Misusing Neuroscience in Public Policy
The Telegraph published an article Monday -- These two brains both belong to three-year-olds, so why is one so much bigger? -- with the picture below. The article originally appeared on its site in 2012.
This recent re-publication means it's making the rounds again on social media. It was even shared by a well-known "parenting expert," which goes to show why an understanding of science and politics is crucial: this article is not only scientifically incorrect, it's political propaganda.
Mother-Blaming in Public Policy
The Telegraph is a UK publication, and UK policymakers have been pushing for social policies that essentially police parents. And they’ve been using the infamous 3-year-old-brains picture above, along with misinterpretations of science, to support their policies. A number of UK researchers have been writing about this for years.
The idea is that in order to solve society's ills and create more productive citizens, mothers – particularly those from poverty – need to be monitored because:
"…chronic disadvantage reproduces itself across generations of the same families. There is a cycle of deprivation – lack of educational attainment, persistent unemployment, poverty, addiction, crime – which, once a family is in it, has proved almost impossible to break.
The way that the development of a child’s brain is dependent on the way that the child is treated by its mother explains why this depressing cycle happens."
This reasoning alleviates policymakers from having to directly address issues such as poverty or crime or lack of educational opportunities. Instead, we just need to fix the mothers’ parenting and voila! -- society's ills are cured.
The First Three Years Myth
The deterministic view of the first two or three years of life is NOT scientifically supported. (See also Critical Thinking About Critical Periods.) But it’s often used to scare parents into better parenting.
Yes, if you keep your baby in a closet and refuse to feed her, it is highly likely that her brain will look like the one pictured above on the right, and that will certainly have implications for the rest her life. But that's not what most parents are doing.
To attach this picture to phrases such as "the growth of brain cells is a 'consequence of an infant’s interaction with the main caregiver [usually the mother]'” is HIGHLY IRRESPONSIBLE. The image comes from a poorly conducted study and represents an extreme situation about which we know very little.
As I stated in 2014:
In the study this image was taken from, we don’t know the exact experience of the child on the right, but we do know that some participants “literally were raised in cages in dark rooms for the first years of their lives“ (p. 5).
The picture is NOT comparable to typically developing children living in typical situations. So why show it to typical parents and act as if this can happen to their children if they don't parent appropriately?
This misuse of neuroscience to create policies or nudge parents toward better parenting practices must stop.
Not only does it perpetuate mother-blaming as stated above (as if fathers and other caretakers are meaningless to a child's life), but it exacerbates parents' existing anxieties, which influences how they interact with their children.
Not to mention the fact that it’s just downright disrespectful to parents' intelligence.
Knowledge Influences Parenting
Knowledge leads to beliefs that influence behavior. In this instance, the knowledge is not properly portrayed.
Showing the above picture and then stating that growing healthy brains “literally requires positive interaction between mother and infant[; t]he development of cerebral circuits depends on it" might lead one to believe, for instance, that infants should never cry because crying is negative. (I’ve actually heard a parent say, “I’ve never let a tear drop from my child’s eyes!”) But crying isn’t a negative behavior that must be avoided. It's part of being human.
In my experience working with parents, I have seen these types of articles influence boundary-less and permissive parenting styles. These styles do not help children to self-differentiate, regulate their own behaviors and emotions, and develop resilience. Instead, they can make a child overly dependent upon a parent for emotion regulation, creating a relationship of enmeshment that continues beyond infancy, possibly disrupting the parents' own relationship, which is the foundation of the family system (regardless of whether the adults in that family are married, unmarried, divorced, opposite sex, same sex, etc., you have a child with someone, you're a family system.)
We can be emotionally close with our children and guide them towards effective self-regulation without being enmeshed with them, even during their infancy (and to be clear, I am not advocating being a strict, cold, or no-cuddling parent; what I'm suggesting is not either/or in nature). And the less enmeshed we are with our children, the more clearly we can see them for who they are and what their specific needs are.
If we want to help parents, we need to give them real information -- which is nuanced, not binary -- and stop manipulating them with poorly conducted and misinterpreted science.
And we need to hold our policymakers accountable for coming up with real solutions for societal issues rather than using mothers as scapegoats.