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Robin Grille

 Longueville, 2005, 428 pp., p/b – ISBN 1 921004 14 2

This extraordinary and far-reaching book will transform your understanding of how differing practices of rearing children impact on social evolution, particularly with respect to violence and war. The title indicates the direction of the argument, namely that more supportive and empathic child-rearing practices will eventually lead to less repressive social structures and a diminution in social violence. The book is divided into seven main parts. The first makes the case for how parenting changes the world, and is followed by history of childhood through the ages.  This is then related to the ways in which child-rearing affects particular nations.  The book moves on to a discussion of how one moves from authoritarian to authoritative parenting, and explains how emotional development is related to the healthy growth of the brain.  Stages of emotional development are described in more detail, and the conclusion asks how we can best raise emotionally healthy children. From this brief outline, it will be apparent that the book has profound implications not only for parents, but also for educators and policymakers.

No reader can fail to be shocked by the history of childhood.  The author moves through six modes: the infanticidal, the abandoning, the ambivalent, the intrusive, the socialising and the helping. Children have been sacrificed, mutilated, abused and abandoned. For instance, between 1879 and 1881, 69,000 babies were abandoned in Sicily.  In 18th-century Paris about a quarter of babies were dumped and about three-quarters were sent out into the country to wet nurses.  The wet nurse gradually mutates into the nanny but most parents of hundred years ago kept their children at a physical as well as emotional distance – the boarding school was symptomatic of this process , even though attitudes have moved on enormously and flogging has been abolished. Child labour exists even in our own times, but at least the practice of swaddling has all but disappeared.  It is interesting to read about the influence of Rousseau, whose child-centred attitudes were shocking at the time.

Nowadays, most societies are in a transitional phase between what the author calls the socialising and the helping mode.  The socialising mode is based on conformity, obedience and control; many readers will recognise their own experience in this description, which is amplified in explanations of the main tools used –  corporal punishment, shaming and manipulation.  The helping mode, by contrast, prioritises the emotional development of the child and is informed by the new literature on emotional intelligence. Patriarchal social structures based on male dominance and female submission, often involving wife-beating, provide the most toxic childhood environment. Similar patterns can also to be found among fundamentalists of various persuasions. There is a strong correlation between sexuality and sin, and an emphasis on corporal punishment with overly defined roles for boys and girls in terms of aggression and submission.  Not unnaturally, the emotional development of both sexes is severely compromised.  Even more extreme are examples of honour killing of young girls who, it is claimed, have shamed their families. The author gives some chilling examples of the childhoods of dictators such as Stalin, Hitler and Saddam Hussein. If, as he argues, violence is a learned response, then such circumstances provide perfect breeding grounds. This must surely also apply to families from which violent youth crime emerges. Violence is often transgenerational and it is well-nigh impossible to develop an empathic response to other people.

The section on the shaping of personality shows how our early responses can be hardwired into the nervous system, for instance for ‘fight’ responses in violent leaders and shame-based or fear-based submission in the obedient followers. It turns out that human contact is crucial for the proper development of parts of the brain concerned with the regulation of emotion, so that ‘when a child is consistently treated gently and empathically, this produces in the brain a biochemistry that is incompatible with violence.’ By implication and on a larger scale, war becomes neurologically impossible. More generally, implicit memories from childhood affect future patterns of relationship and may even be held as body memory.

A long section examines five stages of early childhood emotional development in terms of five corresponding rites of passage: the right to exist, the right, indeed, the right to have support, the right to freedom and the right to love.  Each of these is explained in detail, with a corresponding set of positive and negative core beliefs. These can act as a mental checklist for the reader, which is a very revealing process, corresponding as it does to many scripts running as emotional software programs in our personalities.

At a practical level, research is beginning to show the value of parenting support centres and more general education on parenting. A module on the history of childhood would make interesting study material for PSHE or citizenship courses. Governments are beginning to become aware of the importance of emotional development in children, but in many cases the parents will also need help. The author quite rightly asserts that war is not the answer to terrorism, ‘because this is a policy that fails to take into account the childhood causes of violence.’ Less costly and more effective would be an emotional education programme fostering tolerance and mutual understanding. The author forecasts that as families become less patriarchal and authoritarian and schools become less repressive and coercive, societies will evolve more real democracy and will settle their differences by means other than war. It is an optimistic vision, but one based on much cross-disciplinary research from psychohistory, neuroscience, child psychology and social psychology.  As I remarked at the beginning of this review, this is an enormously significant book with profound implications for education, politics and the creation of a truly sustainable world.  Interested readers can also consult www.our-emotional-health.com


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