there were only 4 and with a sad heart we went away for a few days. On our return she had just the one and I saw her one morning desperately trying to get her precious last duckling to climb onto the wall so they could get food from my neighbours. It broke my heart and for the last few days I have been down twice a day to refill a water tray on the pavement near the wall and to provide food. Perhaps too little too late but I couldn’t stand by. Yes the adult ducks made a bad choice in choosing our street; the large detached houses opposite have mostly gravelled or paved front gardens with highly manicured flower beds. Many have dogs. I have no idea where these ducks sleep but I have done what I can.
Poverty is a hostile environment which stunts development of both children and families. The relentless struggle for basics is stressful and the risks of depression are high. Striving and more striving, with little to show for it can lead to a feeling of helplessness which drains you of all energy. Escaping poverty without support is a tough call and I have no idea why some people delude themselves into thinking that anyone can do anything if they only put their mind to it. We can all do a little something to make a difference to those who need help, we just have to decide what we are going to do and stick with it.
Since moving here and semi retiring I’ve had the time to volunteer to support reading in a local school. Those with significant needs are intensively supported by the school but we volunteers focus on building fluency for those who need practice and a strong sense of self belief. Being a fluent reader is central to everything that happens in school and is a predictor of achievement. Several of the children rarely read at home, their reading logs get lost and parents work long hours. When we started each child was self-conscious about their reading ability and how their reading logs exposed family life. I decided this was an opportunity for Growth Mindset in action but to be honest when I started at the beginning of the year I did wonder whether it could possibly have impact. Well each and every child has made good progress and at the heart of this is the self-confidence they have gained as they see themselves as having some control of the learning process. At the end of every seession I discussed with each child how they could find a time and place to read independently as well as with adults. This blossoming self-efficacy “I can do this” has paid off. On my last visit one 7 year old told me as she got up to go back to class. “I love reading now, and writing. The more you can do the more interesting everything is” and then she skipped off back to class. How’s that for an unsolicited testimonial about the truth that every little bit helps.