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Biologising Parenting: Neuroscience Discourse and English Social and Public Health Policy


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Paper given at workshop for participants in the ‘Uses and Abuses of Biology’ research programme. University of Cambridge, 21 September 2013

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Biologising Parenting: Neuroscience Discourse and English Social and Public Health Policy

  1. 1. Biologising Parenting: Neuroscience Discourse and English Social and Public Health Policy. Ellie Lee and Jan Macvarish, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, University of Kent and Pam Lowe, Aston University
  2. 2. Study focus: Brain claims in English social policy
  3. 3. Background Centre for Parenting Culture Studies • Previous topics for research have been e.g. breastfeeding promotion and pregnancy advice • Session about ‘brain claims’ as part of an ESRC-funded seminar ‘Parenting culture and the problems of policy’ held at the British Library in 2010 • Conference ‘Monitoring parents: Science, evidence, experts and the new parenting culture’ held in 2011 at the University Kent
  4. 4. Contemporary Parenting Culture • ‘Parenting culture’: the socio-cultural script and more or less formalised rules which influence meanings and experiences of mothering and fathering and define expectations regarding how a parent should raise their child • ‘Parenting’ is not the same as childrearing • Term used increasingly from the 1970’s • Focuses attention clearly on the parent-child relation and almost always casts the parent-child relation as problematic and in some way deficient • This relation as determinant for the future of the individual child, but also the wider society i.e. parenting culture relies on parental-determinism
  5. 5. Contemporary Parenting Culture • Parental-determinism, arguably contradictorily, is certain that those other than parents have superior insights into how best to raise and nurture children i.e. it validates shared authority in the raising of children • Parental-determinism has become influential in the political domain, leading to the encouragement and institutionalisation of the ‘parenting industry’ • The expert/policy nexus seeking to train and educate parents directs its attentions toward all parents, but at some parents more than others
  6. 6. Politicised Parenting • Policy interest in what parents do is not new (at least as old as industrialised societies) • Decisive turn towards ‘explicit family policy’ under new Labour • ‘Parenting’ posed overtly as leading cause of and solution to social problems • Claims that strong evidence base means policy makers should and must ‘intervene early’ • Policy more and more organised around borrowed authority (aka ‘evidence based family policy’)
  7. 7. Explicit family policy: New Labour ‘Parents and the home environment they create are the single most important factor shaping their children’s wellbeing, achievements and prospects…’ ‘…what parents do is more important than who parents are. Parents engaging in a range of activities with their child [is] associated with higher intellectual and social/behavioural scores. These activities included reading with your child; teaching songs and nursery rhymes; painting and drawing; playing with letters and numbers; visiting the library, museums and other places; as well as creating regular opportunities to play with friends.’ (Every Parent Matters, 2007)
  8. 8. Explicit family policy: The Coalition ‘Free parenting classes to be offered to over 50,000 mothers and fathers’ (Spring 2012) Sarah Teather, Children’s Minister, said: ‘The overwhelming evidence, from all the experts, is that a child’s development in the first five years of their life is the single biggest factor influencing their future life chances, health and educational attainment’. Announcement of CANparent
  9. 9. Research aims and tasks Aim: • Taking the example of brain claims, develop scholarship about the ‘scientisation’ of family policy Tasks: • Review literature about the scientisation of the family • Trace adoption of ‘brain based’ claims in policy since 1997
  10. 10. Historical literature • Biological discourse is ‘Old wine in new bottles’. Continuities in concerns - anxiety about social change, concern with proliferation of the ‘wrong sort of people’, the child as the key to future progress/degeneration • International transmission of claims and ideas. From Spencer and social Darwinism, eugenics and Ellen Key to Jack Shonkoff, I Am Your Child, Rob Reiner, OECD, Bruce Perry, The Wave Trust, Michael Marmott, James Heckmann, David Olds and the Nurse Family Partnership • Contested authority is a constant theme • Intensified focus on intimate interactions between parent-child • Balance of concern with ‘the many’ and ‘the few’: targeted and universal interventions
  11. 11. Contemporary literature 1. Literature emanating from science and the philosophy of science: critical of ‘neuromyths’ and neuroimaging claims made on its behalf. E.g. Goswami, Bruer, Blakemore and Frith, Kagan, Tallis, Poldrack, Rutter, Ioannidis, Kriegeskorte, Neiuwenhuis et al., Skolnick-Weisberg et al., McCabe and Castel, Beck, O’Connor and Joffe, Connors and Singh, Dumit, Beaulieu, Fine, Liberman, Miller, Legrenzi and Umilta. 2. Literature critiquing the biologisation and medicalisation of (family) life – social sciences, philosophy. E.g. Wastell et al, Bruer, Kagan, Wall, Hulbert, Wilson, Karoly et al, Romagnoli, Nadesan, Lupton, Hays, Furedi, Yaqub, Gillies and Edwards, Kukla, Wolf, Faircloth, Lee, Eyer, Kanieski, Lupton, Rose, Meloni, Ellul, Riley, Arendt.
  12. 12. Policy document analysis • Content analysis of a sample of 41 policy and advocacy documents dating from 1998 to 2012 • Purposive sampling – documents judged to be central to the formation of parenting policy across a number of domains (social exclusion, health, maternity services, early years, crime and justice) • Published or commissioned by government departments or by advocacy groups which have subsequently become key reference points • Uploaded as PDFs to NVIVO content analysis software • Chronological analysis • Word counts: Attach; Attune; Brain; Cognitive; Cortisol; Empathy; Neurons; Neuroscience; Parenting; Synapses
  13. 13. Word count results Number of References Number of Documents Parenting 1566 29 Brain 396 23 Attach 366 30 Cognitive*some refs are to CBT 427 31 Empathy 116 15 Attune 86 10 Neuroscience 35 15 Synapse 31 5 Cortisol 7 13 Neuron 7 16
  14. 14. Parenting: Associated nouns Parenting support Parenting needs Parenting issues Parenting helpline Intensive parenting support Parenting order Preventive parenting programmes Parenting intervention Parenting practices Parenting style Parenting skills Parenting competencies Parenting strategy Parenting capacity Parenting objectives Parenting behaviours Parenting education Parenting advice Parenting facilitators Parenting classes Parenting educators Parenting Institute Parenting control Parenting information The Science of Parenting Parenting guides Science of parenting
  15. 15. Bonding as teachable A few years ago the health visitor undertook a course in baby massage; she has now trained mothers from the local community to do this. The mothers now run classes for other mothers with infants where they can relax and chat for social support, and also learn techniques that improve how they bond with their babies. Mothers have found that their interaction with their babies has improved and their babies seem much happier. Choosing Health (2004)
  16. 16. Policy document findings • Concern with parenting and the ‘early years’ pre-dates brain claims entering UK policy • Brain claims have come from a number of directions, were initially rather patchy and sometimes ignored but have recently gained a more consolidated hold on policy-thinking • The prevention dynamic: Early intervention gets earlier and earlier (0-3, 0-2, Pregnancy, Pre-conception, Pre-parenting, Parent training in schools) • Brain discourse moved from being a ‘backstage’ discussion to a significant way of organising the relationship between health and early years practitioners, the parenting workforce and families. E.g. From ‘Birth to Three Matters’ to ‘Five to Thrive’.
  17. 17. Policy document findings • Teenage pregnancy as an archetype of intergenerational transmission • Maternal stress and depression as one of the first ways that parental states are talked of as directly transmitting to the child’s future state of being via the brain • Attachment resurrected and biologised
  18. 18. Pre-natal parenting From the very earliest years, the mother’s nutritional intake, consumption of alcohol or drugs, even levels of stress during pregnancy can have a substantial impact on the health and well being of the foetus and eventual baby. Similarly we know that a child that has not had the benefit of a positive, caring relationship with their parents is likely to have low selfesteem and be vulnerable to mental health problems. This can seriously impair their ability to achieve, enjoy and learn. We know the key principles of effective parenting: • authoritative (warm and firm), not harsh parenting; • attachment, initiated pre-birth and especially important in early months; • parental involvement, in the form of interest in the child and parent-child discussions: how parents interact with their children is key; • positive parental expectations, beliefs and attitude; and • parental supervision. Parenting Support: Guidance for local authorities (2006)
  19. 19. Parental emotions and the brain The support parents give for their children’s cognitive development is important, as is instilling of values, aspirations and support for the development of wider interpersonal and social skills. Recent research shows the importance of parental warmth, stability, consistency and boundary setting in helping children develop such skills. It is a time of rapid brain growth and research has shown a direct link between the stimulation a child receives and their brain development. Every Parent Matters 2007
  20. 20. Outputs to date • Material used for a book Parenting Culture Studies out with Palgrave next year • Paper under review as part of special monograph to be published by Sociology of Health and Illness Presentations at: • ‘Critical Perspectives on Early Intervention’ Seminar, (LSBU, May 2013) • ‘The Family in Crisis? Neoliberalism and Politicisation of Parenting and the Family’ Symposium (University of East London, June 2013) • Social Policy Association Annual Conference (Sheffield, July 2013) • European Sociological Association Annual Conference (Turin, August 2013) • ‘Imperfect Children’ (Centre for Medical Humanities, University of Leicester, September 2013)
  21. 21. Plans • Pending their publication plan being successful, paper will be submitted for inclusion in ‘Imperfect Children’ monograph • Aim for minimum of two further papers • Session at the ‘Battle of Ideas’ October 2013 convened by Jan (Val Gillies is a panellist) • Dissemination event at the British Library 28th March 2014 in planning stages (venue confirmed, and John Bruer confirmed as keynote) • Present at conference in US in 2014