Celebrating a year that kicks off with a Baby Box Row

Celebrating a year that kicks off with a Baby Box Row

The year 2017 has started with a row that might surprise many people.  On 1st January, the Scottish Government distributed the first of their new Baby Boxes, designed to support families and babies’ development.  Immediately a row erupted on Twitter.

Baby holding parent's handJames McEnaney asked about the evidence that the boxes would fulfil their stated aim of reducing infant mortality.  Lucy Hunter Blackburn queried the allocated budget of £6 million, wondering why the figures were not more clearly delineated in the Scottish Parliament’s budgetary documents.  Scottish Labour criticised the contents as a missed opportunity to promote breastfeeding.  Ian Smart sneered at the poem included in the Box, written by Scotland’s Poet Laureate Jackie Kay, branding her “a woman from Bishopbriggs writing doggerel.”  By 4th January, articles had appeared in the mainstream press, criticising the poem itself as “insensitive” because it risked putting pressure on mothers with postnatal depression, who might not experience welcoming feelings toward their babies.

Some of you may, at this point, find yourself wondering what a Baby Box is, having missed this debate because you were out enjoying holiday walks with loved ones in the winter sunshine, rather than hunched over social media streams.  The Baby Box is an idea that has been imported from Finland, where it has played a role since 1938 in promoting social equality.  The box, suitable as a first cot, comes complete with mattress, bedding, clothing, thermometer, nappies, book and other essentials for a baby’s first weeks of life.

In Finland, the scheme (which is accompanied by a parent’s agreement to engage in medical checks) has been credited with helping to reduce infant mortality and benefitting low income families.  Such assessments have led to related schemes popping up in rural Canada, the USABirmingham and Liverpool, amongst other places. Private companies, including the Baby Box Company and the Finnish Baby Box, have even sprung up, marketing the boxes to individual parents and sometimes working in partnership with London hospitals.  Here’s a video of a mum in 2015 delightedly unpacking her box.

Such enthusiasm!  What’s not to love?  What’s driving the doubtful debate unfurling in Scotland?  Several commentators have been quick to offer analyses.

Jason Michel, of the Random Public Journal, attributes it to old class-based prejudices, a “comfortable no-voting social elite” frustrated by seeing Scotland’s “plebs” receiving more free handouts.  Joan McAlpine, of the Scottish Daily Record, sees the scheme as a convenient new football in the political game of Labour vs the SNP.  James McEnaney, of The Common Space, can’t see strong evidence of effectiveness of the scheme, and Jane Bradley of The Scotsman thinks that a universal programme is a poor use of £6 million in the first place.  Julia Rampden, of the New Statesman, sees the debate as a reflection of the social division that still haunts Scottish society, from which Finnish society does not suffer.

Scotland's Baby BoxI am choosing to celebrate this row.  At its core is a debate about what babies need.  It is too seldom that our wider society pays any attention at all to babies’ needs, let alone kicks off a new year with people defending­­ them.  I’m cheering…

…because, ultimately, the Boxes aren’t about poems or parenting or even babies themselves.  The Boxes are about building relationships. 

That’s what will matter to the babies: what their relationships with their mums and dads feel like.  If that’s what matters to the babies, then that’s what needs to matter to us.

Relationships are not abstract things.  They are real, lived things, grown out of tiny moments:

  •             How gentle or rough it feels, being helped into a onesie by your mum.
  •             How cold or warm it feels, with your nappy being changed around you by your big brother.
  •             How predictable or surprising it feels, to have a thermometer placed against your body by your grandma.
  •             How familiar or odd it is to hear your dad’s voice, reading a story out loud.

What matters for a baby is the emotional sense of these tiny moments, these moments that the items in the Baby Box will facilitate: comfortable or uncomfortable, safe or alarming, shared or lonely.

Baby BrainWe now have a huge amount of evidence available about the fundamental importance of relationships in infant development.  Babies’ brains develop more rapidly in the first year of life than they ever will again, with approximately 750 connections between nerve cells being formed every second.  Those connections are driven largely by babies’ experiences of the world – and especially by their experiences of other people.  Relationships shape a baby’s very biology, especially the self-regulatory system that underpins everything from a child’s behaviour to learning to friendships.

Stories about these processes appear all the time in the press, even though they may use none of the language I’ve chosen here.  For example, during December, in the run up to the launch of the Baby Box, one widespread story concerned the latest report from the Dunedin Study, affirming that brain functioning at age 3 can predict behavioural patterns in adulthood.  That means that the way children had been loved left lasting biological consequences.

Economics also featured, with Nobel Laureate James Heckman releasing yet another study showing that family support from the age of 8 weeks increases a child’s eventual chances of gaining school qualifications and staying out of prison.  That means that the way families had been supported in loving their children had left lasting consequences.

Yet most of the public, parents and non-parents alike, do not realise just how important babies’ early experiences are.  They have no idea how fully babies’ brains are tracking patterns in the environment.  The ‘Tuning In Report’, released last summer by the US organisation Zero to Three, starkly illuminates this gap.  More than half the 2000 parents interviewed didn’t know that babies can sense parents’ moods by the age of 3 months or that language skills start at birth.  A quarter of new parents thought that shouting in the home didn’t matter until a child was two years old.

Look closely, slow things down — and we can see babies tuning in to their environment, in the most ordinary, unremarkable of tasks — like nappy changing:

It is overwhelming for most of us to comprehend just how important a parent’s love is.  In fact, some authors have argued that all this talk about brain development isn’t helpful to parents.  It only makes them more anxious.  Instead, they argue, we should simply concentrate on emphasising love and warmth and joy.  I want to agree.  And yet, I think we live in a society that undervalues precisely the things that help babies grow into healthy, happy children:  love and warmth and laughter and play.

The importance of the Baby Boxes being distributed by the Scottish Government derives not from the things they contain.  The importance is the way those things will facilitate relationships between babies and parents, reducing the stress on many parents’ ability to meet their babies’ earliest physical and emotional needs.  Mark McDonald, Minister for Childcare and Early Years, has pointed to that himself, when he said that “the box contains materials that will promote attachment.”  Most of the public, though, has no idea what the word ‘attachment’ means.  So let me translate:  It’s basically a scientific word for how emotionally safe love feels.

And for many babies in Scotland, love does not feel as safe as we would hope.  Over the course of 2017, approximately 10,000 babies will be born into poverty.  Poverty creates stress for babies, because it creates stress for their parents.  Stress causes human bodies and human brains to change – for the worse.  Our whole society pays the later costs of that change, drawn from the budgets for education, health and criminal justice.

Heckman CurveHow much do we pay?  James Heckman’s analyses suggest that for every £1 invested in early intervention, the returns start at £3 and rise.  So it is possible that by spending this £6 million now, the Scottish Government could be saving us £18 million (or some other figure) in future years.  Let’s get busy figuring out how to incorporate such calculations into our impact assessments.  We so seldom take into account this second part of the equation when it comes to evaluating public spending.

The decision in Oxfordshire to close 44 children’s centres is a terrible illustration of such blinkered thinking.  I wonder how long before the ‘savings’ the Country Council thinks they are making come back as other costs, driven by unnecessary suffering.

Early intervention?  How can I describe a Box of things as ‘early intervention’?  That sounds odd, given that we usually think of ‘intervention’ as a ‘programme’.  But that’s my point.  A baby doesn’t think of early intervention as a programme.  He or she experiences intervention as cuddles and kisses and attention and laughter and play and feeling safe.  If the Baby Box helps mums and dads to ‘deliver’ more of these, then the Boxes will have served our newest citizens well – and we will all benefit.

So when you reach your own conclusion about the value of the Baby Boxes, be sure you have taken into account this wider context, missing from the stories offered us this week in the press.  The Boxes aren’t just about £6 million spent on other people’s bairns.  Parenting is hard.  We all end up paying greater costs when we overlook the importance of supporting the people doing the work of connecting.

That’s why I want to do all I can to say to Scotland’s babies of 2017, in the words of our national Makar, Jackie Kay:  Welcome wee one.

Stories of loss move us to action

Stories of loss move us to action

This week, Nicola Sturgeon, First Minister of Scotland, made a ground-breaking statement.  No, it wasn’t about political independence.  It was about the political prominence of LOVE.

SNP Conference Care Review AnnouncementIn front of 3000 conference delegates, she said:

“My view is simple: every young person deserves to be LOVED.  So let’s come together and make this commitment: to LOVE our most vulnerable children and give them the childhood they deserve.  That’s what inclusion means in practice.” 

She then promised a “root and branch review” of the Care System.  Essentially, she wants to understand how LOVE got lost from the Care System, and how we recover it.  She wants to know how, despite the efforts of so many dedicated people, being raised in the Care System leads to statistics like these:

  • 50% of children in the care system go on to suffer mental health problems.
  • Half the adult prison population were in care as children.
  • Children in care are 20 times more likely to be dead by the age of 25 than those not in care.

At a personal level, the part of her speech that most struck me were two short sentences:

“Recently I have been spending time with young people who have grown up in care.  Their stories have moved me deeply.”

So it wasn’t the statistics that most moved the First Minister, chilling as they are.  It was real life stories of loss.

I have discovered in my work how powerful stories are.  They are perhaps the best vehicle we have for moving others to a place of action.

I want, therefore, to use this article to tell another story, one that has been lost from our national consciousness.  I want to tell the story of a 3-year-old who went into hospital for a tonsillectomy in 1965.  Her parents’ loss, now long forgotten, played a crucial role in changing hospital practice.  Every parent today who takes a child to hospital benefits unknowingly from that couple’s story of pain and courage.

Why re-tell that story now?  One answer is that, if Nicola Sturgeon’s vision can be realised, then children in the Care System of the future will benefit from the determination that’s being shown now by the young people of Who Cares Scotland.  At their invitation, Nicola has committed to hearing 1000 of their stories over the next two years.  STV’s recent haunting documentary enabled us to share in five of those stories, including that of Laura Beveridge, who gave a deeply moving TED Talk in Glasgow in 2016.

ARCHIE Foundation LogoA second reason for reflecting on the history of children’s hospitals is that, on 3rd November, I’m going to embark on a wee risk myself.  I’m taking to the stage, as they say, with an entertaining show called TEDDY BEARS RULE.  It’s designed to give the public a light-hearted take on the science of attachment.

The evening is being held in support of The ARCHIE Foundation’s campaign for a new children’s hospital in Tayside.  It’s an apt partnership.  The study of attachment began in earnest in children’s hospitals of the 1950s.  ARCHIE’s work in hospitals today emphasises the importance of relationships, of emotional safety, of LOVE, for children’s healing.  Even their logo conveys that message, with their lovable little mascot firmly gripping his cuddly toy.

But it wasn’t always the case that hospitals recognised the importance of relationships.  That’s the point of my story of a child’s deadly tonsillectomy.

We begin in the early 1950s.  The war is over and the National Health Service has been established.  Thank goodness on both counts.  All parents can now obtain medical treatment for their children, whether in moments of crisis, like broken legs and bad asthma attacks, or for scheduled operations, like hernias and eye corrections.

One aspect of the care, though, is that much separation between parents and children will need to be endured.

Children's hospitals 1950sStandard practice for the 1950s was that parents were allowed to visit their children once a week, usually for one hour.  It didn’t matter the age of the child: 2 years or 3 years or 10 years.  Restricted visiting was simply the norm.  Besides, trips on public transportation could be cumbersome, there were typically other children at home who needed to be cared for, and husbands needed someone to make their tea.  (I am not joking.)  In some hospitals, the restrictions were even more severe.  In St Thomas’ hospital, children went one month before being allowed a visit, although their parents were permitted to observe them sleeping.  In London Hospital, children under 3 years old went without seeing their parents at all.  Parents could, if they wished, view them through partitions.

If this historic account leaves you a bit stunned, good.  I want us to be stunned that, not all that long ago, our society took for granted rules that sound unimaginable to our ears today.

If you are looking for someone to blame, don’t.  The system was filled with dedicated, hard-working people who simply did what was regarded as normal.  Curiosity will get us a lot further than blame.

If you are an adult who was once a child in hospital in the 1950s (or 1960s or 1970s), and you can remember desperately wondering where your parents were: THANK YOU.  Thank you for your strength then and your strength now, reading this article.  I know there are very many such adults living in the UK today.  Frequently you spontaneously raise your hands in my training events and share your stories of loss.  Thank you.

James RobertsonBack to my story.  A growing number of professionals and parents were concerned about this practice of restricted visiting.  Amongst these were the psychologists John Bowlby, Anna Freud, and especially James Robertson.  The data they were collecting led to the establishment of what would come to be known as ‘attachment theory’.  But the 1950s were still early days in the study of attachment and emotional trauma.

Robertson found that when he tried to talk about his data, it proved too threatening for medical staff to listen to.  They could not believe that their normal hospital practices could lead to lasting emotional damage.  They felt offended, their professional integrity impugned.  What Robertson was calling ‘emotional deterioration’, they simply saw as ‘settling’.  Once a child stopped crying, they regarded the behavioural problem as having been solved.

In fact, that was part of the reason for restricting parents’ visits.  When parents arrived, they not only brought ‘germs’, but also started off the children’s crying bouts again.  How were a few nurses to handle a whole ward of crying children, once their parents had departed?  Better to keep the parents away.

So James Robertson tried new steps in his campaign.  In 1952, he made a narrated film called A Two Year Old Goes to Hospital, in which he showed viewers what ‘emotional deterioration’ in a toddler looks like.  Did it help?  No.  The medical profession’s reaction was so intensely negative that he had to stop screening the film for a while.

Robertson integrated his efforts with those of others who were concerned.  They wrote letters, published papers, penned editorials, gave lectures, created opportunities for distraught parents to tell their stories. By 1959, the debate had grown so heated that a formal review was commissioned by the Ministry of Health, chaired by Sir Harry Platt, President of the Royal College of Surgeons.  His report called unreservedly for more humane care for children in hospital.  Guess what changed?  Very little.

So Robertson turned to the press.  He wrote a series of articles for the newspapers, inviting parents to send him letters about their experiences.  He collected together hundreds of them, which he published in a book called Hospitals and Children: A Parent’s Eye View.  One particularly harrowing story was told by a mother who re-mortgaged her house in order to pay for private treatment so that she would not have to be separated from her son while he recuperated from an eye operation.  In 1961, Robertson convinced the BBC to broadcast a television series on the “cruelty” of hospital care, which featured parents’ letters and segments from the several films he had by now made.  What changed?  Not much.

Do you know what finally finally finally proved to be the tipping point, after nearly two decades of concerted effort?  A story of loss.  A little girl, 3 years old, went into hospital for an ordinary tonsillectomy, and ended up crying herself to death. Literally.

It was 1965.  In line with usual practice, her parents were allowed to spend an hour with her on the day of admission but were thereafter prevented from seeing her.  They were informed, though, that their child had come round from the operation, as she was crying continuously.  The mother begged repeatedly to see her but was denied permission.  Three days after admission, her little girl was dead, having bled to death, surrounded only by strangers called hospital staff.  In a heart-wrenching letter, the mother wrote that she “could not help thinking that the continual crying caused the bleeding” and that she believed “her presence would have stopped the crying.”

Student nurses in 1950sIt’s a shocking story.  I want us to be shocked.  And I want us to be curious.  How is it possible that well-meaning staff could have failed to realise the importance of LOVE for reassuring a scared child?  How could their lack of understanding be so complete that she ended up drowning in her own blood?

If you think the way I’ve told this story sounds too extreme, that’s okay.  You can read the story for yourself, retold in the 2009 paper written by Dutch researchers Frank van der Horst and Rene van der Veer (pg 135).  The case was much discussed at the time, in the press, in the medical journals and by the Ministry of Health.  Whilst some leading medical professionals supported the mother’s view that her presence would have calmed and saved her child, others subtly blamed the mother for the death, suggesting that she had failed to adequately prepare her 3-year-old for the experience of being in hospital.

Blame.  It is such an easy option for us human beings.

The only light to emerge from this terrible story of loss is that it helped the tide to finally turn.  The Ministry of Health took a harder line on hospital visiting practices.  By 1970, restrictions had come to be regarded as unnecessary and unsuitable for young children.  It had taken two decades of campaigning.  Things still weren’t perfect.  But the tide had turned.  LOVE was being permitted to flourish in hospital wards.

Why am I telling that story in such detail now?  Two reasons.Teddy Bears Rule Poster

First, when I stand up on stage on 3rd November in Dundee, in aid of The ARCHIE Foundation’s campaign for cutting-edge hospital facilities, I want the evening to be entertaining, full of fun and laughter.  I won’t be telling this heart-breaking story.  But I wanted to put it on record, so that, as we walk into that auditorium, we fully appreciate the significance of ARCHIE’s attention to relationships.  ARCHIE gets it, and they are working to help ensure that others get it.  The money we raise that evening will help them continue that work.

Connection.  Laughter.  LOVE.  It is way too easy for us to take these basics for granted.

Second, Nicola Sturgeon’s speech about the Care System has filled many people in Scotland with hope.  Tears were shed as she announced her root and branch review.  I believe Nicola’s intention, and I have no doubt that the determined young people of Who Cares Scotland will hold her to account.  They have claimed their own stories of loss.  They have used their stories to drive long-needed change.

However, even hefty reviews do not automatically lead to action.  My history of hospital care reminds us of that reality.

I do not want to wait two decades to achieve the vision Nicola Sturgeon set out this week.  If our children in care are to experience the LOVE she seeks for them, and the LOVE they deserve, then it needs more than policy change.  It needs culture change.

That part is up to us.  We don’t have to wait for a governmental review.  We can start today.  We start with kindness and curiosity.  We listen to stories of loss.

When we fail to be shocked

When we fail to be shocked

Omran DaqneeshIn August, I wrote a piece urging us not to buy into the language of ‘shock’ when it is used to describe images of children caught up in war.  I was trying to help us fight the dangerous pull of sentimentality, when our human emotions easily cloud our ability to look upon harsh realities.

What do we think war looks like, I asked?  Of course it looks like children dazed and covered in blood.  There is nothing shocking about that image of Omran Daqneesh.  He is a child caught up in terrible war.  Yes, the image is haunting, awful, gut-wrenching.  But it is not shocking.  It is depressingly predictable.

Haiti devastationMy theme was picked up by blogger Tim Dunwoody, writing about the devastation that has occurred in Haiti as a result of Hurricane Matthew.  He asked why the images were being described as ‘shocking’, given that Haiti is the poorest nation in the northern hemisphere.  He wondered whether those of us who don’t live in abject poverty subconsciously protect ourselves from acknowledging its reality by telling ourselves, in times of disaster, that we are shocked by what we see.  He challenges us to be real: “If we are honest with ourselves, surely we know that natural disasters always hit the poor the worst.  Do the images from Haiti really shock us?”

I found myself returning to this theme once again as I looked at another of the week’s news images.  This time, though, I wondered why we were not using the language of ‘shock’.

The answer is that we were, instead, using the language of ‘cute’.   Our laughter at all the cuteness kept us from seeing the possibility of a harsher reality: a child being objectified.

Trump holding up baby

On 10th October, US presidential candidate Donald Trump hosted one of his largest rallies yet.  Nearly 10,000 people gathered in Wilkes-Barre Pennsylvania to hear him speak with anger and vitriol about the current state of America and its leaders.  Approximately 45 minutes into the speech, he spotted a child dressed up to look just like him.  Lots of people had donned costumes for that rally, and the parents of this two-year-old toddler had joined in, dressing him up as a mini-Trump, complete with dark suit, red tie, voting badge and a full head of similarly combed-over hair.

When Donald spotted the child, sitting high on a set of shoulders in the crowd, he invited his security guards to bring him up onto stage.  The rapturous crowd loved it.

Crowd at Trump rally

“What’s your name?” Donald asked.

The child responded with one of the abilities common to all young children learning to talk.  He repeated the last word he heard: “Name!”  Some of the papers explicitly noted that repetitive pattern in their coverage of the story.

“Are you having a good time tonight?”


“Where’s your daddy, and your mommy?  Do you want to go back to them, or do you want to stay with Donald Trump?”


The roar of approval was deafening.  You can hear that “beautiful moment” for yourself here:

It wasn’t just the crowds who loved it.  So did the media.  ABC News declared that ‘Mini-Trump Steals the Show.”  The Toronto Sun said ‘Mini-Trump upstaged Donald Trump’.  The Daily Mail charmingly called him the ‘Doppelganger Baby’.

So what’s wrong with any of that, you might ask?  It was funny.  The kid was cute.  Nobody got hurt.  The child didn’t even cry.  If you look closely, he was smiling.  His parents were there the whole time.  What is the problem?

My problem is that our collective response was to laugh indulgently as an angry demagogue used a child for his own political purposes.

It’s not surprising.  In fact, it’s a common strategy amongst demagogues.  When they smile at children, they seem more likable.  When they get us to laugh with them, we remember ourselves as having had a good time.

Stalin & Hitler propaganda posters

And if we’re having a good time, we’re more likely to overlook the ways in which a person is being used to manipulate us.  That person (in this case, a small person) has been objectified, used as a pawn in a bigger game.

We have become pawns too.  Donald played us all brilliantly: the crowd, the newspaper editors, those of us who looked at that photo and smiled.

Let me be very clear: I’m not particularly criticising him.  He was doing what all politicians do: kiss babies.  (The Atlantic published a lovely little piece in 2011 on why this “clichéd propaganda” works so effectively.) Donald was also doing what we might expect of a politically ambitious bully under severe threat:  he was seizing an opportunity to shift the public mood.  Three days previously, most folks around the world had been outraged by the way he had objectified women.  He vaporised some of that anger instantly by getting himself photographed being sweet to a cute kid.  It’s a brilliant strategy.

Politicians & babies

I am not in any way reproaching the child’s parents, either.  Loads of parents involve their children in political struggles, using their very youth as part of the political point being made.  The follow-up interviews (and even the pre-interviews) with Hunter Tirpak’s mother made clear that, as a strong Trump supporter, her aim was to bring positivity to a negative campaign.  She is absolutely free to dress her child up as Baby Trump if she wants.

Nuclear & abortion rallies

Rather, my critique is focused on us, the public.  Why were we so easily entranced?  Why did the language of ‘shock’ not appear in any of the papers?  Why was this story dripping in froth and fluff, rather than scrutiny?


One answer is that Donald has offered us so many shocking moments during this campaign that we’ve become a bit inured to his antics.  And this moment did come just after the meltdown created by his comments about grabbing women by the pussy.  It is understandable that, in the face of such blatant objectification, we might miss the more subtle objectification involved in holding up a smiling child for public viewing.

So if you didn’t spot this interpretation, don’t feel bad.  Nobody else did either, as far as I can tell.  Donald is a very talented showman.  He’s better even than Derren Brown.

And if you disagree (perhaps vehemently) with my reading of Donald’s performance, that’s okay too.  Debate on the objectification of children would be terrific.  It would let us address my earlier question: “What’s wrong with any of this?”

Headline - long

What’s wrong is that objectification is the first step on the journey to exploitation, xenophobia and abuse.  When we are astute enough to spot objectification, we stand a better chance of preventing things from getting worse.

One other event occurred in the British media this week that highlights how ‘worse’ it can get.  Louis Theroux produced a courageous television documentary exploring how he had failed to spot the sinister depths of his predatory friend, Jimmy Saville.  What signs had he overlooked 15 years ago?

The programme made for unsettling viewing – but not because we were watching a man trying to make sense of his own guilt and gullibility.  It was unsettling because Theroux was compelling viewers to ask themselves what they too had missed, as they laughed along with Saville, during all the scenes of smiling children.  He was trying to help a nation not to get lost in a cloud of guilt and shame, but to have the strength and curiosity to ask:  what signs did we miss?

Jimmy SavilleWell, objectification is a pretty good sign.

The creepy, crazy thing about objectification is that it doesn’t have to feel bad.  It can easily feel like entertainment.

Come to think of it, maybe objectification is at its most powerful when it comes wrapped in sentimentality.  Who could possibly question laughing at innocent cuteness?



There is nothing shocking about this image

There is nothing shocking about this image

There is nothing shocking about this photo.  It is totally predictable for a country at war.

Omran Daqneesh - AMC Photo 2Yet that is the wording chosen by the Guardian“Shocking image emerges of Syrian child.”

And by NPR News:  “A wounded child shocks the world.”

And by CBN News“Child’s shocking image becomes the face of Syria.”

And of course by the Daily Mail:  “Harrowing image shocks the world.”

Yes, the photo is distressing, but that’s not the same as shocking.  ‘Shocking’ implies we should somehow be surprised.  How can we be legitimately surprised?  Syria is at war.  This is what war looks like.

If we are genuinely shocked, either as a society or as individuals, that tells us more about ourselves than about this 5-year-old child.  Being ‘shocked’ says we are living in denial. What do we think war looks like?  What do we think the reported deaths of approximately 50,000 Syrian children have looked like?

The BBC News website has a page that shows those children’s names, each in turn.  You need to watch for 19 hours to view the complete list.

Omran Daqneesh - AMC Photo 3
Yes, the photo of Omran Daqneesh is distressing.  His blank face forces us to look upon the psychological trauma of war.  We are right to be distressed when we see such a “still, silent child”, as the NPR story put it.

The trouble for the human psyche is that distress is hard to feel.  We have to do one of two things in response to it:  1) move toward it or 2) move away from it.

If truth be told, most of us choose the second option.  We move away.  We turn over the page.  We shift our gaze.  We deny.  Turning away makes perfect sense when we can’t do anything useful.  To look distress in the face and stand helpless is deeply painful.

That’s why our psyche needs the tools of denial and repression.  They are coping mechanisms that serve a key psychological function. They save us from becoming overwhelmed.  They keep us from being stopped in our tracks with sadness and horror.  Denial and repression enable us to continue with our day.

However, saying we are ‘shocked’ takes us to a deeper, darker place.  It implies that we are somehow surprised that a child should be traumatised by war and bombing.  That is disingenuous.  There is no way we can be legitimately shocked that war should bring such consequences – and we know that.  In our gut, we know that.

Ultimately, then, these headlines are insulting.  They make a mockery of this child’s trauma, trauma that will haunt him his whole life.  The headlines encourage us to believe his distress is somehow surprising.  Every news editor who opted for the headline of “shocking” should feel ashamed of their choice.  It panders to sentimentality.  The power editors have to help us see the world more deeply has not been exercised.  I know that is entirely common for the modern day press.  It still doesn’t make it okay to use a child’s pain in this way.

Omran Daqneesh - AMC Photo 2The insult is made worse with statements like this one:   “Warning: this article contains images that readers may find distressing.”

Warning?  Why do readers need a warning about looking upon distress that is predictable?

Most of the adults reading the story of this child will never have known the sound or smell or gritty residue of a bomb.  They will never have known the death of their child or the terror of going to the market to be able to feed them.  Most of us will never ever have to know the horror of such things.  And yet we need a warning about a photo of them?  Are we meant to look away if we are too upset?  Five-year-old Omran Daqnessh is living inside that photo.

I acknowledge, though, that a very real problem remains.  How do we look at that photo and then get on with our day, filled hopefully with absolutely important acts like getting breakfast on the table for our own children, hugging them, taking them out later to play football or for ice cream, laughing with them in the car on our way there?  It is precisely that question that leads most of us to reach, unconsciously, for repression.  It is a tool to help us resolve this dilemma.

Repression is normal.  It is ordinary.  It is understandable.  Repression saves us from being overwhelmed by knowledge too painful to bear.  But just because repression is normal and ordinary and understandable doesn’t make it okay.  Or kind.

Omran Daqneesh - AMC Photo 2What would be kinder for this traumatised lad is to sit and stare at his photo.  We honour his distress when we find the courage to stop ourselves from turning over the page.  We strengthen our capacity not to be overwhelmed when we practise looking distress in the face and accepting it.

Children need adults who can do that.  Children need adults who are able to acknowledge their pain, to see it and sense it.  Children need adults who do not rely on turning away as a coping mechanism.  To feel safe, children need to know the adults around them will not desert them when they are struggling emotionally, with traumas big or small.

We may not be able to do anything at all that directly helps Omran Daqneesh, but we can use his presence on our front page to help us serve other children.  Something worthwhile then comes out of the terrible, stupid tragedy that has been inflicted upon him.

There is a power that comes from the strength to stand and look distress in the face: we are impelled to action.  So if you want ideas about what to do, here are some options:

  1. Donate money or time to a charity supporting Syria. The Guardian published a welcome article this week listing nine charities doing active work.  The fabulous organisation I Am Syria lists more.
  2. Write to your MP and ask why the UK government has so far resettled only 1602 Syrian people out of the 20,000 planned over the next five years.
  3. Donate money or time to a charity in your local area that supports children traumatised by circumstances such as domestic violence, bereavement, a parent with mental illness.
  4. Ask yourself why the prison population is filled with adults who were once children in the care system. All people who spent time in the care system have trauma in their history – or they wouldn’t have ended up in care.
  5. Next time you find yourself about to speak sharply to a child (usually for some bit of behavior you didn’t like) ask yourself if there is a gentler way you could convey your thoughts – because underneath all behavior is an emotional need, and it isn’t a need to be told off.
  6. Hug your child, knowing that lots of parents in Syria no longer can.  That includes Omran’s parents, because his older brother, Ali, was killed in the same bombing raid.  That terrible fact, though, was not reported with the same breadth as his younger brother’s photo.
  7. Put Omran’s photo on your refrigerator, so that you can practise looking into the face of distress without denial or overwhelm. When you’ve gotten good at it, replace his photo with the face of another Syrian child.  You can find a distressingly wide selection of them on the Aleppo Media Center’s Facebook page, here.

Omran Daqneesh and sisterThe comments of Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a medic from Chicago who volunteers in Aleppo, received widespread coverage this week when we said that the children of Syria no longer have need of our tears.  I agree.  Our sympathy mocks their pain if it does not lead to action.

Denial protects us adults, but it does absolutely nothing for children.

What attachment theory teaches us about responding to Brexit 

What attachment theory teaches us about responding to Brexit 

I think that, over the last week, I have read just about every Brexit opinion piece published anywhere.  What is there to be said that hasn’t been said?  What words are left that could be of use?

How about these three words? “Rupture and repair.”

The concept of ‘rupture and repair’ lies at the heart of contemporary attachment theory. That cycle is regarded as the key to understanding what makes relationships emotionally healthy.  Ripples, storms, even tsunamis are a part of any long-term relationship. Modern day attachment research shows that it isn’t the ruptures that matter most to relationship sustainability.  Instead, it is the repairing of ruptures.

SuzanneZeedykBlog-July2016-Brexit2That is what we face now in the UK.  Brexit has created a terrible rip in the fabric of our society.  Remain Voters feel betrayed by Leave Voters. Leave Voters feel irritated with the continuing ‘whinging’ of Remain Voters.  Voters everywhere feel unsettled by the resignations of so many politicians, supplemented by fury at the lies the campaign was based on.  Racist acts have increased five-fold. Friendships and families have been injured, split over the anger and dismay that has erupted within them.

A nation ruptured indeed. John Litchfield did not exaggerate when he described Britain as being “on the verge of a nervous breakdown”.

Over the past two weeks, Brexit has been analysed from any number of angles.  Tim Lott guessed that social inequality lies at its heart. Matthew Goodwin recounted the sense of alienation felt by Leave Voters.  Ollie McAninch explored the deliberate use of misdirection to support a fear-based agenda. So much of what has been written have been attempts to understand what has happened.

SuzanneZeedykBlog-July2016-Brexit3The piece that has stayed with me the most, though, is the one written by Henry Kissinger. He looked in the opposite direction — toward the future.  He asked what we should be striving for now (whether or not or whenever Article 50 is eventually implemented).  His focus wasn’t trade agreements, free movement or immigration quotas.  He wasn’t talking specifics.

Instead, he emphasised the spirit that needs to guide our next steps.  Kissinger brings to his comments the experience he gained serving as Secretary of State for two US Presidents (Ford and Nixon).  Whatever you may feel about his political decisions while in office, his comments here breathe the wisdom of a statesman.  Kissinger’s piece urges us to keep our eyes on vision – on the purpose of the EU, rather than its structures.

Here is Kissinger’s core message:

“Britain will want to maintain extensive ties with Europe while easing the constraints of its many legislative and bureaucratic requirements.  The EU leadership has almost the opposite incentive.  It will not wish to reward Britian’s Leave majority by granting Britain better terms than it enjoyed as a full member.  Hence a punitive element is likely to be inherent in the EU bargaining position….[But I] hope the EU will transcend itself, seeking its vocation not in penalising the recalcitrant but by negotiating in a manner that restores the prospects of unity.  The EU should not treat Britain as an escaper from prison but as a potential compatriot.

Kissinger is talking about repair.

SuzanneZeedykBlog-July2016-Brexit4Attachment research shows that in healthy, ‘good enough’ relationships, the ordinary cycle of attunement travels through three phases.  Roughly one-third of time is spent in actual relating (attuned connection), one-third in rupture (mis-attuned connection) and one-third in repair (recovering attuned connection).  Repair is the most important phase in the cycle.  Repair not only rewires patterns of behaviour, it also establishes trust.  You come to know that you can fall out with someone while still trusting that your connection with ‘the other’ does not risk being severed forever.  Rupture does not have to equate to the terror of abandonment.

Allan Schore, one of the world’s leading attachment theorists, stresses that ruptures are an inevitable and natural element of relationships.  We should not seek out relationships in which there is never any rupture (which in itself actually signifies dysfunction).  It is learning how to engage in repair that creates healthy relationships.  Although Schore, along with other leading theorists such as Dan Siegel and Ed Tronick, is best known for discussions of parent-child relationships, the explanation applies to all relationships, whatever the age of the human beings involved.

So what is needed to achieve repair?  Here’s how one mother, Michele Deen, describes her own efforts to do that in her relationship with her daughter:

“First and foremost, repair involves parental insight and awareness that leads to a type of healing reconnection. For instance, for me it means noticing when I’m being emotionally reactive, stopping in my tracks and analyzing the situation. Next, I tune in to the experiences and feelings of my daughter. From here it’s essential to find a way to communicate with the child so that he/she feels understood and regarded by you, the parent. This allows an opening for the noxious effects of the incident—shame, humiliation and any number of seething emotions—to dissipate.”

Guess what?  That’s what is not happening within Britain.  We are nowhere near noticing when we are emotionally reactive or allowing noxious effects to dissipate. Instead, the Rupture is getting worse.  Surprise after surprise, uncertainty after uncertainty, anger after recrimination, is unfolding.  And our leading politicians, caught up in their own self-obsessed wrangles, are entirely incapable of reflecting enough to move us toward repair.

SuzanneZeedykBlog-July2016-Brexit5Pam Jarvis, one of the core members of the Save Childhood Movement campaign team, made that same point even more sharply in her brilliant piece:

“The disaffected British population has in this sense behaved as the collective dysfunctional ‘offspring’ of a ‘parental’ ruling class whose lack of care most recently sunk to the depths of risking the nation’s future as collateral in a high-stakes game of personal one-upmanship that began in the classrooms and playing fields of Eton; 64 million pawns sacrificed to internal Westminster in-fighting in a high-stakes game without a contingency plan.”

So: if our neglectful parent-politicians can’t help, then we need to seek out opportunities for repair ourselves.

Like everyone else, I have no idea how long the anxious uncertainty will go on for.  What I do know, based on attachment theory, is that the longer it takes, the more toxic this national rupture becomes, and the harder it will become to achieve repair.  Great risks lie in the failure to achieve repair. As Kissinger warned, “Ignoring the concerns that Brexit manifests is a path to greater disillusionment.

We have been reminded all too starkly this week of the terrible consequences that arise from failure to repair.

SuzanneZeedykBlog-July2016-Brexit6One reminder occurred on 1st July.  That date marked the centenary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme.  On that single day during the First World War, nearly 20,000 young British men died.  Over the next five months of the Somme campaign, over one million British, French and German men would be killed or wounded.  Words that have been used to describe the madness of that day include ‘gory’, ‘bloody’, and ‘horrific’.  Soberingly, this week Simon Tinsdall traced that “muddy, futile battlefield” to the tensions he sees as driving Brexit.

On the morning of Friday, 1st July 2016, UK citizens woke to a surprise public art event.  In public spaces throughout the UK – train stations, bus stations, shopping malls, streets, steps of civic buildings – the public found themselves walking past young men dressed in WWI uniforms.  If they stopped to speak to one of these volunteer actors, they were handed a small card containing the name, rank, battalion and regiment of a man who had died at the Somme.  Entitled ‘we’re here because we’re here’, this living, largely silent memorial was the tribute created by prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller to mark the waste that occurred one hundred years ago this week.

Perhaps the tribute will have brought some healing to families such as the Guyons, who described in an interview the inter-generational consequences of their grandfather’s death at the Somme.  “We have grown up with a father who was very seriously damaged by his mother’s grief at his father’s death.  It totally blighted his life.”  For the Guyon family, and countless others like them, the Somme left a “wound that hasn’t healed”, even one hundred years on.

So let’s put the sacrifice of those young men into a wider historic context.  What happened after their deaths? – deaths which many have now argued were needless political folly?  What happened was that a mere 21 years later, merely a single generation, another war descended.  As any student of 20th century history will tell you, WWII was largely a result of politicians’ failure to focus on repair.  The victors of WWI sought to punish the losers.  That led to the economic depression, despair, nationalism and polarisation from which WWII was born.  WWII took another 50 million lives, not forgetting the 6 million people who died as scapegoats in Nazi concentration camps.  The European Union was founded to prevent such catastrophic division from ever occurring again within Europe.  Simon Tinsdall observes, unnervingly, that that possibility seems “less unimaginable” than it did two weeks ago.

SuzanneZeedykBlog-July2016-Brexit7A second event that occurred this week, which also laments the failure to repair, was the publication of the Chilcot Report. The basis for the UK-US coalition invasion of Iraq in 2003, under the banner ‘Operation Freedom’, has been totally discredited.  The degree to which lies (or ‘mistakes’, depending on your viewpoint) underpinned the arguments for action have been exposed, along with the lack of any follow-up plan.  The thinking bears uncomfortable similarities to elements of Brexit.

Simultaneously, reports continue to pour in of the consequences of the Iraq War.  This week, for example, one report highlighted the lack of a functioning health service.  Most of Iraq’s 1700 healthcare centres have no running water or electricity.  There is no system in place to train sufficient health professionals, and the equipment available in hospitals is appalling.  The World Health Organisation has described the situation as “bad, really bad, and getting worse”. Yet in the 1980s, Iraq’s health care system was one of the most advanced in the Middle East.  Trauma that the UK helped to cause, on the basis of ‘mistakes’, which the leaders involved have this week continued to defend, will rumble on for generations. We contributed to our own suffering in the West, which has come in the form of terrorism and mass refugee desperation.

I realise that it has taken 7 years to gain the perspective afforded by the Chilcot Report.  I recognise it has taken 100 years to see the enduring devastation of WWI.  And I accept it is too soon to begin recovering from the wounds caused 2 weeks ago by Brexit.  For wounds they are.  Brexit has turned out to be about much more than a democratic process.  It has challenged more than our beliefs about economics, sovereignty and political leadership.  Brexit has become, at its core, an assault on our sense of identity and belonging.

SuzanneZeedykBlog-July2016-Brexit8Identity and belonging are precisely what attachment is all about.  That is why it is so deeply troubling for us all.  Who are we now?  To which ‘tribe’ do we belong? And which ‘tribes’ do we choose to see as the ‘them’ in contrast to the ‘us’?

Yet, difficult conversations are what repair is all about.  Repair is often not easy.  How do you listen to another person’s feelings when your own emotions feel intense, legitimate, overwhelming and simply RIGHT? How do you listen to the feelings of the person whom you feel has betrayed, ignored, humiliated, abandoned you?  How do you resist blame and accusation?  How do you do that when your leaders are incapable of seeing their own emotional reactivity or owning their responsibility?

These are the questions that organisations like the Centre for Nonviolent Communication and the Restorative Justice Council deal with all the time, in their search for ways of promoting connection, via compassion rather than polarisation.  And that’s what Kissinger is trying to get us to think about.  “The needed restoration of faith will not come about through recriminations.”  It’s what Susie Orbach said this week too: “Agony can gain temporary relief through attack….but almost inevitably, whether in politics or personal life, attack compounds things.  Our eyes are drawn to the wrong target.”

If we cannot find our way back to (enough) unity, then we risk rupture taking on a more lethal form.  We risk future families, like the Guyons, bearing wounds that travel down the generations.

So what do we do if repair simply feels too soon, too raw, just now?  My answer is this:  what if we just try to keep the rupture from becoming worse?  Here is one tiny thing I did this week:  I refrained from tweeting everything I felt.  I kept myself from expressing every negative emotion and thought that went through my head.  My goal was not to feed the negativity and fear felt by others around me in my social media circle.  It wasn’t easy.  Sometimes it meant I had to kick the table instead.  But I figured that my hurt toe carried less chance of unintended consequences than would my angry, accusatory words.  I tried to do what our politicians and much of the media have been unable to do:  I tried to take responsibility for my actions.

I choose to have faith that my acts matter.  Even the small ones.  Because one day we will reach repair.  We will have to renew our ties to one another.  The fewer ties that have been broken, strained, bruised and cut, the easier the process of repair will be.

Don’t take my words for it.  There are better words than mine available.

SuzanneZeedykBlog-July2016-Brexit8There are the words of esteemed MP Jo Cox.  She said: “We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

There are the words of the Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel, who survived Nazi concentration camps and who died this week: “When human lives are endangered, when human dignity is in jeopardy, national borders and sensitivities become irrelevant.”

And there are the words of the woman who sent me this Facebook message last week: “A few months ago I attended an attachment training event you gave on ‘challenging behavior as distressed feelings’. That day inspired me in my care of the kids I work with. I think a lot of hearts were touched that day. Months later, I can see the benefits of a gentle approach…. A compassionate supportive approach is unbelievably more helpful than is calling on selfish blame.”

Maybe it really is enough, for right now, if all I can think to do – all each of us can do — is try to avoid making the rupture any worse.  We can fight fear, rather than each other.