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Readers — I am honored to present this brilliant piece by Jan Macvarish, a research fellow at the University of Kent and co-author of the book Parenting Culture Studies, which asks how come the way we feed, talk to, and play with our kids has become the stuff of public debate and government policy? (Boldface is mine.) – L

Babies’ Brains and Intensive Parenting by Jan Macvarish

Last week, a Free Range Kids’ post, We Cannot Mold Kids Into Exactly Who We Want Them to Be, kindly drew attention to our latest report. Now I’d like to say a little more about our analysis of the adoption of ‘brain claims’ by British politicians in recent years.

UK parents have become accustomed to hearing that they need to be more involved in their children’s homework, to monitor screen time more closely, to second-guess the school’s latest rules for what constitutes a healthy lunchbox, to ensure that little girls don’t dress in ways which might be construed as ‘sexualised’, not to mention the overwhelming admonition, from conception onwards, that  ‘breast is best’.

From the late 1990s, British politicians of all shades have talked of parenting as a problem.

Amongst other social problems, parents have been blamed for poverty and lack of social mobility, physical and mental health problems, obesity, crime and violence. And so the everyday choices of family life are said to be significant not only for individual children and their families, but to be the very stuff which determines society’s future. A growing feature of policy directed at improving parenting has been the incorporation of ‘brain claims’: citations of neuroscientific studies, dramatic statements from child neuro-psychologists and images of brains, apparently atrophied by parental neglect:

This is your brain on imperfect parenting.

This is your brain on imperfect parenting.

US parents will already be familiar with brain-based parenting expertise, advising parents to maximise their babies’ cognitive development from gestation onwards, to fully exploit the 0-3-year-old window of the ‘amazing’ infant brain. Many UK parents, too, will have bought into the brain-stimulation trend, playing Mozart CDs to their bumps, sitting their babies in front of Baby Einstein DVDs and hanging black and white toys above the crib.

But what is noticeable in policy’s use of neuroscience is that it never speaks of maximising chlidren’s intelligence but rather employs the authority of scientific ‘evidence’ to make doom-laden ‘now or never’ pronouncements on the need for ever earlier state intervention into the lives of families. If parents are not trained to attune to their baby’s neurological development, it is argued, their offspring will not develop emotionally and socially, this will, in turn, impede their intellectual development when it is time for formal school. Ultimately this will impede social mobility and reproduce current social inequalities.

Although brain advocates argue that novel insights from neuroscience mean that ‘we now know’ what babies require and what kind of training parents need, in fact, brain claims entered a culture in which there is already a strong presumption that ‘something must be done’ about parenting.

The images and vocabulary of the brain are used to strengthen an imperative for particular interventions with parents assumed to lack the skills or emotional sophistication, to relate to their babies in ways that will secure their development.

As readers of this blog will be well aware, the idea that the early years have lifelong consequences because of their significance to brain development places incredible pressures on parents to get it right. This applies to the twenty-something with a surprise pregnancy, who worries how her partying might have affected the fetal brain, to the thirty-something professional mother worried about achieving a sufficiently strong attachment before the end of her maternity leave, and to the poorer young mother, assigned a specialist nurse practitioner as part of the Nurse Family Partnership, to school her in ways of singing, reading, touching and talking to the baby that will ‘fire up the neurons’.

Concerns are also being raised by scholars of social work that ‘neurotrash’ [shoddy or mis-interpreted brain research] is being used to argue for increasing numbers of forced adoptions, with birth parents prejudged as inadequate, having their babies removed by social services and placed in adoptive families, before irreparable harm can be done to their neurological development.

As respondents to Lenore’s post about our study clearly illustrate, thinking through the prism of the infant brain unhelpfully reinforces parental determinism — the idea that parents are the ultimate ‘architects’ of the grown child’s life — and reinterprets family practices of love and care as socially significant, therefore meriting external evaluation and improvement from experts, whether commercial or state-led.

Further information about the project and its findings can be found here.

Project findings are also discussed in more detail in the book Parenting Culture Studies. – JM

Readers — This is what truly perplexes me: Why do seemingly so many school administrators adamantly refuse to think like normal, rational human beings?

The other day I visited the Sudbury Valley School  in Framingham, Mass., and saw such a completely opposite world — a heart-soaring place where kids are trusted not only with tools but with their own educations — so now it’s doubly hard to read about cases like the one below. (More about Sudbury Valley to come. It really was so thrilling, I have yet to process the whole thing.) – L

A veteran teacher at a Chicago elementary school has lost his bid to reverse a four-day suspension without pay because he showed an array of hand tools to his second grade students as part of a math lesson.

Douglas Bartlett displayed pliers, screwdrivers, wrenches, a pocket knife, and a box cutter in his classroom as part of the lesson. He also described and demonstrated how each tool is used by professionals.

Mr. Bartlett, who has been a teacher in Chicago for 17 years, thought he was using physical objects to help his students learn the required course material.

Instead, according to school administrators at Washington Irving Elementary School, Bartlett was guilty of wielding “weapons” in his classroom in violation of various school policies.

School Principal Valeria Bryant cited Bartlett for “possessing, carrying, storing, or using a weapon on the job when not authorized to do so.”

He was also accused of violating school rules, repeatedly engaging in flagrant acts, inattention to duty, and negligently supervising children.

The equating of “tool” with “danger” reminds us that we have become so focused on threats to kids, we can’t see anything else. Not a cool lesson. Not a future trade. Not a welcome breath of the real world in the classroom. Just DANGER DANGER DANGER.

Something there is that loves to hate, to freak out and to blame. – L

What kind of deranged teacher shows his students a wrench????

What kind of deranged teacher shows his students a wrench???

Readers — A few weeks back a mom in Arizona, yes, hot Arizona, left her kids in the car when she went in to a job interview. This was clearly not the greatest thing to do, but for her, at the moment, it seemed like the only option. Without a home to live in or people to help her, she needed a place for her kids to stay while she tried to get a job to lift them all out of that awful situation.

Of course she was arrested for negligence, but instead of public outcry against her, the tide seems to be going the other way, and $60,000 has been raised on her behalf.

This is marvelous news. To repeat: No one thinks leaving kids in a hot car for a long stretch is a good idea. It is a bad idea. But when there seems to be no other option and a mom is clearly trying to climb out of that pit of poverty and hopelessness, shoving her back down is not a “teachable moment,” it’s a terrible one. – L.

easter egg hunt rules

Readers — A friend who’d like to be identified only as Catherine L. posted the  rules from her town’s Easter Egg hunt (above) on Facebook. These include: 

Wristbands indicate the age group of each child and the number on the band matches the number issued to the parent.

After each hunt, children will be released only to the adult with the corresponding number from the wristband.

In her post, Catherine wrote:

“How do you suck the fun out of an Easter Egg hunt? Treat every adult like a potential kidnapper and every child like they are in mortal danger. The sheeple just went along with it. I was the only one who complained. “

Many, many commenters then said that it wasn’t a big deal, and if she didn’t like the set-up, she didn’t have to participate, which is certainly true. But to Catherine —  and me —  the issue wasn’t whether it was BIG deal or not. The issue is how we are gradually accepting the idea that  evil adults are scooping up children from public places often enough that we must constantly be on guard.

I”m sure there were probably some insurance concerns that prompted these rules, as well, and maybe even logistics. But it is all of a piece: At base these slight, “simple” new requirements enshrine a view that kids need constant supervision if they venture out into the public. This dark (and increasingly legally upheld) view of the world is making us less likely to send our kids to the park, less likely to let them walk to school, and less likely to act as a community: “Can you pick up Megan at the end of the hunt? I have to go make lunch. I told her she could go home with you.”

After reading a lot of commenters poo-pooing her concerns, Catherine wrote:

“I have an issue with me as the parent having my authority taken away. I’m 34 years old. I have been entrusted with 3 children. I think I can handle making sure they don’t get abducted and an egg hunt. I don’t need to be questioned by strangers to check my son’s bracelet against my name tag. The implication that nobody can be trusted made me angry and sad.”

Me too. But don’t let it ruin your Easter! Have a hoppy one. – L.

Readers — Sometimes I hear about stories in an untimely manner — like this one, which happened a year ago but is making my blood reach 212 degrees Fahrenheit, so I have to write about it even at this late date:

Apparently Homeland Security felt it needed to train officers to shoot with “No More Hesitation.” I.e., it wanted officers trained not to think twice when faced with danger. So to INSTILL  that hair-trigger response, our government purchased target practice posters featuring kids, old ladies in their kitchens, and pregnant women.

What’s so disturbing about this? Don’t we WANT our protectors to develop nerves of steel?

No. We want them to develop quick instincts, critical thinking, and calm. The idea of not distinguishing between a likely and unlikely threat reminds me of Zero Tolerance: every “incident” no matter how small or ridiculous is treated the same as a clear and present danger. Thus a kid with a pen knife is treated as harshly as a kid with an Uzi. Homeland Security seems equally bent on creating a culture of obtuseness: “I don’t care if it’s a guy from Chechnya who bought a one-way ticket with cash or a gray-haired lady eating All-Bran in her kitchen, you never know who could be a terrorist!”

Moreover, when we start viewing absolutely everyone as a possible threat, it is a different world we see: A world filled with evil and disguises, rather than the world we really live in: far from perfect, but hardly Halo 3. Practicing on the target of a granny, or tween girl in her driveway, reinforces the idea that we are under siege by everyone, everywhere. Trust no one, ever. Be on guard at all times.

SCHOOL BUS TERRORISTS? 

A couple of years ago I was speaking at a convention of school bus fleet owners. After my talk, which was about how we got so scared for our children, the next speaker came on stage: She was from the FBI and she spent an hour talking about how school bus drivers must always be on the alert for terrorists. She told the owners to tell their drivers to look out for anyone they saw along the bus route who wasn’t normally there. “I don’t care if it’s a mother with her three children. If she wasn’t there yesterday, WHY is she there today?” That’s not an exact quote, but it is the example she gave: Fear for the worst if you suddenly see a mom you don’t know, and her young kids.

The chances that a mom with three young kids was walking near the school bus with the intention of blowing it up — those odds were not discussed. The mere fact that the mom  COULD blow up the bus was enough to merit a warning from this government employee.

It is good to be prepared. It is not good, or even safe, to be paranoid. When we are told that using our own perceptions, knowledge, compassion and humanity is a HINDRANCE to safety, we are being brainwashed into hysteria.

I’d rather have officers hesitate just long enough to figure out what’s actually going on, than have them so scared and suspicious of everyone that they aim, shoot, and then think.  - L

Don't shoot till you see the whites of the eyes of the fetus?

Don’t shoot till you see the whites of the eyes of the fetus?

Readers, Here’s a video that has gotten over 10 million hits so far:

It’s about motherhood being the hardest job at all, requiring 135 hours a week, lots of standing, very little sleeping and zero breaks.

But as “The Evil H.R. Lady” points out in this brilliant post, motherhood is not the utterly difficult, demanding, exhausting job society (and this video) paint it as. It’s only that way if we believe our kids can’t do anything safely or successfully on their own. So, says Evil H.R. Lady:

….You are doing it wrong if you never get to sit down, never get to eat lunch, and never get a break of any kind. You are not teaching your child to become an adult, you are teaching them to remain in perpetual toddler hood. This is bad parenting. I don’t know any mothers — even mothers of special needs kids — that don’t get a break. (And I will concede that some special needs kids require a tremendous amount of care from their parents–dad too!–and that may qualify as the most difficult job. But most moms have just regular kids–with problems here and there, and difficulties in different areas, but nothing requiring 24 hour nursing level care.)

Exaggerating the amount of work and expertise needed to parent not only creates guilt on the part of parents (who can live up to those expectations?). It also makes it seem like the best parents are the ones who treat their kids as helpless and endangered for as long as possible. If you believe parenting involves gradually letting go, well, gradually it gets easier.

This cult of motherhood SEEMS to venerate women, but really it is all about making them feel bad if they actually trust their kids to thrive without constant,  obsessive assistance.  - L

Readers – -This just in. Two masked men grabbed a 4 year old from a playground and threw him in a van. Surprise! It was to make a video about “kidnapping awareness.” Why is this insane?

A – The “perps” could have been shot.

B – It is based on the crazy idea that WITHOUT a video of masked men snatching a child off a playground, no one would be aware that masked men shouldn’t be doing this.

C- It is also based on the crazy idea that this is happening so much, no one should consider the playground a safe place.

D – All of the above and THEN some.

P.S. You KNOW the answer.