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Brain-Building - a reflection on parent & teacher determinism

As an Early Years Teacher, I have always believed that raising children is the responsibility of an entire community. Yes, the primary caregivers are ultimately responsible for their children but together, in whatever role we play, we can collaboratively strengthen the quality of a child or children's upbringing. The landscape of society is vastly different from generation to generation, but I don't think we have lost 'community', it has just manifested into something different. For example, in place of extended family or a neighbourhood community, many more families connect with key people in their nursery or daycare, who can have as positive an impact as any other community member. Families have come to rely on the skills, knowledge, and care of EY teachers in contributing to the raising of their children.

With that being said, as teachers of young children and as family support, it can be difficult to fathom what messages are helpful or harmful to parents in increasing their awareness of early childhood development. I have found it professionally challenging to understand the absolute dominance of early childhood research and the shifting public policy which dictates exactly how children should be raised. During some reading, I stumbled across 'parent determinism' which is focused around the concept that the actions of a parent in the first five years of life can have either positive or negative long-term implications on the outcomes of their child. To ensure they get it right, they should start "parenting" from the moment of conception to build a strong, healthy brain. Collectively, these are the messages many other people, and I continually promote with parents.

I remain an advocate that the early years is a "critical period" for emotionally healthy lifespan development, but it has got me thinking whether we can be too absolute in our commitment to this type of thinking? This is of particular significance if we think about those developmental domains that are not yet fully understood, for example, neuroscience. Is the rapid pace at which we explore and understand child development increasing the likelihood that findings are misused, misunderstood and misinterpreted? ... And then this information is cascaded to parents as an additional weight in their parenting responsibilities.

One day, while scrolling through my EYFS instagram page, a quote struck a chord:

I immediately shared this with a colleague who is also a parent, and I asked her how it made her feel. She responded with a single word...'defeated.' Incidentally, I had read elsewhere the concept of increased parental defeatism during what is now defined as the "critical period." Many of the key messages that are meant to empower parents (and educators) actually have the exact opposite effect. They make it feel as though we have already failed or are always dangerously close to failing our children and causing long-lasting damage. I, therefore, struggle to see how we are contributing to parent resilience and empowerment. We are quite literally rupturing the parent identity in our enthusiasm to promote the "critical period" and then expecting them to "build strong brains" in their children.

Brain-development and neuroscience or rather it's misuse plays a huge role in parent determinism. It has become clear that the use of the word 'science' in relation to child development is like a magic of its very own and we can blindly follow the research path despite the numerous occasions in which neuroscientific research surpasses old ways of thinking. Remember, black and white areas in baby rooms? Left/Right - Logical/Creative thinking, the gendered brain? Neuroscience itself is a journey, and we, therefore, should be cautious in the use of brain-claims when defining the upbringing of children.

Another issue with neuroscience is the shift from a holistic view of lifespan development to a reductionist view. We are no longer cultivating strong children; we are building strong brains. We see this shift in the increase of brain-based language, brain-training, brain-based parenting and more recently educators defining themselves as 'Brain Champions' or other variations. I feel quite strongly that this is inappropriate and wrong. Why, you say? Because it can become 'fake-knowledge' and people may feel "expert" in a topic that is not yet even understood by the most knowledgeable of neuroscientists. Neuroscientists are said to be quite modest about their findings, but there is disquiet about how this is translated into mainstream knowledge. For example, Bruce Perry's (Ph.D.) infamous brain scans of children who had experienced institutionalised social deprivation in Romanian Orphanages is still often referred to in the description of neglect despite his insistence that it does not translate.

Yes, lets increase the discourse around parenting, neuroscience and the early years but I think we need to be careful in how we convey our own understanding and be mindful of the language we use with parents and how this might impact on their perceived abilities to "parent" (minds not brains, children not brains, people not brains).

To conclude we need to remember two things about growth:

1. There is no such thing as a perfect upbringing, and there is no such thing as an ideal parent or educator. We should strive for 'good enough' in development and acknowledge that this definition varies from experience to experience. Adverse experiences do not always require an immediate 'intervention' or lead to detrimental outcomes.

2. Human development includes the growth of autonomy, which is our ability, resilience, and capacity to independently re-shape our adverse experiences into positive outcomes. Our brains, minds, and bodies have the function or 'plasticity' to change over time.

The first five years are important, but so are the next 95! (If you live to a 100 that is and if so, go you!).

Further Reading:

Macvarish, J. (2016) Neuroparenting: The Expert Invasion of Family Life (London: Palgrave Macmillan)

Lee, E., Bristow, J., Faircloth, C. and Macvarish, J. (2014) Parenting Culture Studies (London: Palgrave Macmillan)

Macvarish, J., Lee, E. and Lowe, P. (2014) ‘The ‘First Three Years’ Movement and the Infant Brain: A Review of Critiques’, Sociology Compass, 8(6):792-804

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