Correspondence: Steve Biddulph.
Are we, in spite of our relative affluence, becoming economic slaves, who must sacrifice essential human freedoms merely to be able to live? Or are we free, at least free enough, to have time for love, to be close, build families and develop communities sufficient to sustain us into a liveable future? It's hard to think of a question more central to every choice we make, as a nation and as individual human beings. Love takes time, and hurry is the enemy of love, eroding it and preventing its growth. When we hurry parents with economic pressures and a culture that only values earning and spending, we tear at the fabric from which healthy human beings are woven.
Child-development experts, myself included, have been cagey about pointing out two very large elephants in the living room of contemporary life. The first is that in terms of child-rearing ability, the capacity to raise intelligent, socially integrated and mentally healthy children, we have probably been going backwards for several hundred years. The hunter-gatherer peoples, who made the first 99 per cent of our history, survived by being some of the best parents on earth. Without fangs or claws, our species lived by social cohesion, communication, culture and intellect, and at its heart this meant transmitting nurturing abilities which if lost would mean extinction. I have studied the remnants of this culture across the Third World, from West Bengal to Papua New Guinea, and marvelled at the lovingness of the parents and the aliveness of the children. Some Tongan women I once spoke to expressed real horror that we would place a baby in a separate cot at night, let alone in a separate room. They regarded a baby's crying as something going badly wrong. What they would make of long day-care, or controlled crying, I shudder to think.
The second and very frightening consequence of this--the offspring elephant of the first, if you like--is that we are now creating mentally disabled young humans in epidemic--perhaps even dominant--numbers. ADHD, Asperger's, bipolar disorder, depressive and anxiety disorders, and their resulting addictive behaviours such as binge drinking or drug use, are now affecting 10 to 20 per cent of all young people. We now know that these disorders are developmental: they arise from a lack of the right experiences in the early weeks and months of life; they are disorders of attachment.
Canada's best-known psychiatrist, Gabor Mate, himself a Holocaust baby born in Nazi-occupied Hungary, has documented how brain development, 70 per cent of which must happen in the first five years of life, can be seriously impaired by parental stress. The regions of the brain that mediate calmness, self-soothing, emotional regulation, empathy for others, and also attending and focusing, can only be acquired if parents themselves possess these attributes and have time to pass them on. This transmission is very largely unconscious and automatic in the millions of small things that happy and settled parents naturally do with their child. The sudden epidemic of mysterious brain abnormalities is almost certainly the result of this disrupted parent-child interaction. We can blitz the child with medication, but the success is partial, temporary and sometimes harmful. We can ameliorate the deficiencies with love and care, but they are hard to undo.
Love is not a mystery to the neuroscientist. Its hormones, especially oxytocin, are clearly stimulated by touch, loving smiles, patient and attentive body language; and these things in turn stimulate the growth of the brain. Day-care staff of the best quality, fully aware they are being filmed and rated, only manage a fraction of the loving exchanges given by all but the most depressed mother or father. These exchanges, labelled "joint attention sequences," are the literal food of love, and they build the most advanced human cognitive skills we will ever acquire: the abilities to interpret, empathise with and manage the reactions of others, in fact to be able, by the late teens, to stand in another's shoes while still keeping a hold on one's own perspective. In short, to care about others as much as oneself. This is not just the highest level of cognitive development, it is the root of all successful couple, family and community life.
Young humans have suffered the loss of a number of primary ingredients of mental health as, over the last 150 years, our lives have moved further into the corporatised, individualistic way of life we now lead.
These losses can be summarised in four successive stages that have arrived like hammer-blows as we industrialised our lives. First, we lost our close daily contact with nature and its capacity both to develop our senses and soothe and integrate our mental state. (Pets, gardens and nature documentaries are about all we have left of this.) Secondly, we lost community: the network of caring, long-term relationships with people of several generations living in close proximity. Thirdly, we lost fatherhood: the strong and easy presence of men skilled at providing a male role model to boys and a positive masculine presence to girls. Finally, and most fatally, we are now seeing a decline of motherhood in the lives of children. (Anne Manne quantifies a clear reduction in the time children and teenagers spend with mothers or aunties or grandmothers. For girls in particular, this lack of real time has offset some of the gains of feminism in terms of self-esteem, hence the resurgence of eating disorders and anxiety about looks and image.)
These losses have not gone unnoticed, and there is considerable concern, based on sound research, about the devastating effects on child development. There are also pockets of good news: fathers have enjoyed a renaissance of late, almost trebling their time spent with children in the last thirty years. Parents themselves have begun to link up into a kind of resistance movement to the erosion of family and community. From the Australian Breastfeeding Association to Kids Free2B Kids (the very effective lobby group against the sexual com-modification of children in advertising) and the federal government's overdue confrontation with the alcohol industry, this movement is wide and deep. Our children's future seems poised in the balance. As many as 60 per cent of mothers still resist returning to full-time work until their children reach school age. The group that researchers term "slammers"--those parents who put babies into full-time day-care from under the age of six months--are still a minority, less than one in twenty families. And paradoxically these tend to be largely the most affluent parents; low-income parents fight returning to work and only do so reluctantly and with much grief and stress. Immigrant and refugee parents from more nurturing cultures are horrified by the idea of stranger-care and only use it in cases of direst need.
There have always been people who do not value time spent with their children and abrogate their duty of care. The worry is that this approach is being forced onto others, by housing prices, petrol costs and government policies on taxation and income support. Hence the fierce debate about paid parental leave. Parental leave provisions have made family life liveable in all the progressive social democracies of Europe, without visible harm to their economies. That we consign such matters to the Productivity Commission, as if it's an economic and not a moral or sustainability question, speaks for itself.
Something isn't working. As Manne points out, today we spend two to three times more on the basics of life, and spend twice to three times as much of our time doing so, as fifty years ago. Yet we work harder and longer. Someone somewhere is growing rich on this. Of course, it doesn't help that we now expect a quarter-acre house when once the dream was for that area of lawn and a veggie patch. But even a frugal family is in trouble today.
The risk of enslavement of the many by the few has always lurked in human society. Where it was once created by swords, whips and iron chains, today it comes as a combination of fear of poverty, our own greed and aspirations, and the lack of supportive community to buffer our vulnerability. We feel all alone. But there is still hope, and in the coming economic troubles this hope might actually flourish. Our own choices, supported by a government that sees the value of human cohesion and nurturing, might lead us to a devolution from a globalised to a human scale of living, where we live by caring more and consuming less and are richer for it.
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|Title Annotation:||LOVE & MONEY|
|Article Type:||Viewpoint essay|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2008|
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