Saturday, June 28, 2008

Speaking up for babies

How far should we go in using infants and children for the purposes of entertainment or instruction? As a scientist, thinking through the ethical implications of developmental research, I am conscious of this question all the time. We never want to ask children to do anything, enjoyable or otherwise, unless there is a demonstrable scientific point to it. If the proposed study does not have the potential to advance knowledge, then the ethics committee considering it will not let it go ahead. 

The process of writing The Baby in the Mirror made me think about this question in a different way. Intruding on Athena's privacy might be reasonable if there were serious literary and scientific work to be done, but could it be justified in the cause of pure entertainment? I want the book to entertain, of course (the same ambition holds for this blog, in which I draw on both children's experience), but I also hope that readers will learn from it. Or is an enjoyable book its own justification? Is this an ethical question or an aesthetic one? 

One step that I have not been willing to take has been to submit to the more obvious designs of the television industry. I'm suspicious about the medium for a few reasons; above all, I suspect that any concerns for an educational outcome would likely get drowned out by the demands of primetime. After experiencing the tremendously sensitive way the Guardian and Sunday Herald handled our story, for example, I doubt that TV could similarly ensure our privacy and right to have a say in the portrayal. At least, that's the feeling I get from watching reality shows such as Child Of Our Time, in which the privacy of the families involved rarely seems anyone's top priority. 

The growth of reality TV has put more ordinary kids onto our screens than ever before. This week I got an alert on this topic from Zero To Three, the not-for-profit US-based organisation concerned with children in the first three years of life. The statement relates to a new NBC programme called "Baby Borrowers", in which five teenage couples will each briefly 'adopt' someone else's baby as part of a social experiment in fast-tracking adolescents into adulthood. In Zero To Three's view, the programme "exploits very young children in the pursuit of entertainment". 

The exploitation charge is a serious one, and one that I might have to answer to as well. I can't get all superior about the ethical treatment of child participants when, to some people's minds, I might have gone too far myself in turning the camera onto Athena so closely. I am also uneasy about passing judgement on a TV series I have not watched for myself. But Zero To Three's alarm call shows that some people at least are putting the rights, privacy and needs of children above all other concerns, and backing up that respect for babies and toddlers with good science. 

I was very touched by Paul Riddell's kind review in today's Scotsman. I hope there is a happy ending for him and his family as well.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Remembering and re-remembering

This post will be a bit of a try-out for a talk I am giving at the Memory Maps: Image, Place and Story conference in Cambridge next week. I will be asking what the study of memory development in early childhood can tell us about how minds represent familiar landscapes and respond imaginatively to them. The conference, hosted by CRASSH, will bring together writers, literary scholars and visual artists (plus a token psychologist: me) to investigate how the people we are, culturally and socially, determine how we respond to place, both in present time and in memory. The Memory Maps project began as a collaboration between the V&A and the Department of Literature, Film and Theatre Studies at the University of Essex. You can view the project's website here.

In time-honoured academic tradition, I won't know exactly what I am going to say on this topic until I ascend to the lectern. But my starting point is going to be the question I raised in an earlier post, about the extent to which our memories of childhood can ever come to us in an entirely fresh, untainted state, or whether there is always some mediation by earlier memories and representations. This is the first of the two kinds of mediation that interest me: the process by which later memories are usually filtered, tainted and distorted by earlier acts of recall. 

There is a second kind of mediation of memory, though, which relates to the way our other systems of representing the world play a role in remembering and re-remembering. Foremost among the vehicles of this kind of mediation are the words we use in public, in social interaction, and in private, as speech directed to the self. Readers of this blog will know that I have a particular interest in Vygotsky's views on these matters. As mentioned in an earlier post, Vygotsky's theory shows us a way of understanding how language restructures cognition in many different domains of thought. In the realm of memory, one question is whether by talking about past events with children, and thus constructing the basis for a memory that is already mediated by language, we help them to get a firmer grasp on those memories. Sure enough, researchers have found just such a link, as this extract from Chapter 12 shows: 
The psychologists Katherine Nelson and Robyn Fivush have shown that children get involved in conversations about past events from soon after their second birthdays, and gradually take on ever-greater responsibility for joint storytelling about the past. Furthermore, parents’ willingness or skill in supporting these dialogues has been shown to have a big effect on children’s developing storytelling abilities. Longitudinal studies, following the same samples of families over periods of time, show that parents who have an ‘elaborative’ style in their interactions have children who produce more sophisticated memory narratives. Adopting an elaborative style means producing orienting information (details on where the event occurred, and who the actors in the drama were) and evaluative information (all the emotional details of how things looked, seemed and felt that gave the event personal significance). More than simply reiterating the crucial information, our efforts were about allowing Athena to step back into the event and re-experience it. This was her drama, and we were helping her to take centre stage.
In the book, I use a spatial metaphor for this process of a self's finding its bearings in time. I liken it to a thread, looping from moment to moment like a string supports the beads of a necklace. The years of infancy and childhood are, as we well know, largely forgotten times. The escape from this amnesia seems to have much to do with children's ability to use words to tell stories about their own lives, and adults' sensitive support of this process. In this terra incognita, language gives children a golden thread to guide them.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Baby spreads her wings

News this week is that the book has been acquired by the Avery imprint of Penguin Group (USA), who aim to publish in April 2009. I'm planning to be in the States at that time for the SRCD Biennial Meeting. 

The book was featured in the Spectrum section of the Sydney Morning Herald last weekend. Thanks to Leigh for pointing me to that. 

A couple of new reviews in the UK this week, in the Guardian and the Sunday Telegraph

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Lessons for Father's Day

I was asked by the Financial Times' Life & Arts section to write the weekly piece they call The List. With Father's Day tomorrow, the idea was for me to reflect on five things fatherhood has taught me. You can read the piece here

Friday, June 13, 2008

Hard thinking

As he describes in his feature in the Sunday Herald, Barry Didcock came to visit us a few weeks ago to talk about some of the ideas that stimulated The Baby in the Mirror. I have always felt that the study of children's development forces us to think about the most fundamental questions about our existence: writing about children is writing about our humanity, not some simplified, bright-coloured version of it. Barry was ready to do some hard thinking too, which made him a great conversational partner. I was particularly interested that he picked up on my musings about behavioural genetics, a topic on which I originally intended to say much more in the book. What prevented me, in the end, was the point I noted in an earlier post. My focus in the book was very deliberately on one particular child, which meant that examining differences between children—the stuff of behavioural genetics—was hard to fit into the picture. Anyway, I recommend the writings of Eric Turkheimer on this topic; I hope I'll get to follow this up in some form in a future post.  

I have been writing about children this week, but not for the blog. Links will follow soon. 

Thursday, June 5, 2008


You can now listen to a podcast of the Newcastle launch by clicking here. You will hear me reading a bit from the book and talking about how it came about. Thanks to John from New Writing North for putting this up.