Mean societies produce mean people

Babies haven’t changed much for millennia. Give or take a few enzymes this perfectly designed little bundle of desires and interests has not needed to evolve much. Of all primates, the human is the most immature at birth, after which brain growth accelerates and is ‘wired’ according to the kinds of experience the infant has. Provided there are a few familiar and affectionate people there to care continuously for him or her, baby will be fine. If not, evolution has taken care of that too. You live in a cruel world and treat him roughly? He will develop into a compulsively self-reliant and ruthless individual with little concern for others. Mean societies produce mean people. Through attentive care in the early years we may hope to produce thoughtful, curious and confident young people but our social arrangements are essentially hostile and competitive. Having a baby is regarded as an expensive undertaking rather than as a contribution to the future of society.

Encouraged by successive governments our world is geared to markets. “It’s the economy, stupid” means you can’t do anything without considering the immediate cost. The more this idea takes hold the stupider we become. The current government’s dedication to continuous welfare cuts hits children disproportionately. Neoliberalism is the enemy of children.

Evolutionary imperatives

This is not the environment in which humans evolved. An infant in a hunter-gatherer band – the way we all lived for 99% of our time on the planet – would have spent many hours being held, and not only by the mother. “Infants with several attachment figures grow up better able to integrate multiple mental perspectives”. We are programmed from the start to seek out third positions, to acquire the “capacity for seeing ourselves in interaction with others and for entertaining another point of view whilst retaining our own, for reflecting on ourselves whilst being ourselves.”

Systematic comparisons between sedentary foraging and farming people living now in neighbouring parts of the Congo basin show how much more egalitarian the foragers are. Men and women see themselves as equal. They hold and converse with their tiny children more intensively, they let the baby decide when to wean and teach them to share from an early age. Violence is rare, though teasing is common. Such children are more socialised than in the west and at the same time protected from catastrophe in the event of the mother’s death. Amongst the farmers, in contrast, “corporal punishment is not an uncommon response for young children who do not listen to or respect their parents or older siblings”.

In the modern world little public money is available for perinatal services, parental leave, for quality child care and universal education, affordable and secure homes, healthy food, subsidised transport and energy, sports fields, swimming pools, libraries, parks and playgrounds that make rearing children and adolescents more manageable and more successful. Tax, like children, is seen as a ‘burden’. So governments of all parties sign up to reducing it, yet still find money for bank bailouts and unsustainable wars. Whether local or national, tax should be a contribution to the common good, an instrument of social justice. It is collected from citizens, for citizens. In the current climate this equation is neither acknowledged nor understood. Yet something has been understood that was not clear before. There is a greater recognition that early intervention is a good idea: “the brain can be sculpted by experience”; the sooner the better.

Start at the beginning

When a woman becomes pregnant her physical and mental states impact on her child. From conception onwards the health and resilience of children – and the adults they will become – is compromised by stress, diet, maternal weight, drugs, genes and insecurity in their parents. Besides the impact on the mother herself, anxiety and depression during pregnancy and after it have significant long term effects on the child’s physical and mental health – particularly on boys – generating huge social costs. Pregnancy is a dangerous time for some women. The most socially deprived mothers are more likely to have very premature births or perinatal death. Low birthweight leads to poor outcomes; early intervention can reduce that.

Elegant research shows how already by a few months old babies are engaged in triadic relationships; they are affected by tensions between the adults caring for them. When caregivers are uncooperative infants may be “enlisted to serve the parents’ problematic relationship rather than to develop their own social competence”. Children will more likely thrive if caregivers – parents and grandparents, childminders, daycare and children’s centre staff, nursery teachers – get on with one another, like a good team. “Communication between parents and care providers is crucial to the quality of care.”

The routine availability and presence of health visitors and other staff supporting new parents and of Sure Start centres for children and families create the conditions for reliable care of children. In a context of skilled early years provision, infants whose parents are paid to spend time with them in the early months are less likely to die. “A ten week extension in paid leave is predicted to decrease post neonatal mortality rates by 4.1%”. This remarkable finding represents just the tip of an iceberg of developmental damage and pathology, modifiable by intensive early support for families.

Better training and pay for early years staff improves outcomes and reduces turnover. UK needs to learn from continental Europe the tradition of pedagogic professions: proper pay, status and training for the job, particularly when the families most in need are hard to engage. Looking after small children is demanding and stressful, requiring continuous professional development such as reflective discussion groups in which colleagues both support and learn from each other. Work with young families is a professional skill.

Inequality undermines trust

A collaborative partnership between caregivers does not in itself cost money, but is undermined by social disintegration, the most poisonous source of which is rising inequality. In Britain this has reached levels not seen since the 1920s. The much maligned 1970s was actually the most egalitarian in our history. Consider this: one index of social health is the number of boys born in comparison to girls. Because the male fetus is more vulnerable to maternal stress, women produce fewer boys when times are hard. (For example there is a fall in the ratio of boys to girls a few months after disasters such as massive floods or earthquakes, or the terrorist attack on 9/11). In England and Wales the highest ratio of boys to girls occurred in 1975. In terms of contented mothers it was the best of times.

Inequality creates stress in parents who can’t keep up, and anxiety in the better off who fear sliding down. No one is comfortable on a steep slope. It makes all of us less trusting and more averse to communal commitments, such as respecting our neighbours and paying tax. Infant mortality, mental illness, drug abuse, dropping out of education, rates of imprisonment, obesity, teenage births and violence are all higher in unequal countries like ours.

Though often disappointed, our ancient baby is born to expect some kind – a rather conservative kind – of socialism. What will today’s infants be talking about in 2050? If they know any history they will regret lost opportunities; our collective loss of vision that led to wasted generations. The success of the post war consensus was due in part to the fact that it lasted longer than one or two parliamentary terms, so that children could grow up, get educated and housed, find partners, get work and free healthcare without overwhelming instability or despair. The needs of a baby born today are precisely what they were for one born in the 1950s, or 50,000 years ago. New knowledge of infant development is catching up with evolved wisdom, yet we continue to ignore both, and build bigger obstacles to secure attachments.

 

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