On the problem of ‘skills’ and ‘services’

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AffluenzaThis past week I had the pleasure of speaking at a conference organised by the Every Child Matters group, held in St Ives, Cornwall. Arranged to explore the theme of ‘Mental Health Matters’, the two other keynote speakers were Oliver James, well known commentator and author of Affluenza [1], and also Sue Palmer, author of the well-known book Toxic Childhood and a strong advocate of the importance of play. It was very encouraging to see so many headteachers and other educational staff (nearly 250 of them!) coming together think more deeply about how they could take care of the emotional needs of their pupils.

I found myself feeling particularly grateful to Oliver James, because one of the comments in his talk helped me to put a finger on why I have grown increasingly uneasy about some of the language we use in the Early Years field—terms like ‘skills’ and ‘services’. The phrases ‘numeracy skills’, ‘literacy skills’, ‘communication skills’, and ‘parenting skills’ are now very common. We have come to think of education, nursery, social work, amongst others, as ‘services’ that perform tasks and deliver services to its ‘clients’.

Problematic terminology: ‘skills’ and ‘services’

For some time now, I have been suggesting that these terms are problematic. They cut us off from ourselves and from our personal experience. They cut us off from relationship—relationships with ourselves, with other people, with the world around us. There is no difference between ‘literacy skills’ and ‘literacy’! ‘Literacy skills’ are gained in the process of reading. Similarly, ‘numeracy skills’ emerge in the process of doing maths. The more one enjoys maths, the more ‘numeracy skills’ one inevitably gains – not for the sake of the skills, but because you are enjoying doing maths. Likewise, ‘parenting skills’ are acquired in the process of parenting. There is no other way to gain them except through the hard graft of parenting.

In short, the term ‘skills’ is redundant. Its presence implies there is something separate from or additional to these activities, which is not the activity itself. That barrier cuts us off from the emotional experience of the activity – from its pleasure, frustration, joy, exasperation. When we are cut off from our emotional experience, then we are cut off from ourselves. We are cut off from the partner with whom we are engaged in the activity – our child, our teacher, our pupil, our social worker, our GP. The relationship we (should, could, might) have with these individuals becomes somehow subjugated to and separate from the performance ‘skills’ we are supposed to be gaining.

Once you get your head around this insight, you begin to realise there is something very odd going on in the way we think about what we are doing—in our classrooms, in nursery playrooms, in GPs offices, around our family meal tables, and in thousands of settings in which we interact every day with other human beings.

Having vs. Being

In his talk at this week’s ECM Conference, Oliver James talked about the difference between Having and Being. In his own attempts to understand our current societal challenges, articulated most clearly in his 2007 book Affluenza, he has come to the conclusion that capitalism has led us to think of ourselves in damaging ways. As he puts it:

“Having intellectualises and distances one from oneself and from others. Intimacy is destroyed.” In contrast, Being is “an active, vital, internal state, in which we are able to see what is really around us, to engage with the world” (pgs 13 & 14 of Affluenza).

This observation helps me to understand my discomfort with terms like ‘skills’ and ‘services’. Skills are something we possess; they are not something we do. Literacy skills, for example, become something we must acquire. To think of reading in this way distances us from the activity of reading. Reading becomes a task to be performed, rather than a pleasure to be experienced.

The same distancing occurs for all other activities to which we attach the term ‘skills’: numeracy skills, communication skills, language skills, piano skills, movement skills, looking skills, thinking skills. The contrast between Having and Being becomes most unnerving, to my mind, when applied to the concept of ‘parenting skills’. When parenting comes to be seen predominantly as a set of skills to be acquired – somehow transferable between and separate from building a relationship with each of the children one is trying to parent – then no wonder we are facing so many heavy societal struggles. Paying attention to our language


A solution? Let’s simply pay more attention to the language we use. Language is crucially important, because it shapes our understanding of ourselves and the world around us. The language we use gives meaning to our experiences. Playing with different words can radically alter the way we ‘read’ our own or someone else’s behaviour. Lives can be dramatically changed simply by thinking more carefully about the language we use.

My observations here are far from novel. Oliver James highlights the example of ‘Human Resources’ (on page 14 of Affluenza). He points out that not so long ago this used to be called ‘Personnel’, and that this new label now makes “the humans who work for the company indistinguishable from the computers or widgets or financial services that the company buys and sells, just another category of thing, a resource.”

Another, more positive, example of the power of language can be found in the shift from old-fashioned (and now uncomfortable) sounding terms like ‘autistics’ and ‘spastics’, to ‘autistic people’ or ‘children who are disabled’, which seek to emphasise first a person’s personhood, rather than their disability or category. Lets try some linguistic experimentation

Lets make sure that the language we are using does not insidiously sneak in and cut us off from real, lived experience. Experience is the point of a meaningful, full life. Skills and services are not. Those concepts are useful only to the extent to which they facilitate actual Experience.

So let’s see what our policies, our professional practice, and our dinner table conversation looks like if we experiment with banishing those terms from our vocabulary, even for a single day.

[1] Oliver James, 2007 Affluenza

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