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Dr Jan Macvarish Neuroparenting at Battle of Ideas 2016
Battle of Ideas 22 October 2016
Can Neuroparenting Save the
What do I mean by neuroparenting?
There are a few ‘experts’ for whom it is a branding USP.
You are probably all familiar with the likes of Baby Mozart toys and videos.
Have probably read articles about research claiming that ‘brain scans show….’
Have probably heard about the teenage brain.
I am less interested in, and less concerned by this wider culture and market of
neuroparenting - we tend to be sceptical about it, laugh at ourselves and others for buying
into marketing claims of increasing IQ by playing classical music to bumps and babies.
I am much more concerned by the neuroparenting which is increasingly underpinning
social policy and government interventions.
These kind of claims about babies’ brains are used to make the case for early intervention.
Babies’ brains are so amazing, so susceptible to external inﬂuence, it is argued, that the
early years are the most important and are ultimately deterministic of the rest of life. This
plasticity is translated as vulnerability. And what or who are babies most vulnerable to?
It is this threat of negative parental determinism that is at the heart of the ﬁrst three years
movement or neuroparenting in a policy context.
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing
❖ ‘uniquely explosive brain growth 0-3’
❖ ‘critical periods’
❖ ‘stimulation’ and ‘enriched environments’ (i.e.
intensive parental action) are required.
But the thing is, it’s not based on science. What we do ‘now know’ about babies
brains is that they are ﬂexible and resilient. There are inﬁnite pathways to
development. History and anthropology, not science, tell us that this must be
true - human beings have been raised in all kinds of ways, by all kinds of adults,
with all kinds of beliefs. To decide that we have now arrived at the optimal way
to raise children just makes no sense at all.
Many have argued this really well. I would recommend all of these books. Including
Alison Gopnik’s newest book which, despite the title, argues that parents are
deﬁnitely not the ‘architects’ of their children’s brains and that we have become
peculiarly obsessed with this new thing called ‘parenting’.
It’s not science
❖ Fact: Babies are born with 100 billion neurons. Amazing!
❖ Interpretation: It’s all downhill from there
❖ Fact: The brain is plastic. Hurrah!
❖ Interpretation: Therefore it’s inﬁnitely vulnerable to its environment
❖ Fact: Babies are natural learners? Whoopee!
❖ Interpretation: We need to teach them, ALL the time
While neuroscience has given us some new insights into the human brain and its
relationship to the mind, the interpretation of ﬁndings is not scientiﬁc. In neuroparenting, it
is entirely shaped by non-scientiﬁc, ideological factors.
❖ Metaphors become ‘killer facts’ used to win an
❖ ‘We now know’ and ‘the science says’ attempts by
those who would tell us what to do to remove
themselves from an unprecedented degree of intimate
interference. naturalise good parental behaviour and
depoliticise/demoralise interference and bossiness.
❖ ‘The brain’ is the third party possessing the truth of
nature and science
To say we now know the eternal rules of good parenting - we haven’t made them
up, we can know them because we can now ‘look inside’ the brain avoids the
question ‘who says’? The answer is, the baby’s brain. In eﬀect, your baby tells
New Scientist 28 Sept 2016.
Equates the extremely deprived conditions of Romanian orphanages with the
condition of poor families in the UK. These children were deprived of nutrition, love,
had only the most basic physical care, warmth, freedom to move.
In September 2016, Melissa Benn argued against grammar schools in the Guardian, arguing that by
the age of 3, children of poorer parents are already developmentally left behind their wealthier peers.
What we can see here is an incredible fatalism combined with a call to action, but
focussed only on the earliest years of infancy.
How many of you have seen the image on the left side of this
Apparently scans of two brains of 3 year old children, one
‘normal’-sized, the other shrivelled and with blackened ‘holes’,
said to belong to a child who has been extremely neglected by
This report was written by Labour MP Graham Allen.
The argument that social problems are best tackled by
interventions to improve parenting has taken hold since 1997,
when New Labour came to power. Back then, babies’ brains
were barely mentioned but now they are everywhere. The idea
that love, maternal in particular, can somehow be visualised and
measured in a brain scan has become a political rallying call that
crosses political parties.
David Cameron, 11 January 2016, ‘Life Chances’ speech
“….when neuroscience shows us the pivotal importance of the ﬁrst
few years of life in determining the adults we become, we must think
much more radically about improving family life and the early years…”
“…one critical ﬁnding is that the vast majority of the synapses, the
billions of connections that carry information through our brains,
develop in the ﬁrst 2 years.”
“Destinies can be altered for good or ill in this window of
In January this year, just as I was ﬁnishing my book, David Cameron seized the
neuroparenting mantle to argue that we all need parenting classes.
‘…getting parenting and the early years right isn’t just about the hardest-to-
reach families, frankly it’s about everyone. We all have to work at it…As we
know, they don’t come with a manual and that’s obvious, but is it right that
all of us get so little guidance?’
‘…We all need more help with this – because it is the most important job
we’ll ever have. So I believe we now need to think about how to make it
normal – even aspirational to attend parenting classes.’
David Cameron, 11 January 2016, ‘Life Chances’ speech
While Melissa Benn is concerned with the quality of the parenting
performed by poorer parents and thinks the state should do more to
get them to do a better job, David Cameron was worried about all of
us. The argument goes, parenting is SO diﬃcult and SO important, that
it cannot possibly be left to parents to ﬁgure out for themselves.
The Tenets of Neuroparenting
❖ Actively ‘attune’ themselves to their baby
❖ Begin in utero
❖ Follow the infant’s lead
❖ Continually respond
❖ Become their child’s ‘ﬁrst teacher’
So what do Melissa and David think can be done to make British parents better parents?
Basically? Get them to do more and to do it earlier.
These kinds of instructions to parents have been championed in the US, notably by Hillary and Bill
‘the baby talk, the silly faces, the chatter even
when we know they can’t answer back’
‘mums and dads literally build babies’ brains’
‘the biological power of love, trust and security’
David Cameron, 11 January 2016, ‘Life Chances’speech
Parents are simultaneously ﬂattered as the architects of their children’s brains, while being demoted
relative to experts who have the latest knowledge about infant brain development.
Invasion of the ‘experts’
‘…health visitors and early years workers are ideally
placed to explicitly ‘scaffold’ parents to adopt a
reﬂective stance when trying to make sense of their
infant’s behaviour…beginning in the prenatal
Angela Underdown (2013) ‘Parent-infant relationships: Supporting parents to adopt a reﬂective stance’ Journal of
Health Visiting, Feb, 1(2) Deputy Director of Warwick Infant and Family Well-being Unit, Warwick University Medical
Most importantly, parents must understand that they need expert guidance to get it right.
Some neuroparenting advocates are a bit defensive about experts wagging their ﬁngers at
parents and bossing them around a la Supernanny.
I think that they see brain talk as a way of getting parents to open up to accepting
intervention that they might reject if it were just the view of an individual self-appointed
expert like Dr Spock. But might be more willing to accept if it appears to be objective,
emanating from a laboratory rather than from a particular guru, a particular moral or political
outlook, or that it comes from ‘nature’ as interpreted by faceless science.
❖ Evidence is irrelevant - Can Parent, Baby Massage, Family
Nurse Partnership, Troubled Families
❖ If a programme is unpopular? Build demand!
❖ If a programme fails? Keep doing it, but do it earlier!
What’s the key message that I ﬁnd the most disturbing?
All babies are at risk…from their parents
❖ Alcohol and stress in pregnancy
❖ Formula feeding
❖ Maternal depression
❖ Digital technology
❖ Shouty families
❖ Not enough singing, talking, reading, cuddling….
Social inequalities are caused by poor parenting
❖ Poor families and poor communities = ‘socially toxic
❖ Economic impoverishment = Emotional impoverishment.
❖ Poverty and inequality are ‘written into’ the brain
❖ The better off live in ‘enriched environments’ and make
better quality children
❖ Deep pessimism about intimate, private life
❖ Presumption of parental determinism
❖ Securing the future, one baby at a time
❖ Politicians seeking consensus
❖ Uncritical policy transfer - Thirty Million Words
We have neuro-entrepreneurs and neuroparenting adopters using the novelty of the
neuro to win public funds. They promise that giving money to them will save money
‘down the line’.
❖ Undermines parental conﬁdence and authority
❖ Increases anxiety
❖ Inserts ‘experts’ into intimate life
❖ De-politicises social problems
❖ Pathologises infancy and intimacy
❖ Fatalistic about children’s futures