Leadsom’s bad case of neurobollocks

After her ill-fated leadership pitch to the Conservative Party last week, Andrea Leadsom, who has since withdrawn from the race to be Tory leader, was widely ridiculed. And one of the many things she said that attracted the scorn of social media was her wacky contention that tackling the issue of infant brain development, ‘from conception to age two’, would boost social mobility and create an economically dynamic Britain. She reportedly talked about how important it was to massage a baby’s brain.

Yet, despite the ridicule that came Leadsom’s way, such neurobabble is in fact already a routine part of English and Welsh maternity and early years care, and has been so for over 10 years. Indeed, ‘training’ parents to be sensitive to their baby’s brain development is now part of the remit of maternity, health and educational practitioners.

The idea that the first three years of a child’s life represent a ‘window of opportunity’ for life-changing intervention is now very influential among policymakers. This is largely due to the combined advocacy of neuroscience entrepreneurs, UK charities such as the NSPCC and Save the Children, the growth of parenting programmes introduced by local health commissioners, and politicians keen to find novel solutions to long-standing social problems.

What I call ‘neuroparenting’ – the idea that parents are architects of their children’s brains – now dominates the outlook of parent trainers. Talking about ‘the brain’ allows those involved in monitoring and instructing parents to position themselves less as bossy experts or, worse still, moralists, and more as neutral conveyors of scientific ‘facts’. They can therefore tell parents how to love and care for their babies using the pseudo-scientific language of evidence bases, synapses and oxytocin.

As others such as John Bruer have shown, there is little evidence that neuroparenting does actually produce neurological benefits. But then that was never its point. Rather, neuroparenting is a metaphor that appears to allow politicians and practitioners to connect with parents and their aspirations for their children to do well. Hence, earlier this year, UK prime minister David Cameron urged all parents to see parenting classes as a way to fulfill their ambitions for their children. But he was behind the curve: most parenting classes aimed at new parents already contain neuroscientific vocabulary and images of the infant brain to shock parents into endeavouring to love their children ‘more’ and ‘better’.

Politicians’ focus on neuroparenting reflects the smallness of their politics. Talking about babies’ brains and the need to improve parental ‘input’ in order to create a dynamic Britain suggests that our social problems are emotional rather than economic. Instead of trying to reshape our economic future, policymakers prefer to concentrate on reshaping family dynamics. Influential sociologist Robert Putnam’s latest book, Our Kids, captures well this political displacement activity. He writes powerfully of the devastating impact of de-industrialisation on America’s blue-collar communities, before weakly suggesting neuroparenting as the best way to combat economic stagnation.

Politicians who are keen to ‘make a difference’, but are reluctant to engage in hard-nosed politics and economics, have sought instead to plunder family life, transforming the natural dynamism of biological reproduction and childrearing into something approaching economic dynamism. The effects are extremely damaging. Policymakers now intervene in family life to a degree unprecedented in recent British history – and, such is their low view of British parents, they believe they are justified in doing so.

If we are to move forwards after Brexit, we are going to need a more positive view of the average British parent’s ability to love and care for their children. And we are going to need a way to transform society and the economy for the better that does not look to babies’ brains as engines of progress.

Jan Macvarish is a founding associate of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies at the University of Kent. She is the author of the forthcoming Neuroparenting: The Expert Invasion of Family Life and co-author of Parenting Culture Studies, both published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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