Category Archives: Brain Development

Posts exploring brain development in the early years.

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.

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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.



Changing nappies is as much about babies’ brains as their bottoms

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.13.53We are conflicted about nappy changing these days. As a society, it makes us uncomfortable. It is distasteful, involving dirty, smelly bodily substances. It is anxiety provoking, requiring the exposure of babies’ genitals. It is inconvenient, necessitating a pause in the midst of whatever other activity a parent has underway. And it frequently emotional, with babies refusing to lie still or staring intently into their caretaker’s face.

For all these reasons, nappy changing is something we don’t usually talk about in polite circles. It may be a necessity of life with a baby, but it’s not exactly a subject for the dinner table, is it? It might therefore seem too inconsequential a topic for a whole article, especially when you consider that other pieces in this blog series have focused on ‘serious’ subjects, like terrorism and abuse and brain development.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.06.25Yet, to my mind, that is exactly the reason for writing a piece on nappy changing. Babies’ brains grow more rapidly during the period of life during which they need their nappies changed than will ever be the case again. Approximately 1000 synaptic connections are formed every second during this period. Astounding. And it is the emotional experiences that babies have over and over again that build the most robust neural pathways. Nappy changing is undoubtedly an activity that babies encounter repeatedly. Indeed, over just the first six months, there are approximately 10 changes per day, each lasting, say, 5 minutes. That’s 9000 minutes or 540,000 seconds, and thus half a billion synapses.

So nappy changing isn’t quite as inconsequential as we might at first have thought. It has an impact on babies’ brain development. More specifically, the emotional experiences that caretakers give babies whilst changing their nappies are being built into babies’ brains.

I thought, therefore, that it would be interesting to reflect on the ways in which modern society encourages us to approach the task of nappy changing. This is an appropriate moment for such reflection, given that Real Nappy Week is taking place this very week in London. Most people won’t have any idea there is a group of committed individuals who want to celebrate the benefits of real cloth nappies. This article is my way of supporting their efforts.

So what are some of the big messages we get about nappy changing in today’s society?

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 10.59.48One message is that nappies are disgustingly funny. Take, for example, the videos that regularly travel the web that show fathers wretching whilst changing nappies. In August 2015, a tattooed, uniformed father gained international attention when the video of him vomiting as he soldiered on with nappy changing went viral, featuring eventually on television and in newspapers.

Why is it always Dads? I know that we regard ourselves as having ‘moved on’ as a society, because once upon a time fathers never changed nappies at all. But this humiliating form of humour says something darker about the way we frame modern masculinity. We are either laughing at dads’ incompetence – or turning them into heroes for coping with something ordinary. Indeed, if you want a gag gift for new fathers, you can buy a doodie apron, which comes complete with nose peg, face mask and gloves, all designed to help a father keep the disgusting productions of his baby’s body at bay.

I know it’s supposed to be funny. And I know I sound like I need to get a life if I’m not laughing at the innocent joke. But I find myself wondering about the baby’s experience. Is the baby scared when confronted with Dad clad in a face mask? Does the baby feel ashamed when Dad looks disgusted in reaction to the substances that her body produces? Does the baby feel embarrassed when parents start laughing whilst filming ‘poo faces’ to send to Pampers as part of an advertising campaign?

Here’s my point: we feel okay about all this laughter because we think it’s only about the adults. We don’t think it matters to the babies. We wouldn’t laugh at older people with dementia who are pooing, because we would think that was disrespectful. But when it comes to babies, we think they don’t notice. That why the joking seems innocent and can’t do harm to anybody.

Except it’s not true. Babies are born with a connected brain. That means they are already aware of and attuned to and reading other people’s emotions, facial expressions and behaviour. Babies learn about themselves by the way we treat them. This includes the way we treat them during activities as ‘inconsequential’ as nappy changing. If we react often enough to babies’ bodies with disgust, then they start to see themselves as disgusting. It is ominously fascinating to realise that we can build a sense of shame into our child’s brain by the way we treat them during nappy changing. As parent, we can do that without ever realizing or intending to. And modern society makes it more, not less, likely that we will do just that.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.09.21What’s another message that we get in today’s world about nappy changing? How about this one: the less it happens, the better. Pampers and Huggies make disposable nappies designed to last 12 hours without the need for a change. The idea is that parents don’t have to be interrupted in the midst of other activities with their wee ones. Babies can remain strapped into car seats and strollers and carry cots. They don’t have to risk being woken at night.

Modern society creates more and more devices that reduce babies’ opportunities to feel their parents’ touch. Of all the senses, touch is the most important for babies. It is the first sense to develop in the womb and the most developed at birth. Skin is our largest organ, and the sensations that skin sends to the brain are so powerful that they act as pain relief. In our evolutionary history, babies spent much more time experiencing touch, strapped as they were to a parent’s body during the day and sleeping next to a parent’s body at night. Modern babies experience an extremely different type of infancy than did our forebears.

Yes, babies adapt to the modern world. Skeptics will reply that babies are clearly surviving in today’s world of nappies, transport devices and sleeping arrangements. I agree, they are. But I also know that without sufficient touch and physical attention, babies die. That was one of the points to come out of studies of Romanian orphans. Infant humans depend on the physical presence of another human being in order to survive.

Could the decreasing amount of touch that modern babies receive be one of the reasons that our society is witnessing an increase in behavioural problems associated with emotional regulation? The most fundamental pathways that the brain is forming during the early years are the ones that enable to us to cope with – that is, regulate – our emotions.

So maybe it would be better if disposable nappies weren’t quite so efficient? Maybe it would be better for babies’ emotional health if nappy companies could find ways to inform parents about the crucial importance of touch and cuddling and feeling Mum’s warm fingers on your skin — even while they search for ways to keep urine from reaching a baby’s skin.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 11.10.53That’s one of the aims of Real Nappy Week. The celebrations aren’t designed only to highlight the value of non-disposable nappies, but to get us as a culture to rethink the whole business of nappy changing.

So what’s one final modern-day message to which we might pay attention? How about the way in which our fear of sexual abuse now overlaps with nappy changing?

Many nurseries now have a policy that requires two members of staff to be present when nappies are changed, in order to guard against the risk of inappropriate touch. We are scared that the people who have been vetted to take care of our children might harm them, and nakedness makes nappy changing seem a particularly vulnerable setting.

Videos that instruct new parents on how to change nappies are frequently shot from an angle that avoids revealing babies’ genitals, or are edited so that the genitals are blurred out. How ironic that the very parts of the body that generate the need for a nappy change cannot be shown on film. In our struggle to come to terms with the very real risks that children face of being sexually abused, we have further sexualised our youngest children.

In the run-up to Real Nappy Week, my team released our brief film ‘dance of the nappy’. The film is excerpted from our longer feature-length film, ‘the connected baby’, first released in 2011 with funding from the British Psychological Society. We estimate that the longer film has now been viewed by 100,000 people, but this is the first time we have released an entire segment for public viewing on YouTube.

The film shows the intricate emotional dance that goes on between a 5-week-old baby and his mother during an ordinary nappy change. The baby’s emotional responses to his mother’s movements and facial expressions are so nuanced that it would be easy to miss them. That’s why we wanted to make the film: because such moments of connection are happening for babies across the world, but it is easy for parents to overlook them because they are so subtle and fleeting. Video footage makes it possible to slow everything down and reveal what is not apparent to the naked eye.

After filming that session, I realised the baby’s genitals were in full view. The mother realised it too. She commented on it at the time, whilst we were filming. Later, during editing, she confirmed that she was comfortable with retaining the footage. But I had to ask myself: was I comfortable with it? Was it appropriate in today’s society to show a 5-week-old baby’s genitals on a movie screen? What would I say if someone challenged my decision? What if, later, when the baby is grown, he resents having had his bum shown off to the world? What if I was accused of encouraging inappropriate touch because his genitals appear briefly but undeniably?

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 13.15.00My decision was not to change anything. I decided that real-life nappy changing means exposing and cleaning baby’s genitals. I decided that merely alluding to that, by editing out that footage, actually feeds our modern day fear that genitals are inherently sexual, even those of a 5-week-old baby. I decided that I was making a film that was trying to show how connection is possible at all points in a baby’s day, including during an activity as ‘disgusting’ as changing a pooey nappy. Because that’s exactly what the film shows – not just a Number One, but a Number Two. And the interaction between the mum and her baby is still loving and affirming. The baby gets no sense that his bodily excrement is shameful to her. After weeks of fretting, I decided I could defend such a scene to the world.

This week, I was reminded about my early worries. Since our public release on YouTube last week, I have received queries from three people, expressing unease that the film shows ‘everything’. I was relieved to realise that I now welcomed such debate, rather than feared it. Those weeks I had spent agonizing had been valuable, for they enabled me to articulate the position I take in this debate.

Screen Shot 2016-04-18 at 10.55.38And here is my position: Something is emotionally askew in our modern society. On the one hand, the global company Pampers can make an award-winning film that is intentionally designed to make us laugh at babies’ unease and discomfort when they poo. On the other hand, we can be made uncomfortable by a film that shows the real poo and the parts of a baby’s body that produced it. Something is awry in our reasoning.

I like the idea that a scene of something as tediously ordinary as a pooey nappy can become a radical act. A baby boy’s bum can make us reflect in new ways on our own humanity.

So, to the grown man of the future who was once that baby boy, let me offer my thanks and my apologies now. It was your bum that offered us this gift of reflection. Your mother says in the film: “One day you might really hate that I did this in front of the camera.” I hope you don’t. Because every time I show this film, I offer you a silent, grateful thanks for the trust you placed in us that day.

The science of Bing Bong and other imaginary friends: On joy, loss and growth

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 08.44.55Bing Bong has made it safe for children to enjoy their imaginary friends.

That’s a worry that parents have carried for a long time. You can find anxious articles all over the web. Is it normal for my toddler to have an imaginary friend?”  “Are invisible friends a sign of social problems?”  “Should parents be worried about imaginary friends?”  Bing Bong reassures adults that the answer is: “Yes! Stop worrying and start celebrating the creativity of your child’s mind.”

If you find yourself asking ‘Who in heaven’s name is Bing Bong?’ then you are one of the few people left in the Western Hemisphere who has yet to see Pixar’s award-winning animated film Inside Out. It has already won a Golden Globe, a BAFTA and now an Oscar.  If you’ve missed all the fun and the tears, can I suggest you take 90 minutes out of your daily life to remedy this gap in your life? This film is, by my reckoning, one of the most insightful films ever made on human emotions. The viewer may never realise they are getting a scientific lesson in attachment, brain function and trauma. They think they are watching an entertaining cartoon.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 08.51.16I have been talking and writing about this film since it was released in Summer 2015. Tons of parents have now written to say they found in it a shared language for talking with their children about feelings. Foster and kinship carers have been in touch to share stores of how the character dolls helped their traumatised children make sense of confused emotions. Staff teams have scheduled a night out together to go see it. One nursery chain – Kirktonholme Nurseries, in Scotland’s central belt – thought it so valuable that they hired a theatre and took 200 of their children to see it. They even got their local paper to do a story on the science behind their outing!

All of that activity has tended to focus on the five characters — Joy, Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger – who live in the head of the central figure, 11-year-old Riley. The character who has had less attention than anyone else is Riley’s imaginary friend from childhood, Bing Bong. Part cat, part elephant, part dolphin, Bing Bong once rode with Riley on their song-powered rocket ship (better known to adults as a wee red wagon). Now, though, Bing Bong lives forgotten in Riley’s subconscious long-term memory. And (SPOILER ALERT!), before the movie is over, Bing Bong will sacrifice himself to the eternal abyss of the Memory Dump, in order to help Joy find her way back to headquarters in Riley’s brain.

Pixar’s message in Bing Bong’s death is very clear. In order to keep growing up, Riley will need Joy more than she will need an invisible friend. Bing Bong accepts his heart-breaking fate with a final wrenching request: “Go save Riley. Take her to the moon for me.” With those two short sentences, Pixar is aiming to crack open adult viewers’ protective shells. Pixar is bringing us face to face with the loss that is an inherent part of growing up.

Bing Bong’s death scene has been dubbed the most profound moment of the film. It embodies the bittersweet quality of other chronicles of growing up, such as the 1960s hit song Puff the Magic Dragon (by the group Peter Paul and Mary) or the scene from Toy Story when Andy gives away his toys. Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip adventures of a child and his stuffed tiger, never have to face such a poignant turn because Calvin never grows up. If you are going to move beyond childhood, you must learn to endure loss.

It is striking how tough such an in-your-face message is for adults. Bing Bong’s death scene was originally supposed to be 40 seconds longer. That proved way too heart wrenching. Viewers couldn’t take it. So Pixar cut it down.

Inside Out is ultimately a story about the power of sadness. Its moral is that growth and loss come together, hand in hand. One doesn’t exist without the other. On a first viewing of the film, it is easy to come away thinking that message is conveyed by the two lead characters, Joy and Sadness.

But look closer, and it becomes clear the story is deeper than that. It is Bing Bong who makes sure we really really really get that message. Pixar has ensured we aren’t merely watching a story about sadness. Instead, they make us experience sadness. They lead us into loving bumbling Bing Bong before we are subjected to his unexpected but inevitable demise.

So is Bing Bong just a metaphor? Is he simply a vehicle that allows Pixar to tell a story about the wistful journey that is growing up? How much resemblance does he bear to children’s real imaginary friends?

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 08.56.08We can turn to the science to answer that question. That’s a surprising turn for many people, because they have no idea that scientific interest in invisible friends exists. Yet there have been several books published on the subject. The classic is The House of Make-Believe, by Dorothy and Jerome Singer, published in 1990. A decade later, in 1999, Majorie Taylor published her own fascinating account in Imaginary Companions and the Children Who Create Them. Paul Harris, too, provides delightful insights in his book The Work of the Imagination, published in 2000.

What does that research tell us? We learn three key things:

  1. Imaginary companions are healthy. It is not shy, lonely children who create companions as a way of coping with emotional troubles. In fact, the reverse is true. Research shows that children who create pretend friends tend to be sociable and outgoing. And while companions can help in times of trouble, the main motivation for inventing a friend is fun. So Riley turns out to be pretty typical of children with imaginary friends.
  1. Imaginary friends allow children to try out new perspectives. You can discover what its like to be brave if you have a pretend friend walking with you past a scary dog. You can figure out how to deal with bossy friends if your imaginary companion is forever disobeying your requests. Interactions with imaginary friends give children practice with situations that they will encounter in real life. Perhaps that is why they are so common. Research estimates that 65% of children have an imaginary friend at some point.
  1. Children with imaginary friends are not confused about reality. Interviews with children make it clear that, even if they get very caught up in the fun, children know that imaginary companions are not real. They have not misunderstood the borders of fantasy. Instead, scientists have concluded, the existence of a pretend friend indicates that a child has a pretty good grip on the boundaries of reality.

So when children invent imaginary friends, they are, as Marjorie Taylor puts it, “engaging in a basic human urge” (p. 48). They are discovering what companionship is like. That urge for connection is one that all human beings bring with them at birth, woven into their neural pathways.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 08.58.38In the creation of Bing Bong, Pixar has been brutally deceptive to its adult viewers. They have used animation, a classic children’s form, to confront us the loss of our own childhood. The director, Pete Docter, christens Bing Bong ‘the spirit of childhood’ – while still killing him off. It is not easy for most of us to come to terms with the inevitability of loss in our lives. How do you acknowledge that and still reach for happiness?

That philosophical question explains why Bing Bong had to die in the story. Joy may have learned lessons about the power of sadness. But it is Bing Bong who puts those lessons into practice. It is Bing Bong who shows us what it truly means to embrace sadness with grace.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 09.04.22This is how Pixar describes their decision to play the story out in that way:

“We need to find our characters at their most challenged: ‘What’s the most difficult thing you have to face in life?’ We’re going to go there. And it’s heartbreaking.”

What I love about this movie is that it isn’t just a movie. It’s more like a tool that can help the rest of us figure out how to bumble our way through this journey called Life.

And given the correspondence I now receive, it seems that tool is working for lots of folk. One more example can be found in a New Year’s Eve piece by a young blogger named Joshua Huggins, posted just after he’d seen Inside Out:

“It’s almost New Year. Every year I post a sappy photo about how I’m going to turn this year around and make myself happy. I seem to be failing in a lot of ways. So this year my resolution is the opposite. I’m going to take the sad and miserable parts of my life and explore them in a way I’ve always been afraid to do…I’m a bit excited. My New Year’s resolution is to be sad.”

Joshua Huggins is wise.  We’d all be better off if we could learn the lesson in Bing Bong’s sacrifice for Riley.  In order to know growth, we have to find the courage to embrace loss.

Along the way, there really is fun and joy to be had. As our children know, that’s the real point of having a companion in the first place, whether real or imaginary.

Screen Shot 2016-03-01 at 09.04.04

When corporations encourage giggling at children’s distress

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 01.19.12This summer, Pampers embarked on one of their newest initiatives: the Poo Face Campaign. Pampers are encouraging parents to snap photos of the adorable faces their babies make in the midst of bowel movements.

It kicked off in July with the release of an entertaining film, made by advertising giant Saatchi & Saatchi, to accompany the launch of Pampers’ new product: sensitive baby wipes. Three months on, the advert has been viewed millions of times.

The film has received endless commendations. It won three awards at the Cannes Film Festival, and superlatives have popped up all over the web: ‘glorious’, ‘epic’, ‘hysterical’, ‘hilarious’, ‘brilliant’. Following its release, parents were encouraged to get involved by snapping their own wee one’s poo face and tweeting it to #Pamperspooface, so that everyone else could enjoy the giggle too. The best face is set to win a year’s supply of wipes.

Three months down the line, I find myself wondering where innocence in giggling stops. I especially wonder how all the baby brains out there will be experiencing being the object of another person’s laughter? It’s the kind of niggling question you find yourself asking once you really ‘get’ the science of connection. What’s it like to have your mum or dad snapping a photo when you are in the midst of physical experience that you don’t understand, can’t control, is often uncomfortable and sometimes even painful? What’s it like to have someone laughing at you, when you aren’t laughing yourself?

I realise that by this point in this article, some readers will already be feeling their hackles rising. In the turmoil and exhaustion of dealing with children, it’s easy and understandable that we sometimes giggle at kids’ behaviour. Rest assured I’ve done it myself plenty of times. Maybe some readers may even have taken part in the Poo Face Campaign, tweeting in a photo. Those readers might now be on guard, wondering if I am about to criticize them – or perhaps dubious, wondering if I seriously think this a topic worth writing about.

Therein lies the challenge that seems to be inevitable in talking about the science that reveals humans’ innate inter-connection, trying to render it relevant to the real world rather than leaving it safely ensconced in the ivory towers of academia. How do I increase the chances of inspiring curiosity, rather than defensiveness?

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 01.24.31I’m asking that question because it’s not as if the tone of Pampers’ campaign is novel. Amazon carries the Daddy Nappy Survival Tool Belt, which is marketed as “helping Daddy go from novice to pit-stop changer in no time”. The tool belt comes complete with face mask, disposable gloves, plugs for Daddy’s ears, and a peg for Daddy’s nose, ensuring that a father never has to risk getting anywhere near touching the baby or her poo. The baby’s brain will be treated to the scary sight of dad’s hidden face and will hear the tone of mock disgust in his voice. But perhaps I’ve overplayed my point? It’s only a gag gift for new dads, after all.

So how about the campaign of celebrity US talk show host Jimmy Kimmel? He’s been busy over the past few years establishing what he calls “a beloved new holiday tradition”. Every October, he encourages American parents to play a trick on their children the day after Halloween, telling the kids that they (Mum or Dad or both) have eaten all the Halloween candy that the kids worked so hard to collect the night before whilst trick-or-treating. Parents are encouraged to film the child’s response to this ‘confession’ and then send the film in to the show, so that everyone can laugh at the children’s over-the-top reactions. You can watch those entertaining scenes of distress here, alongside 35 million other viewers.

If you find yourself craving more of this holiday tradition, you can tune in to Jimmy Kimmel’s Christmas edition. Every December, he and his team now encourage parents to wrap up a terrible Christmas present and objectify the child’s disappointment by catching that distress on film.

You will discern from my tone that I don’t find these jokes as funny as many other viewers. To see them as humorous, you have to discount the child’s distress.   You have to ignore the fact that their ‘over-the-top’ angry behaviour or crying meltdown stems from a sense of betrayal.

But there I go again: party-pooper me, pouring cold water (and bad puns) on a harmless bit of fun.

Most people don’t yet ‘get’ what the neuroscience is saying. It is perfectly understandable, then, that they would not realise that the response to their child’s emotional distress or their baby’s pooing effort is literally shaping the child’s neural pathways. They would not appreciate how emotionally attuned babies are to other people. They may not comprehend how long-lasting the physiological consequences of distress, mistrust and mis-attunement can be, if it goes frequently unrepaired. Giggling would seem a harmless, passing moment.

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 11.15.57And maybe Pampers’ campaign is harmless. Babies poo on a very regular basis – an unremitting, too-regular basis for many parents. There is a mountain-load of 3000 nappies to be changed over a child’s first year alone. What difference will giggling at one poo make, in the midst of 3000 nappy changes?

Probably none. It isn’t a single nappy change that I’m worrying over. Rather, I’m reflecting on the mindset bred by Pampers and Jimmy Kimmel and Amazon’s Macho Tool Belt. I’m thinking about the ways in which they encourage us to relate to our children – and to other human beings too. Pampers might use sweet catch-phrases like ‘Love, Sleep & Play’, but all too often their initiatives are failing to inspire real curiosity about children’s experiences. Rather, they are exercising their global power in ways that normalise the decline in empathy already underway in our society.

That may seem unsurprising for a global brand. I still think it’s worth talking about – because I’m not the only one worrying along these lines. The owner of the London-based company Nappy Ever After, Joy Vick, recently wrote her own blog about Pampers’ Poo Face Campaign. She was brave enough to use even stronger, more uncomfortable language than I have. She tried to get readers to view pooing from an adult perspective.

“Imagine you’re an adult who’s had a stroke.  You can’t talk and you can’t walk.  You’re still continent though.  And you can still communicate. But it takes longer for people to work out what you’re trying to tell them.  You finally make your carer understand that you want to be taken to the toilet.  “Don’t worry,” s/he says, “you’re wearing a nappy.  It’s not time to change it yet.”  So you have to hold and hold and hold.  You don’t want to do it in your nappy and feel your skin burning until the carer’s scheduled time to change you. So how do babies feel?  We’ll never know, but my view is that it’s inappropriate to laugh at a baby trying to empty her/his bowels.”

Joy Vick is brave because she knows that, in expressing such a view, she too is at risk of being branded a tiresome party-pooper — or maybe even an irritating trouble-maker.

Except, she’s not alone.  Even the Metro newpaper’s coverage of Pampers’ campaign used the headline “Its all kinds of wrong”.   When the author at SFTU Parents set out to unpack the fascination with this campaign, she ended by quoting that very headline. A mum wrote privately to me this week, expressing a similar worry:

“Its like the trend for that blog by Greg Pembroke, ‘Reasons My Child is Crying’. People find it humorous to point out that their child is crying for something that seems irrational to them, but failing to see that this is a vulnerable moment for their child. It makes me sad, but I usually get told to lighten up when I suggest this.”

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 02.07.17I understand the disbelief and defensiveness that can arise when people hear someone making the case we’re all making. No matter how many hours I have taken agonizing over my words, the idea itself can seem silly or judgmental. If you had no idea that babies’ brain development is shaped by the treatment they receive from other people, you wouldn’t know how much your interactions matter. Ironically, once you begin to get a glimpse of that importance, you don’t feel excited, but guilty. Parents are endlessly bossed about by ‘experts’ and told what to do and how to parent. That’s irritating for them, and makes the exhaustion of parenting even more fraught. When you’re exhausted, you are grateful for a good laugh.

It’s just that… there is a difference between laughing AT someone and laughing WITH them. Joy Vick asks in her blog about empathy, compassion, respect: “Don’t those qualities still matter?” Yes, they do. When a baby’s emotional needs are not met with respect and curiosity, then their brain interprets those needs as shameful. Once enough shame gets woven into your neural pathways and your sense of self, it is hard to banish that feeling.

Most of us adults intuitively identify with the difficulty of shrugging off shame. That’s why psychotherapist Robin Grille has been able to build an international career talking about shame. That’s why the organisation Creative Child recently took the risk of saying that shaming doesn’t occur only in abusive homes, but is actually regarded as an “acceptable form of ‘discipline’ in your “average nice family.”  That’s why Brene Brown’s TED talk on shame has been viewed over 7 million times worldwide.

That’s why I decided to write this article. My core concern is not parents who choose to snap a single poo picture for a Twitter competition for wet wipes. It is corporations who created the competition in the first place. Global brands like Procter & Gamble (who own Pampers) and ABC Television (who produce the Jimmy Kimmel show) and Amazon (who market Macho Toolkits) are weaving shame into our children’s brains. They probably don’t know that, and maybe they didn’t intend to. But once you get what science is telling us about the development of emotional regulation, you realise that that is what is happening. We are letting corporations have this impact on our children whenever we buy their products or their message without being able to make a conscious, informed choice.

Pampers positions themselves as a parent’s friend. But they aren’t a good friend if they are encouraging parents to giggle AT their children. If enough shame and mistrust becomes woven into a baby’s brain, then their ‘behaviour’ will be harder to ‘manage’ later in childhood.  Unmanageable behaviour is what results when a child’s brain learns that only some emotions are allowed, and that other emotions must be suppressed.  So It is not too strong to say that Pampers is making the longer-term job of parenting harder for some families, rather than easier.

Do Procter & Gamble and ABC Television care about what I’ve just said? I don’t know. They’ve never called me to ask about the science of connection. I doubt Jimmy Kimmel’s team even knows I exist, so they wouldn’t have thought to invite me as a talk show guest. I doubt Pampers has ever seen the film produced by my little organization, entitled the connected baby, that shows the magic that can happen during a pooey nappy change when a parent – or childcare worker — attunes with a baby’s emotions.

Screen Shot 2015-10-17 at 01.31.13What I don’t doubt is that Procter & Gamble and ABC Television are making lots of money from their campaigns. Who wants to listen to a kill-joy scientist like me, when so many people are having such fun with the campaign?

Perhaps, then, it is sufficient merely to second Joy Vick’s tongue-in-cheek comment: “Don’t worry, Procter & Gamble. So few people read this blog it’s not going to affect your sales.”

Of course, Procter & Gamble, I’m only a phone call away should you ever decide that me and my science could be of help to the millions of families who give your company an average of £650 per year per child in exchange for those 3000 disposable nappies and wipes.

One of the grandfathers to whom I spoke this week said that there was no chance they would ever do that. He was of the view that this advertising campaign is sinisterly clever, because it is able to con parents into laughing at their own exploitation.

Lets hope he’s wrong.  Pampers, please call.


How governmental childcare policies are undermining our children’s capacity to love



Its a strong title:  ‘How childcare policies are undermining our children’s capacity to love’.  Its likely to put fear into the heart of every parent who reads it.  That’s the last thing I want to do.

Yet how do I communicate what the science is telling us?  What words are most effective for me to use?  How do I get the attention of the government and policymakers, so that they understand that the implementation of recent policies are doing that scary thing:  undermining the ability of many of our children to trust love?

Loving takes resilience. That’s one way to describe the key message of attachment theory. To love fully as an adult, you not only have to be open and vulnerable – you have to do that in the knowledge that you could lose the person you love. They might die; they might get mad at you and storm out; they might break up with you; they might disappear and you would never see them again. Our mind hates even the idea of that loss. It makes us feel sick and panicky and hopeless. In fact, some people hate the idea of loss so much that they give up on loving fully. It’s just too scary to risk that sick, apprehensive feeling. That’s why the blogger Ann calls pain the “underbelly of love”.

0271ATTENTIONAttachment theory helps us to see that what we are aiming to do in the earliest years of life is build up children’s resilience. We are trying to pack their brains chock full of the neural pathways of hope and reassurance and trust. We are trying to grow physiological triggers that will allow feel-good hormones to flood in when the going gets tricky. And it will get tricky. That’s inevitable. To be an adult human being is to know loss.

Resilience is a kind of emotional muscle. It is the capacity to get back up when loss has knocked hope out of you. It is the capacity to crawl out from underneath the duvet, when you’d rather stay where it is warm and dark and safe. When you’d rather stay there forever.

Its true, loss and disappointment and hurt won’t kill you. You can survive from underneath the emotional duvet. But you cannot THRIVE from underneath the emotional duvet.

E4DCF234-546D-4B47-9C10-E9847B37CA95If we help children to have experiences of safety early on, then we build the strongest emotional muscles possible. Conversely, when we give them experiences of deep loss early on, we weaken those budding emotional muscles. That’s another way of describing ‘insecure attachment’: people who have had their resilience compromised early on. Loving openly and trustingly is harder for insecurely attached people. Loving requires more energy from them, carries more risk. They stay under the emotional duvet for longer when knocks come along. Some never really manage to come out from underneath it at all; its too scary. The best they can manage is dreaming of being loved.

The stories I am hearing lead me to fear that our latest governmental childcare policies are undermining young children’s resilience in ways that are totally unnecessary – and unintended. The financial streams that have been set up are causing parents to move their children to new childcare providers, and thus to break the existing relationships in children’s lives. All we would need is some different governmental financial streaming, and those heartbreaks would not be necessary.

Let me share one story that illustrates my concern:

Last week, I had a conversation with a childminder whom I hadn’t seen in a bit. When I asked her how things were going, she replied, “I’m about to be out of business.” “What?” I replied, in total surprise. She explained: “I’ve lost all my children. It’s the increased government funding here in my local authority in Scotland. Its only being applied to nurseries. The funding doesn’t cover childminders. All my parents got places in nurseries, so the children are leaving. Even the youngest ones, who are only two years old. And there’s no new ones coming in to replace them, for the same reason.”

0094aSTEPSWhat a wrench for the kids. I recalled the stories I had heard this childminder tell, of outings to dance classes in the local gym, of looking for bugs in the back garden, of making sandwiches together. Her eyes always danced with delight. The children would be losing that joy. That would be replaced by a sense of loss, for some time to come. That permanent parting would leave a scar in their budding emotional muscles. In fact, if those children, who had experienced such shared joy as bugs and sandwiches on a daily basis, never see her again, then effectively the funding policy will have created for them a bereavement.

That’s a strong term: bereavement. We don’t usually apply it to professional childcare arrangements. Yet it is accurate, from a child’s point of view. If a childcare provider has been working in a way that promotes secure attachment, as practice guidance encourages, then the child will naturally have come to love that provider. That’s what’s supposed to happen for children, when they spend all day long with someone they feel safe with and have fun with. They are supposed to come to love them.

That’s another word we don’t typically use in relation to childcare: love. We don’t use it because it makes many adults feel uncertain, threatened, confused. Love is something that happens in personal relationships, and childcare in Western societies is usually a professional one. What is the place of love there? Parents easily end up worried: ‘If my child loves the childcare provider, and she spends more hours in the day at childcare than with me, then might my child love that person more than me?”

If that last question sounds a bit extreme to you, start talking to parents. Tons of them carry that secret fear. I know; some of them whisper that fear to me, asking for reassurance that their child will still love them even if it is someone else giving them cuddles during the day, someone else’s perfume on their child’s jumper, someone else sharing their child’s first steps. It is understandable that parents would feel anxious. That is why, when researcher Jools Page has tried to tackle this difficult topic, she devised the term professional love’, in order to explicitly separate this from ‘parental love’.

We need some strategy that enables us to look at this stuff. When we adults are scared, it blocks us from being able to see our children’s fears. The worries about terms like ‘love’ and ‘bereavement’, which I’ve been using here, come from an adult perspective. From a child’s perspective, loving, and thus loss, and thus bereavement, make perfect sense in relation to childcare.

Young children don’t think of the people with whom they spend their day as ‘professionals’. Children’s brains are wired for relationships. Their brains assume that the adults are in that setting because they want to be, that they are there for the fun of it, that they are there out of love for the children. Children intuitively think of staff as ‘Auntie Emma’ or ‘Uncle Mark’. Even if that terminology isn’t allowed in a setting, and the custom is stick to more informal names like ‘Janet’ or formal labels like ‘Mrs Cousins’, young children’s brains still function at the personal level. That is inevitable. That is how young human brains are wired: for relationships, for love.

So when children have to be parted from people with whom they have bonded, it hurts. Its painful. It’s supposed to be painful when you have to say goodbye forever to someone you love. Even if you can’t conceive of ‘forever’, your brain quickly realizes you are missing the sound of their voice, and how they smell, and the feel of their cuddle, and the way they smile as they hand over a plate of cheese and biscuits. As an adult, we’d call that heartbreak. The same parts of our brains are engaged when we are in emotional pain, like heartbreak, as when we are in physical pain.

When we ask a 3-year-old to cope with heartbreak, we ask more than their budding emotional muscles are really able to cope with. We create a rip, a tear, a wound that will leave a scar. That’s what studies like the ACE study are trying to tell us: that relationship traumas early in life leave lasting scars.

ACE Study Pyramid

I am guessing that, by this point, some readers will be thinking: ‘Are you serious? The ACE study doesn’t talk about nursery provision. It deals with serious stuff, like abuse and drugs use and divorce. You want me to think of changing childcare provision as a possible trauma?? But that’s ordinary. Kids do it all the time.’

Precisely. That’s my point. We adults often move children across daycare providers fairly casually. We do that for a host of reasons that are legitimate and important: because we changed jobs, because a new setting opened up closer to our home, because the government made funding available that would help our family budget.

It is easy to make that move without giving deep thought to the emotional impact on the child. We may sense there will be a bit of short-term confusion, but it may never occur there could possibly be any long-term impact. The common use of adult-centred language only strengthens our culturally blinkered perspective: ‘childcare arrangements’, ‘professional’, ‘transition’.

What happens when we try out the child-centred language of ‘love’, ‘heartbreak’, and ‘bereavement’? How does that simple shift impact on our awareness – and on our decisions about how to help our kids THRIVE?

I do not want to make any parents or childcare staff anxious. What I want is to compel us all to be more curious, more reflective, more aware. The trouble is that the depth of children’s emotions is often uncomfortable for us to fathom. It causes us all sorts of conflict:

I think of the young mum who wrote to me because she was thinking of foregoing the free childcare hours funded by the government. She wanted to leave her child with his existing provider, because she thought he was happy and settled there, but that provider couldn’t offer government subsidised places. This was causing arguments with her husband, who thought she was wasting money by being over-protective.

What I would like most of all is for local and national governments to ensure that, as parents are offered financial advice about childcare options, they are also offered emotional advice about attachment.  

Then more young marriages and young emotional muscles might be protected from this source of distress.


I’d love to hear your own thoughts on childcare arrangements and emotional connection – whether you live in the UK or beyond.

Nursery Policy and the Making of Democratic Citizens

0100aSMILEChildcare is all over the British media at the moment. The new Conservative Government has just announced that it plans to bring forward its proposals to double the number of childcare hours it funds, to 30 hours per week. That feels like it should be a good news story. It hasn’t turned out that way.

The Scottish Government, too, has been increasing the number of hours it funds. The entitlement is now 600 hours per year (roughly 16 hours per week) for all 3-4 year-olds, as well as 2-year-olds who are ‘looked after’ or whose parents are in receipt of benefits.

From an historical perspective, such policies are celebratory. During the Industrial Revolution, it was legal for the children we now care for in nursery – those aged 4 years old (yes, really, 4!) — to be put out to work, climbing up chimneys and scrabbling under massive machines. That now seems unbelievable.

However, the hourly rate being offered by Governments is being lamented by childcare providers. The average rate the Government offers, of £3.80 per hour, comes nowhere near the minimum rate required by childcare providers, of £5.50 per hour. And even a basic rate of such low value cannot possibly support the high quality provision called for by 20+ years of empirical research. One doesn’t need to know the detailed research findings to realise that £5.50 doesn’t equate to ‘high quality’.

main logo two colourWhen Neil Leitch, CEO of the Preschool Learning Alliance, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme on Monday, he acknowledged with regret and something approaching embarrassment that the childcare sector is often unable to meet the requirements for a living wage of £7.85 per hour. Fascinating. The early years are the period of time when brains are growing faster than they ever will again. Everyone who is in government has to be aware of that fact these days. It has been pointed out in multiple reports, presentations, media stories and committee enquiries. But we don’t wish to signal to the people who care for our children during the most fundamental period of their brain development how much they matter, by ensuring we can offer them a living wage? In 21st century Britian, our children aren’t worth £7.85 an hour?

These arguments about the inadequacy of funding are well publicised. I want to build on them by drawing attention to concerns that have received rather less attention in the debate. I want to talk about ways in which the current nursery policy actually risks damaging our children’s development, rather than enhancing it.

  • 0118aHUGFor a child to feel safe in a nursery setting, he has to make relationships with the staff and other children. Because government-funded places are not available in all nurseries, many parents are coping by taking children to two or even three different settings over the course of a week. This allows parents to claim their full entitlement of government-funded hours. However, that amount of change isn’t good for children’s development. It doesn’t promote emotional security. It is ironic that providers and parents spend such a lot time reflecting on how to help children ‘settle’, but government policy in itself can foster ‘UNsettling’.
  • Funding for ‘vulnerable’ or ‘looked after’ 2-year-olds has become central to the vision driving these new policies. Such language makes it sound like we are doing these children a favour, by giving them additional hours of early education. Yet what if we changed our language? What if we called them ‘traumatised’ 2-year-olds? That’s what they are. Any child who has entered the care system is an emotionally traumatised child – or else they wouldn’t need social work support. What traumatised children need more than anything else are emotionally secure relationships, which can give them a sense of safety and familiarity. Nurseries funded at £3.80 per hour, with a ratio of one adult to six children, cannot possibly do that, no matter how well-intentioned they are. That means that the current nursery policy for vulnerable 2-year-olds is likely to make their emotional damage worse, rather than help them to heal.
  • 0090aGROUP.jpgChildcare staff are not being given training in understanding the needs of traumatised 2-year-olds. There is no plan, nor money available, for sector-wide training in attachment, neuroscience, or trauma. The behaviours of traumatised children are different from those of non-traumatised children, precisely because their attachment systems and self-regulatory capacities have been strained. In order to heal, children need staff who can recognise those altered behaviours. But we are now legislating to have ALL the traumatised toddlers in the country that we know of (ie., all of those who have entered the care system) spend time with staff who are not trained to understand those behaviours. The ACE Study tells us that we are shooting ourselves in the foot with this new policy. We are making it more likely that these vulnerable children will, in a few years’ time, end up in prison, on drugs, committing suicide. That will cost us more money than we saved. That’s not poor policy. Its stupid policy.
  • Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 12.00.01It is not only with regard to traumatised children that staff are being failed in their training needs. Many childcare staff receive little or no basic training in attachment. That may strike readers as surprising, given the fifty years for which attachment theory has now had empirical support, and the explosion of neuroscientific insights that has occurred over the past decade. But it is true. I had conversations at a nursery only a few weeks ago, with staff members who had completed their qualifications 6 months previously, as well as 5 years previously. None of them had been educated in attachment science, prior to attending a training day with me. A report published by The Centre for Excellence for Looked After Children in Scotland (CELCIS) in 2012 makes clear just how regrettably widespread this lack of knowledge is across all sectors dealing with children. Their investigations concluded that across the social work, education, nursing, other medical professions and childcare sectors, knowledge of children’s normal attachment processes is very poor. They remarked (pg 55): “The responses of professionals whose well-meaning [but unknowledgeable] attempts to intervene may undermine positive attachments and relationships, rather than support and strengthen them.”
  • 0271ATTENTIONThere has been no rush to hire additional staff to cover additional statutory hours. How could there be? We are living in a time of austerity. Local authorities are facing cuts, not growth. The Early Years budget for the new Conservative Government is not ring-fenced, and thus can be decreased at any future point. I know of several local authorities in Scotland who have coped with the expansion of government-funded hours by ‘reallocating’ the staff they employ. Do you know where they were all re-allocated from?   Answer: Outreach and support services. Local authorities are coping with the new government childcare policies by decreasing support services to vulnerable families. How does that help children and communities?
  • In their struggle to make budgets work, the rate at which local governments allocate national funding can turn out to be even worse than the rates I outlined earlier. Some local authorities are now offering contracts to private nurseries for the ‘2-year-old offer’ at £2.50 an hour. That’s less than a cup of coffee. One does not need a research scientist to point out that children are more valuable to us than coffee. Indeed, that is not a research question at all. That is a moral question.

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 12.04.47I am perplexed and frustrated by the situation in which we find ourselves. I argued earlier that every government official out there must, by now, have some awareness of the neuroscience and economics of early years. It is no longer excusable if they do not. This information has been covered at length in policy documents produced by all major parties. The coalition Conservative-led Government sponsored two major reports on early intervention in 2011, led by the MP Graham Allen.  The impetus for Labour’s national Sure Start Programme was derived from this scientific literature. The Scottish Government has funded the Early Years Collaborative since 2012, with attachment featuring as a ‘key change’.

WHAT DOES IT TAKE to help these same politicians recognise that they hurt not just individual children and families with inadequate childcare policy? They also hurt the whole of the society they were elected to serve, as shown in studies of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Moreover, the analyses of economists like James Heckman confirm that, in failing to invest in high quality childcare, they actually waste the money we have trusted them to spend.

I am not the only one worrying about these issues. John Carnochan, OBE and previous Co-Director of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit, asks in his forthcoming book whether our childcare strategy is motivated by providing an enriching early years experience for children or by getting women back into work as quickly as possible. The charity What About the Children? has recently called for a complete rethink of a childcare strategy that seeks to increase nursery care for 2-year-olds, arguing that “babies need loving, not learning”. The Preschool Learning Alliance has charged that the current plans to expand government-funded childcare hours will force the entire sector into “meltdown”. They are trying to highlight the irony of the situation: the funding that makes a childcare setting free for parents is set so low that it could actually bring about the collapse of that setting. Other major organisations, such as the National Day Nurseries Association and PACEY, agree, emphasising the way in which funding rates facilitate or hinder staff being able to build robust relationships with the children in their care.

0094aSTEPSSo it is worth throwing my hat into this august arena. Last week, I agreed to be interviewed on this topic by a press officer who was preparing an article for the Scottish press. I said, in a burst of frustration: “I wonder how well Nicola Sturgeon understands this science. She’s never yet been able to attend an Early Years Collaborative meeting. I wish she would just…call me!” The press officer said: “Can I quote you on that?” I replied, “Absolutely. Why not? Let’s get David Cameron to call, too!”

So, in case either of them miss that article, in their understandably busy lives, I am now repeating that invitation. Nicola, David, and any other interested politician at the local or national level: If you want to better understand how your policies are fundamentally shaping the brain development of all the children in the country, I would be happy to meet with you.

I feel strongly about this because nursery policy has dramatically more relevance for our new political landscape than any politician yet realizes. The historian Michal Shapira recently published a book with the intriguing title ‘The War Inside: Psychoanalysis, Total War, and the Making of the Democratic Self in Postwar Britain.’ In it, Shapira asks: what kinds of citizens does a democracy need? What capacities of compassion, empathy, and tolerance are needed, and how can those be nurtured? How do those capacities differ from the ones needed in fundamentalist societies, such as the society that the extremist group ISIS seeks to build?

In her book, Shapira argues that psychoanalysts working in the period after World War II re-shaped our thinking about democracy in fundamental ways that have gone unrecognised. Those psychoanalysts include people like Bowlby, Robertson, Winnicott, Freud, and Klein – all leaders of attachment theory. Attachment theory isn’t, ultimately, about babies. It is about us, about identity and belonging. It is about culture, past and future.

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 12.22.35In 2015, the UK finds itself in the midst of a democratic earthquake. The Scottish National Party swept to success in the May election, with a vision of social equality that ousted the Labour Party, which had been trusted for decades. The Liberal Democrats, ambassadors of liberal values, were virtually annihilated. UKIP, with its wish to return to old-fashioned values, received a whopping 4 million votes. The Conservative Party has been successful in depicting itself as representing “hard working families who just want to get on in life”.

Shapira is trying to say that attachment theory holds the key to determining how we create a more effective democracy within this transformed landscape.

Nicola, David: Call me.


Parting is hell: That’s the point of attachment

Kayden and the rainLast weekend, I attended the memorial service of a friend. She was much loved, as demonstrated by the fact that more than 350 other people were there too. Each of us was trying to find a way to celebrate her life, to bid her goodbye, and most of all, to find a way to live with our sense of loss.

As I listened to one of the readings, I found myself thinking: “Ah yes, that’s another way to describe attachment.”

If I should go before the rest of you,
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone
Nor, when I’m gone speak in a Sunday voice,
But be the usual selves that I have known.
Weep if you must: Parting is hell.
But, life goes on
So… sing as well.

This is the popular poem written by English entertainer Joyce Grenfell. It was read out by a brave young granddaughter.

We instinctively get it, in the context of bereavement. Loss is hard. In fact, it’s terrible. It makes you cry, even when you don’t want to. It sneaks up on you when you weren’t expecting it. You hold on to whatever memory might get you through: one that makes you laugh, comforts you, leaves you feeling less alone. Or you try to make the feelings go away. You chew your lip; your press your fingers together until they hurt; you stop breathing. You fear that you might drown under the rising sense of panic and pain, if you can’t get it under control.

This is attachment. This is the point of Grenfell’s simple brutal line. “Weep if you must: Parting is hell.”

Photo by our team's photographer, Brett Housego, from his series 'Hearts in Nature'

Photo by our team’s photographer, Brett Housego, from his series ‘Hearts in Nature’

Attachment is about loss.

We don’t have to have the scientific language of ‘attachment to identify with the human experience of loss. That’s why we are kind to the person who is crying. We seek some way to comfort them. We wrap them in our arms, or cry with them, or tell a funny story, or stand protectively nearby. We make emotional space if that’s what they seem to need, because kindness can make the feelings worse, knocking down the dam and exacerbating the sense of losing control. Should things get so bad that they end up kicking a tree or smashing a plate of sandwiches, we forgive the behaviour, because we recognise that it comes from pain.

It really is painful. A growing number of studies* using MRI and other scanning technology, have shown that emotional pain is processed by the brain using the same areas as is the case for physical pain.

We get it. Our brains get it. Loss is brutal. Parting is hell.

What fascinates me, as a human being and as a research scientist, is that in other settings, we are less likely to get it. We often don’t recognise when behaviours and emotions are being driven by attachment needs. We fail to glimpse the underlying struggle with disappointment. This oversight is especially likely with our young children.

It is understandably easy for parents to miss moments of loss. We’re tired. We’re exhausted. We’re juggling deadlines and pressure. We’re adults, so we can’t remember what it was like to experience the world for the first time, fresh and confusing.

So we underestimate our children’s sense of loss. We read frustration as misbehaviour, not as disappointment. We can’t fathom what all the drama is about. And even when we can, we may not have the time or energy to deal patiently with it. That’s when conflict leaves wounds: when we aren’t able to respond empathically – kindly — to our children’s feelings of loss.

This is the source of attachment patterns: the ways in which adults respond to children’s feelings of loss. I find this single piece of information to be invaluable, because once you know that loss is the key thing to look for, you see attachment moments happening everywhere.

Here’s a good example. This is a charming little film called ‘Kayden and the Rain’, posted on Vimeo in February 2014. It shows a 15-month-old toddler discovering rain for the first time. Kayden’s joy proved so endearing for viewers that the film went viral, viewed at least one million times over the past year. Numerous bloggers have picked up on the film, commenting that it reminds us adults to appreciate the simple things in life – like rain.

There is an aspect of the film that no one, to my knowledge, has yet commented on: the brief moment of conflict. One of the adults in Kayden’s life – her mum? — has decided that getting wet in the rain is a bad idea, and so she picks Kayden up and runs back into the house. But Kayden has other ideas. She immediately kicks her feet in resistance, urgently muttering ‘Mama, Mama, Mama’. As soon as she is put down, Kayden heads back down the pathway, so that she can once again stand in the amazing rain.

In that moment of conflict, we are witnessing a moment of loss. This is a moment in which a child wants the joy she is feeling to continue. She doesn’t want this wondrous experience to end. We are witnessing a moment in which an adult is thwarting joy because they think they have a better idea: staying dry.

I do not say any of this to criticize the adult’s actions. Kayden’s mum was doing what we all do: trying to get through the day making her best judgments. What is notable, from an attachment point of view, is that conflict resulted. What the adult wanted and what the child wanted differed. This happens ALL THE TIME in families!

It is in such moments of conflict that attachment patterns are formed. This means that attachment is inherently about loss and disappointment. The way that a parent or caregiver resolves a child’s sense of loss is what forms secure and insecure attachment patterns.

In the moment of conflict captured in this film, we see Mum respond by giving way. Kayden proves to be so irrepressible that her mother lets go of her own ideas. She makes it possible for Kayden to continue rejoicing in the existence of rain. Indeed, it is Kayden’s determination to return to that place of joy that stamps the charm into this film. And then all the adults around her join in! We see everyone laughing with delight as they share Kayden’s sense of awe with her. That spontaneous act of emotional sharing is a demonstration of what developmental theorists mean by the term ‘intersubjectivity’.

Imagine if Kayden’s mother had responded to that moment of conflict in another way. What if she had firmly closed the door, to prevent Kayden from getting wet and catching a cold? Or what if she had been trying to manage a tight schedule, with the family needing to climb into the car? Imagine how Kayden’s sense of loss would have escalated then. Imagine her crying and screaming from behind that door. Imagine her perhaps kicking the door, and maybe even knocking over a plate of sandwiches from the nearby table, because it was just too much to bear, being parted from the joy of the rain.

Photo is by our team's photographer, Brett Housego, from his series Hearts in Nature

Photo is by our team’s photographer, Brett Housego, from his series ‘Hearts in Nature’

I am not saying that either course of action would have been the ‘right’ one for her mother to take. I am not saying anything about the decisions that any parent should take. I am saying something more basic. I am saying that life is hard. It is full of loss.

That is as true for our children as it is for us adults. We lose people we love. Parents die; lovers tell us they want to end the relationship; friends move away. We are disappointed that experiences we relish have to stop. Its time to come in out of the rain; its time to put away the toys; its time to stop hoping I will buy you a pack of Smarties.

Attachment is the process of learning to cope with loss – the loss of people, of pleasure, of a wish. Attachment is the process of learning how to recover from loss, and how to stay open to whatever comes next. Grenfell was right. That process is hell.

We are lucky if, as children, we find that there are people around who can be counted on to help us when we’re suffering from disappointment. If they help us, comfort us, keep us safe from the overwhelming sense that we may drown in grief, then we unconsciously learn how to help ourselves. Our physiological system develops in such a way that it can promote our emotional recovery, rather than our continuing distress.

Continuing distress makes us ill. That’s the point of the many emerging health studies.**

Emotional recovery is what researchers now call ‘resilience’. But sitting in that packed memorial service, I found the scientist in me thinking: Grenfell’s way of expressing it is so much more eloquent. That’s what she really means when she encourages us to sing. She means we should find a way to live with the ache of joy.

Weep if you must: Parting is hell.
But, life goes on
So… sing as well.


* Examples of studies showing the brain’s processing of social and physical pain:

  • Romantic break ups. Kross, E, et al. (2011). Social rejection shares somatosensory representations with physical pain. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.
  • Friendship.    Eisenberger, N, et al. (2003). Does rejection hurt? An FMRI study of social exclusion. Science, 302, 290-292.
  • For a review of this literature, see: R. Pond, et al. (2014). ‘Social Pain and the Brain: How Insights from Neuroimaging Advance the Study of Social Rejection’, in T. Dorina Papageorgiou et al. (Ed.), Advanced Brain Neuroimaging Topics in Health and Disease: Methods and Applications.

** Examples of studies charting impact of childhood experiences on health:


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

Why professionals are distressed by children’s distress

The problem is how we can bring pain and anxiety back into the experience of professionals who work with children.”

Cover of 'Two Year Old Goes to Hospital'What fascinating words. They are calling for increases, rather than reductions, in the anxiety felt by professionals responsible for the care of children.

These are words spoken by James and Joyce Robertson in 1970.* When it comes to understanding the emotional needs of young children, the Robertsons were some of the most influential, bravest thinkers of the 20th century.

I am quoting them now because I think their words are as relevant today as they were 45 years ago. We are not anxious enough about young children’s needs. Another way of saying that is: we adults often find children’s distress so awful that we are unable to offer children the empathy and care that would allow them to recover.

It’s a strange thing for me to write. I talk all the time about the deleterious impact of fear. I talk about the limits of child protection policies. I talk about the need for us to challenge fear. Yet here I am now, joining the Robertsons in calling for more anxiety – or rather, calling for a different kind of anxiety.  Another way of putting this would be to call for more compassion, but the language of anxiety gives us a more useful purchase on the problem.

Why would I choose the language of anxiety? The answer is that our anxieties for ourselves are causing us to collectively deny the depth of children’s pain.  Children’s distress is too sharp for us, as adults, to risk feeling ourselves. So we tell ourselves, consciously and unconsciously, that it’s not ‘that bad’, that a child will get over it.  We tell ourselves, as professionals, that because we intend to do good, that is what we achieve. Way too often, though, we are fooling ourselves – and we are doing so at children’s cost.

The Robertsons said it more eloquently than me, all those years ago:

“Although there is everywhere good will and good intention towards young children… [progress in] work with children stagnates because the common defence against pain allows the acuteness of the problem to be dulled, as [if] by a tranquillizer.”

“The major obstacle to suitable care is neither practical difficulty nor lack of knowledge. It is that, whatever level of intellectual understanding may obtain throughout the professions, the appropriate sense of urgency and alarm is missing, or is dampened down.”

The fact that the Robertsons were courageous enough to say such things two generations ago gives me the impetus to renew their concerns today.

What sorts of things have I observed that fuel my concerns? Continue reading

How dementia helps us understand our common humanity

Smiling-togetherIn November, my team will host a public lecture entitled How dementia helps us to understand our common humanity’.  The speaker, Dr Maggie Ellis,  a specialist in dementia care, chose that title because she wanted to bring hope to a topic that is inherently scary.

Dementia is frightening because any of us could face it. We are reminded yet again of that possibility by this week’s media story breaking the news that guitarist Malcolm Young has had to withdraw from the legendary rock band AC/DC because he has been diagnosed with the condition.  It prompts the facetious query: if even rock stars aren’t safe, what hope do the rest of us have? The reminder that we are all human, all equally vulnerable to an illness for which there is as yet no cure, is indeed scary. The estimates are that by 2015, 7% of the aging population in the UK will be coping with this illness. That’s 1 in every 14 people over the age of 65.

Its somehow comforting expressing the figures in that way: “7% of the population.…” The phrase ‘the population’ sounds safe. It seems we are talking about other people. It doesn’t sound too personal. We have distance from our anxiety. If it is ‘other people’ to which dementia is likely to happen, then it feels less individually threatening. Most of us would rather avoid thinking too much about the likelihood of receiving a dementia diagnosis, thank you very much.

Ironically, that is precisely what I am trying to prevent in this blog. I don’t want us to avoid those negative feelings. I want us to find ways, as individuals and as a society, to turn and face our fear of dementia. We need to do that because, at the moment, our unexamined fear is leading us to misunderstand the illness and those suffering from it. As dementia reaches advanced stages, too many people struggling to live with it end up lonely, anxious and isolated — even though this is the last thing that professional carers or loved ones intend. It does not have to be this bad. Continue reading