Thursday
Apr072011

All You Need is Love

When a baby is born, it has more brain cells than at any other time in its life (200 billion). Throughout  the first years of life more and more connections are formed as the baby's brain becomes 'wired'.  90% of this wiring takes place in the first five years. It is these connections that are the basis of both cognitive and emotional development. 

The brain cells become connected through the experiences the baby has and since a baby cannot provide its own experience because it is totally helpless, that experience is provided by others. Positive contacts between carers and baby release chemicals that help them bond and soothes the child if distressed. If however the child's experience is of being denied physical and emotional closeness, being ignored, shouted at or criticised, the child experiences stress, which if prolonged can lead to permanent changes in the brain.

This information is particularly important when it comes to making a decision about child care for the under fives - and especially for the under threes. At a recent conference a speaker spoke about the increasing tendency for babies to be in nurseries for a whole day, many of which are open from 6.00am to 7.00pm. If I imagine what this is like for the babies, I am reminded of an experience I had with a friend of mine Fred, who at nearly 90 was unable to look after himself. It was decided that he should go into residential care and I viewed a number of facililties in our local area. I chose the best of those on offer and he moved in. He was so  miserable there, that after a month he moved back home and we made another (one to one) arrangement.

When I visited him in the residential home, I was struck by the similarity in set-up with day nurseries. He was alone in his room most of the day. (I know babies are not alone in rooms but if they spend most of their day lying in a cot, it's just a matter of scale.) His carers were usually unskilled and too busy to give him individual attention. The job was low paid and often a first stop on the way to a better career, so turnover was high. Similarly day nurseries are usually staffed by young girls with a minimum of training, pay is low and turnover high. Some carers may have natural nurturing instincts -if they have been well nurtured themselves but they have to spread it between several babies. If a baby becomes bonded with a carer -which is surely the best option, they may be separated as the baby grows older and is cared for in another part of the nursery or the carer leaves. Another separation and sense of abandonment!

Fred spoke up, we listened and he went back to his home. Are we really listening to our babies when they cry when being left in the morning? when in our stomachs we know they may stop crying but are not really happy? When they are clingy and quiet when picked up. This is not an argument for a child to be with its mother all day everyday, but we know what babies need and it should inform all decisions that are made about child care. Child minder or day nursery? sharing child care with other family members? How to choose the right nursery? when should I go back to work? for how long?

Small children need warm close and responsive nurturing from all adults with whom they spend any amount of time. Good carers interact with a baby not just because he is crying or grizzling but because the carer, cares. So there is only one question when it comes to chosing child care. Do they care about the child or just care for him?

Friday
Dec032010

Frank Field and Childhood Poverty

I went to school with holes in my shoes. When it rained the water squished up between my toes. As a teenager I once went out on a bitterly cold winter's evening in a cotton jacket because the only warm coat I had was my school gaberdine - and I'd rather die of cold than of shame! We only heated one room in the house (with a coal fire) and in the winter there were ice crystals on the inside of the bedroom window. We didn't have an indoor lavatory or bathroom and took a weekly bath in a tin bath, which we kept on a nail in the back yard. I see now that we were poor but we didn't think of ourselves as poor, we thought of ourselves as 'working class'. We were in fact what is now referred to as respectable working class but by all modern measures of poverty we were very poor. We are not poor today; my sister is a university lecturer, my brother runs a small business and I am a psychologist.

How did we get from there to here? Free orange juice, cod liver oil, immunizations, school milk, school dinners, the 11plus, free tuition and a maintenance grant at an elite university all helped, but by far the most important reason was family. They couldn't give us a lot of things but they gave us a lot of time. They talked to us, played with us, gave us strong clear values and supported us at every stage of our education. Stability and security also played a large part. In my whole childhood I never knew a single person who came from a broken family. My parents bickered a lot but it never once crossed my mind that they would separate or divorce. When I set out for school in the morning my head was clear of any family worries and I was able to concentrate on my lessons.

I am reminded of this because of a new report by Frank Field on social exclusion and childhood poverty. He emphasizes what psychologists have known for years that a child’s future path is already determined at five. This is not a matter of material deprivation but of intellectual and emotional deprivation. For a baby’s brain to develop fully, it needs constant positive stimulation and the window of opportunity for such brain development is limited. It's not just that at five some children know more but that they have also acquired ways of learning and exploring. Children with little early years stimulation, not only know less but they also have a passive less responsive attitude to learning new things.

Very few people today are as materially deprived as many were in the 50s. The answer is not throw more money at the problem because it’s not material poverty that causes the problem but poverty of experience and aspiration. If a child’s brain is open and receptive there is hope even if he has a hole in his shoes.

Thursday
Dec022010

Parenting styles in Desperate Housewives

Now that Susan is working as a nanny for Lynette their differences in parenting styles are becoming obvious. The issue in question is sleep training and controlled crying, -simply whether or not to let baby Paige cry herself to sleep or to pick her up and comfort her at first whimper. Predictably, mother of five Lynette, is in favour of controlled crying, a system whereby when the baby is left to cry for increasing amounts of time until she learns to 'self soothe'. Kooky soft-hearted Susan can't bear to hear the baby cry and goes to some lengths to pick her up and comfort her, despite Lynette's instructions to the contrary.

The difference in approach is down to more than personality differences. As Lynette points out when the baby cries in the night she disturbs six other people, four of whom have to go to school next day and two to work. Susan has only one child and at the moment no husband at home. The main point is that if Susan picks her up and Lynette leaves her to cry, no progress will be made because the baby is getting conflicting messages. So whatever they do, they have to do it together.

This week I did an interview with a journalist on the subject of rules. Is it best to have many rules or just a few? Whatever the answer is concerning the number of rules, what really counts is sticking to the rules you make. When my kids were small I was told by another parent 'If I say no, I never ever change my mind, even if I sometimes think that I should.' It seemed very harsh to me at the time but I had to agree that it cut down on the arguments. If you know your mother is never going to change her mind, like Lynette's baby you will soon learn there is no point in fussing.   

Thursday
Nov182010

Are children learning to be scared of adults?

I was walking in the park this weekend listening to my i-pod and minding my own business. It was a lovely day and there were lots of families out with their kids. As I walked along on a raised path, a little boy of about seven appeared alongside me trying to push his bicycle up onto the path, a distance of about three feet. He was struggling so I stopped and asked 'Can I give you a hand with that?'

'No thank you', he said and continued unsuccessfully trying to heave his bicycle up the incline. 'Here let me help', I said reaching down to pull on the handlebars. 'No!' he yelled, adding a feeble 'Thank you.' (I live in a nice area where the children are very polite even when they think they are addressing a potential kidnapper). The expression on his face was one of pure panic. He was terrified. What did he think I was going to do? a middle aged woman walking alone in a park full of people? 

When did children become so scared of adults? This is a new phenomenon. It affects the behaviour of children to adults but also of adults to children. In the past I have seen children in department stores who were obviously lost and I have gone up to them and taken them by the hand to a member of staff. Would I do that today? probably, but I would definitely think twice about it and if I were a man I would probably walk on by. Some years ago, a three year old girl wandered away from her nursery school playground and was subsequently found drowned in a local pond. The newspapers reported that a man in a white van (what else?) saw the child walking along the road but was too scared to stop and take her to safety in case his behaviour was misinterpreted. I think this story is probably apocryphal but it does reflects adult fears that even well intentioned behaviour may be misunderstood.

The facts are that children are at risk from a small minority of adults, usually those who live in the same family. Stranger danger is much less common yet all adults are treated with suspicion. It's not good for children to be in an environment where they distrust the adults around them, it makes them fearful in public spaces, where they should be able to roam and explore. Paradoxically it makes them less safe since adults are reluctant to  intervene even if children seem to be at risk.  

Sunday
Nov142010

My son is gay blog

Last week I appeared on BBC Breakfast to comment on the story of the 5year old Kansas boy who went to a Halloween party at school, dressed as Daphne from Scooby Doo. According to his mother, other mothers at the school made disparaging and critical remarks to her for allowing her son to dress as a girl. She was really angry and wrote it up on her blog, with a photo of her son dressed as Daphne, .... oh, and she titled the blog My Son is Gay.

If you would like to see the interview click here

Several things strike me about this story:

First, it is much much too early to draw any conclusions about the child’s sexual orientation. Wanting to dress up as girl is no indication that he is gay. The poor little boy is still working out what it means to be a boy, he is light years away from knowing whether he is a boy who likes girls or one who likes boys .. or maybe both boys and girls. Many children dress in the clothes of the other sex at this age – however it is boys dressing as girls that’s more likely to attract adverse comment rather than vice versa.

For me the main point is this. Children are great conformists, and even (especially) at this age they have strong views about what is appropriate dress for boys and girls. This little boy knew that what he was doing was likely to attract unwanted attention. He told his mother a few days before that he thought other kids would laugh at him and by her own admission she 'blew it off'. On the day of the party she writes that he is 'visibly nervous' and afraid of what people will say and do but she convinced him to go ahead. She over-rode his objections putting it down to the fact of he is ‘a bit of a worrier in general’, - all the more reason in my view not to put him through this ordeal.

I think that by refusing to back down she was making a point she wanted to make. It’s all very well to say the world should think differently – they should – but don’t use your child to make a point if he will suffer as a consequence.

What's really interesting is the furore this blog unleashed. So far 44,000 people have posted comments on the story. Why? I thought I would do a bit of research into the way in which children develop their sense of gender. So I googled 'gender consciousness'; every single reference on the first 2 pages were political, including a gender conscious approach to climate change. (Go figure!) I tried 'development of gender consciousness', -still nothing. I added 'in children' and finally something came up. This is not a story about a 5-year-olds’ choice of fancy dress costume, it’s highly charged story about tolerance of difference, individual choice and sexual politics.

How do children develop a sense of what it means to be a boy or girl? Is it nature or nurture? Research shows that the male and female brains differ and this is evident very early in the baby’s life. The female brain is hardwired for empathy and the male brain for understanding and building systems. This doesn’t mean that all boys have male brains nor all girls female brains -there are many areas of overlap, but on average there are significant differences and it shows in the ways in which boys and girls behave.

A child’s sense of gender develops over time. First they learn to identify themselves as a boy or a girl and learn ‘the rules’ of being a boy or girl. How to dress, behave, play etc. Because they are children, their sense of what it means to be a boy or girl is simplistic, as is most of their thinking at this stage. The 'rules' are rigid. Boys have short hair and girls have long; only girls wear pink boys never do, girls play with dolls, boys fight... Because their thinking is very rigid they feel the need to conform to the stereotypes. Many parents consciously try to avoid gender stereotyping and are often dismayed by their daughter’s insistence on ‘girly’ dresses and their son’s propensity to turn anything resembling a gun into a weapon. Not to worry; as their thinking becomes more complex (from 5-6 onwards), children come to understand that boys doing girly things are still boys and vice versa, although it is still easier for a girl to cross the gender divide than a boy. BUT look in any primary school playground and what you will see is groups of boys doing vigourous active 'aggressive' running and chasing and little girls in huddles chatting or playing cooperative games.

To see a BBC Breakfast News interview on this topic, click here

 

 

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