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Using science to freak out parents

A new book on ‘attachment parenting’ peddles the myth that there’s a right way to raise kids. PLUS: Why parental determinism is little more than neurobollocks.

Various Authors

Topics Books

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Here, Nancy McDermott picks apart the ‘parenting advice’ in Mayim Bialik’s new book. Further below, Stuart Derbyshire challenges its neuroscientific claims.

‘Attachment parenting’, America’s most extreme ‘parenting lifestyle’, has a PR problem. First there was that embarrassing business about some attachment parents refusing or delaying vaccinations and the measles, mumps and pertussis outbreaks that predictably followed. Then there was the recent Time magazine cover, featuring the enormous, breastfeeding three-year-old: not good. And finally there is the smouldering backlash among ordinary parents, aptly portrayed in the Xtranormal animation, ‘Why I can’t make mom friends‘, about an all-too-believable encounter with an insufferable attachment parent at the playground.

Mayim Bialik to the rescue. Who is Mayim Bialik? Americans of a certain age will remember her from the sitcom Blossom (stiff dialogue, canned laughter) shown on NBC in the 1990s. Bialik played the title role of Blossom, a brainy daughter to an inept single father of three. All grown up with her child-star days behind her and a newly minted qualification as a neuroscientist under her belt (she also plays a neuroscientist in geek sitcom The Big Bang Theory), Bialik has now taken on a similar role to that of Blossom for her book, Beyond the Sling: A Real-life Guide to Raising Confident, Loving Children the Attachment Parenting Way.

The idea, Bialik explained in an interview earlier this year, was ‘to present the style of attachment parenting both to people who love it’ and to ‘show people who may not be interested in attachment parenting that the values behind some of the decisions people “like us” make… can also inform all kinds of parenting’. In other words, Bialik aims to bridge the gap between attachment parenting and the mainstream.

What are the values of attachment parenting? Bialik does a competent job of laying them out. Her strategy is first to explain the basic philosophy, to back it up with science, then to show what it means as a matter of practicality. And she does all this in a chatty, non-judgmental way, using examples from her own family life. She covers eight key practices:

  1. Birth (natural, of course)
  2. Breastfeeding
  3. Be sensitive (ie, don’t ignore your baby)
  4. Bonding through touch (‘babywearing’)
  5. Bedding (everyone sleeps in the ‘family bed’)
  6. Be there (consistent parenting by parent or ‘trained and sensitive substitute’)
  7. Be gentle (no smacking allowed)
  8. Balance (don’t become so fixated on your child’s needs that you forget your own)

She then attempts to explain the reasoning behind these practices by launching into a discussion of what babies need and what babies don’t need.

So how do we know what babies need? The knowledge we need is ‘whittled down and programmed into our genetic code over hundreds of thousands of years of trial and error’. Sadly, years of parenting advice from ‘authority figures with fancy degrees’ have smothered our natural instincts. The good news, according to Bialik, is that attachment parenting is really just the natural way that human beings raise children – evolution has even programmed it into our DNA. ‘Your DNA’, she tells us, ‘is struggling to be heard above the din of “popular” parenting advice’. Luckily Bialik is there, armed with her PhD, both to guide us through the practices of attachment parenting (in a totally relaxed, non-judgmental sort of way, of course) and to explain why it makes sense.

But on closer inspection, this approach makes no sense neurologically (for a detailed critique, see Stuart Derbyshire below) or in any other way. Bialik is right that parenting advice has undermined parents’ instincts and intuition, but she is wrong to say that these nuances of human perception are essentially neurological, ‘the result of the chemicals in your brain and body that tell you what to do and how to act’. It is not hormones and DNA that are the fundamental shapers of the human condition, but the rich interplay between nature, society and culture.

Just as human beings thrive in vastly different circumstances and environments, so, too, our instincts and intuitions may be vastly different depending on the circumstances. Bialik’s notion – that we have evolved an ideal way to bring up children and that attachment parenting most closely approximates this – is itself a ubiquitous cultural meme expressing disenchantment with modernity and a longing for authenticity.

More sophisticated than traditional biological determinism, which stressed good breeding, attachment parenting suggests that it is a particular set of evolved good practices in combination with biology that ultimately determines how children turn out. In this view, the job of a good parent is to manipulate a child’s environment to make it more natural and therefore make it more likely that the child will reach his full potential.

Bialik is, in many ways, the ideal public face of attachment parenting. Her PhD in neuroscience specialising in ‘hormones of bonding, attachment and obsessive-compulsive disorder’ seems, at least at first glance, to make her more than just your typical B-list celebrity pontificating about parenting. She comes across as reasonable and down-to-earth, not strident – just the sort of friend a first-time parent would want.

But although she bends over backwards not to be prescriptive like ‘the authority figures with fancy degrees who terrorised the last generation of parents with their schedules and rules’, in many ways she is worse. No, Bialik is not saying that not practising attachment parenting will harm your baby. She’s merely exploiting parents’ desire to give children what they need, then allowing them to draw their own conclusions. She is at pains to tell us that attachment parenting is ‘not for everyone’ – just for parents who really care about their babies, presumably.

Is it enough to bring attachment parenting into the mainstream? Not exactly. This isn’t because Bialik doesn’t do a good job of making her case, but because in some ways attachment parenting already is mainstream. The underlying assumptions of attachment parenting, namely that human beings are the amalgamation of experience and DNA in a continuum permanently etched into our neurons, is common coin. It has become the starting point not just for discussions of childrearing but also of public policy. Attachment parenting merely takes the extra step of making these assumptions the organising principle for a lifestyle.

Though there’s no doubt as to Bialik’s sincerity, Beyond the Sling is not the antidote to the hectoring childrearing advice of the previous generation’s ‘authority figures with fancy degrees’. It’s just an insidious, more scientistic version of the same thing.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

OVERESTIMATING PARENTAL DETERMINISM
Stuart Derbyshire

Following the fall of the Ceausescu regime in Romania in 1989, hundreds of orphanages were discovered where children lived in appalling conditions. Isolated, starving, cold and medically uncared for, the children displayed evidence of considerable physical and mental problems. Many of the children lacked language and other cognitive skills and they engaged in repetitive, stereotyped behaviours such as rocking and biting themselves as well as more serious aggressive and disruptive outbursts. In Beyond the Sling, Bialik refers to the experience of these children as ‘accidental experiments’, providing, ‘concrete proof that children must have their needs responded to in order to flourish and reach their fullest potential’.

She goes on to argue that what the Romanian experience demonstrates is that children need a cognitively and emotionally rich environment in their first few years in order to develop into healthy adolescents and adults: ‘All of the psychological imprinting that goes on, all of the patterns they experience, the rhythms they move to, and the feelings they have even before they can speak, these are what makes your children the people they will be at 5, 10 and even at 15, 25 and 35.’

Bialik is certainly not the first commentator to draw sweeping and general conclusions from the plight of the Romanian orphans. Bruce Perry, for example, has also detailed the conditions in Romanian orphanages before stating that ‘recent inadvertent impacts of technology have spawned declines in extended families, family meals and spontaneous peer interactions’, which, he suggests, are ruining children everywhere (1). A raft of booklets and papers from the Harvard University Center on the Developing Child, including The Science of Early Childhood Development, make similar arguments. In the UK, there have been a slew of reports arguing for the importance of the first five years, using the dramatic examples from Romania as support. (See, for example, Early Intervention: Smart Investment, Massive Savings, which features the brain of an orphan next to the brain of a normally raised child on its front cover.)

However, comparing the plight of Romanian orphans with the everyday experience of a typical infant is truly pernicious and dishonest. Placing an infant into a barred cot without access to any kind of toys, books, television, radio, another human being or any kind of stimulation beyond the immediate bars of the crib and bedding for 23 hours or more per day is not comparable to the day of a typical infant in a typical family. Evidence of emotional and cognitive problems in children deprived of emotional and cognitive input for most of every day for most of their first five years might be expected. Several reports confirm that children raised in such conditions have global cognitive impairment; several have severe behavioural problems and observable abnormalities in brain function and connection (2,3). But it is simply incorrect to imply that if severe deprivation causes severe problems then more benign neglect will cause less severe problems or to suggest that an enriched environment will provide benefits.

Take the development of memory as one example. Very young infants (less than three months) have almost no representational memory. That is, if you show a young infant an interesting toy and then hide it, the infant will not show further interest in the toy by gazing or reaching towards it. This lack of behavioural interest after the toy vanishes implies that the toy is not stored in memory. Beyond about three months, however, the infant starts to show behavioural interest and, as he matures, the infant will sustain a behavioural interest for longer. This implies that the infant is able to hold a stored representation of the toy (a representational memory) and that representation can be gradually sustained for longer (the memory store improves).

Anne Diamond and Patricia Goldman-Rakic carried out repeat testing of representational memory in young infants to track the development of representational memory (4). What they found was that infants who received repeat testing could sustain a memory for about 1.5 seconds longer compared with infants who were not repeat tested. The gain for the repeat-tested, or ‘enriched’ infants, was small and was not sustained past the first year of life – the infants who were not repeat tested caught up. Diamond and Goldman-Rakic concluded that memory develops at approximately the same rate regardless of ‘enrichment’.

Language development provides another example. It is known that newborns can detect and discriminate the basic sounds (phonemes) found in all human languages. By 10 months, however, infants respond preferentially to the phonemes particular to their native language. The necessary verbal input to generate this preference is unknown but one to two hours per day is generally considered sufficient and there is no evidence that using flashcards at three months of age or any other kind of enrichment provides any advantage in language development (5).

The comparison of orphaned infants with typical developing infants is also pernicious in another way. While it is true that the Romanian infants suffered extreme social deprivation, they also suffered extreme physical deprivation in the form of malnutrition, hypothermia and lack of adequate medical care. The malnutrition alone is sufficient to retard normal brain development, resulting in a smaller brain such as illustrated on the front cover of Early Intervention: Smart Investment, Massive Savings. It is likely that even with adequate cognitive and emotional care, but without sufficient food, warmth and medical care, the Romanian orphans would still have expressed cognitive and emotional deficits. To put that another way, the ‘accidental experiments’ from Romania did not include enough conditions for us to be sure of what caused what to happen. It could be that the infants suffered cognitively and behaviourally because they suffered physically.

Finally, the focus on children raised in such extreme conditions is pernicious in a further way: it implies that problems of development can never be rectified in later life. Many children from the Romanian orphanages were adopted into Western families. At the time of adoption, 70 to 90 per cent of the children had impaired cognitive ability and other serious developmental delays. Several years after adoption, however, those figures dropped to between 14 per cent and 36 per cent and almost every adopted child showed evidence of catch-up. That is not to say that all problems were overcome – many of the adopted children continued to have severe problems – but the extreme negative view that neglect, even the severe neglect experienced by Romanian orphans, cannot be overcome is not justified.

And if severely deprived children can catch up there is no reason to believe that typically developing children cannot overcome any minor neglect they may face in their early years. In 2011, a report was published demonstrating that 40 hours of video game playing can restore visual acuity in adults who had infant amblyopia (‘lazy eye’) (6). This finding was particularly exciting because it overturned the long-held belief that the adult brain lacks the plasticity to restore normal sensory function if that function was disrupted in childhood. And if basic sensory processing can be improved, then there is every reason to expect that cognitive and emotional function, which is inherently more plastic and adaptive, can improve and change as well.

Contrary to Bialik’s assertion, the first five years do not dictate the sort of person you will be at 10, 15, 25, 35 or any other age. Variation in parental outlook and methods – whether anxious or carefree, reading a lot or reading very little, permissive or authoritarian, and so on – is not a useful guide for how a child will turn out (7). And anyone can make positive changes in their life by learning a new language, working abroad, volunteering, etc, and discover aptitudes and skills they never had before. Regardless of what happens in the first five years of life, there are always opportunities and possibilities for further development. In short, Bialik does not provide a scientific case for attachment parenting because there is no scientific case for attachment parenting or any other type of parenting. Bialik does not use science, she abuses it.

Stuart Derbyshire is a reader in psychology at the University of Birmingham. He is co-producing and speaking at a session for the Battle of Ideas festival called Trust in Science.

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Topics Books

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