In her book “The Selfish Society – How we all forgot to love one another and made money instead” Sue Gerhardt makes an intelligent and compelling link between British politics of the past 30 years and the general decline in our sense of community and compassion for others which has undoubtably left many people deeply unfulfilled in life, struggling to form meaningful relationsips and resorting to filling their homes with attractive objects rather than the warm smiles of family and friends.
This publication is a natural progression from her earlier, highly acclaimed book “Why Love Matters – how affection shapes a baby’s brain” in which she explains that the type of environment an infant grows up in, will affect the physical architecture of his brain, so that babies who receive a constant supply of nurturing attention will have enormous advatages, in terms of things like emotional intelligence, over children who were ignored, neglected and abused through their early years; synapses grow in certain areas of the brain in response to what the baby is experiencing. Serotonin and dopamine are produced in high levels in the infant that is frequently cuddled and generally doted on and the hormone oxytocin turns off his stress system – this is the beginning of learning how to manage his emotions. Infants who’s emotional needs are not met, produce high levels of the hormone cortisol which interferes with the pathways which allow the child to sooth itself and the baby is unlikely to develop this ability to manage extreme emotions successfully. The current trend of controlled crying, where parents are urged not to meet their baby's needs but to leave him in a distressed state for a specific period of time, is simply teaching the child that his emotional wellbeing is not important and that he cannot rely on a responsive human being to provide comfort when he is upset. Such children are unlikely to develop trust in adults and will seek the comfort they need from objects –dummies, toys and food for example. In later life these pacifiers will become material possessions, alcohol, drugs, gambling, pornography and so on.
In many ways this model of parenting creates the ideal capitalist child – Crave things, things you can buy when you are feeling low, not people, not love and kindness; People will constantly let you down, but there will always be an endless sea of objects you can buy!
Gerhardt explores different parenting types in terms of the traditional classes; working-class parents have tended to favour a strict approach to parenting, with physical punishment – smacking – very common as a way of managing the child’s behaviour, intimidating the child into submission with the lesson that the world operates by bigger people with lots of power bullying smaller people with little power and the child internalises this model. This ‘worked’ in a sense when the parents themselves displayed traditional working-class behaviours like outward self-restraint, modesty and an acknowledgement of their own place in life (behaviours often associated with religion) but since Thatcherism arrived in 1979 the culture of self-restraint and caring what other people think of you has largely gone out of the window, and so more and more working-class children are growing up in families where parents consume on demand – from mobiles, laptops and giant TVs to drink, clothes, hair and nails, all fuelled by celebrity magazines promising happiness if you just have the same shoes as some footballer’s wife.
Children raised in traditional middle-class families have previously tended to enjoy a more relaxed, accepting type of parenting with the child being encouraged to develop his own individual personality, rather than being beaten into submission and expected to conform without questioning those who discipline him. This largely existed because middle-class mothers did not need to work and so were able to give their children more time; and being better off financially meant they didn’t have a lot of the pressures on them that working-class parents had to endure - they naturally experienced a more relaxed way of life. But when property prices soared from the 1980s onwards, this left even middle-class couples needing two incomes to maintain a mortgage – in fact the idea of the two income family with babies being cared for by a live in nanny or a private or state run nursery – was promoted as the new ideal. The Thatcher administration seized an opportunity to exploit the women’s movement from the 70s so that 40 hours a week working on the till at Tesco’s was portrayed as a modern lifestyle choice which somehow allowed mothers to be more fulfilled than if they were at home baking brownies with their toddlers. It has often been said that, on reflection, women’s lib ultimately did very little for women and even less for children. New Labour was just as capitalist in spirit as any Conservative government and saw no reason to reverse this trend which has become so much a part of modern culture that people like Sue Gerhardt (and myself) who advocate one or other parent staying at home for the first 2-3 years to look after their babies are seen as completely out of sync with what modern women want and need from life. If this is really so though, how come so many women report feeling guilty and anxious at leaving their infants with strangers all day; how come so many express feelings of regret that they might be missing out on the most important stages of their children’s development? In truth, I think mothers are often quite confused about what they need out of life, they're more exhausted than they ever dreamed was possible and can feel extremely emotional for months after giving birth. Many probably go along with what society is pushing at them because they don't feel strong enough to challenge any of it.
The concept of nursery care is also explored extensively in this book and the author encourages you to think about what babies actually need most in that first one or two years of life. Newborns are programmed to seek out an emotional connection, explains Gerhardt, they will focus on a parent's facial expressions and often copy them. If you stick your tongue out at your infant it's striking to observe him sticking his tongue out back at you! The baby’s brain is hardwired to mimic the behaviour of its carers, to internalise the behaviours of its parents from the word go because survival depends on learning the rules of the culture it’s growing up in. Fail to adopt these patterns of behaviour and that tiny vulnerable child risks being rejected, it simply can’t survive in those early years without the care of adults. So the child is programmed to adopt the same habits as its parents, including emotional responses as previously mentioned; this emotional development is the earliest learning in the child’s life and it needs a lot of one to one contact to successfully achieve this.
The main problem with nurseries is, they just don’t have the staff levels to offer the extensive one to one attention babies brains are geared up for. Indeed if nurseries were to offer this required level of care they wouldn’t be commercially viable! And as if that wasn’t bad enough, staff members come and go in organisations; there is absolutely no guarantee that the people your baby is desperately trying to form an attachment with will be around for very long. Add to this the fact that nursery staff are often quite young and inexperienced in life and perhaps not fully emotionally mature themselves yet, and the complications become obvious. The ideal nursery worker would probably be an experienced mother already herself, but how many women in their 30s and 40s would be enthusiastic about changing other people’s babies’ nappies all day for minimum wage! So it’ll continue to be 18 year olds with a basic NVQ in hygiene and nutrition who continue to provide a service in day care centres. And of course the bottom line is, how can this person genuinely convey love to your child, because in all honestly they do not love the babies they’re looking after - a nursery worker is not biologically programmed to love your baby - you are.
“The Selfish Society” successfully ties these aspects and many others together to present a really good argument against the trend of treating babies more like pets than the complex, vulnerable little human beings they actually are and it concludes by even offering solutions, rather obvious solutions when you think about it. The author makes a good case for encouraging parents to share the responsibility for childcare, with both working reduced hours to fit around their children’s needs – if neither feels they can be fulfilled being a fulltime stay at home parent. She suggests investment into community centres where parents can meet other parents to get support and adult company while their children play together in a safe environment; she recognises that existing in a house or flat day in day out, is incredibly isolating and with families being less extended now than in years gone by, this is one reason many women give for returning to work. Being alone with a crying baby all day and having no-one to offer help and to meet some of your basic needs is just too stressful.
I have only touched on the big topics the book focusses on, but it covers much more, from the impact of religion on childrearing over the centuries to the personality problems some of the famous world leaders undoubtedly had and their resulting narcissism and paranoia that has driven society increasingly towards a collective state of fear and bigotry, hostility and war.
I would urge every parent and prospective parent to read this book, I’d urge everyone who cares for others in their work to read it – from teachers to nurses to therapists to dinner ladies. And I’d implore politicians and health and welfare policy makers particularly to buy a copy and to study its chapters at length…
You can buy "The Selfish Society" here: