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The Risks of Pathologising Normal Family Life

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Presentation by Dr Jan Macvarish to the BeGOOD conference 'Ethics and Early Intervention in Mental Health' 23 June 2017.

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The Risks of Pathologising Normal Family Life

  1. 1. BeGOOD Research Day, Oxford, June 2017 The risks of pathologising normal family life Dr Jan Macvarish Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, University of Kent. DrJanMacvarish.com
  2. 2. What is ‘neuroparenting’? ‘a framework for understanding the obligation of parent to child in which the primary parental role is said to be the nurturing of the baby’s ‘brain’ development. Priority is given to the idea that emotions are neurologically determined in the earliest years of life by parent-child interactions and that ‘correct’ neuro-emotional development is necessary for humans to function adequately as social beings.’ Macvarish, 2016
  3. 3. The ‘first three years movement’ (Thornton) ‘…an alliance of child welfare advocates and politicians that draws on the authority of neuroscience to argue that social problems such as inequality, poverty, educational underachievement, violence and mental illness are best addressed through ‘early intervention’ programmes to protect or enhance emotional and cognitive aspects of children's brain development.’ (Macvarish et al. 2014)
  4. 4. It can be understood as a political argument for re-negotiating the relationship between the state and the family ‘The research we draw on for this pamphlet indicates that what happens inside the family, when a child is very young indeed, strongly determines how they will react to people outside the home, how ready they will be to learn and ultimately what kind of citizen they will become.’ 2008 Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens (Centre for Social Justice, 2008, Iain Duncan Smith MP (Conservative) and Graham Allen MP (Labour), p.12.
  5. 5. ‘the research tells us’ ‘we now know’
  6. 6. ‘the notion that we are living in a complex and permanently changing society’ breaks the ‘possibility of historical continuity in family practices’, this in turn legitimises ‘greater recourse to expertise and the expansion of measures to manage the inner life of families’ Vansieleghem (2010: 341)
  7. 7. Infant Mental Health: 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
  8. 8. From djinns to mirror neurons
  9. 9. The magic of reading - medicalised
  10. 10. Love and care instrumentalised
  11. 11. ‘The Thirty Million Word Gap’ ❖ Sample of 42 children, aged 7 months to 3 years, from four income groups. ❖ 13 high status children, 6 children from welfare families. ❖ Families observed for one hour a month, counting words heard. ❖ Dana Suskind, founder of the Thirty Million Words Initiative: ‘We’re using the lever of parent talk to get into the parent-child relationship’
  12. 12. ‘a staggering statistic’ ‘mums and dads literally build babies’ brains’ ‘baby talk’ ‘silly faces’ David Cameron, 11 January 2016
  13. 13. ❖ The child is estranged from adults by its distinct biological character and its complex developmental needs. ❖ Neuroscientifically-informed parenting support is necessary to train the parent in correct nurture. ❖ The scientific vocabulary of neurons, synapses and cortisol suggests the relationship of care between one generation and the next must be mediated through the scientific and medical interpretation of experts. The meaning of neuroparenting
  14. 14. Reasons to resist neuroparenting ❖ Inserts ‘experts’ into the most intimate parts of life ❖ Undermines parental confidence and authority ❖ Increases anxiety (particularly for mothers) ❖ De-politicises social problems ❖ Pathologises infancy and intimacy, universalises dysfunction ❖ Fatalistic about children’s futures