The myth of England’s miserable kids

This week, the Children’s Society has published yet another report highlighting how bad it is to grow up in England. The Good Childhood Report 2015 has made headlines, with one newspaper warning that English children are ‘among the unhappiest in the world at school due to bullying’. But what the Children’s Society’s data actually show does not merit the dire reporting. So why the uncritical, hyperbolic coverage?

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Tommy the chimp is just an animal, not a prisoner

A New York appeals court is currently being asked to consider whether a 26-year-old chimpanzee should be entitled to ‘legal personhood’. Tommy, a retired circus performer living in a cage in upstate New York, is represented by lawyer Steven Wise of the Nonhuman Rights Project (NhRP). The NhRP’s argument is that animals with ‘human qualities’, such as chimps, should have basic rights – including freedom from imprisonment.

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Saving normal in a world gone mad

In the early 1990s, American psychiatrist Allen Frances was chair of the taskforce that created the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-IV (DSM-IV) (published in 1994). The DSM is the book used by psychiatrists to track and describe mental disorders and conditions. He had previously been part of the team – led by a former teacher, Bob Spitzer – that created DSM-III (published in 1980) and DSM-IIIR (published in 1987). Now he is one of the most prominent critics of DSM-5 (published in 2013).

Frances describes his book Saving Normal: An Insider’s Revolt Against Out-of-Control Psychiatric Diagnosis, DSM-5, Big Pharma, and the Medicalization of Ordinary Life as ‘part mea culpa, part j’accuse, part cri de coeur’.

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Early childhood maketh not the man

The idea that the first three years of a child’s life are more important than other phases is increasingly dominant in policy and media circles. John Bruer, president of the US James S McDonnell Foundation in Missouri, has made an international impact challenging this determinist outlook. His book The Myth of the First Three Years: A New Understanding of Early Brain Development and Lifelong Learning (published back in 1999) debunks the popular idea that early experiences will have an all-or-nothing effect on a child’s brain and development. Later this week, Bruer will be speaking at Kent University’s Centre for Parenting Culture Studies conference in London titled The Uses And Abuses Of Biology: Neuroscience, Parenting and Family Policy in Britain. In the run-up to the conference, I posed some questions to Bruer about The Myth of the first three years and what has changed since it was first published.

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The dangerous myth of today’s ‘toxic’ childhood

Today, frontpage newspaper headlines sensationally report that our ‘toxic digital world’ claimed the life of 15-year-old Tallulah Wilson, who killed herself in October 2012. Today’s stories follow on from claims earlier this week that children and young people are growing up in an ‘unprecedented toxic climate’ of stress and pressure – following a national poll commissioned for the charity, YoungMinds.

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Giving sibling rivalry a bad name

This morning, I took part in a discussion about ‘sibling bullying’ on BBC Radio Scotland’s Call Kaye. It left me with the sinking feeling that the anti-bullying bandwagon could build up a lot more steam.

The issue of ‘sibling bullying’ has hit the headlines and airwaves over the past few days because of a ‘new study’ (actually published in July) in the journal Pediatrics, warning that the effect of sibling aggression for children’s and adolescents’ mental health ‘should not be dismissed’. But I think it should be dismissed.

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The deterministic myth of the ‘early years’

The idea that infant experiences are more important than experiences later in life in determining who we are dominates policy discussions on both sides of the Atlantic. Earlier this year, for example, US president Barack Obama claimed that ‘the early years in a child’s life – when the human brain is forming – represent a critically important window of opportunity to develop a child’s full potential’.

In the UK, all the main political parties believe we can explain who we are as adults on the basis of the type of care we received in infancy. There is a policymaking consensus that the state has to intervene in family life – as early as possible – to identify and ‘support’ inadequate parents.

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‘This manual is, frankly, a disaster for children’

On 22 May, the American Psychiatric Association (APA) published DSM-5, the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, after months, perhaps even years, of speculation about its contents.

Its critics warned that DSM-5 would lead to the further overdiagnosis of children and adults. The Economist reported that 11 per cent of American school-age children have been diagnosed with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and that DSM-5 would likely lead to even more ADHD diagnoses. Considering the majority of those diagnosed are on prescription drugs, this is a worrying development. So worrying, in fact, that Dr Allen Frances, Professor Emeritus at Duke University and former Chair of the task force that developed DSM-IVwrites: ‘If people make the mistake of following DSM-5, pretty soon all of us may be labelled mad.’

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