The tyranny of parental determinism

The Lib-Con government is using junk neuroscience to claim that bad parenting causes all of society’s ills.

Ellie Lee

Topics Politics

Over the past year or so, a series of similarly themed policy documents has been published, all espousing the idea of early intervention into children’s lives as a panacea for social problems.

The latest is Labour MP Graham Allen’s report, Early Intervention: Smart Investment, Massive Savings, published in July 2011, the follow-up to his report published in January this year, Early Intervention: The Next Steps. These two documents so far comprise the main outputs of the Early Intervention Commission, initiated by the Lib-Con government in July 2010. Allen’s Labour colleague, Frank Field, authored The Foundation Years: Preventing Poor Children From Becoming Poor Adults, which was published in December 2010. That document resulted from Field’s ‘Independent Review on Poverty and Life Chances’, another Lib-Con initiative.

Looking back over the past 12 months, it is very clear that the government was ‘good to go’ as soon as it was elected last May, pushing forward with developing a policy programme based on its ideas about ‘Broken Britain’ and how to mend it through ‘early intervention’. Allen collaborated with former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith (now work and pensions secretary) on the Centre for Social Justice’s Report Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens, published in 2008, and most of the proposals set out over the past 12 months reflect the ideas and themes of that report.

Indeed, what is happening now can be understood (in large part, at least) as the operationalisation of the approach developed by Duncan Smith and the Centre for Social Justice, discussed in detail in their tracts on the ‘fractured family’, ‘breakdown Britain’ and ‘broken Britain’. The Liberal Democrats have endorsed all the major themes, differing only in their use of the term ‘social mobility’ to describe the problem they think early intervention can address.

One point is clear from all these reports. Policymakers now believe very strongly in what the sociologist Frank Furedi calls ‘parental determinism’. They are firmly committed to the idea that there is a direct, causal relationship between what parents do and why things go wrong in society.

Frank Field suggests that children born to parents who are ‘poor’ also end up ‘poor’ because of parenting; he argues that ‘the things that matter most’ in preventing poverty include ‘a healthy pregnancy’, ‘secure bonding with the child’ and ‘love and responsiveness of parents’. (Note the absence of ‘more money’ from that list.) In Early Intervention: Smart Investment, Massive Savings, Allen tells us that ‘early intervention’ is what parents ‘give to their children’ when children develop ‘attachment, attunement [sic], empathy, and communication’.

The front cover of that report features images to illustrate the costs of what happens when this early intervention doesn’t happen. It shows us brain scans of what we are told are three-year-old children: one is an example of ‘early intervention’, the other of ‘extreme neglect’, the latter linked to ‘low attainment’, ‘benefits’, ’failed relationships’, ‘poor parenting’, ‘drink and drug abuse’, ‘teen pregnancy’, ‘violent crime’, ‘shorter life’, ‘poor mental health’. The message is clear: the root cause of any and every social problem one can think of is ‘neglectful parenting’.

This sort of parental determinism has become and more influential. It is striking that over the past 12 months, very few people have spoken out against this increasingly dominant agenda.

It was New Labour that pioneered explicit family policy in Britain, centring on the alleged problem of parenting. Its report Every Parent Matters (2007) claimed that ‘parents and the home environment they create are the single most important factor shaping their children’s wellbeing, achievements and prospects’ (my emphasis). It could be argued that the coalition has simply developed (further and faster) this determinist belief in the power of parents to overcome all other possible impediments to their children’s prospects.

In general, the third sector and also the media have raised very few objections to parential determinism, aside from accusations of hypocrisy: how can the new Lib-Con government oversee the demise of Sure Start Centres and simultaneously profess support for early intervention? But these criticisms tend to reinforce rather than challenge the main premise: that how parents relate to their children matters more than anything else.

The present case for early intervention can perhaps be best characterised as an example of a ‘good lie’. Those who know that it has flaws, or even know it to be entirely untrue in fundamental ways, have been prepared to overlook these problems in the hope that the schemes which they believe have some good qualities will get funding. Whatever the explanation for the easy ride Duncan Smith and his allies are getting, it is time for more questions to be asked about the prejudice of parental determinism.

The brain-scan images and related claims are a good place to start. The images of brains referred to above adorn the cover of both of Allen’s reports. They suggest irreparable hard-wiring occurring very early in life, which then explains everything that goes wrong in society. This idea is repeated ad nauseam in all of the policy documents on early intervention. Thus Duncan Smith and Allen claim, in Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens, that ‘our brains are largely formed by what we experience in early life’; ‘the more positive stimuli a baby is given, the more brain cells and synapses it will be able to develop’; and ‘the brain grows outside the womb over the zero- to three-year-old period. It is in this delicate and vulnerable period that our lives can be made or not’.

On this basis, they argue that in ‘dysfunctional families’ babies and toddlers get insufficient stimulus; they become ‘unable to relate or communicate to others properly’ from the time they first start school; and ‘dysfunction’ is in this way ‘transferred’ through generations of poor people. They then assert that policymakers should focus on assessing and modifying the way parents relate to their children. ‘Public policy must ensure that parents administer the best three years of emotional cognitive “intensive care” to every child’, they argue. The outcome is a proposed ‘foundation years’ scheme of so-called education, together with a raft of other proposals for influencing parent-child interaction from pregnancy onwards.

In response to this notion that early-intervention policies are ‘evidence based’, and therefore beyond question, I would like to propose the following points for debate:

1) What do those brain scan images actually tell us? A paper published in the journal Brain and Mind is cited by Allen as the source of the images, and that’s the only reference provided. One issue is the reliability of the findings of the study that generated these images. There are only five lines of text in the paper describing where the scan images come from; these tell us no more than ‘neuroradiologists interpreted 11 of 17 scans as abnormal from the children with global neglect’ – and there appears to be no other data or analysis of the scan images.

Thus these images in truth tell us very little, and in so far as they tell us anything at all it is about circumstances where children have ‘minimal exposure to language, touch and social interactions’ (that is the definition of ‘global neglect’ that is provided). The discussion that follows in the Brain and Mind paper is about the famous studies of Romanian orphans, whose experience is clearly highly unusual in the degree of neglect and the sheer lack of stimulus that they receive.

So what is going on, when politicians think such images can be presented as ‘information’ justifiying their early-intervention policy proposals? How could there plausibly be any connection between a picture of an atrophied brain and an explanation for, say, why relatively poor people have babies young, get depressed, or use drugs? Indeed, the fetish for brain images can perhaps best be thought of as a version of nineteenth-century phrenology, with the idea that we can tell a lot about someone’s ‘character’ from examining their head shape and size.

2) What relation is there between the effects of extreme levels of deprivation of very basic stimuli on the brain, and social problems? The notion that there is any connection is premised on the idea that if extreme deprivation shrinks brains, then any kind of ‘deprivation’ (now deemed to include shouting at children or having them watch lots of TV instead of reading to them) causes some level of brain shrinkage. By the same logic, it is assumed in policy statements that the child’s brain can be literally ‘grown’ and so children made more intelligent, sociable and so on, if an intensive sort of parenting style is adopted. Cue playing Mozart to the baby bump, extended breastfeeding, lots of toys, books, and trips to museums from an early age.

This notion about the brain and its development is widespread, but its ubiquity speaks less (if at all) to any actual findings from neuroscientific research, and more to a social and political climate that has become fatalistic and highly individuated. It is fatalism, not evidence, that makes some believe that we are, and can only ever be, what our parents make us in the early years of our lives. It is a profoundly individuated political culture that sees behaviour-modification programmes for parents as the only effective means of taking society forwards.

3) What will be the actual consequences of going even further down the route of politicising parenting? It is one thing to think it beneficial for parents experiencing particular difficulties in specific areas, especially parents who don’t have any way of paying for help, to be given assistance with parenting. It is quite another to accept the notion that parenting style in a generalised sense should be a policy question. Not only are there no grounds for imagining this approach will address any social problems, but the new problems that these policies will give rise to – the growing loss of parental autonomy, and an even greater fetishisation of particular ways of relating to children – are considerable.

In short, there is nothing good about the ‘good lie’ of parental determinism; it is a prejudice disguised as expertise, with disorienting and damaging consequences for parents and for society.

Dr Ellie Lee is reader in social policy at the University of Kent, and director of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies (CPCS). She is co-organiser of the CPCS conference Monitoring Parents: Science, Evidence, Experts and the New Parenting Culture, which takes place at the University of Kent in September 2011 and will address the issues raised in this article, a version of which appears in the August edition of Every Child Update.

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Topics Politics


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