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Cortisol and Bad Behaviour

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Sue Gerhardt has just published her book, Why Love Matters: How Affection Shapes a Baby’s Brain.


The book is a survey of recent research into the development of the brain. This information backs up research carried out by people like John Bowlby and Margaret Ainsworth in the 1950s. Bowlby, for example, argued that child development was not the consequences of general experiences but as a direct result of the way the child’s main carer responded to and engaged with him or her (attachment theory).

Bowlby’s views were based on observing children’s behaviour. He offered no real scientific evidence for his theory. His ideas were attacked by feminists who claimed that it implied criticism of working women and was an attempt to shackle women to the home.

This became the politically correct approach to this issue. After all, it was only a theory. Surely a child placed in a nursery at an early age would not cause any permanent damage?

In recent years evidence has emerged that Bowlby was right. However, for political reasons, this information has been slow to emerge into the public domain.

For example, a group of researchers studied the brains of Romanian orphans – children who had been left to cry in their cots from birth and denied any chance of forming close bonds with an adult. They discovered that these babies had a “virtual black hole” where the orbitofrontal cortex should have been. This is the part of the brain that enables us to manage our emotions, to relate sensitively to other people, to experience pleasure and to appreciate beauty. In other words, this early experience had left permanent brain damage.

How do scientists explain this? Well, according to Gerhardt, our earliest experiences are not simply laid down as memories or influences, they are translated into precise physiological patterns of response in the brain that then set the neurological rules for how we deal with our feelings and those of other people for the rest of our lives.

The key factor in this is a hormone called cortisol. This is produced in the subcortex at the centre of the brain. If the baby receives plenty of love and attention the levels of cortisol remains at the right level. If the baby suffers a lot of stress (crying without attention, a lack of physical contact or communication through smiles, etc.) cortisol swamps the subcortex. The wrong levels of cortisol is linked to depression, fearfulness, detachment and aggression in later life. The frightening aspect of this is that baseline levels of cortisol are pretty much set by six months of age.

Research suggests that the relationship between the child and the prime carer is vital in determining the right levels of cortisol. One of the most important aspects of this is the role of the smile. Being smiled at teaches the child the rewards of communication and primes the infant brain for more. This in turn leads to the development of the baby’s prefrontal cortex, which in turn enables the growing child to develop self-control and empathy, and the sense that it is connected to others.

Gerhardt argues that the time spent with the child for the first two years (especially the first six months) is of vital importance for the development of the child. If parents get this wrong, the damage will be permanent.

Is there any connection between the behaviour of children in school and child-rearing? For example, my mother got married just before the outbreak of the war. During the early stages of the war she was conscripted to work in an ammunition factory. In 1940 the factory was bombed and she was lucky to survive. In 1943 she gave birth to my sister and never returned to work until my youngest brother had left secondary school.

The family was extremely poor and was never able to afford the things we take for granted today (holidays, cars, houses, etc.). However, she, like all her friends, never contemplated going to work in order to obtain a second income. I have asked her why this was the case? Her view is that if she had done this, her children would have suffered. She is not able to articulate why. This view was probably handed down by her mother, also very poor, who gave up work as a maid, as soon as her first child was born.

Is it possible that previous generations of parents knew instinctively what was right for their children? Can the decline in behaviour in schools be traced to the child’s first two years of life? Especially as the wrong levels of cortisol is linked to the development of empathy, probably the main cause of bad behaviour in schools?

If this is true, what can government do about it? Probably, not a lot. Young couples cannot afford to give up their two incomes. Once their child reaches six months they will both return to the workplace. They might be lucky enough to have a grandparent available to provide the kind of relationship the child needs. However, for many, the child will be placed in the nursery. However, good the nursery, they cannot provide the type of relationship that will keep cortisol at the right levels.

Does this explain why the behaviour of children appears to be worse in the UK than other countries. Is it possible that a smaller proportion of children in other countries are brought up in nurseries?

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Interesting ideas. I'm not qualified to comment on the scientific and medical information … but I'm fascinated by the way the biologists' arguments about what we're born with forming our character keep getting 'polluted' by other arguments about the way we're treated once we've been born being influential in shaping our characters.

Where I'm a bit sceptical about John's line of argument is in the implication that child-care by people other than the mother (parents?) is harmful to the children. I think that it all depends exactly how it happens. I live in a country where day nurseries are well-staffed, cheap and plentiful, and where there's also a very generous provision of maternity and paternity leave. I'll try to give some exact details, so that you can see what I mean.

It's a bit of a complicated system, but basically you get 480 days of parental leave, 60 days of which have to be taken by the father, 60 have to be taken by the mother and the other 360 can be spread between the two parents. In addition to this, the father gets a specific allocation of 10 days which have to be taken early on in the child's life. During this leave you get paid 80% of your 'pre-parental' salary. You can take further days at a basic, subsistence level too.

You can take these days at a variety of rates, down to one-eighth of a day at a time. If I were to, say, work a six-hour day, instead of an eight-hour one, my 60 days would stretch to 240 days in practice (i.e. 60 x 4, since I'd be taking my days one-quarter at a time). I'd be paid 100% of my salary for the six hours a day, and 80% of my salary for the remaining 2 hours a day.

Day nursery fees have been capped nationally at something like £200 per month for full-time attendance. If you balance your parental leave against day nursery attendance, you end up paying around £100 per month. The staff-child ratio at most day nursery is low (4 staff to around 18 children is fairly common), and the staff are highly-trained and have a career structure. It's rare for children to start at day nurseries before they are 12 months' old - lots of kids don't start until they are two or three years old.

Research in this area is notoriously difficult to be categorical about, since it's so easy to compare apples with pears. However, the studies which have been done here in Sweden suggest that children who attend properly-funded and -staffed day-care centres actually do better on all the available indicators than children who are cared for by their parents at home until they start pre-school at the age of 6.

My explanation for this state of affairs is that Swedish society makes it possible for parents to survive financially and emotionally staying at home with their children until the kids are about two or three. (There are 'open day nurseries' in most towns, where home-based parents can meet with other parents and nursery teachers two or three days a week at no cost.) At about that age, children start benefitting from contact with other kids - which is difficult to bring about if you're sitting isolated at home.

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I can't add anything scientific except I was fairly unusual in my time as a fulltime working mother in the 60s and 70s whose three sons all went at an early age to a childcare centre. They are now perfectly normal adults and were not badly behaved at school - not perfect, but generally average boys. If it's such a scientific theory surely it should have applied to at least one out of the three?

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I can't add anything scientific except I was fairly unusual in my time as a fulltime working mother in the 60s and 70s whose three sons all went at an early age to a childcare centre. They are now perfectly normal adults and were not badly behaved at school - not perfect, but generally average boys. If it's such a scientific theory surely it should have applied to at least one out of the three?

My mother was an unskilled factory worker. In the years following the Second World War there was plenty of this kind of work available for married women. She, and most of her friends chose not to do this. I am not saying that her generation was right and this generation is wrong. It is a question of values. In the 1950s working class women placed more emphasis on child rearing. In doing so, they (it was a joint decision) made financial sacrifices. This stopped them from having things like holidays, etc. That was their decision. Maybe it was right, maybe it was wrong. Children, I suspect, would have preferred the holidays and car trips (my childhood definitely involved a lot of walking).

Since the late 1960s most married women with young children have chosen to go to work. This has more to do with consumerism that women’s liberation. My wife and my daughter returned to work six months after their children were born. That was inevitable given the attitudes of the time. For example, my daughter would not be in a position to buy her house without a second income.

This research into levels of cortisol is not an argument for women not to have careers. However, it is an argument for the state to pay mothers a full wage for at least 6 months (personally I would like to see this benefit to last for 12 months).

The government would claim that they cannot afford to pay out these benefits. I would suggest they cannot afford not to. We always find the money to kill people living in other countries. As David points out, they seem to be able to afford it in Sweden.

Our mad system in the UK ensures that all parents of young children feel permanently guilty. It is tempting to suggest everything they do is right and that their behaviour had no unpleasant consequences. But that is a dangerous stance to take.

I remember many years ago having a conversation at a party with a young mother. She was telling me that all her children were scared of the dark. She thought this was a genetic problem. I then explained to her how her children had developed this fear of the dark (part of my degree was in child psychology). She put her hands over her ears and told me to stop. As she said, she could not bear to think that she had been partly responsible for her children’s problems. As T. S. Eliot said in the Wasteland: “Human kind cannot bear very much reality”

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One common observation about the Swedish education system from visitors from the UK is that in Sweden we spend the largest chunk on the pre-school and years 1-3 sectors and the smallest chunk on the universities, whilst in the UK it's the other way round.

One of the roots of this policy is in a view of the labour market which was developed after WW2. The prevailing idea here is that the 'natural' state for both men and women is to be in employment. Unemployment pay and maternity and paternity benefits are thus seen as forms of insurance to 'tide people over' the period when they can't work for one reason or another (such as unemployment or child-rearing). The idea is that employment is what really makes it possible for people to participate fully in society.

Although it still happens, discrimination against women with children is as much a sin against this view of employment as against equality. (Swedish has two very useful words, 'jämställdhet' and 'jämlikhet' to cover the English 'equality'. The first is an active concept, bringing about equal treatment, whilst the second is the 'passive' concept that 'equality' is in English. The debate here, as in the UK, should be about 'jämställdhet', the active concept, rather than 'jämlikhet', the passive one, since it's all about fighting the situations which actively bring about inequality.)

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The Brottsförebyggande Rådet (National Council on Crime Prevention) keeps the crime statistics in Sweden.

Their website is at http://www.bra.se/

If you can read Swedish you can find the statistics for the first half of 2004 in graph form (click on Nyheter -> Ny statistik -> Visa -> Läs mer). If you click on the Union Jack, you come to the pages in English. Choose Publications there and you'll be able to download the statistics for 2001 in English.

There were 599,000 reported crimes in the first 6 months of 2004, and the population is a few thousand short of 9 million. Of course, you have to treat these figures with a bit of caution. Sweden is reputed to have a high suicide rate (Portugal's actually got the highest in Europe), but this is almost completely wrong (it's got one of the lowest). It's just that Swedes are world champions at keeping records, so they actually know how many women aged 21, with one immigrant parent, killed themselves by throwing themselves under a tram!

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Thank you David. I am aware that crime statistics can be very misleading (the UK's were published yesterday and were used by all the three main political parties to support their policies). The problem is what else have we got to go on.

Without government figures you have to rely on anecdotal evidence to argue for changes in policy (as someone who spends a fair amount of time in European schools I could use this as well to support my view that child behaviour is worse in the UK – I suspect most of those who travel to other countries would back up this point of view).

For example, what evidence can we use to argue that UK parents should be given the same rights and benefits as those in Sweden. The government would argue that it was too expensive. How can we counter this point of view? One way would be by trying to show that Swedish society has benefited from this kind of child care. You would then provide statistics to show this (crime rates, etc.).

I am not arguing that child care is the only reason for changes in behaviour. However, I do think it is one important factor. After all, isn’t this what teachers say all the time in the staffroom when they blame parents for the behaviour of the students that they teach.

I made it very clear that my wife and daughter also returned to work six months after the birth of their children. I was therefore not criticising women for doing this. My point is that our economic system is forcing women to do this. They instinctively know this is going to cause problems and consequently cause a sense of guilt.

There is a very good book by Naomi Klein called No Logo. Klein is a feminist who argues that the capitalism system has manipulated the demands for equality for its own benefit. Therefore, it is in the interests of the economic system to have a surplus of workers in any given area. In this way you reduce the bargaining power of the workforce. One way you do this is by supporting the idea of women returning to the workplace as soon as possible after giving birth. This is combined with the idea that the only way you can enjoy a reasonable standard of living is by having two incomes. As people see no viable alternative to this situation, they do not argue against it. Instead they feel desperately guilty as deep down they know they are damaging their children by their enforced absences. Working men and women have developed a new concept to deal with this problem. It is called “quality time”. But does it really happen?

I remember having a discussion with a very bright Y8 girl. She had just produced some outstanding work and as a result was rewarded with a letter home to her parents. I said that her parents must have been very proud of her achievements. She replied that her grandparents were? I asked her what she meant. She said that both her parents had good jobs and she rarely saw them. She said it was her grandparents who really knew what she was achieving. She continued to achieve because she was lucky enough to have grandparents who lived just around the corner from her home. Unfortunately, she is in a minority.

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One problem in current society here and probably the UK - our PM has introduced a "baby bonus" - $3000 after the birth of each child. However, guess who will have three babies in three years - the educated 20-30 year olds or the 15-18 unemployed? He has had to amend it so that "those at risk" only get it in instalments, but even a $300 instalment will buy you a new TV or DVD player or even an old car - who will benefit?

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I've had time to go a bit deeper into the Swedish statistics, and found these disclaimers on BRÅ's website:

1. Attempted crimes are counted as crimes in Sweden. Thus, if the burglar is frightened off before he's managed to steal anything, this is still counted as a burglary (i.e. Swedish statistics are based around what people perceive as having happened, rather than around property having being stolen, etc.).

2. If several crimes are committed at the same time, Sweden counts them all, not just the most serious, as happens in other countries. Thus, if someone i) steals a car, ii) drives it without a licence, iii) gets drunk and drives, and iv) knocks someone down, this is four crimes in Sweden.

3. Serial occurrences of the same type of crime against the same victim are counted separately in Sweden, instead of being counted as one crime as happens in other countries.

4. In Sweden crimes are recorded as soon as they are reported. In some other countries, it's only a crime if the police have completed an investigation and taken it to court.

The net effect of all this is that the incidence of crime can appear higher in Sweden than in other countries (just like the suicide figures I mentioned in an earlier posting).

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Teachers do blame parents for their childdren's behaviour, but in my long experience of classroom teaching in difficult schools it's not because they stayed home with them and smiled at them or didn't stay home with them, but because so many have no idea of the basic principles of child rearing, regardless of income or education.

There seems to be a growing trend amongst the young middle-class of the belief that kids do not need rules, structures or boundaries, that somehow "freedom" is everything and if you love them enough everything will come out right in the end. While at the other end of the spectrum, the offspring of the previously working class, but now generationally unemployed, is one of hatred towards all authority, disregard for the truth, and support of their children past all common sense.

Maybe this is not so much the case in Sweden?

Our own Minister for Education avows the principle of never saying No to her own two young children - but on the quiet her colleagues, relations (and somewhat indiscreet cleaning lady) says they are unmanageable and objectionable. I find that many professional/educated mothers who are now having their children very late in life seem to be totally and obsessively child-centred to the detriment of the child, while the growing numbers of young single mothers lose control of their children after the first few years and produce totally unmanageable adolescents, and the very poor unemployed simply give up because it's all too hard and the chip on their shoulder against society grows ever bigger. While I know this is generalising and we can all think of exceptions, I do believe these are more the causes than whether a mother stays at home or not.

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Sue Gerhardt has written an article in today’s Guardian about her views on the development of a child’s brain.


This includes the following:

The account of current research that I have produced has given it, much to my surprise, a sudden relevance to two debates - on smacking and nurseries - triggered in recent weeks by government proposals. Looked at from this perspective, one can clearly see that smacking is damaging, and that the things that babies need most are not easy to come by in many nurseries: being held, and cuddled, having someone familiar and safe to notice how you feel, someone who can quickly put things right when they go wrong, someone who smiles at you lovingly. How many nursery nurses have the opportunity to provide such bounty? It is much more likely that babies in a nursery will find that they are not special to anyone in that way that parents believe their own children are, and they will have to wait for attention. One close observational study of a local authority nursery found that there was little or no eye contact, and little holding or comforting.

The research bears out the effects of such nurseries on babies. Babies can only cope with about 10 hours a week of daycare, before it may start to affect their emotional development, particularly if the care is of low quality. The strongest research findings are that full-time care during the first and second years is strongly linked to later behaviour problems. These are the children who are "mean" to others, who hit and blame other children. They are likely to be less cooperative and more intolerant of frustration. To me, these are all capacities which suggest poor development of the "social brain". Evidence that increasing the caregiver/baby ratio in nurseries does reduce problems of aggression confirms that these children have simply not had enough loving, individual attention.

These findings are not what working parents want to hear, nor what a government dedicated to getting single parents back to work wants to hear. Unfortunately, the most likely scenario for such single parents is the worst-case one: having to put their babies into poor quality, full-time nursery care before the age of six months. It is their children whose emotional and social development could be compromised - not those of better-off parents who can afford to work part-time or buy in the highest quality care. This is not a solution that benefits society in the long-term.

However, questioning the value of nurseries for babies unleashes such guilt among working mothers, and such a terror of returning to the days when women were expected to stay at home with their pre-school children, that accusations of anti-feminism start to fly. But the science is there, demonstrating the vulnerability of a baby's neurobiology; and the social research is there, showing that full-time nurseries are bad for babies. How can we continue to deny it?

It is time to think clearly about what our new options might be. Most women don't want to return to an age of compulsory full-time motherhood and apple pie, especially given the stress and loneliness of being marooned at home with only a baby for company. (And what women want matters: a depressed parent is not good for babies either.)

On the other hand, we can't afford not to provide the kind of loving one-to-one nurturing that babies need, if we want to have a cooperative, socially skilled society. Most mothers and an increasing number of fathers want to be able to spend time with their babies, and often feel that they lose touch with their babies if they work full-time. In fact, research shows that they do often become less sensitive as parents, and this may contribute to a negative cycle where the relationship becomes strained under the demands of toddlerhood.

We have to come up with new flexible solutions, such as extended paid parental leave, that enable both parents to be involved with their baby while keeping the family economy afloat. We need to ensure that our nurseries are of the highest quality. We also need more community involvement to prevent early parenthood from being isolated and miserable. It is not "anti-feminist" to look for such solutions. By investing our time and money in the first two years of life, we will be repaid in greater social stability. And after all, what is two years in a working life of 50 years?

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You beat me to it, John. I was going to post the conclusion of Sue Gephardt's article … and to take up the question of what we can afford.

One of the majors I work with in the Swedish Army has a photo he took himself as a screen saver. It shows a 155 mm shell about 5 metres away from the muzzle of a Bofors cannon. I asked him how many pictures he'd taken before he got this perfect one - "about 40" was his reply.

Now each of these shells costs 1000 euros … and the cannon itself costs about 2 million euros. The JAS Gripen fighter that crashed into Riddarfjärden a couple of years ago costs about 20 million euros (the Swedish Airforce has about 200 of them on order) and a nursery nurse costs about 50,000 euros per year.

It might sound a bit facile to contrast spending on childcare and education with spending on the military, but these are two of the major items in the budget of any country. As Sue writes, can we afford not to spend money on decent childcare?

The recommendations she makes in the last paragraph of her article are more or less what we have in Sweden now. Things are far from perfect here, but it's interesting seeing what happens to a society when the base line is set at good childcare for all. What happens here is that people complain when the adult-child ratio in day nurseries goes over 1:4, and they find it incomprehensible that you can have junior schools where there are more than about 23 children in a class.

We had a Thatcherite Conservative government here between 1991 and 1994 and they made short work of the Swedish economy by cutting taxes and services. They were the ones who managed to get interest rates up to 500% and negotiated the pitiful terms of Sweden's entry into the EU. They cut back on schools and day nurseries in a major way, reasoning that if schools in other countries like Britain could continue to function with lower provision, they could here too. (They also made major increases in military spending, but that's another story.) What they missed is that there's a difference between schools functioning and schools doing well …

It's taken these last 10 years to repair the damage … What's interesting, though, is that Swedish electors consistently rate good welfare services over lower taxes by enormous margins, and it's probably this factor which is decisive in making the parties of the right virtually unelectable in Sweden (since 1932 the left have held power for 63 years and the right for 9).

Edited by David Richardson
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I had a long chat with my mother (90 this week) last night about child care in the 1940s and 1950s. It was very revealing. Her decision to stay at home with the children was not based on any logical argument about the needs of the child. She said she did it because her mother did it. She never thought about doing anything different because all her friends gave up work as soon as they had children. What is more, the husbands insisted that they did this. My father, who was on a very low wage, insisted she gave up work as soon as they got married. My mother only returned to work when she was conscripted by the government to work in the local armaments factory in 1940.

Nor did my mother or father do the things that parents believe are essential today. For example, they never read us stories in bed. This is not surprising as her mother used to stop her reading in the home. She was told that reading was not for girls like her. My mother admits that she has never read a book in her life.

Nor did we get books as presents. The only reading I remember doing as a child was reading football programmes. I did not start reading books at home until I reached the age of 17 (my sister’s boyfriend got free paperbacks from the factory he worked at). I might have got plenty of love but got very little help as regards to education. I suspect that was true of most working class families. I suspect that has changed today. But perhaps not.

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It seems that the trick in many different questions is to get from the anecdotal particular to the general level, where you can shape policies and arguments which actually change the lives of individuals for the better.

Some research results have just been published in Sweden which show (the sample was large enough to be able to draw meaningful conclusions) that children born to teenage mothers are twice as likely to be injured by their parents than children born to older mothers, and 40% more likely to be involved in an accident at home which needs hospital treatment.

The conclusion the researchers drew, and the public debate this generated, was that poverty was the decisive factor for this difference, and the questions now being raised here are all about how to help young mothers to avoid their children being hurt.

You couldn't possibly use these research results to conclude that "teenage mothers hurt their children" - the actual incidence of injured children is still very small, even when their mothers are teenagers. On the other hand, the research has definitely highlighted an area where societal action has a very good chance of producing good results.

It's a bit like the perennial arguments about speed limits. We know that enforcing speed limits rigorously reduces significantly the number of people killed and injured on the roads. Any individual driver can rightly claim that his car, or his way of driving, is perfectly safe at higher speeds than the speed limit. The point is, though, that roads are made for everyone, and the fact that the speeder hasn't been killed yet proves absolutely nothing.

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