Only YOU can develop your child’s brain!

Child centered parenting is a relatively new phenomenon, made possible by the increased security and increased leisure of contemporary life. Where once it was commonplace to send even young children out to work to contribute to the family’s support, childhood is now acknowledged as a protected space.

The change in philosophy has led to a change in the expectations about mothers. After World War II mothers, who were previously held responsible for raising healthy children with good manners, were also tasked with raising emotionally secure adults. This responsibility was seen as requiring a “child centered” approach, giving pride of place to children’s needs over mothers’ needs.

So far, so good. But in the intervening years, the purported responsibilities of mothering have grown dramatically, notably expressed as a commitment to “intensive mothering” also known as attachment parenting. Among those responsibilities is one entirely new claim, the notion that mothers are not responsible merely for physical health, acculturation and emotional security, but are also responsible for a child’s brain development. Whereas there is copious scientific evidence to support assigning the health and socialization tasks to mothers, there is little to none supporting the notion that mothers exercise substantial control over children’s brain development. No matter. An virtual industry has arisen to promote the idea that only mothers can develop a child’s brain.

Canadian sociologist Glenda Wall details the new responsibility in her paper Mothers’ experiences with intensive parenting and brain development discourse.

Over the 1990s and into the current decade government agencies, non-profit foundations, and child-rearing experts undertook to educate parents and the public in general about the importance of spending ample, one-on-one quality time with children in order to stimulate brain development and future brain potential…

The claims being made in the advice literature that has resulted, while presented as fact, have been the subject of some scientific debate. Several authors suggest, among other things, that there is in fact little evidence in the field of neurology to support the claim that ‘extra enrichment’ … has any beneficial effect on future intelligence or success.

Despite scientific critiques however, the brain development advice itself borrows from the language and authority of neuroscience to frame children’s brains as technologically complex machines that need the correct inputs in order to attain maximum efficiency at a later time …

Wall explains how this new responsibility has put increased pressure on mothers.

Parents and caregivers are cast as the engineers and programmers charged with the task of making the correct inputs, and the potential consequences of neglecting to give children what they need in this regard are portrayed as dire…

In other words, there are now new ways for mothers to screw up and bring opprobrium down on themselves. Not only are mothers blamed for children’s poor manners and psychological issues, but they are now held to be at fault if their children are not intellectually superior.

Wall’s critique is insightful, not merely because she explores the lack of evidence for our new found belief that mothers are responsible for optimal brain development. Wall also casts light on the cultural assumptions that buttress this belief: the assumption that we exercise far more control over health and development than we actually do, and the assumption that parents should do more than aspire to intellectual and professional success for children, they should consciously plan for it.

In an age of intensive, and child-centered parenting, the imperative for parents to plan for, control, and manage the lives of their children to optimize their future chances … The institutional practices that have grown up around prenatal education and planning, the promises made in the marketing of educational toys, and the promotion of lessons, and various types of cultural enrichment all contribute to a cultural understanding that parents (and especially mothers) have a duty, and the ability, to control and shape the lives of their children to a very fine degree.

These assumptions have profound implications for mothers and children.

The view of childhood embedded in brain development discourse is certainly one of children as highly malleable, as parental projects full of potential, but potential that can only be activated with appropriate and intensive parental inputs. Children’s current happiness is also emphasized less in this discourse than is their future potential for success.. Rather it is desirable only in so far as it contributes to potential success, and coincides with parental behavior that promotes brain development. At the same time childhood intelligence has become elevated as an important virtue (over and above happiness) and manifestations of it are more likely to be seen as evidence of good parenting.

Hence the moralizing and hectoring that is so common among attachment parenting proponents. Everything they champion – breastfeeding, babywearing, etc. – is not merely a choice, but it is supposedly a demonstration of commitment to raising smarter, more successful children. In other words, mothering has become a competition.

The focus on intelligence in brain development discourse is linked to an implicit endorsement of competition in this regard between children and between parents. As Nadesan notes … the brain development turn in the 1990s accelerated a trend in parental desires to have children who exceed the norm intellectually…

Proponents of attachment parenting need to look carefully at the assumptions underlying their philosophy and stop the hectoring and moralizing that seem to flow from their philosophy.

AP proponents assume that they can enhance the neurodevelopment of their own children and disparage mothers who refuse to optimize the neurodevelopment of their children. Yet there is really no evidence that mothers’ choices enhance neurodevelopment and hence no basis to assume that mothers who make different choices don’t care about their child’s intelligence.

AP proponents assume that children in their role as future adults are in competition with one another and that mothers should strive to give their children competitive advantages. They also assume that parents are in competition with each other and that a child’s achievements are weapons in that competition. The parent with the smartest child wins.

Of course it takes many years to find out whose child is the smartest and no one wants to wait. Because of their implicit belief in their ability to control outcomes, AP proponents don’t bother to wait. They simply compete on the basis that their children are going to be smarter than those of women who make different choices!

Attachment parenting is a parenting philosophy, but it is also a reflection of cultural assumptions and simple human competitiveness. AP proponents believe that they are fashioning superior children and have contempt for those who make different parenting choices. They assume, imply and often flat out assert that mothers who make different choices don’t care to give their children a competitive advantage. It hasn’t occurred to them that many mothers know that AP practices don’t give children a competitive advantage and indeed reject the notion that raising children has anything to do with competition.