‘The author’s contribution is directed at the encroachment of expertise into everyday life which has the effect of shrinking the category ‘normal’ and this has potentially adverse implications for everyone. Jan Macvarish illuminates this dimension and other contradictions with a wry, incisive style.’
Neuroparenting: The Expert Invasion of Family Life, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 116 pp. £45.00 (hbk). ISBN 9781137547323 Reviewed by: Sue White, University of Sheffield, England. In Critical Social Policy Volume 38, Issue 1, February 2018
It is time, says Jan Macvarish, for us to curb our neuro-enthusiasm. In this concise and insightful volume, she extends and collates her preceding work to make a case against the increasing colonisation of the everyday by expert discourses and new kinds of precarity. In this case, her concern is the invasion of intimate family life by a battalion of advice-givers, ‘how to’ guides and, sometimes, extreme forms of surveillance and coercion for the sake of our babies’ brains. First, I should state that I am in agreement with this thesis and have written at some length and at times with considerable ire about related matters. With my colours thus nailed to the mast, it will be clear that I might have needed rather less persuasion than others. However, Jan Macvarish has been thorough and her case is extremely well made and informative.
The chapters are presented as a series of discrete papers, each with its own abstract. Chapter 1 asks ‘What is Neuroparenting?’ and reviews recent attempts by the state to fix parents and parenting. It explains how neuromantras like ‘every day is a critical period’ and ‘windows of opportunity’ have moved out of the laboratory and clinic and into popular argot. At the heart of these, of course, is a contradiction and tension between vulnerability and plasticity which is revisited throughout the book and forms a key axis for parenting neurosis. This chapter charts the policy preoccupations with the first 1001 days on both sides of the Atlantic and, indeed, beyond. Attempts to universalise the concern with parenting and brain development, far from destigmatising have, the book argues, meant that nobody is deemed to be able to parent without expert augmentation. Biology, it seems, is good at producing the conditions for damage, but not very good at protecting the organism from the vagaries of the environment and its interactions with it. Helpful links are made with the attachment/intensive parenting discourses drawing out continuities that created the environment for neuroscience’s enticements.
Chapter 2 examines the main neuroscientific claims. It reviews the ‘myth of the first three years’ and goes on to discuss the emergence of a core brain story, facilitated by a relationship between the Harvard Center on the Developing Child and the FrameWorks Institute with dominant memes ‘the wondrous brain’ and ‘the vulnerable brain’, severed from the research base itself. The author observes:
The child development expert is the interpreter of the baby’s attempts at communication and must train the parent to be cognisant of its needs. The implication is that we have previously misunderstood the human infant … missing opportunities to develop their full potential … The parent is thereby demoted relative to both the baby and the parenting expert. (pp. 25–26)
Chapter 3 on neuroscience’s quest for authority is ambitious in scope and provides interesting insights into the internationalisation of philanthropy and the globalisation of the first three years movement. It briefly visits some of the primary animal work, but is not intended to be a comprehensive review. Rather, it is an illustration of the contradictions and the tendency of the arguments to be hoist by their own petard. The individualised mother caring for her individualised child is not the cultural and historical norm at all and the role of siblings is completely overlooked in the current settlement.
Chapter 4 examines the role of the state and the use of neuroscience to explain social problems. It charts the ascent of cross-party support for a focus on parenting to cure social ills with neuroscience making its first appearance in UK policy in 2003. Parenting support has now graduated and become ‘early intervention’. In this movement key ‘neuroparenting entrepreneurs’ emerge. Notable amongst these are Jack Shonkoff, Bruce Perry and, in the UK, George Hosking.
Chapter 5 discusses the therapeutic state and the instrumentalisation of everyday life. This develops the notion that we no longer have the privilege of privacy when we make baby talk and snuggle the head of our infant, just because it’s a nice thing to do, but are also required to perform this under an expert gaze. I would note that this imperative falls disproportionately on disadvantaged communities.
Chapter 6 concludes the book with the core argument that these ways of thinking produced a form of presumed helplessness in the face of the experience of parenthood with clear effects on everyone, including children themselves.
No doubt some readers will complain that this book pays insufficient attention to abusive parenting, but that is not its point. The author’s contribution is directed at the encroachment of expertise into everyday life which has the effect of shrinking the category ‘normal’ and this has potentially adverse implications for everyone. Jan Macvarish illuminates this dimension and other contradictions with a wry, incisive style.