I had the privilege of participating in a unique London conference a few days ago, with some folks who may not be so well known in the U.S., but should be! Consider this my introduction of some of them to you. This was written in present tense as the conference took place:
I’m sitting in a lovely auditorium at the Institute of Child Health at University College London where the “Light on Parenting: Conception Through the Early Years” conference has just begun. I’m realizing that the best way for me to share the gems from this conference is to do it pretty much in real time. Highlights. Things that pop for me (and hopefully pop for you). So here goes!
The opening keynote is being given by Robin Grille, author of the extraordinary book Parenting for a Peaceful World. He has prefaced a dismal history of child treatment throughout our human history with a few bits of good news:
“There is at the moment an unprecedented oneness in our concerns re: environmental disaster, nuclear armament, etc., At the same time, when has there ever been a time in our history when social evolution is unfolding so very fast? This is happening precisely when we’re sharing this deep longing for a fundamental paradigm shift in how we relate to our fellow humans and our non-human environment.
“We’re here because we know something (that world situations begin with how we treat children) but we’re not acting according to what we know!”
Robin gives a compelling overview of the psychohistory of childrearing in the world — a dimension of his book that is absolutely riveting — the sad history of our human family, beginning in Roman days and going through the Renaissance, inc. infanticide, child sacrifice, sexual abuse, mass abandonment, death rate of up to 80%. Casual attitude toward the tender stages of childhood; children as chattel. He points out that when you look at the social policies of a nation, you can trace back a generation or two to see how the children were treated to see the connection between the experience of children and the world those children grow up to create!
Grille spotlights the contrast between U.S. childhood policies and our current situation, and those of Sweden and their social wellbeing. The US is one of only two countries (inc. Somalia) that has not signed the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child; corporal punishment (in school and at home) is still legal in vast swaths of our country; only 5% of our hospitals have adopted the “Baby-Friendly” initiative (whose most important impact is to protect and encourage breastfeeding; our breastfeeding rate is about 36% at 6 months); we’ve one of the highest rates of circumcision, and one of the lowest rates of quality maternity/paternity leave; among the highest rates of childcare use (with over 63% of children under five in institutionalized care).
We are also one of only two countries in the world with metal detectors in our high schools; juvenile boot camps are a convention; and our youth rates of extreme distress (depression, substance abuse, suicide) are soaring. We only just barely (2 years ago) did away with capital punishment for children tried as adults, but we still have LWOP for youth.
Contrasted w/ Sweden: they decided they weren’t going to wait for research results to come in, so they banned corporal punishment in 1979; all hospitals are baby-friendly; 69% are breastfed at 6 months; there is high-quality maternity and paternity leave (80% of one’s previous salary rate, plus option to take 3 years at a lower rate). And most amazingly — are you sitting down, oh corporately saturated Mothering readers?? — it is against the law to target advertising to children under 12!!!
There is a stunning connection between the institution of these progressive policies over the past 30 years, and drops in youth crime, substance abuse, homicide rate, and — again, stunningly, as we see the wide reach of progressive child policies into our relationship to our non-human world — a drastic drop in the use of fossil fuels! (Their goal is to no longer be fossil-fuel dependent by 2020.)
To my delight, Grille named out loud the commonly raised resistance to such family-centered policies (i.e., the widespread recognition that children need their mothers): the radical feminist argument that this threatens to jettison women back to the tied-by-the-apron-to-the-home trope of the 50s. His response? Then why is Sweden — which has most dramatically adopted these policies — the country w/ the highest level of gender equality in the professional and political arenas?! (It is also in the top 10 on the global peace index and the sustainability index, by the by.)
Grille notes that as he’s been researching the emergent curriculum movement — such democratic education approaches as Summerhill, unschooling, etc. — he discovered that some of the adopters of this movement were finding a completely unexpected (and unplanned) outcome: “The kids aren’t beating each other up anymore!” Grille thus considers the emergent curriculum movement as a treatment for social violence.
A biochemist and neurochemist, Dr. Glover is professor of perinatal psychobiology at Imperial College London who has applied her expertise in biological psychiatry to the issue of mothers and babies. Most specifically, how a mother’s stress and anxiety in pregnancy impacts child development through adolescence (at least). She has traced the association between prenatal stress and such a range of negative developmental outcomes as anxiety/depression; ADHD and other developmental and behavioral disorders; impaired cognitive development, particularly around language; infant sleep problems; and possibly contributors to autism. Dr. Glover’s work has inspired me since my own doctoral program specializing in prenatal psychological development, and I’ve cited several of her articles from the British Journal of Psychiatry.
Dr. Glover gives it to us straight: it is not just extreme or chronic (“toxic”) stress** during a woman’s pregnancy that can negatively impact her baby’s development. A whole list of stressors (including what’s actually technically called in research parlance as “daily hassles”) are important to the developing baby. [**I fear that in my new book Parenting for Peace I may have pulled this punch to a certain extent, in my devout wish to not freak parents and pre-parents out. I focus on the negative impact of chronic, extreme stress, which is certainly significant, but I give short shrift to the more quotidian stresses.]
A practitioner in polarity, craniosacral and prenatal / birth therapies, David Haas turned the mood in a lovely way from highly intellectual / cognitive exploration of this area, to a more experiential, practical one. His presentation — “How Babies and Children Show Us the Parenting They Need” — began by suggesting that at our soul level, we know what we need. He asked, “What does it take for a little one to show us what she needs?” Answer is basically resources and safety. Then she’s more likely to show us her story. “I need you, my parent, to be in a supported and resourced place so I can show you my story.”
David goes on to describe the very practical elements of how he works with babies in the style of Ray Castellino which can inform parents in how to engage with and foster healthy connection with Key elements are:
mutual support and cooperation
contact (brief, frequent eye contact; physical contact)
confidentiality (On this point, I loved how Haas illustrated just how much security for a child is fostered by a parent — or therapist — who holds firm, loving boundaries. The child’s unconscious perception can naturally be, “If that boundary can be held firmly, then think of all the other aspects of me and my safety will be held securely.”)
Q&A (in which I often find some of the most juicy material!)
One audience member noted that the take-aways for her from David Haas were a) how important it is for parents to live an authentic life (hey here!!); and b) and how slowing down our daily pace truly serves our children. (Again, hey here — “Rhythm” is #3 of the seven principles on which my book Parenting for Peace is based.)
Robin Grille summed a lot up in the admittedly “bumper sticker” comment that “Connection Heals.” (Have I said Hey here lately…?!) He points out that “babies are not equipped to be separate.”
Robin also notes that there is a sort of cruelty in all this information about how what we do this early in our childs’ lives carries such profound lifelong implications for them. (The word I sometimes use is “brutality.”) So there is the need to bring this material to parents (and pre-parents) with utmost compassion, understanding, support and encouragement. I thought there was quite a bit of that in evidence at this conference indeed!
By Marcy Axness, PhD, author of Parenting for Peace: Raising the Next Generation of Peacemakers