Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Bringing Up Baby - theatre or bad science?

Yesterday, Channel 4 screened the first episode of Bringing Up Baby, a series which purports to compare three childcare theories - Truby King, Dr Spock, and the Continuum Concept - by testing them in practice. I say "purports" because these days it's anyone's guess whether shows are real or to some extent theatrical contrivance. Check out, for instance, the revelations that Bear Grylls in Born Survivor, for reasons of health and safety, had a deal of help in surviving; and that in Dumped, for the same reasons, the participants were living on a simulated rubbish dump.
      Bringing Up Baby is already attracting a deal of comment because one of its mentors, the nurse and celebrity consultant Claire Verity, aka The Baby Guru, is an exponent of the methods advocated by Sir Frederic Truby King. While his career was highly worthy in respect of raising consciousness about child welfare and lowering infant mortality, his agenda was essentially nationalistic, imperialist and driven by eugenics, and he was at the core of a celebrity following largely based on ideas of racial improvement. The fetishistic detail of this 'Plunket system' (named after Victoria Plunket, an early patron) raised eyebrows even in its time; Dr Helen Mayo, head of Adelaide's voluntary infant welfare movement, wrote "The chief drawback of the Plunket system is the fanaticism of the nurses; it becomes practically a religious cult with them". (See A History of Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific). Indeed, the biography at the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography describes Truby King himself as rather disorganised, and says the obsessive organisation came from the system's interpreters.

The controversial aspect in relation to Bringing Up Baby is Truby King's childcare method. Living at Scarba (PDF), an account of an Australian childcare home, describes it: Early 20th century childcare theory and practice was marked by a desire to 'grow superior children'. In the early 1920s the theories of Frederic Truby King (New Zealand) and John B. Watson (USA), who were both initially involved in the study of animals, dominated infant care theory. In general their theories encouraged parents or carers to train children to become independent, self-reliant, self-controlled and unemotional. It was thought that the removal of love and affection would enable children to become industrious, enterprising and resourceful ... Truby King advocated for children to have strict routines and regimented lives – habit training – which included regular, if not obsessive, times for feeding, exercise and sleeping. Furthermore, Truby King, along with other child experts, believed babies both preferred and benefited from solitude.
      The regime, then, involves no touching, minimal eye contact, leaving the infant alone for long periods, and so on. This goes radically against the modern view, informed by knowledge of infant neurobiological development, that early mother-infant bonding is crucial. See Bonding and Attachment in Maltreated Children: Consequences of Emotional Neglect in Childhood, which stresses the importance of activities such as "holding, rocking, singing, feeding, gazing, kissing, and other nurturing behaviors ... the most important factor in creating attachment is positive physical contact". Against this, Truby King's system has been long discredited.

As explored in this article reprinted at The Children's Project - Promoting Resilience: Changing Concepts of Parenting and Child Care - the history of changing theories on childcare is an interesting and worthwhile topic that deserves television airtime. Nevertheless, the ethics of testing on babies a system that is based on an archaic and harmful premise is questionable to say the least. The Channel 4 Family forum topic is currently quite busy on the topic, and the view of Claire Verity / Truby King methods is uniformly hostile.
      OK, so maybe I'm being naive about TV production, and maybe we're all being sucked into a non-controversy about a programme that's obviously a construct to dramatise these theories (Truby King vs Spock vs Continuum played out as caricatures: Control Freak vs Dated-but-Laidback vs Drippy New Age). I hope so, but we should be told if this is the case (the issue of faked TV scenarios is currently a hot topic in itself). Claire Verity, however, appears to be serious, and whether the scenario is real or concocted, I think it's irresponsible for Channel 4 to publicise a theory that's so out of tune not merely with childcare fashion, but with established developmental science.
      I'm pleased to see that Social Baby, the weblog of Helen and Clive Dorman (authors and co-founders of The Children's Project), is already well on the case, arguing that the use of the Truby King method may even be a breach of the Unicef Convention on the Rights of the Child. They in fact were contacted, when the programme makers were looking for proponents of the method, and provided plenty of evidence that it was discredited and plain damaging - but the programme went ahead anyway. The whole thing was filmed months back, of course - in May 2007, according to a Birmingham Sunday Mercury piece - so complaints are little belated.

No comments: