Globe and Mail

It's once again time to spank loving parents

Saturday, April 3, 1999
JOHN BARBER
The Globe and Mail

Pity the happy family frolicking together in the playground on a sunny spring day. The parents' glowing faces, their perfect baby inhaling his first breaths of moist and redolent outdoor air. What pathetic losers.

The parents "mistakenly believe," according to the caption beneath their picture, published in this newspaper on Wednesday, "that a baby can manipulate its parents."

The experts are outraged by this gross ignorance and the unavoidable social calamity it presages. No telling what sad fate awaits that poor babe if their bureaucratic factotums don't swing into action and save him right now, before his tiny brain becomes "hard-wired" with misinformation promoted by yesterday's infallible experts.

Canadian parents "don't know the most important facts about fostering healthy development," say the latest experts, who belong to a high-profile group called the Invest in Kids Foundation. Alarmed at the widespread belief that it is possible to spoil very young children by giving them too much attention, which they lay at the feet of former expert Dr. Benjamin Spock, the current experts are promoting universal early-childhood education as a means of mitigating parental neglect and ensuring high achievement in later life.

Bringing children into school a few years ahead of time has an almost magical effect in ensuring academic success years and decades later, they maintain. It's an open-and-shut case, a sure thing, a magic bullet.

Without dwelling on the fact that successive claims about child development tend to contradict one another -- all of them purporting to rest on top-drawer scientific evidence -- one is always struck by how emphatic they are. Whether it's a 1920s dietician specifying the exact weight of strained carrots to be fed to every infant at precisely the same hour of day -- and don't be intimidated into altering the sacred scientific schedule by a two-hour crying jag -- or whether it's a modern researcher identifying the preschool interventions that will guarantee success on Junior's LSATs, there never seems to be room for doubt in this field.

That certitude is especially striking in the crusade launched by the Invest in Kids Foundation, because the program it favours has existed in the United States for more than 30 years. It's called Head Start. And even its promoters would blush at the claims being made for the would-be Canadian version.

A number of long-term studies have shown that the beneficial effects of Head Start's two years of preschool make little if any difference to academic achievement in the long term. The man who created it, Edward Zigler, recently warned specifically against seeing the program as a magic bullet.

"We must also guard against the impression that any one- or two-year program can, by itself, rescue a whole generation of children and families," he and co-author Susan Muenchow wrote in Head Start: The Inside Story of America's Most Successful Social Experiment.

In a 1990 article on Head Start in Science magazine, eminent U.S. psychologist Sandra Scarr noted that there is a great "mystique" surrounding early intervention but "no evidence whatever" that it makes a difference.

Such modesty is a tonic in the child development game, where "infant determinism" is a tenacious dogma. Presented in any number of supposedly scientific guises, it holds that entire fates are set in stone within the first few years of life, and therefore any parental "errors" made during that time are bound to have horrendous implications. It is so deeply ingrained that Jerome Kagan, the near-legendary Harvard developmental psychologist, devoted much of his latest book -- Three Seductive Ideas -- to debunking it.

As one of the founders of developmental psychology, Prof. Kagan came of age in a time when the profession had limitless faith in its ability to help individuals "unlearn" bad behaviour inculcated in the first years of life. And psychologists, Prof. Kagan once told an interviewer, "could tell parents in America what they should and should not do, and we would have no crime and no more psychoses."

Blind faith. Many leading figures, such as Prof. Kagan, have abandoned it. But it lives on.

This is not an argument to ban early-intervention programs. It doesn't say that they are bad (although how much better it would be to see the same resources invested in Quebec-style universal day care). I just wish that the remaining indomitable experts would stop promoting their panaceas with the tired (but, unfortunately, effective) technique of inspiring feelings of guilt and worthlessness in loving parents.
John Barber can be reached by Internet at:

jbarber@globeandmail.ca

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