Respecting Specificity


Lou and Betty Sander, January, 2012

Photo courtesy of Marilyn Davillier


On Thursday, I attended a lecture by Charles Nelson, Ph.D., who is a professor of Pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and affiliated with the work of the Center on the Developing Child. He is a researcher who has done pivotal studies on brain development in relation to institutionalization in early childhood (Bos K, Zeanah C, Fox N, Drury S, McLaughlin K, & Nelson C, Psychiatric outcomes in young children with a history of institutionalization, Harvard Review of Psychiatry, January/February, 2011, pp. 15-24; Fox S, Levitt P, & Nelson C, How the timing and quality of early experiences influences the development of brain architecture, Child Development, January/February, 2010, Vol. 81, Number 1, pp. 28-40).  I was impressed not only by the quality of the research, but also by Chuck Nelson’s commitment to using his research to achieve such important humanitarian goals. It is clear that he really cares about protecting the potential of young children living in circumstances devastating to their healthy development. 

Last night I had dinner with close friends, and I was telling them about my dilemma. I very much believe in the value of the movement to reunite children with their families and support these families in the community where they live, but if only it were that simple. I also believe in what the good people from Better Care Network called “general systems approach” and “sustainability”. But I also see the damage that is being done in the short run as institutions such as the children’s homes that have emerged as the unique solution to a particular country’s abandoned children are dissolved by courts that do not take the needs of the individual children into account.  In the children’s home, I have observed the opposite of what Chuck Nelson described in the Rumanian orphanages – that the earlier the children were when they entered the institution the more damaged they became in that developmentally damaging environment. By contrast, in the home, often the children who did the best were the ones who entered the home as infants, where they were well fed and protected, welcomed into a “home” of loving caregivers and older children who are also caregivers by nature through their belonging to a caregiving culture. I always call up my friend, Lou Sander’s thinking about specificity when I puzzle about this kind of dilemma (Sander, L. Living systems, evolving consciousness, and the emerging person: a selection of papers from the life and work of Louis Sander, The Analytic Press, New York, N.Y., 2008.) 

My friends were arguing that there was nothing I could do, that “the pendulum swings” are large, and one will have to wait for the changes in reunification to be modified over time.  They said, “Surely you agree that the bad orphanages are worse than any alternative!” I said I did agree bad orphanages were terrible, but that what was getting lost in the reunification initiative was the uniqueness of the societies and cultures of the children themselves and the specificity of the institutions that had arisen in those societies – the whole idea of “one size fits all”, which is an essentially reductive perspective. 

It was an enjoyable discussion in which everyone listened respectfully to everyone else, and my friends insisted, “we all agreed” on the basics.  They told me that I wasn’t a politician, and it would be immensely hard to try to make any change on that level. I had been thinking of all the other things I am involved in – all related to children and families, but in different venues – and I began to feel tired. Then I thought of the children in El Salvador that I knew. I thought of the heroic efforts of the children’s home to support the families in the community, and I felt inspired. I though of the previously academically successful, robust, beloved in the home, little boy who has recently been seen begging in the streets at midnight after reunification. I thought of the difference between the two approaches – the larger “systems” approach, and the “one starfish at a time” story – (In the story, a visitor encounters an old man sitting by the side of the sea taking starfish, one at a time, and throwing them back into the surf. The beach was full of stranded starfish. The visitor asked him, “Why are you taking the trouble to throw them into the sea? There are so many, and the surf will carry them all back anyway.” The old man kept picking up starfish and throwing them back into the surf one at a time. “You are correct,” he told the visitor, “But if I save one starfish, I will have done a good thing.”) and I was unsure. Wasn’t each starfish thrown back into the surf a “momento magico”? My friends have never been to El Salvador. 



This post’s “Momento Magico”:

In the last post, I promised that in each posting I would include a “magic moment” told to me by a parent, teacher, or child. Here is the “magic moment” for this post.

In this loving family, a painful conflict between the parents has resulted in a sadness and hypervigilence in the two girls. In a recent family meeting, the older girl watches her parents’ faces closely, scanning for trouble, while the younger one seemingly picks up the emotional “vibes” indirectly and makes attention-getting gestures with the puppets from her position lying on the floor in the middle of the circle. I am thinking that I want to balance the openness to the expression of painful, angry feelings in the family, against the expression of hope. I don’t want to lose one or the other. As the characteristic painful pattern emerges – that of one parent feeling abandoned and devalued by the other and the second parent feeling “taken over” and marginalized by the first – I acknowledge this pattern as it occurred the night before the meeting. Then I ask for a “magic moment” in the past week. One parent identified the moment, the other agreed, and both girls enthusiastically elaborated the situation in which the younger child asked the older child for help with a puzzle, and the older one, instead of rejecting her, joined her in figuring out the problem. The entire family was enhanced by this small collaborative activity of the children. I attempted to make clear that the girls were not expected to take the parental responsibility in the family, but that this was one example of how all of them had the power to change bad habits. Every family member could partake in the positive feelings about themselves and about the family the two girls had generated. It is important to learn to recognize magic moments, because the more you recognize them, the more you will see the potential for them in an ordinary family interaction, and the more you can make them – and hope – happen.





Read this blog in Spanish.




1 thought on “Respecting Specificity

  1. richard honigman

    Hi Alex,I think parts of the problem inherent in the reunification attempts are that in attempting to make these broad macro policy changes the powers that be lose sight of the individual and their needs and additionally if not more importantly from what I have learned so far from being in the IMPH class is that these powers that be do not fully grasp that in the open or dynamic system the macro cannot drive the micro and it is the micro that drives and so produces the ultimate macro change as you so beautifully illustrate with the magic moment example. Making broad sweeping macro changes of what is considered best cannot change the micro situations that these unfortunate children must endure if supports are not in place to scaffold the micro. What may be a middle ground in my opinion is to perhaps utilize the existing residential facilities with what supports they have and try to turn them into regional multi-disciplinary centers on the order of what was done in London where the Kids Company UK was created ( This micro change environment has grown over the years and is now very successful in creating and sustaining macro policy change based upon micro changes and realizing that every starfish counts and by helping one starfish at a time they can keep them from drying up and withering. This is from their about us page —About UsKids Company was founded by Camila Batmanghelidjh in 1996. We provide practical, emotional and educational support to vulnerable inner-city children.Our services reach 17,000 children across London, including the most deprived and at risk whose parents are unable to care for them due to their own practical and emotional challenges. For many, the roles of adult and child are reversed and, despite profound love, both struggle to survive.These exceptionally vulnerable children not only negotiate significant challenges in their family homes, they also face immense threat within their neighbourhoods. Often they are exposed to relentless violence, some are forced into working as drug couriers or prostitutes, and many experience chronic abuse.We provide a safe, caring, family environment where support is tailored to the needs of each individual. Our services and support empower children who have experienced enormous challenges to lead positive and fulfilling lives. Despite great difficulties, the children we work with are hugely courageous and embrace the support we offer.In 2007 Kids Company was awarded the Liberty and JUSTICE Human Rights Award. In 2010 we were selected as a ‘Child Poverty Champion’ by the End Child Poverty project for our success in enabling children to achieve their full potential.

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