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Dr Jan Macvarish Neuroparenting at Battle of Ideas 2016

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Dr Jan Macvarish's presentation to this year's Battle of Idea's session 'Can Neuroparenting Save the Family'. Discussants were MP Tim Loughton and Professor Sue White.

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Dr Jan Macvarish Neuroparenting at Battle of Ideas 2016

  1. 1. Battle of Ideas 22 October 2016 Can Neuroparenting Save the Family? DrJanMacvarish.com
  2. 2. 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.
  3. 3. 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? Their parents. 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.
  4. 4. 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.
  5. 5. 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.
  6. 6. 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’.
  7. 7. 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
  8. 8. 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.
  9. 9. Why science? ❖ Metaphors become ‘killer facts’ used to win an argument ❖ ‘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
  10. 10. 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 you.
  11. 11. 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.
  12. 12. 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.
  13. 13. What we can see here is an incredible fatalism combined with a call to action, but focussed only on the earliest years of infancy.
  14. 14. The ubiquitous ‘walnut brain’
  15. 15. How many of you have seen the image on the left side of this government report? 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 its family. 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.
  16. 16. 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 opportunity.”
  17. 17. 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.
  18. 18. ‘…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
  19. 19. 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.
  20. 20. The Tenets of Neuroparenting Parents must: ❖ Actively ‘attune’ themselves to their baby ❖ Begin in utero ❖ Follow the infant’s lead ❖ Continually respond ❖ Become their child’s ‘first teacher’
  21. 21. 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.
  22. 22. These kinds of instructions to parents have been championed in the US, notably by Hillary and Bill Clinton.
  23. 23. ‘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
  24. 24. 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.
  25. 25. 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 period.’ 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 School
  26. 26. Most importantly, parents must understand that they need expert guidance to get it right.
  27. 27. 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.
  28. 28. ‘Evidence-based’? ❖ 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!
  29. 29. What’s the key message that I find the most disturbing?
  30. 30. 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….
  31. 31. Social inequalities are caused by poor parenting ❖ Poor families and poor communities = ‘socially toxic environments’ ❖ Economic impoverishment = Emotional impoverishment. ❖ Poverty and inequality are ‘written into’ the brain ❖ The better off live in ‘enriched environments’ and make better quality children
  32. 32. Why? ❖ 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
  33. 33. 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’.
  34. 34. Consequences ❖ 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

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