Trigger Warning: contains themes of Child/Physical abuse
When I was a member of University teaching staff, I used to teach a final-year course called ‘The Epistemology of Developmental Theories’. I loved teaching it because the students began the course having no idea what the word really meant.
Epistemology is essentially intellectual navel-gazing. It is the study of knowledge itself. How do we know what we know? What counts as truth and not-truth? How do we decide that? On what basis can we ever decide to believe in anything? How do we choose between different possible courses of action? The students either loved or hated the course. Ultimately, their response depended on how able they were to sit with uncertainty.
I found myself thinking about those students last week, when I was sent a link to a petition that is drawing growing attention through social media. It asks Amazon to ban several parenting books from their catalogue. The petition was introduced in August 2011, with 200,000 people having now signed it (or one of five related petitions). It has been discussed in the UK Parliament, on MumsNet, in the Huffington Post and on Fox TV News, and Facebook traffic is rapidly increasing as other organisations and individuals yield their support to the campaign.
Why would people want books banned? That’s a contravention of free speech! The answer is that the authors of the books advocate violence as a way of teaching babies and children to behave. The originator of the first petition, Milli Hill, who writes a blog called The Mule, has spent her life working with survivors of child abuse, and she passionately argues the books are advocating abuse. Other commentators have used even stronger terms to describe the content, including ‘child torture’ and ‘advice on how to destroy a child’.
Here are a couple of excerpts from the books. As Milli Hill said in her original piece about the petition: “Please be warned, the content is disturbing.”
From No Greater Joy, by Michael and Debi Pearl:
“A baby needs to be trained all day, every day…If your 10-month is pitching a fit because he wants to be picked up, then you must reinforce your commands with a few stinging swats. You are not punishing him; you are causing him to associate his negative behaviour with negative consequences… For young children, especially during the first year, the rod is used very lightly as a training tool. You use something small and light to get the child’s attention and to reinforce your command….A 12-inch piece of weed-eater cord works well as a beginner rod. It will fit in your purse or pocket. Later, a plumber’s supply line is a good spanking tool. You can get it at Wal-Mart or any hardware store. Ask for a plastic, ¼ inch supply line. They come in different lengths and several colors; so you can have a designer rod to your own taste.”
From To Train Up a Child, by Michael and Debi Pearl:
“Any spanking to reinforce instruction must cause pain….If you have to sit on your child in order to spank him, do not hesitate. Hold the resisting child in a helpless position for several minutes, or until he is totally surrendered.” The author goes on to describe training his own baby to stop biting during breastfeeding by having the mother pull on the baby’s hair. As the authors explain: “Understand that the baby is not being punished, just conditioned.”
What has been the public’s reaction to this debate? Here are but some of the massive number of comments now recorded on various web discussions:
“Absolutely disturbing and disgusting. Yes, ban all these books.”
“My skin is crawling. This is so sad and ignorant and selfish of people who find this treatment of babies and children to be acceptable.”
“I have read two of these books mentioned, and they are written in a caring and helpful manner, with the child’s best interests in mind. The authors are devout Christians who teach Godly wisdom in a caring and loving way. More than anything the books stop the parent from getting frustrated and angry and losing control.”
“Until you have a child that doesn’t respond to the delicate parenting that some children tend to, don’t judge how others raise/discipline their children. Better yet, don’t judge!…There is a far leap from firm discipline to abuse.”
“I was smacked occasionally as a child. It was what most parents did in the era in which I grew up. I felt loved by my parents and I believe they did what they thought was best. Challenging your own beliefs is not easy…[but] people can change. My mum signed the petition yesterday.”
So what do we do? When are childcare decisions matters of a parent’s choice, and when does society need to draw a line? How do we decide? How do we ever decide what is best for children, and how to help them fulfill their potential? Children don’t come with a manual, and you can’t raise them in a vacuum! So we have to have some basis for deciding what’s best to do. What should that basis be?
The reason this issue is important to me is because an epistemological question lies at the heart of everything we do with children. The early years science about brain development, attachment, and intersubjectivity is offering us a richer basis than we once had on which to make decisions about how we care for our children. We are less dependent on theories about behaviour, such as the behavioural theory ostensibly expressed by the Pearls. (“Understand that the baby is not being punished, just conditioned.”) Engaging in epistemological self-examination is hard. It makes us feel uncertain. Just as my students did.
But if we really want children to reach their full potential – which is what we keep saying we want – then we adults HAVE to be able and willing to handle uncertainty. We need to be able to look anew at what we think is the best thing to do. Without the willingness to be curious, we risk creating unintentional harm. One of the many contributors to the discussion surrounding these books has made the same point:
“People with good intentions can be utterly misguided….Good intentions are no assurance of goodness. The long term physical and psychological damage that folks with good intentions can cause is usually underestimated until its too late.”
I chose the debate about these books as an illustration of my epistemological point because it is such a vivid, gut-wrenching example. But there are many other contemporary debates that address this same dilemma, even if they appear less obvious or extreme — and perhaps even more contentious as a result. Should parents pick up their child when she cries or practice controlled crying? Should we sleep with infants or is that dangerous? Should we use the naughty step as a disciplinary tool? Could 1950s hospital policies that kept parents from visiting children have done lasting psychological damage to those children? Should we allow more cuddling in nurseries today? Should we ask parents to turn off mobile phones before coming into the nursery to collect children? Should health staff provide strong advice on breastfeeding or just accept this is a mother’s choice?
The early years science is telling us that all of these decisions have an impact on the child’s growing brain and psyche. This makes all of them epistemological issues. On what basis should we make decisions about each of these matters? Are the everyday decisions really relevant to a discussion about abuse? It can feel overwhelming to even start thinking in such interlaced terms.
The core question in regard to caring for our children is not ‘What should I do’? Instead, the core question is: ‘’How can I figure out what to do?’ Should my guidance come from, say, what my own parents did, what other parents in my culture do, what the author of a book suggests, what health professionals tell me, what governmental bodies advise, what my own gut instinct tells me? Being consciously aware of how we make decisions about childcare, and of the explanation behind that decision, is to engage in epistemological debate.
I draw attention to these sources because once you realise that we are engaged in epistemological dilemmas all the time, you begin to spot them everywhere. For instance, that is what was happening during the recent interview on This Morning, when Peaches Geldof got into what was billed as a ‘slinging match’ with Katie Hopkins about attachment parenting. (Thank you to the readers who sent me the link to this story.) Was that just an entertaining TV debate or does this stuff really matter?
That is what is happening in the Scottish Parliament, in its current debate about the Children and Young People Bill. Many commentators are now seriously worried about the Bill’s failure to give enough attention to the earliest years of life (pdf download), despite all that we now know about the rapidity of brain development in that period. Is this just governmental debate or does this stuff really matter?
It takes courage to engage in epistemological reflection. It makes us come face to face with uncertainty. How can we figure out what our children really need, in any given moment? How do we avoid creating unintentional harm?
We are about to enter the Christmas season. Children all over the world will be wound up emotionally from excitement, frustration, disappointment, and grief. Those emotions will lead to meltdowns of all sorts. And when parents and childcare staff have to respond to those meltdowns, they will be acting on the basis of largely unconscious epistemological beliefs. Do children need to be disciplined for ‘bad behaviour’, or do they need support in coping with intense emotional states – emotional states that we adults helped to create, by introducing children to the expectations of Christmas in the first place?
And if talk show host Jimmy Kimmel again encourages American parents to tease their children by purposely giving them a terrible Christmas present (see below) will Kimmel be creating a moment of entertainment or a moment of damage? And am I being peevish or insightful to even ask this? Once you’ve learned to spot epistemological dilemmas, you realise they can be found everywhere, even in the midst of holiday cheer.