Glenda wall powerful cognitive engineers - slides

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  • 1. Powerful Cognitive Engineers: The Social Positioning of Mothers Through Brain Development Discourse Glenda Wall Wilfrid Laurier Univeristy Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
  • 2. The Language of Brain Science
    • Casts parents as engineers and programmers
      • they shape wiring, activate neurons and make the appropriate connections.
  • 3.
      • ... neurons will grow and connect with other neurons in the system ... These systems, activated by repeated experiences, provide the foundation for the brain’s organization and functioning throughout life. The absence of appropriate activation results in the lack of development or the disappearance of these connections. (Reiner Foundation, 1997 The First Years Last Forever . Pamphlet printed and distributed in Canada by The Canadian Institute of Child Health)
      • ... young children are deeply affected by their early experiences. Their relationships with parents and other important caregivers… These experiences actually affect the way children’s brains become wired .( The First Years Last Forever )
  • 4.
    • These are the good experiences with people and stimulating activities that ‘zap’ brain connections into place. It’s called ‘brain wiring,’ and you and your child do it together.
    • (Hassen, 1999. Parenting with the Zap Family , Get Set for Life, Making the Most of Your Child’s First Years)
    • ‘ Wiring’ can be good or bad. Repeated positive experiences ... make positive healthy connections. Repeated negative experiences make negative and emotionally unhealthy connections. ( Parenting With the Zap Family )
  • 5.
    • Children’s brains framed as machines that parents can build and shape
    • Children positioned as vulnerable, passive and lacking in agency and autonomy.
  • 6.
    • Mothers in my study were convinced of their ability and responsibility to control children’s cognitive outcomes.
      • Sarah
      • “ I am constantly aware that everything I do affects how their brains are going to develop. So how I talk to them, whether or not I respond right away or wait a few minutes, whether or not I am tuned to their cues and their different cries and what is happening with them emotionally as well as physically ... I am constantly questioning what kind of impact my parenting is having on their development.”
  • 7.
      • Jennifer
      • “ ...he is our focus on everything. We just got his report card note and I will tell you that it shows. Because his report card was ... I started to cry because it was phenomenal. We work hard at it.”
      • Tara
      • “ You have to balance things, …. weigh everything … you have to read ….. you have to be sensitive to every single thing they say, things they do, their body language… You are completely responsible for a life that is going to go somewhere after you are done doing your parenting thing. You have to be 100% on the game, all the time. And you have to love doing it because if you don’t, they know.”
  • 8. Questions
    • Why is this positioning of mothers as all-powerful, and children as so totally lacking in agency and autonomy currently so widely accepted on both a cultural and individual level?
    • What is the cultural context that allows such an unquestioning assumption of control over child cognitive outcomes?
  • 9. Scientific, Expert, and State Authority
    • Claims are presented as scientific fact – “research tells us….”
    • Reminiscent of scientific mothering advice of old
    • Governments, educators and child welfare advocates design policy and programs based on these “facts.”
  • 10.
    • The advice builds on a long history of the science of attachment
      • Bowlby built on the highly gendered notion of maternal deprivation, and was influenced by animal studies, and studies of severe deprivation in children
  • 11.
    • Diane Eyer
      • Some scientific findings much more quickly accepted than others, not because they are scientifically convincing, but rather because they fit into deeply embedded ideologies of the time.
  • 12. Gender and Accountability
    • There is a long history of blaming mothers for social ills
      • Maternal deprivation and maternal overprotection
      • Freudian psychoanalysis
      • Pop psychology and self help movement
  • 13.
    • Ideology of natural motherhood
      • Maternal love and self-sacrifice biological – maternal instinct
      • Mothers held to account for children’s physical and emotional well-being and behavioural and cognitive outcomes
  • 14.
    • Child outcomes (including cognitive outcomes) are positioned as public issues – something that everyone has a right and responsibility to weigh in on.
    • Mothers were cognizant of this accountability
  • 15.
    • Wendy
    • “ You are more supposed to nurture this being and it is so important to do it right and make sure that they grow up and they are as smart as they could possibly be and they are .. they do something important with their lives.”
    • Alicia
    • “ The pressure is there, just by the way that parents talk. I try to resist it as much as possible and do what my husband and I think is best. For example … I used to take my daughter once a year to a theatre production but that was because I like that and I want her to be exposed to it. Or music and things like that. So I try not to succumb to the pressure, but it is true, that the way people talk about it, if you don’t do all these activities with your kids you feel guilty about it.”
    • Jessica
    • “ I feel there is a cycle of your kid has got to be signed up for this or for that. I think it is pressure from the parents that we do to ourselves - that we allow in. ... I feel like we are kind of creating a higher expectation level of what we need to be doing to be a good parent. ... It’s a cycle we are in and, I don’t know, it just isn’t supportive.”
    • Tara
    • (Being a good mother means) “putting your child totally before yourself. When you become a parent, you are no longer a person.”
  • 16. Risk, Planning, and Choice
    • Risk and uncertainty dominate political and popular rhetoric and individual adaptability is key to success
    • Parents face increasing pressure not only to anticipate and manage risks, but to take all possible steps to ‘maximize’ and perfect children
  • 17.
    • Risk is that which is preventable
      • Educate yourself using latest expert knowledge, make the right choices, and plan accordingly
  • 18.
    • So much to do with having and raising children is highly variable and difficult to control
    • Lack of control, using neo-liberal risk logic, means you need to try harder.
      • Responsibility for parents to make better choices and better plans intensifies
    • Alison
      • (I feel like) “I have to be providing her 24-7 stimulation. If I don’t she will be lagging behind the other kids.”
  • 19.
    • No concrete way to measure the effect of parental inputs on later intelligence and success
      • You will never know if you have done enough, if what you did has made your child more intelligent as an adult, or if you could have done more
  • 20.
    • “ What if” questions and fears
      • Maria
      • (My daughter’s friend) “is in dance lesions and she does drama things and they go to all these concerts and … she is going to French classes in the fall. … I keep on thinking, what am I doing, am I doing the right thing? … I definitely have moments of, oh, maybe I should have done that or maybe … we thought about different schools and I thought maybe I should send her to a bilingual school. Yeah, there is a lot of that.”
      • Tara
      • (The day I die I hope to) “never have not done something as a parent that I should have done that I knew about.”
  • 21. Conclusion
    • Need to question not only
      • whether this is good for children
      • what the costs of it are to parents
    • But also
      • Challenge the assumption that parents have as much control over child cognitive outcomes as is attributed to them in brain development discourse in the first place.
        • Does not lead to individualized guilt
        • Aligned with a more respectful and realistic view of children as more autonomous individuals in their own right