As foster carers we are used to receiving children who are strangers to the world in which we live. They are perplexed by many of things we take for granted. A well-stocked larder. Vegetables. Clean sheets. A tidy garden. Flowers in a vase. Please and thank you.
But what really confounds them is time, or our use of it. We make time to talk and to listen. We make time to read and to learn. We make time for baking and for painting. We make time for play.
Children and young people who come into care have had to make do without many things. They have also learned to expect very little from the adults in their chaotic lives, and know when to make themselves scarce in a home where there is violence and confusion. So it comes as a surprise to them when a grown-up cheerfully pushes a doll's pram around the house, or sits on the carpet to play Dotty Dinosaurs. They don't expect to do homework, let alone with an adult at their side to help them with difficult spellings or algebra. They don't expect a story before bedtime, every bedtime. Nor to be tucked up in bed, with a goodnight kiss.
In the past I have struggled to define the essence of good foster care, to identify the vital ingredient that explains what it is we do that makes a difference. Last week Alan Milburn's Social Mobility Commission came up with the perfect term: Gruffalo time. Yes, the one thing that foster carers give in abundance is Gruffalo time, time spent on developmental activities that are particularly important for children's social and cognitive skills, including reading, talking, learning and playing.
In a study with Oxford University the Commission found that, overall, parents in the UK have increased the Gruffalo time spent with their children significantly over the past four decades. However, the increase is most pronounced for highly-educated parents, who typically commit around 110 minutes a day for Gruffalo time. This results in a widening inequality between rich and poor, according to the Commission.
For children who are most likely to come into care, removed from homes where there is persistent neglect or abuse, Gruffalo time is as imaginary as the half-grizzly bear, half-buffalo itself. Few have any concept of what it is to sit and play with adults, or to explore a library together, or to gaze across a garden pond and learn how tadpoles become frogs. Who can blame them for not trusting you when you promise to read the rest of a story tomorrow, or to finish a game of cards, when they are used to lies and disappointment? What joy can there be in a story book anyway, when the TV beckons from the corner of the living room?
The responsibility that foster carers assume when accepting the placement of children or young people is enormous. Lives have been broken, the anger and sorrow run deep. A child's lifelong capacity to trust, to connect, to love, to smile, may be determined by the bond that develops with the foster family.
The biggest decisions will be taken by others: the social workers, the family court, the legal advocates, maybe even the probation service or a doctor. They will decide whether a child can return to the family home or must remain in care. But while the legal process meanders through county hall and the courts, foster carers quietly get on with the business of rebuilding lives, through painstaking, patient work, gaining trust and restoring faith in humanity. It is about reading and writing and long division. It is about playing and singing silly songs and dancing funny dances. It is about clean sheets and shiny school shoes and ribbons in untangled hair.
From now on we shall call it Gruffalo time.