Wednesday, June 06, 2007

John Bowlby

I've occasionally heard John Bowlby mentioned in "Nurseries are all evil" conversations, so I thought I'd read for myself.

I recently finished "Childcare and the Growth of Love" which was first published in1953. It came out of the context of the end of the second world war, and was the easy-reading version of a UN report on homeless children. There were many children displaced or orphaned during WWII in Europe, and Bowlby was one of the people who studied the effects of different kinds of upheaval.

Not surprisingly, the studies of the time all showed that children are happier at home than in an institution, even if their parents are pretty unsatisfactory, and they are better off with continuity of care in a foster home or orphanage than having lots of different careworkers. So "families" in orphanages were seen as one partial solution. This was all pretty shocking at the time - less than 10 years earlier than Bowlby's studies, children were regularly being evacuated from London and other major cities without their parents. Their physical safety was the main concern, but the emotional damage of such enforced separation had not really been taken into account. Nowadays, of course, it's taken as read that the babies in Rumanian orphanages who were only looked at when it was feeding or nappy changing time would be emotionally, physically and intellectually stunted.

Bowlby quite reasonably concludes that the best place for a child to be is with its parents, and that the state is better placed putting its welfare resources into supporting families rather than whisking children away into institutions, and my understanding is that that is now well entrenched in welfare provision, certainly in the UK.

But he then makes this extraordinary non sequiteur. Children are best brought up in their homes (agreed) so, says Bowlby, mothers shouldn't be going out to work, but should be staying at home with their children. He was, of course, writing at just the moment when thousands of men were being demobbed and needed employment, and I think that must have been the motivation behind the judgement, because his evidence was quite clear that living in an institution is bad for children, and that foster homes are a poor second to the real family home, but his evidence didn't actually show that day nurseries or child minders are a bad thing.

Don't get me wrong. I think day nurseries and child minders may well be a bad thing for small children, but Bowlby doesn't show it, at least, not in this book. Suggestions for further reading in the comments please...


Anonymous said...

It's not surprising that orphanages and etc during WWII would be horrible, is it?

But to generalise that unsatisfactory parents are always better than any alternative seems to be pushing it beyond reason.

Realistically, how many parents have your dedication, knowledge and willingness to help their children? You hang in those mainstream forums, you see how horrible their parenting philosophy is.

The great majority of parents are selfish, boring, they don't know how to play with their children, they don't think, like us, that their obligation and responsability is to be helpers, facilitators, not disciplinarians.

The majority of parents spends their time twarting their children and getting angry at them. The best mainstream parenting is still about avoiding tantrums, not because there's real concern with the distress of children but because adults don't want to look bad. Because adults think children are people in the making and exist to do what their told.

Even alternative parents are horrible. You see how the incidence of childhood mental disorders (as questionable as they are) is high in alternative forums.

While the mainstream parent is more likely to think of their children as naughty, the AP mum thinks of their children as very special. Not to mention they worry more with the environment, how food colours alters their children's behaviour and all sorts of idiocy.

emma said...

what alternative can you see that would be better for the children? State enforced boarding schools for children of bad parents????

That's the point - that at least when left within their own family situation, children have a chance of finding alternative support within their community of school friends and neighbours. But institutionalising someone has always got to be the last resort. That's what the research was showing in the 1940s and as far as I know opinions haven't changed about it.

Anonymous said...

I don't know what alternatives. There are adults that are grateful they were taken away from their abusive parents and adopted by caring people.

As caring as neighbors can be (and I think a sense of community is disappearing), they cannot do anything against parental authority, unless the state interferes.

Anonymous said...

Try Steve Biddulph's 'Raising Babies' for discussion of the evidence of day care being detrimental (which is much newer than Bowlby's work).

BTW, I have little patience with any approach which leaps straight from the belief that children should be looked after at home to the belief that this is somehow exclusively the job of the female parent.

Anonymous said...

thank you for your comment and for the suggestion. I agree wholeheartedly with your impatience :-)


Anonymous said...

Hello! I am doing my under graduate dissertation on Bowlbys attachment theory and the effects of day care on children's social and emotional development, so will let all you know what I come up with.

As with any controversial issue it's important to look at the whole picture - day care isn't necessarily "bad" for children's development and there are oher variables to consider, such as, the quality of care provided, the length of time there and how much interaction the child receives when he/she is with their caregivers. Like anything day care is ok, even beneficial in moderation.

The best daycare providers are those with a low staff turn over and a small body of staff. Those who engage is lots of free, imaginative, child orientated play. The adults role is facilitate, support and encourage children's learning (Vygotsky, Bruner)

emma said...

thank you for your comment, anonymous. I look forward to hearing (I'd forgotten all about the Biddulph book - must get it on my amazon wishlist!)

rebecca said...

where were you educated and what university did you attend?

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