Category Archives: Abuse

Posts exploring the challenges that face our society in understanding and tackling abuse.

How attachment theory explains Trump’s success – and Hitler’s too

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.02.10Donald Trump has done it. He’s won the Republican nomination, having convinced enough Americans that he has the qualities needed to be a Presidential candidate. The rest of the world is looking on with disbelief, confusion, terror and derision.

Many commentators are firmly of the view that, given the statistics, Trump has no chance of actually being elected Presidentcome November 2016. But in many ways, that’s irrelevant now. Trump has already changed America. He has unleashed extremity, humiliation, suspicion and blame. He has done that with a personal style that is abrasive, rude, narcissistic, belligerent, untruthful and ludicrous. Yet he has drawn support from across the USA.

How can that be explained?

Some analysts have put his appeal down to the economic struggles facing many AmericansOthers have attributed it to educational divides. Statistician Nate Silver has highlighted Trump’s ability to manipulate the media. Journalists for the magazine The Week ascribe his success, alternatively, to conservative Republicans’ willingness to abandon traditional norms of governing and also to liberal Democrats’ intolerance of views that they find objectionableThe commentator Steven Poole even jokingly (or maybe not jokingly?) put it down to linguistics: Trump loves to punctuate his dazzlingly vague speeches with the thrillingly seductive morpheme ‘so’. “Together”, he says, “we are going to win so much and you are going to be so happy.” Presumably his supporters are so so happy now.

I want to add another explanation to this mix. Attachment theory can go a long way toward helping us make sense of Trump’s popularity.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.05.37I think we will need such an analysis in the coming months and years – regardless of whether or not Trump wins the election. The American political system is in meltdown. So are other political systems. The UK will shortly hold a referendum on withdrawing from the European Union. The outcome of that could well prompt a second Scottish referendum on separating from the UK. The refugee crisis currently engulfing Europe is prompting the return of very real, razor-wire boundaries between countries. Political distrust holds consequences that matter for the whole of our globe. Political distrust is driven by fear. And that’s what’s driving Trump’s success. Fear.

So what is attachment theory? It’s an explanation of why humans (and all other mammals) seek out a sense of safety. Attachment theory helps us realise that this search is a biological drive. We humans have a physiological need to feel safe – not simply to be safe, but to feel safe. Our brains don’t believe we are safe until we feel safe.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.50.42Attachment theory first emerged in the 1950s, led by paediatrician and psychologist John Bowlby. Since then, the core tenets of attachment theory have been repeatedly affirmed. Particularly helpful has been the development of technologies that allow neuroscientists to track brain development. This new evidence confirms what Bowlby and his colleagues suspected: early life leaves a long legacy. Our experiences as babies and toddlers lay down neural pathways in our brains that determine how safe versus how risky the world seems. Those pathways are obstinately robust.

Thus, fear starts early in life. If the environment often feels scary to you as a baby, then it’s very likely to feel scary to you as an adult. That continuation happens because your brain and body became wired with enough fear sensors to keep you trapped within the physiological emotional framework your brain set up as an infant. Your brain sees no reason to question that framework. Why question reality?

How, then, does attachment theory help to explain Trump’s success?

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 03.00.28The answer lies in appreciating the extent to which fear is driving Trump supporters. Last September, a political scientist named Matthew McWilliams gathered some striking data while completing his PhD. His findings are drawing considerable attention across social media. He found that the factor most predictive of support for Trump is authoritarianism. The surprise was that this factor cuts across conventional demographic boundaries: education, income, religiosity, age, class, region. McWilliams argues that what binds such diversity together is authoritarianism.

Authoritarianism is a type of personality profile. It characterises someone who has a desire for order and a fear of outsiders. Authoritarians look for a strong leader who promises to take action to combat the threats they fear.

In short, authoritarians are seeking a sense of safety. Their political choices are driven by an attachment need. Trump makes his supporters feel safe.

That’s why Trump supporters can hold views that can sound scarily extreme to others.  Muslims should be banned. Mexico should pay to build a wall. Gays and lesbians should be prevented from marrying. In fact, let’s ban them from the country too! And while we’re at it, why not critique Abraham Lincoln’s decision to free the slaves?

McWilliams’ data are compelling because they have proven so predictive. He has conducted several large polls, and the factor that keeps coming up as most predictive of Trump support is authoritarianism. Here, for example, is the graph showing his data from the South Carolina primary. The higher a person’s score on the Authoritarian Scale, the more likely they said they were to vote for Trump. The slope of that line is so steady it’s unnerving. Little wonder, then, that Trump has won 26 primaries so farThat’s half the states in the USA.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 00.57.34

McWilliams isn’t the only one to have highlighted the importance of authoritarianism. Political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler reached similar conclusions in their 2009 book, Authoritarianism and Polarisation in American Politics. They argued that the Republicans, as the self-proclaimed party of law and order and traditional values, would inevitably prove attractive to large numbers of Americans with authoritarian tendencies. They just hadn’t predicted it would happen as quickly as 2016. But what’s happening completely fits their predicition: “Trump embodies the classic authoritarianism leadership style: simple, powerful and punitive.”

How is authoritarianism measured? It’s astoundingly simple. You just ask four straightforward questions:

  1. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: independence or respect for elders?
  2. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: obedience or self-reliance?
  3. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: to be considerate or to be well-behaved?
  4. Please tell me which one of the following you think is more important for a child to have: curiosity or good manners?

These four questions were devised by political scientist Stanley Feldman in the 1990s. The responses that emphasise behaviour, as opposed to internal qualities, are associated with authoritarianism. Feldman’s studies showed that these four questions turned out to be so reliable in assessing authoritarian tendencies that they now form the field’s ‘industry standard’ and are regularly incorporated into all sorts of political surveys.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 03.14.25It was, though, earlier research that had provided the platform for Feldman’s thinking. Psychologist Diana Baumrind carried out ground-breaking work in the 1960s that identified three main parenting styles in America. Her findings have stood the test of time.

  • Authoritarian parents tend to be rigid and controlling, focusing on external behaviour rather than internal experience. They expect a lot from their children, but without offering warmth or being responsive to their emotional needs. Children are expected to do as they are told, without questioning. The data showed that children raised in environments where they have such little control over their own lives tend to be unsure of themselves, don’t trust easily and have difficulty completing tasks. Baumrind emphasized that parents might adopt such a style due not only to their own personality but because they were trying to protect their child from a dangerous environment.
  • Permissive parents offer lots of warmth. However, they don’t set limits or impose expectations. These children often grow up impulsive and frustrated, with difficulty in adjusting their own desires to meet those of the wider society or relationship partners. It is harder for them to adapt to the restrictions of adult life.
  • Authoritative parents have high expectations of their children, like authoritarian parents. However, they also offer warmth, like permissive parents. They are responsive to their children’s emotional needs; they are flexible; they listen. Children’s internal experiences and emotional needs matter to them.   These children tend to become self-reliant and independent, with high self-esteem and respect for others. They function pretty well in the adult world.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.35.40While three descriptive categories absolutely do not explain the whole of a person’s character, Baumrind’s account provides a starting point for making sense of adult behaviour that can, at first, seem bewildering. It helps us to see how a parent’s style of relating to their child intersects with that child’s attachment needs, resulting in a mindset for the child as to how risky or safe the world is.

Except its more than a ‘mind’-set. It is actually a biological orientation to the world. It is a reflection of the child’s early emotional experiences, which may bear absolutely no relation to the present, but which is now woven into their very physiology. Their brain is stuck in the past, filtering the way they perceive and react to the present.

What’s really sobering is that Baumrind’s research with the children started when they were 3-year-olds. Children were already of an age that “rendered them unlikely to alter their genuine, instinctive reactions.” That sounds unbelievably early to most people who are new to the science of the early years. Yet, the age of 3 years is commonly identified by neuroscientists and by attachment theorists as marking a shift in children’s developmental trajectories.

This all explains why it does not matter to Trump’s supporters whether he grasps international affairs, diplomacy or honesty. What matters is that he makes them feel safe.

And guess what? That’s exactly the approach that Hitler took too.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.24.34Hitler made Germans of the 1930s feel safe. No, not all of them. Far from all of them. Many resisted his vision, including his fellow politicians. But Hitler made enough of his citizens feel safe. His message resonated with enough Germans to to allow the Nazi Party to prosper.

The problem wasn’t Hitler. The problem was support for Hitler.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 03.22.21I hope that, at this point, you might have taken a deep breath. It is very clear that I have just compared Donald Trump to Adolf Hitler. I am not, of course, the first to do that. The Mexican President, Enrique Pena Nieto, has done so, as has Holocaust survivor Zeev Hod. Commentator Adam Brown carried out a detailed policy analysis of that comparison in October 2015, and the Philadelphia Daily News made the same comparison on the front page of their paper in December 2015. The historians Robert Paxton and Fedja Buric have taken such uncomfortable debates to a new level by seriously discussing whether a comparison to the fascist Mussolini might be more accurate. The NY Daily News chucked Stalin into the mix.

But even with such illustrious company, you might wonder if I haven’t taken things a step too far. It is not a bit far-fetched to compare Donald Trump to Hitler? Is it not just a bit too insulting or too unimaginable? Is it not according him slightly too much power – especially as he hasn’t yet been elected President and many think he hasn’t got a hope in hell of that anyway.

No, its not. Because, as I said, the problem wasn’t Hitler. And the problem isn’t Trump. The problem is support for Trump.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.09.48In his brilliant book Parenting for a Peaceful World, published in 2005, psychologist Robin Grille carried out a psycho-historical analysis of 1930s Germany. He traces the parenting advice popular at the end of the 19th century, just at the time when many Nazi supporters would have been young children. His review shows that the most popular childcare experts were promoting an authoritarian parenting style. They recommended ignoring and even crushing children’s emotional needs, in order to raise well-behaved, obedient adults.

It doesn’t take much to start crushing children’s capacity for connection – especially if experts are encouraging you down a harsh, unwavering path of relating. You can make a pretty good start by the age of 3. By then you’ve had a lasting impact on a child’s brain. And you don’t have to be a parent to achieve that change. Institutions charged with caring for young children, including childcare, social work, orphanages and hospitals can do a lot to damage children. It’s easy. You don’t even have to intend to. Just create policies that prevent staff from meeting children’s emotional needs, make the staff ratios so high there’s too little opportunity to meet them anyway, and be sure to humiliate, exclude and punish bad behaviour.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.12.41Adults who had been raised in authoritarian settings were just what Hitler and the Nazis needed — adults who would dispense with compassion in order to have safety. Adults who could feel so good about themselves in the process.

Robin Grille makes the point that such political success didn’t require all German parents of the early 20th century to follow expert authoritarian advice. He has no doubt that many German parents were highly empathic. Indeed, when comparing autobiographical accounts of Nazi sympathisers versus Nazi resisters, he is able to identify distinct differences in the way their parents treated them during childhood.

So  a country – whether that’s Germany or America or anywhere else — doesn’t need all, or even a majority, of its adult citizens to adopt an authoritarian parenting style in order to wreak widespread cultural havoc. All that’s needed is enough of them. As Robin Grille puts it (pg. 120): “Only a critical mass of harsh, authoritarian upbringing is needed to skew a nation towards dictatorship and war.”

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.18.22The articles currently circulating on the web that explore this issue tend to focus on ‘American authoritarianism’. And its certainly true that there’s plenty of that about. For example, Daniel Kolman (@kolman) recently tweeted that he was shocked to discover that 19 US states still allow corporal punishment in schools.  I have myself previously written about the book No Greater Joypopular amongst the Christian Right community in the USA, which advocates training babies’ behaviour by regularly beating them with a 12-inch piece of lawn-strimming cord. After the age of 1 year, the authors recommend upgrading to plumber’s supply line, which is thicker and which you can find at any hardware store, in a variety of colours for you to choose from. The book gets plenty of five-star ratings on Amazon.

A petition in 2011 tried (and failed) to ban Amazon from selling the book. A member of the UK Parliament tried to at least get its sale banned in the UK. But Amazon is global, isn’t it? Authoritarianism transcends national boundaries.

And that’s my real point in this piece. Authoritarianism transcends national boundaries. It isn’t present just in America. It is present in all cultures where humiliation, shame or violence is used to control children. It is present in all institutions where adults become more concerned about managing children’s behaviour than responding to their feelings. It is present in many of the homes in your community where parents are simply trying to do their best to raise their kids.

Donald Trump is dangerous NOT because he is now the Republican nominee.

Donald Trump is dangerous because he legitimises fear.

Leftover baby fears are oh so powerful, lurking in the dark of our neural pathways. That’s the point of attachment theory.

Screen Shot 2016-05-06 at 02.39.50If you’re worried about this election, whatever country you live in, don’t fight Trump. Fight fear.

If you’re worried about world events beyond the American election, do the same thing. Fight fear.

 

 

How the Oxfordshire Serious Case Review helps us understand professionals’ repression of feelings

girl-stairs

Earlier this week, I wrote a piece on professionals’ repression. Not repression of facts, but repression of feelings. I was exploring how well-meaning professionals can make decisions that other people find exasperating, inconceivable, inhumane.

I received a flood of responses to that piece. I was told repeatedly that I had made people cry. Good. That means that telling stories about real lives offers us a path back to our humanity.

We need that humanity. It helps us find a way through horrendous situations. A good example is the Oxfordshire Serious Case Review, which has received so much attention in the UK media this week. This is a case of seven men grooming nearly 400 girls over 16 years for sexual exploitation and brutalisation. This is also a case of professional repression.

Here’s part of one story, as told by the mother of one of those brutalized girls, interviewed on on BBC Woman’s Hour this week:

“When things started to go badly wrong, after I had adopted her and she’d been with me about a year, aged 12, I went to social services, and said I’m really concerned…my daughter clearly needs help and support. I was totally amazed. They flatly refused to even talk to me, saying that it was nothing to do with them, because she was adopted from another area…

 In the end, they said, with ill-grace, that the only thing we can do is send her to the other end of the country for an assessment. In my desperation, I agreed. Over a period of 8 months, she went to three different children’s homes…She kept going missing…At one point I was combing the streets of London looking for her.

 Things had really started going wrong when my daughter started to be excluded from school at a moment’s notice, during that year when she was 12. Before I could get to school to pick her up, she was already on the streets of Oxford, cadging cigarettes from all sorts of undesirables. By the end of Year 8, she was permanently excluded from school and had almost no education at all for the next three years.

My feelings about the police are different than for social services. Almost all of the police we dealt with when I reported her missing, sometimes 3-4 times a week, responded to us as human beings. They were concerned, empathetic. They were completely out of their depth in being able to realise what was going on, but they did try. And once the Review process was underway, the police did apologise.

[But it was different from Social Services.] Neither Social Services nor Education apologised. My daughter had a very arrogant and dismissive letter from the Director of Children’s Services after the trial. It wasn’t an apology, though….

Just before the Review Report came out, two days ago, we did receive a letter from an Assistant Director in Social Services, apologizing for their failures. That might have given us some comfort or satisfaction, if it wasn’t for the fact it was so close to the Review coming out. And the letter was a photocopy. Even the signature was a photocopy. They couldn’t even spare the time to personally sign their letters of apology.”

 Refusal to take responsibility for a child in your service area? Police who could manage empathy, but social services who couldn’t? Three children’s homes in eight months for a vulnerable child? Exclusion from school at a moment’s notice? Photocopied letters? Toleration of the knowledge that pre-teens were having sex with adults? Describing children who have been raped as ‘difficult’? I know all those actions sound cold, callous, inexcusable. That’s my point. That’s repression. Harsh indifference is exactly what repression looks like.

Robetsons-mFifty years ago, James and Joyce Robertson, leading attachment theorists of their day, explained professionals’ emotional distance as repression. The Robertsons began the work by focusing on nurses in children’s wards, but they extended their analysis to all staff who work with children. How could nurses think it would help children to keep parents away for days or weeks at a time? How could residential staff leave babies languishing in their cots for hours a day? To our eyes today, such actions look callous.

The talent of the Robertsons was that they made such inhumanity comprehensible.   It was, they said, a result of asking staff to deal constantly with distress – distress that they had no real way of resolving. They didn’t have enough time to hang out with each of the lonely children. They didn’t have enough arms to hug all the sad children. They didn’t have the power to stop the crying of the children. A ward full of lonely, sad, crying children is chaotic and depressing. So it was better to nip the crying in the bud from the outset, if you could.

Constant distress drains you. It corrupts your ability to feel. You get skilled at defending yourself against overwhelm. The danger is that once you are defended, you unwittingly start inflicting damage on others. Here’s how the Robertsons described the process, in their 1970 lecture:

“In the everyday handling of children…the rank and file [practitioners] develop defensive attitudes to distress and deterioration, similar to those in the higher levels of the professions, pressed upon them by work situations that deny them adequate involvement with the children.”

What if we saw social work scandals like the one in Oxfordshire as arising not from poor staff, but from poor jobs? 21ST century society asks social workers to deal with the mess that we are making of relationships. And there really is a mess. Look at the deep aversion that is being expressed about the ‘horrific events’ in Oxfordshire. When Jane Garvey, of Woman’s Hour, introduced the radio interview I’ve quoted above, she prefaced it with this statement: “I should warn listeners that what this young woman has to say is disturbing.”

Listeners are about to be distressed by hearing a story? But the young women and their families lived that distressing story! We asked social workers and police to step into that story and live it too! Someone said to me afterward about that interview: “It’s just too awful to imagine, isn’t it?” Precisely. A horror too awful to imagine. So we repress the image.

I know that the professional response in Oxfordshire was abysmal, that the care provided was derisive. Terrible damage has been done to those children and their families. The damage will be more than lifelong. It has every chance of becoming inter-generational and affecting relationships with those children’s children.

It is precisely because of such terrible damage that I want to add: social workers and police officers are human beings too. They do not have the luxury of turning off their imaginations, as we listeners do. Their job is to deal directly with the horror. They have to go back to the office. They have to get back in the patrol car. They have to return to visit upset families once again. It is repression that enables professionals to be able to keep doing these things.

Without the luxury of repression, staff would get totally overwhelmed by the horror, the distress, the pain of messy lives. They would stay home and pull the covers over their head. They would go off sick with stress. In fact, they are staying home and going off sick – in record numbers. In some areas of the country, the rate of sick leave for social workers is 3.5 times the national average for all industries.  This has led some commentators to declare there is an ‘epidemic of stress’ underway within social work. Anxiety, depression, and overwork are the major drivers.

If social workers do their job badly, it is because our society unintentionally but callously asks too much of them.

boy-teddy-mIn 1969, James and Joyce Robertson released the latest in their film series about separation and the young child. Entitled John, the film showed the emotional deterioration of a little boy aged 17 months, who had been placed in a residential nursery for a mere nine days, when he had to be separated from his parents. For him though, it wasn’t a ‘mere’ nine days. It was such a traumatic nine days for him that viewers had trouble watching the film. Here’s one of the incidents that the Robertsons recall of the film’s 1969 reception, in their book Separation and the Very Young:

A university tutor wrote that she would not use the film series again for teaching, because it had been too upsetting for her social work students. [We] replied that if she could not help her students to learn from this piece of reality in the classroom, how would they fare when they entered the field and were exposed to situations which could set up defences?” (p. 92)

The university tutor’s comments are based on the same emotional state as was Jane Garvey’s preface on Woman’s Hour, when she warned listeners that they were about to hear content so disturbing they might want to turn way.

It is ironic: our solution to children’s distress is rather like that of knowing the football scores before you’ve seen the match. “If you don’t want to know, look away now.”   (Yes, that’s a moment of dark humour on my part. Equating children’s brutalisation with a football game. Dark humour saves us from despair.)

So what do we do? Here are Dr. Suzanne Zeedyk’s Top Tips for Dealing with Horror.

  1. d-cLet’s stop looking for someone to blame. David Cameron has decided, as a result of the Oxfordshire Case Review, that if we threaten more people with punishment, if we put more public servants in jail, that will solve the problem. He’s wrong. It won’t. He’s misleading us by making us hope that punishment might just be enough to stop horror.

(As an aside, if we wanted to exercise more dark humour, or perhaps more curiosity, we could ask how David Cameron’s childhood experience of being sent away to boarding school at the age of 7 years might be shaping the way he is dealing with the Oxfordshire Case Review. George Monbiot is currently describing such childhoods as ‘privileged abandonment’. Bravely, outrageously, he describes boarding school as the ordinary abuse unwittingly inflicted on upper class kids by their parents. George Monbiot speaks from personal experience. His childhood was spent in boarding school.

  1. Let’s stop DOing and start LISTENing. Let’s listen to stories. I know they are stories of pain and distress, but let’s listen anyway. The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh argues that the point of listening isn’t to burst into action, but to reduce suffering.

When we sit beside someone in the midst of their pain, it nurtures trust. Trust is not just a state of mind, but is also a state of the body. Trust creates a physiological transformation, boosting hormones like oxytocin. Yes, the ‘Cuddle Chemical’ oxytocin helps us cope with horror! In fact, we begin to realise that often the thing that most needs to be DONE is to offer more cuddles.

  1. Let’s stop treating social workers like robots and start treating them like human beings. Here’s one more story. It was shared by a participant at the Kinship Carer Event hosted by Children 1st in , at which I spoke in February.

KC-logo It comes from a retired social worker. He recalled that when he was a social worker in the 1970s, if you’d been out dealing with a terrible situation for a family, you could come back to your desk. The desk was a safe haven, covered in photographs of your own family and stacks of paperwork that, because they were ordered, gave a sense of order to your workload. You could sit with your head in your hands while colleagues on your team offered to make a cup of coffee. Together, you could sit down and talk about what might be done for that family.

Unfortunately, he said, that’s not the working situation for social workers today. Many teams ‘hot desk’, meaning you have no photos and no ordered piles of paper and nowhere safe to come back to after you’ve been out dealing with horror. And in an office where there is hot-desking, there may well be no colleagues and no cuppas, because the point of hot-desking is that teams don’t have a permanent base to work from.

How very ironic. We will threaten to give social workers a prison cell but we won’t give them their own desk.

When children’s trauma leads to terrorism

THIS ONELike millions of others across the world, I sat yesterday watching France reject fear.  It was inspiring to hear tens upon tens of people speak into television cameras saying, “I choose not to be afraid.  We stand together.  Je suis Charlie.  Je suis Ahmed.  Je suis Juif.”

Of course, one march does not begin to solve France’s problems, even if that march was attended by nearly 4 million people across the country – more people turned out on the day than for celebrations when the Allies liberated France in World War II.  France has plenty of deep social problems.  Emigration, racism, poverty, anti-semitism, pessimism.

But to have any chance of solving problems, you have to start somewhere.  Yesterday France chose to start with unity.  There was a resounding lack of blame in the comments of those tens upon tens of people I watched being interviewed.  They were not uniting against a terrorist enemy.  Instead, they were uniting against fear. Continue reading

How our fear of perverts is damaging more children than the perverts themselves

How’s that for a title? ‘Our fear of perverts is damaging more children than the perverts themselves’. The word ‘perverts’ is one I rarely use. But since it jumped out of the front page of the Metro this week, I thought, ‘Okay, if that’s what gets people to read articles, then I’m willing to try it.’

Everywhere in the news these days are stories of child sexual abuse. Its not just the UK. It’s the US and Italy and Australia, for starters. You get the sense that ‘perverts’ are everywhere: hiding behind bushes, in Parliamentary offices, in nurseries, in children’s homes, in schools, in Catholic churches, in hospitals, brazenly parading across telly screens. ‘Perverts’ could be anybody: people we liked, people we looked up to, people who made us laugh, people we trusted.

The Times 17/07/14This morning’s front page of The Times informed me and everybody else who read it that police have tracked down 10,000 suspected paedophiles. The sub-header drives home the fear: ‘Teachers, doctors, and care workers arrested’. Precisely my point. These are roles that we instinctively wish to trust. It is genuinely unnerving when the pivotal people in a culture seem no longer trustworthy.

So society is going through a rocky patch: waking up to the discovery of just how many children have been hurt by adults and the life-long consequences of that trauma. We don’t want that pain for our children.

I think, though, that this rocky patch stems from an additional fear. Continue reading

When do we decide its time to ban a book?

Trigger Warning: contains themes of Child/Physical abuse


When I was a member of University teaching staff, I used to teach a final-year course called ‘The Epistemology of Developmental Theories’. I loved teaching it because the students began the course having no idea what the word really meant.

Epistemology is essentially intellectual navel-gazing. It is the study of knowledge itself. How do we know what we know? What counts as truth and not-truth? How do we decide that? On what basis can we ever decide to believe in anything? How do we choose between different possible courses of action? The students either loved or hated the course. Ultimately, their response depended on how able they were to sit with uncertainty.

BlogPic Beating

I found myself thinking about those students last week, when I was sent a link to a petition  that is drawing growing attention through social media. It asks Amazon to ban several parenting books from their catalogue. The petition was introduced in August 2011, with 200,000 people having now signed it (or one of five related petitions). It has been discussed in the UK Parliament, on MumsNet, in the Huffington Post and on Fox TV News, and Facebook traffic is rapidly increasing as other organisations and individuals yield their support to the campaign. Continue reading

It was fear that killed Daniel

_69883312_69883311My last blog, about the power of fear, received more responses than any blog I have ever written.  As I reflected on why that was, and about how I follow up a piece about something as obvious as children’s need of cuddles, news of the terrible death of 4-year-old Daniel Pelka filled our television screens.  This was, for me, another example of the power of fear. Continue reading

Fifty Shades of Grey Matter

I love the unexpected conversations that happen these days when I tell people what I do.  When they ask, ‘So what do you do, then?’, I usually say something like, ‘I give lectures on babies’ brain development and why relationships have such an impact on the shaping of brains.’

I had just such a conversation with a taxi driver last week, when he asked why I was off to a police station so early in the morning.  I explained that the local police force – in this case Lothian and Borders Police, based in Edinburgh – were working on strengthening their Violence Reduction Partnership.  The aim of the meeting I was attending was to explore how they could work more closely with other sectors and services, helping to drive forward the Early Years Movement that is now firmly underway in Scotland.

Continue reading

The posture of shame

Last month, in Edinburgh, I put on a seminar with Robin Grille, one of the leading Australian speakers on the effects of early years experience. The title of the day was Love, Fear and Shame:  Their effect on children’s brains, play and learning.

This morning, I found myself thinking of our discussions during that seminar.  Across the street from where I was standing, I saw a mother screaming with anger and frustration at her son.  He was about 14, and she had a daughter, about 8, by the hand.  The son was leaning against a building, red in the face, and lookingdown so sadly, as if he wanted the pavement to swallow him whole. Continue reading