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Parenting

Is misused neuroscience defining early years and child protection policy?

The idea that a child’s brain is irrevocably shaped in the first three years increasingly drives government policy on adoption and early childhood intervention. But does the science stand up to scrutiny?

“Neuroscience can now explain why early conditions are so crucial,” wrote Graham Allen and Iain Duncan Smith in their 2010 collaboration, Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens. “The more positive stimuli a baby is given, the more brain cells and synapses it will be able to develop.” 

Neuroscience is huge in early years policy. This week, in what’s been characterised as the largest shake-up of family law in a generation, the 26-week time limit for adoption proceedings has come into force, much of it justified by the now-or-never urgency of this set of beliefs, that the first three years (or sometimes first 18 months) hardwire a baby’s brain, either give it or deny it the capacity for a full life. This is the engine of what is known as the First Three Years movement, which has transfixed politicians from across the spectrum. Allen and Duncan Smith’s report opened with an illustration of the “normal child’s” large brain and the shrivelled, walnut brain of the neglected child. With conferences such as Two Is Too Late (organised by Conservative MP Andrea Leadsom) and papers such as The 1,001 Critical Days, a set of claims are made that echo and reinforce those bold claims made by Allen: first, that we now have a set of scientific findings about the infant brain that can teach us new things about parenting. Second, that concrete events occur – from the production of synapses to the lighting up of areas of the brain on an MRI scanner – that can be interpreted in a straightforward way upon which all science is agreed. Third, with terms such as “critical periods” and “hardwiring”, the thesis is put forward that brains have a finite time window for learning certain things. Fourth, that we can distil the treatment of infants into a set of behaviours that will determine the networks in their brains, either equipping them to empathise, learn, engage and produce, or irreparably failing to equip them. The connections made are endless: babies who fail to make the right neural connections will do badly at school, lack empathy, succumb to criminality, have mental health problems, and end up in a cycle of deprivation themselves.  

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Parenting

Is screen time damaging for your kids? No study can tell you that | Oliver Burkeman

Adjusting your behaviour to each new wrinkle in the science is a mug’s game

Is too much screen time bad for your kids? Don’t look to this column for an answer. The truth is, nobody knows. The unceasing pendulum of lifestyle advice is currently swinging through a “debunking” phase, with numerous articles insisting it’s all been a big panic over nothing. But that’s partly because a report published earlier this year, by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said there wasn’t enough evidence to give firm guidelines to parents. As the paediatricians explained, though, the key problem is that sufficient high-quality research has yet to be conducted – a conclusion that somehow got turned into this headline, on the parenting website Motherly: “How harmful is screen time for kids? Not as bad as we may think”. The article was sponsored by the US mobile company Verizon – though science has yet to inform us if this was a matter of causation or merely correlation.

Of course, there are valid research findings in this area: there’s evidence that excessive childhood TV time is correlated with obesity and poorer mental health, while social media use probably isn’t often a direct cause of teenage depression. And some studies are better designed than others. But neither opponents nor proponents of screen time have much incentive to mention a more unsettling fact – that it’s almost certainly impossible to know whether too much screen time would clearly damage your kids. The reasons aren’t surprising: human lives are extraordinarily complex things, and no study that aims to say anything meaningful about the population at large can do justice to the innumerable variables at work in your particular family.

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Parenting

From sex to money: the eight deep discussions that can save a dying relationship

John and Julie Gottman have devised dates for ailing couples – but how many are ready for this level of openness and sincerity?

How often do we really talk to our partners? About the big stuff, not about childcare arrangements, or what the funny noise coming from the fridge means? According to a study at the University of California, Los Angeles, couples with small children, and who both have careers, talk for just 35 minutes a week, and mainly about errands. That study, says John Gottman, “alarmed” him and his wife, Julie. “It seemed like couples who had been together a long time were not taking care of the relationship – their curiosity in one another had died,” he says.

Gottman, the renowned relationships researcher known for his work on divorce predictors, and Julie Schwartz Gottman, a psychologist, have been married for 32 years. They founded the Gottman Institute, which conducts research and trains therapists. Their Gottman method is an approach designed to repair and deepen relationships, concentrating on three main areas – “friendship, conflict management and creation of shared meaning”. They have also written many books, together and separately. Their latest book, which they wrote as a couple, is Eight Dates. It guides couples through eight conversations – to have on dedicated dates – on the big issues such as sex, parenting and how to handle conflict. It was partly sparked by the rise of online dating and to provide new couples with a roadmap to navigate tricky subjects, but mainly to give long-term couples a project to steer their relationship to a better place. “Couples who have been together for quite a long time create a relationship that grows stale with time, and they lose track of one another,” says Julie. “People evolve over time. They change.”

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Parenting

I’m outwardly very successful, but I can’t cope with my life | Dear Mariella

Stop and work out what you want from your short time on the planet, says Mariella Frostrup. It’s time to put your incredible energy into your own wellbeing

The dilemma I have a lovely husband, two gorgeous girls, a lovely home and a high-flying job. However, I cry every night because I hate myself. My inability to cope with pressure – financial, intellectual and emotional – horrifies me. I see others dealing with genuine problems and don’t understand why, with my myriad advantages, I cannot manage mine. My husband thinks I was over-praised as a child and am always chasing an unattainable A grade. My work is high-stress, involving huge budgets. Separately, five years ago I lost a baby in utero – a hugely painful experience. I fear stopping work would damage my daughters and place a large burden on my husband. But seeing our girls for less than an hour a day is miserable. I think I may be depressed, but admitting it may mean my children are taken away and I’ll lose my job and ruin my family.

Mariella replies You’ve got a lively imagination. I can assure you that depression, if that’s part of the issue, would not mean your children being taken away. It’s a diagnosis in expectation of a cure, not a condition from which, once identified, all will unravel. As parents, if we were to be deemed inadequate the moment life started getting us down, there would be few if any children not being swept into care. You might be surprised to hear how many people there are, in every walk of life, struggling with issues of self-esteem and depression. A happy life is not necessarily made up of the ingredients we’re told are imperative, and that disappointment lies at the heart of many a current malaise.

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All my friends have had babies and I feel marginalised | Dear Mariella

It’s hard when you don’t move in unison with your peers. It doesn’t mean abandoning friendships, says Mariella Frostrup, but don’t be afraid to keep a distance when needed

The dilemma I’m 34 and have been in a close friendship group with four other women since university. Our relationship has been a constant comfort, but during the past year I’ve found it incredibly difficult to connect with them as all four have had babies. Suddenly our WhatsApp group looks more like Mumsnet – and I just can’t relate. I don’t know if I want kids or not. My husband puts no pressure on me, but this is bringing out the worst in me. I feel left behind, confused and judgmental as these friends enter motherhood. I feel isolated and incapable of contributing, and when I do I feel disingenuous. I try to widen the conversation, but it always reverts back to babies. I don’t want to lose these people, but I feel marginalised, as if I’m fundamentally missing out on some intensely female purpose. How do I step back without being overly dramatic?

Mariella replies It’s definitely a problem. I am sympathetic. But stick with me first, because I have to draw attention to how emotionally over-sensitised we’ve become as a species. Growing up, friends shacking up before we do, marriages and divorce, babies born and infidelities committed – they’re all part of life’s rich pageant. Some are profoundly upsetting, some manageably so, and others so natural a part of life’s flow that they should barely bother us at all. Some of these emotional traumas are dumped on us, some committed by us and some are not directed at us at all. In the latter case, it’s generally our own unresolved issues that make us vulnerable to being wounded.

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Parenting

I avoid giving parenting advice – except on infant vaccines | Séamas O’Reilly

Ever since Rocky IV I’ve loved injections… which may be weird but I’ll fight any anti-vaccine parent

This week my son had his MMR vaccine, stressing us all. No one likes injections. Except me. I’ve always enjoyed them. I think it’s from watching Ivan Drago in Rocky IV when I was small, which made me think of them as power-ups. Each childhood needle-sting thrilled me a little. It was like I felt some ominous Soviet liquid coursing through my veins, allowing me to dish out, and eventually receive, a beating so hard it ended communism. I thought everyone felt this way at first but quickly learned that of the millions of people who watched that movie, I alone took home a feelgood message about needles, and how sweet it must feel to receive a Cold War dose of performance-enhancing drugs.

Even if you don’t share my fondness for the actual injections, I hope I can spread my enthusiasm for vaccines. I’ve been writing this column for a year, and have never proscribed any practice. There are a million other organs willing to make you feel bad about your parenting choices. But vaccines aren’t one of those choices, and I refuse to be anything but strident.

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Parenting

Induced lactation: why a woman doesn’t need to bear a child in order to breastfeed it

A viral photograph of a couple breastfeeding their twin babies has highlighted the process that allows a woman to nurse a child she has not carried. So how does it work?

A photograph of Jaclyn and Kelly Pfeiffer breastfeeding their twin babies has gone viral, highlighting the fact that it is possible to nurse a baby you haven’t given birth to. Jaclyn didn’t carry the babies but has been able to breastfeed them thanks to a process known as induced lactation. It tends to be used by same-sex couples, as well as adoptive parents and women whose babies were carried by a surrogate.

The outcome can be variable, depending on the situation and what the goal is, says Helen Gray, from Lactation Consultants of Great Britain, an organisation that describes itself as the professional voice of breastfeeding. “They might want to try to bring in a full breast-milk supply and provide all of the baby’s milk, or, if they are co-parenting in a same sex relationship, they may be hoping that each mother will provide enough so they can share the breastfeeding.” Or they may want to provide a small amount to top up bottle feeds.

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Parenting

Parenting guides teach us everything – except how to be parents | Eva Wiseman

From breast feeding to sleep training, there is a manual to help new parents. But how useful are they really? And don’t they just make us feel even more stressed?

Visiting a maternity ward last week I saw the oddest thing. A series of posters designed to promote breastfeeding, each one a disembodied white woman’s torso. The first featured her tits being groped by a variety of hands. “Bond with your baby,” said a slogan over the tit pictured stage left, a child’s hand covering the nipple. And above the second tit, this one enclosed by a pink male hand, the words, “Bond with your man.” OK. The next poster showed the tits in a leopard-print bra, a baby sucking on one nipple, and the slogan, “Designer mum. Designer milk.” An involuntary shudder. Not just at the suggestion that the reason so many women bottle-feed their babies is to protect their “designer” bosom, but at the memory of drowning in similarly delirious mothering advice, in finding myself bleeding on a battleground, its lines drawn in crayon.

Parenting advice is big business, despite appearing to consist of just two contrasting ideas: the first, control the kid; the second, control yourself. The many millions of books written, about feeding, sleeping, carrying, playing, inevitably extend into a variety of things to buy, whether tech-driven sleep aids or parenting coaches, or “mumpreneur” networking events. And yet, despite so many parents’ shaky investments (at a time when their earnings must be impacted) much of the advice is offered without much, if any, serious explanation why.

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Parenting

My son’s sobby protests really get to me. Should I give in?

When I returned to find my son crying in a heartbreaking way, he quickly detected that a weak link had entered the equation

I returned home from a gig the other night and everyone in the house was asleep, bar our four-year-old son, who was crying in a heartbreakingly sad way. Like all parents, I am immune to many types of crying. There is the high-pitched cry when you refuse to buy something in a shop; there is the “I’ve fallen over and you looked shocked and that made me cry” cry; and, of course, the “I’m really tired so I’m going to cry without prompting and without cessation at a level that suggests recordings of this should be used at Guantánamo” cry. Our youngest, however, was doing the heartbroken “I want you to love me” cry, and I have to confess that this particular one really gets me.

I felt devastated for the poor guy. This is a potential minefield, however. In the past, I have been guilty of returning from work with some parenting words of wisdom, ignoring the fact that my wife has been dealing with the situation for a while. The correct strategy at these times is to wind my mansplaining neck in.

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Parenting

Escaping my messy childhood: ‘There were apple cores down the sofa and slugs in the sink’

Growing up, my parents’ home was filthy. Could I ever learn to love housework?

Last Christmas, while I was visiting my parents at the house where I grew up, I watched Mum throw away some spice mix. Much of it missed the bin and the seeds, spices and herbs scattered about the kitchen floor. Mum didn’t notice, or didn’t care, so I grabbed a dustpan and brush. As I swept, I found plenty more down there: breadcrumbs, cheese, ham, porridge, dog hair, something sticky. Later, Mum mixed cocktails. I had come prepared, so, before taking a sip, I whipped a baby wipe from my pocket and gave my glass a surreptitious clean. Mum and my stepdad started talking about their plans to become Airbnb hosts, at which point I nearly choked on a cashew nut. They simply can’t see mess, I thought, and then I remembered that, until quite recently, neither could I.

When I was growing up, the house was always untidy. There were piles of clothes on the landing, toys all over the living room, black marks on the hall tiles where coal had fallen from the scuttle we lugged in from the shed, dust on the surfaces, apple cores stuffed down the back of the sofa, discarded crisp packets, breakfast bowls on the coffee table, yellow gunge on the kitchen radio, and entire rooms we couldn’t enter because the doors were blocked shut by stacks of furniture, sculpture, paintings. I didn’t care: mess was all I knew, although there were hair-raising moments, such as when I was washing the dishes and saw something orange working its way up through the plughole. It turned out to be two slugs that had somehow got into the overflow. One Christmas, I accused the dog of having nibbled a bar of chocolate under the tree: “It was probably a rat,” said Mum, casually.

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