New Labour makes the Jesuits look like liberals

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London), on parenting policy and 'infant determinism'.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

New Labour’s attitude to child-rearing makes the Jesuits look like wishy-washy liberals. St Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, is widely frowned upon for saying ‘Give me the child until he is seven, and I will show you the man’. But the Government has now embraced an approach that effectively tells parents ‘Give me the child until he is three, and I will show you the man. And if you don’t, he will probably be ruined for life.’

Launching another parenting support initiative this week, Margaret Hodge, Minister for Children, declared: ‘Good parenting has a greater influence on a child’s education attainment level than any other factor.’ That might sound innocuous enough, but her underlying message is more insidious.

Government policy is now driven by the assumption that the experiences we have as infants will determine our future. This notion, which has been labelled ‘infant determinism’, suggests that early experience is not just important, but will irreversibly shape the rest of our lives. It follows that if parents mess up in any way, there can be no second chance, and their offspring will be on the fast track to a blighted life. That is why we apparently need ever more professional ‘support’ from Ms Hodge and the parenting industry.

Infant determinism has recently enjoyed its own growth spurt. These ideas were taken from the work of John Bowlby, a child psychiatrist whose 1960s ‘attachment theory’ argued that the bond between mother and baby in the early months, when the brain is rapidly expanding, determines the child’s future. But it was in the 1990s that infant determinism matured into a fully-grown government policy. At a landmark White House conference in 1997, Hillary Clinton asserted that the first three years ‘can determine whether children will grow up to be peaceful or violent citizens, focused or undisciplined workers, attentive or detached parents themselves’.

As with other fashionable social theories raised in America, infant determinism has made its way across the Atlantic and into British government policy, with last year’s Green Paper Every Child Matters asserting that ‘the period from conception through to the start of school is crucial to later life chances’. The consequences go far beyond academia or Whitehall.

In recent weeks, parents have been guilt-tripped by reports which claim that not breastfeeding , or allowing toddlers to watch television, play in the sun, or eat fatty foods will endanger their future health and mental wellbeing.

Yet despite constant claims that it is backed by research, the science behind infant determinism is far from clear-cut. Many psychologists and neuroscientists do not accept that parental intervention can define early brain development, or dictate what happens later in life. John Bruer, author of The Myth of the First Three Years, criticises those who peddle notions of ‘crisis, of once-in-a-lifetime opportunities, and of use-it-or-lose-it developmental brinkmanship’.

It remains uncertain what precise combination of factors shapes the early development of mind and personality. What is clear, however, is that children can be late developers. More important, it should be obvious that children are far more resilient than they are given credit for. Many succeed in overcoming early setbacks to make a successful life.

Infant determinists have to resort to extreme examples of child neglect to prove their case. Much is made of the grim experience of Romanian children locked up in Ceausescu’s orphanages. In his book They F*** You Up, Oliver James uses the damage done to abandoned children raised by wild animals to prove the importance of total parenting. But as Dr Helene Guldberg, a child development lecturer, points out, ‘James seems to forget that very few of us are raised by wolves. There is a world of difference between being completely starved of human contact and having parents who do not measure up to James’s standards.’

Given a normal, stable environment, it seems that babies will develop through interaction with the world around them, regardless of how many Mozart tapes their parents play them. At the other end of the scale, says Steve Petersen, a neuroscientist at Washington University, it takes a very bad environment to interfere with development. His advice for parents? ‘Don’t raise your child in a closet, starve them, or hit them on the head with a frying pan.’

Infant determinism owes its influence less to scientific facts about children than to cultural prejudices about adults. In an age when bleak is the new black, such fatalism feeds on the contemporary view that people cannot cope with life without professional guidance, especially when it comes to something as important (but everyday) as parenting. The notion of a life-script that is written indelibly in the first three years also connects with the widespread reluctance among adults to take responsibility for our own lives today. Of course, loving and interacting with your child is a wonderful end in itself. Just don’t expect it to make any difference to mental development.

Debunking notions of infant determinism may upset perfectionist parents who dream of creating a little genius. But the irony is that these ideas exaggerate the potential influence of parents, only to declare us sadly inadequate for the huge task we face. Parents thus become an impediment to successful parenting, in need of professional re-education.

New Labour will insist that they are simply offering parents support and advice. But I’m afraid that, whenever I hear the likes of Ms Hodge talk about supporting parents, it reminds me of Lenin (whom some say was also fond of that Jesuit slogan) promising to support the old Labour Party ‘as a rope supports a hanging man’.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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