Sue Palmer’s address, November 2009
The future is not some place we are going to but one we are now creating
Few of us can have come away from Sue Palmer’s enlivening talk without inspiration. Never doubt, she said, that a handful of committed citizens can change the world and I am sure that she inspired us to believe that we at FTM can do just that.
Showing her skills as a teacher of literacy, she spoke without a note, telling us that what had prompted her own work on children’s upbringing was returning to school life after a gap bringing up her daughter. As a consultant, she visited schools all over the country and was shocked to discover that children had ballooned in size, especially in poor areas, while their attention span had diminished. She explained that, while it is in our DNA to be able to talk, learning to communicate is built up on learning to watch and learning to listen. Babies cry with an accent. We are born with the ability to speak any language fluently, but the neurons are pruned to the particular patterns of speech taught us essentially by our mother, or other long term carer.
Sally Ward, to whose research into listening skills she paid tribute, found in 1984 that 20% of children were not developing their listening skills. In 1999, the number had grown to 40% and she found that half the children she looked at were unable to tune into their parent’s voice. By 2006, 50% and more of children in disadvantaged areas had poor language skills. In Stoke-on-Trent, this was 84%.
There could be many causes of this. One is the amount of noise in our environment. Adults know how to screen out background sounds but babies have not learnt to do this. Another is pushchair design: babies who face away from their mothers cannot interact with the pusher as they walk along. Sue discovered that the reason pushchairs were designed to face forwards rather backwards is because in the 70’s designers found they could create a safer lightweight model if the weight of the child was up against the mother. Interaction between adult and baby was never considered.
Sue next spoke about Peter Hobson and his book “The Cradle of Thought” in which he describes the dance of communication which takes place between mother and child and is centred on eye contact. It is apparently easier to make that contact with girls than with boys. Once the interaction has been established, the outside world is drawn in too. The mother looks at the child, and then at the outside world, and the baby follows the direction of the mother’s gaze, or the other way round. Through repeated instances of this, it dawns on the child that it has its own point of view. It is attached but separate. Thus is empathy born and awareness of others, from which also comes awareness of self, “I think, therefore I am”.
At around 18 months, the baby begins to register that there are multiple perspectives and this in turn evolves into symbolic play, which is something animals never engage in. Symbolism is, of course, a part of language, and at 18 months children start to use language for themselves, linking words together for their own purpose and not just to imitate. Peter Hobson is a specialist in autism, to which some children can be predisposed genetically. However, the poor communication skills of the Romanian orphanage children show that upbringing also plays a part. Those born congenitally blind likewise are predisposed to autistic like symptoms.
There are all sorts of things today which take from the eye contact which is natural between mother and child. From the beginning of the 80’s, television began to be broadcast throughout the day. Sue confessed to having used it herself to entertain herself and her baby in those lonely days when she suddenly found herself marooned at home. It is not that little ones necessarily stop playing while the TV is on, but there is a constant draw which interrupts play. In the 80’s, videos arrived and became additional electronic babysitters. Boys are particularly good at being calmed by programmes devised for babies. At the end of the 90’s, Baby Einstein appeared, advertised as being not only calming but educational. In fact, it has been shown to depress language skills and, after a campaign in the US, Disney is now offering compensation to parents. It is not that all screen based activities are bad. It is when the 20% of time using them becomes 80% that the trouble sets in. The results of all this distraction from real baby play have been found in a proliferation of mild cases of autism and of Attention Deficit Disorder.
Sue decided that all of this was so serious she wanted to find out more. She contacted two experts on each of a range of subject areas which seemed to her to impinge on “Toxic Childhood”, the name she gave her ground-breaking book. Even since writing this, more technological innovations have burst upon society. The social networking sites, for instance, only came over from the States in 2006 but are now part of the fabric of most young people’s lives. They were designed for students – those in their 20s and late teens. Are they really right for children as young as eight?
Girls are the more attracted to networking sites; for boys it is computer games which again have grown phenomenally in number. They are marketed from the screen by professionals who use all sorts of tactics to get at children. Pester power is so effective that 60% of cars in the USA are sold through advertisements which appeal specifically to children. Aggressive marketing to the young is a real problem in our consumer society of which many people are not sufficiently aware. It has happened at the same time that women have been pushed back into the workforce and so have been removed from protecting their children.
In the Government’s Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) focus is given to literacy and numeracy skills. The Institute of Education (London University) was commissioned by the Government to study what really makes for success in early years upbringing. It found no connection with early literacy but a huge correlation with social and emotional skills, an answer the Government did not want and so suppressed.
In actual fact, children continue to need exactly the same things that they have ever done. Sue listed these as:
Love, which includes time and real personal and individual care. Into this love will come the dance of communication but also the balance of discipline. It is actually important to get enough sleep (for mother as well as child) and for social life to be balanced around it. Once a child is around 12ish, it will increasingly learn to regulate its own life, but until then it is the parents who need to teach self-control through words and example. Good education is of course essential: literacy changes the very function of the brain.
Play is absolutely vital. Given the right environment, children will lead their own play. Through it, they make sense first of the natural world and then of the people within it. We are now sold on the idea that play is something you buy, but actually the best play is something which comes from the imagination: making dens, creating mixtures, constructing things, pretend and make-believe. Children’s play is usually influenced by the life of the grownups around them. There is nothing more tragic than when a modern-day eight-year-old thinks it is babyish to pretend. The fat in fast food is literally clogging up infants’ brains but junk play and junk culture generally is doing as much damage.
Sue did not leave us with a negative. She reminded us that giving children love, time and play are simple things and it is always possible for a society to return to giving them importance. The future is not some place we are going to but one we are creating. Mothering is there as a natural instinct and we must have faith in humanity and never doubt that a handful of thoughtful and committed citizens can change anything for the better.