158: Deconstructing Developmental Psychology with Dr. Erica Burman

I read a lot of textbooks on parenting for my Master’s in Psychology (Child Development), I’ve read tens of thousands of peer-reviewed papers on the topic, and part of the reason it’s hard work is that you can’t ever take things at face value.


In her now classic book Deconstructing Developmental Psychology, Dr. Erica Burman explodes a number of our ideas about child development by calling our attention to what’s really going on in an interaction, rather than what we think is going on.


For example, there’s a classic study where researchers put a baby on a solid surface which changed to glass, which had a design underneath implying that there was a ‘cliff edge’ that the baby would fall off if it went onto the glass. Researchers designed the experiment to find out what babies could understand about depth perception, but perhaps what they were actually testing was the extent to which the mother’s encouragement or lack of encouragement (and it was always the mother) could entice the baby across the ‘gap.’


These kinds of confounds exist throughout the research base, and because we’re not taught to look below the surface it can be easy to accept the results at face value. Dr. Burman specializes in looking below the surface so we can examine: what are we really trying to understand here? And in doing this, are we reinforcing the same old ideas about ‘success’ that aren’t really serving us now, never mind our children in the future?


Dr. Erica Burman’s Book:

Deconstructing Developmental Psychology 3rd Edition

Developments: Child, Image, Nation  (Affiliate links).


Jump to highlights:

(01:12) The contribution of Professor Erica Burman to psychology.

(03:05) First studies about Childhood Development.

(04:26) How general philosophical questions are linked in child studies.

(07:42) Childhood as a distinct social category.

(09:10) The Concept of Human Interiority and Childhood.

(10:17) Our hopes, fears, and fantasies about childhood reflect our ideas about our lost selves.

(13:23) How the study of child development shifted when behaviorism came into play. 

(16:28) We assume psychology is connected with child development.

(18:27) Importance of Democratic Parenting in our society.

(19:57) Developmental researchers oppressed working mothers and middle-class mothers.

(22:23) Impacts of authoritarian regimes in our parenting.
(27:19) Using visual cliff as an experiment in understanding depth perception in children.

(29:06) A child is functioning within a dynamic system of people and objects and everything around it.

(31:02) Mother’s appear as the sort of a presumed natural environment to children.

(33:11) Nuclear family performs ideological functions for Capitalism.

(37:00) Whether or not spanking should be banned.

(38:09) The ways environments inhibit certain behaviors.

(39:19) How welfare policies have affected families.

(42:27) Discussing the important discourses in parenting’s social and political issues in the book DDP.


Read Full Transcript

Emma 00:04
Hi, I’m Emma, and I’m listening from the UK we all want our children to lead fulfilled lives. But we’re surrounded by conflicting information and clickbait headlines that leave us wondering what to do as parents. The Your Parenting Mojo podcast is still scientific research on parenting and child development into tools parents can actually use everyday in their real lives with their real children. If you’d like to be notified when new episodes are released, and get a free infographic on the 13 reasons your child isn’t listening to you and what to do about each one, just head on over to YourParentingmojo.com/subscribe, and pretty soon you’re going to get tired of hearing my voice read this intro so come and record one yourself at YourParentingmojo.com/recordtheintro

Jen Lumanlan 00:45
Hello, and welcome to the Your Parenting Mojo podcast. Today we’re going to take a dive into a topic that cuts across many of the ideas that we discuss here on the podcast. We’re going to take a critical look at the topic of Developmental Psychology as a whole and what we can learn about it when we raise our eyes up off the specific topics like theory of mind, and language development, and attachment that we often spend a lot of time delving into and consider the topics that these sit within. My guest for the conversation is Professor Erica Berman. Professor Berman is Professor of Education at the University of Manchester, an Associate Fellow of the British Psychological Society and the United Kingdom Council of Psychotherapists, and a registered Group Analyst. She trained as a developmental psychologist and is well known as a critical developmental psychologist specializing in innovative and activist qualitative research. Her research is focused on critical development and educational psychology, feminist and postcolonial theory, childhood studies on critical mental health practice, particularly around gender and cultural issues. Much of her work addresses the connections between emotions, mental health, and individual and social change. She’s a past chair of the Psychology of Women’s section of the British Psychological Society. And in 2016, she was awarded an Honorary Lifetime Fellowship at the British Psychological Society in recognition of her contribution to psychology. She’s associate editor of the Sage Encyclopedia of Childhood and Childhood Studies and the author of a number of books, most significantly, Deconstructing Developmental Psychology. And since it seems as though friends of the book have the right to call it DDP, we’re going to go ahead and do that here too. DDP is now in its third edition, and was honored with a special edition of the journal feminism and psychology discussing the impact of the book on the 20th anniversary of the publication of the first edition of the book, which really critiques mainstream theories and research methods to help us understand whether research on child development tells us more about the child, the researchers or the social environment that both of these exists within. So whether you’re expecting a child or you’re a new parent, perhaps you’re newer to my work, or whether you already have a child who’s getting on in years, and you’ve been a listener for a while, you’re going to find something new in this conversation that helps you step outside these usual topics and ask well, how did we get here? And where are we going? And even is this where we want to go? Welcome Professor Berman. It’s such an honor to have you here.

Erica Burman 02:55
Thank you for inviting me.

Jen Lumanlan 02:57
So maybe we can start with a little topic at the beginning of all of this the study of child development. How do we start studying children? How did all this come about?

Erica Burman 03:05
Well, yes, it’s not a small question. And I guess there are different ways of telling that story of how child development came about. The conventional story that you will read about in child development textbooks usually talks about the emergence of the Child Study movement. In fact, many men of a certain kind of class background started to take an interest in their own children, studying them in some detail. So the first studies about children and childhood are of a sort of semi-formal kind, observational studies by the fathers, not the mothers, otherwise occupied and not intellectual enough to engage in this esteemed new area of study. So their diary studies, and indeed, that methodological approach, remain a very important one for the study of early childhood in general, especially very early childhood and language development, and so on. So the child study movement, in a sense, is both the beginning of the study of psychology and also psychiatry. And in a way, slight child psychology and psychiatry really were elaborated alongside each other, almost indistinguishable. The questions that were motivating those first studies and inquiries, it’s fair to say, I think we’re not really specifically about children. It was an interest in the study of the child as a way to explore much more general philosophical questions. Questions about nature and nurture themselves are sort of laid on to older questions about original sin or free will, etc. And we continue to live with those big philosophical questions that people tend to look to the study of childhood to solve, and I have to admit that, in a way, that’s what kind of brought me to study developmental psychology. It wasn’t that I was interested in children particularly, I just sort of felt like a true modern rationalist that this was a way to sort of engage in, you know, very general interests. I had was the case for Piaget, who was motivated to study, but it wasn’t just him that the origins of knowledge and how it developed through the study of the child. So were these kinds of philosophical questions. And people were sort of starting to explore them alongside a set of political concerns of the time and of the political structures of the time with the rise of the nation state and so on about the state of the population, about molding, in a sense, sort of knowing about and also controlling the future workforce, future citizens, etc. Now, all of that is, I think, sort of one version of the story of the origins of child development that is generally quite widely accepted. I think there’s another narrative, I would want to add in their second one, which I’ve already alluded to, about the rise of the nation state. All of this was happening alongside imperialist wars going on. I mean, these gentlemen who were studying children, but also the gentlemen who were going off and studying the flora and fauna, were to them exotic places and bringing them back. You know, if you can look around the English countryside, it’s full of plants that were brought from all over the world that these gentlemen tried to recreate it in their land that they owned, so that, you know, Britain’s full of rhododendron, but that’s the national plant of the Himalayas, Nepal, I think it is. So what was happening was that, in a way, the study of children emerged quite late in the scene, because really, the flora and fauna were of more interest for quite a long time. And it was only when these other kinds of political agendas started to surface about managing populations, including colonized populations, that children became a good route by which to think about that, and the management of parenting. But all of this, of course, was happening. It’s not just about psychology or child psychology, it was happening alongside the rise of other social sciences, you could say, like sociology and social policy. And I think it’s also worth bearing in mind that, as I said, these child studies, in a sense, seem to kick it off. So that’s the sort of second narrative, I think it’s important. And this third one, I think, is important in thinking about why childhood came to be seen as a distinct category. I mean, that’s where we need to sort of think more broadly, historically, and culturally and think about how the invention of childhood, we know that there is a history of childhood and what that means from Philippi raise onwards, that the invention of the idea of childhood as a distinct social category, rather than something that’s integrated in daily life, that coincided with emerging ideas within and from European culture, about the idea of the individual and that individual has a sort of interiority itself. Now that is really something that in terms of our ideas about ourselves, and awareness of ourselves really kind of starts from the mid-18th century onwards, these ideas about childhood were emerging alongside the idea of the individual and alongside the idea that that individual has an interiority you know, some sense of awareness of itself can reflect on separately from others. And that was emerging alongside other disciplines like the ideas associated with what we would now recognize to be biology and, equally at the same time, psychoanalysis, the ideas that then eventually were to be sort of named by Freud as psychoanalysis, so ideas about nature and ideas about history. And this is where I mean, I’m very convinced by the account that Carolyn Steedman wrote a long time ago about it’s called strange dislocations, childhood, and the idea of human interiority. I think it’s sort of 18 something Tto 19 something, historians always do that. So you have to situate the interest in childhood alongside these other sorts of developments in people’s ideas about the course of history, having a cause, having a going somewhere and having consequences. And I think all that invites, you know, several other kinds of questions. The first one is that when we study children, are we only studying children? I mean, it’s one of the claims I make in deconstructing developmental psychology, that a child always involves constituting positions for others around that child, whether it’s the proximal positions of the caregivers, the gender positions of all of that, or family or the state or whatever. So we can’t abstract the child from a set of relationships. And you can see, I’m a psychotherapist as well. Our fantasies of our lost selves, or our better selves, or our true selves, something like that, that gets played out in people’s hopes and fears and fantasies about childhood. And that’s all been going on for quite a long time, from the mid 18th century onwards. Because if you look at that history that Sally Shuttleworth writes about in of European childhood, there were always sort of crisis about child labor, about hothouse children and then being cramming and there’s always been moral panics, you might say about children’s sexuality, that’s always been a difficult area, etc, wider historical view is useful to see, generally speaking, the sort of hot issues we encounter in our day are not new, but are just a new take on a very long standing set of themes. But also, I think there are consequences for thinking about that the ways our fantasies about ourselves get tied up with what we think about and want for children. Those typically get in the way, in my opinion of our engagement with the actual embodied specific children in front of us. And I think I say this quite a lot in the book. You know, the third issue that arises, given that there is so much going on in the study of the child, is genuine confusion about what the unit of development is, as well as what the model of time is. I mean, are we talking about individual development? Are we talking about child development? Are we talking about national development because all of these concerns are all international development, they all get wrapped up into the study of the child in a way that I think becomes remarkably inattentive to particular children.

Jen Lumanlan 11:58
Yeah, and I’ve been doing a lot of research on resilience over the last few days. And I think it really comes out there that many of the criteria that we use to judge children’s resilience are related to things like their executive function capabilities, their grades, their employment, their criminality, or lack thereof. And it’s pretty clear that the state has a very vested interest in a particular outcome here. And to the extent that they can support development in the younger years, and have it be cost effective later on, then, yeah, we’re talking about the development of the state, as we’re talking about how to support individual children. And of course, on the international stage, it plays out in similar statistics and the league tables of standardized test results, I guess, would be the most obvious one that comes to mind that absolutely, clearly, there’s this huge framework that it all sits within that we’re not just looking at the child, this has so many connections to how we think of ourselves and our place within society as well. And we just sort of reduce it back and think, Okay, if we can go back to the source, we’ll make it easier to understand, when actually maybe it introduces a whole bunch of other concerns. But I’m wondering if it’s possible to briefly trace how our understanding of children’s development has shifted, particularly since the 60s, I guess, when behaviorism was sort of the in way of seeing things. I don’t know if you want to go any further back than that. But I think there have been a few really key shifts that have happened since then. I’d love to get your perspective on them.

Erica Burman 13:19
Yeah, I suppose I would want to go a bit further back.

Jen Lumanlan 13:22
I thought you might

Erica Burman 13:23
A very psychoanalytically oriented study of the child. It was before, in an anglophone context, now quite a strict division between psychology and psychoanalysis. Although in other parts of the world, a lot of psychology is very psychoanalytic. So one has to be careful about the claims here. So those early child studies interested in emotions. And you can see that in Piaget, he was at of that whole sort of tranche of work. Although it was a bit later, he wasn’t interested in testing children, he was interested in trying to formulate the whole structure of children’s thought, and I don’t think he did it sufficiently relationally. But I think he was certainly doing some very interesting things that I did do by Piaget and sort of, like clinical or critical study myself at some point, as well as some, you know, engaging in a lot of the critiques. So before behaviorism, there was the sight of a few, like a very, sort of psycho dynamically oriented understanding of children. I mean, and it’s also worth saying in relation to psychiatry, too, we think of psychiatry as being very medical and empiricist and behavioral, but actually, the first DSM was very psychoanalytically informed. It’s important not to forget that sort of psychoanalytic history, because people kick back against it and don’t want to remember it, but it has its traces in various ways that I think we do need to be aware of in positive and negative ways. Social Work also used to be incredibly psychoanalytic both in the United States in North America and in Britain. And now it’s very hard to find traces of that. But It’s important to remember that there have been different models. Again, I’d like to just having made that point, step back once again, and say there’s one version of that story that you could say, in a way, the study of children’s development mirrors, changing times, mirrors, developing and emerging technologies, as well as social preoccupations. So, you know, Gizelle, was there at the beginnings of photography, absolutely perfect example, you know. And then the 1960s and Tom Bow studies on these infants doing incredible things that were always video, you know, all these kinds of fear responses of collision of objects, and whatever amazing experiments from the 60s and 70s onwards, and now we’ve got digital technologies, obviously,

Jen Lumanlan 15:55
Brain scanning,

Erica Burman 15:56
You know, FMRI scanners and neuro stuff. So in a way that the shifting topics kind of reflect available technologies, I’m sure people who study the history of ideas can trace that through being refracted through particular topics in developmental psychology. But alongside that, we also need to ask where and how psychology appears and disappears in our ideas about child development or development in general. I mean, you know, so often people talk about child development and they assume it’s the equivalent to, the same as, or aligned with psychology. But actually, that’s something that we’re just sort of assuming and filling in here. Because there are ways of studying child development that have nothing to do with psychology, you know, the development of a particular physiological mechanism or something in social policy, it’s quite an interesting point to reflect on in its own right, really, of why and how psychology has come to this assumed status. I think, within the study and debates about child development, it’s important to attend to that because, as with any kind of normalized, inter absence, sort of assumption, and I think what that reflects, again, with the sort of concerns about the rise of the individual and individualism and so on, that’s particularly relevant in these neoliberal times, is the sort of whole way in which some psychology has emerged and functions, not only as psychology, but you know, among other sorts of ideas, as a key way for people to think about themselves reflect on themselves, including the whole idea of Your Parenting Mojo. It assumes you know that being a parent just happens. Something about being a parent that requires some special effort or interest, or skills or dispositions, I think is very much of our time, place the focus on parenting as a question of something that you work at or always a lifestyle, feminist sociologists and Social Policy critics have talked about the mandate that parenting should be enjoyable and how sort of coercive or oppressive that can be, or how hard for parents if you lose your mojo, you’ve got to try and get it back. I mean, that’s the way discourse works, isn’t it? You know, there’s a key study that was done in in Britain by Valerie Walkerdine and Helen Lucey, who were sort of psychologists and educationalists. That’s called Democracy in the Kitchen. What they did was reinterpret a kind of plastic study that was done by Martin Hughes and somebody else about how children talked differently. They were interested as feminists in position of the parents, especially the mothers, as feminists are very interested in class and the way class structures parenting identities and mothers’ identities, because so much of psychology has been about the regulation of mothers, official mandates from the parenting textbooks and including the sort of technical psychology textbooks about sensitive mothering and reasoning with your child and Democratic Parenting, which all of this that emerged in the post Second World War era of the idea that the family was the place of all authoritarianism or anti authoritarianism. And that’s why how you brought up your children is really important. I mean, there were these huge, multidisciplinary conferences that took place, bringing together Margaret Mead and Piaget and lots of eminent experts to talk about how we can build a world that will not succumb to fascism again. They saw the possibility of creating that through Democratic Parenting. What Valerie Walkerdine and Helen Lucy do in their books that came out in 1989 is kind of show how the working class mothers at that time are the ones who do what the bad kind of parenting of telling their children being a bit arbitrary about their commands, not giving reasons for why they’re telling them to do what they’re doing, etc. So they look like bad mothers. And so they get described as such by the literature, but the middle class mothers are doing all this work as sensitive parents of reasoning with their children. And instead of just, you know, the working class mother saying, “Do this help me with this household chores, errands, etc.” These middle-class mothers were doing the thing that the developmental psychology textbooks were saying. They should have turned household labor into an educational and playful experience with the children. This is something that’s supposed to happen and as a sign of a good parent, but actually what they were doing was, you know, doubling their own workload, in a sense, making their own labor at the same time less visible by converting their household labor into play and entertainment for their children. And so both working class and middle class mothers in this study, were both being oppressed, but in different class specific ways by these mandates of how parenting should work. In one case, they got it wrong. So they were bad. The other they were, in a sense, more subjected to those imperatives, therefore regulating themselves and having to work even harder. You see what I mean?

Jen Lumanlan 21:33
Yeah, absolutely. And I, perhaps, should have predicted to get to this point. And I definitely see the irony of myself with two related degrees. And somewhat the “expert” for those of you who are just listening on this topic, partly by virtue of this education, partly by virtue of reading these papers that are written mostly by white researchers studying white children. At the same time, it seems like the working-class women in this study weren’t winning, like they weren’t happy, they weren’t fulfilled, and the middle-class women weren’t winning either. If we recognize the way that we were brought up has left us with a whole slew of problems in terms of the way we interact with the world, in our personal relationships, in the societal problems that we face more broadly. And developmental researchers are critiquing both of those two ways of parenting, I guess the struggle I have with this field is okay, yes, it’s easy to critique both of these ways of doing it. But that doesn’t actually help us to understand what we do want to be doing what is actually going to help us what are your thoughts on that?

Erica Burman 22:33
At the very least, I think it should help relieve some pressure on parents to think it’s a mistake, and it’s really unfair to suggest that we can prevent fascism by bringing your children upright. You know, it takes a lot of other things happening. Which unfortunately, probably are still carrying on happening to create all authoritarian political regimes and individual autonomous children free thinking or whatever, you know, the Democratic thinker, but it is only part of that story, can’t be a guarantor of it, or, you know, it’s really important. I think that parents don’t feel they have solved all the problems of the world, and governments and social policy makers are forever trying to imply and intervene in children’s and families’ lives as if that’s the only way. And it isn’t, and it can’t be. And I suppose what I bang on about endlessly in the book and elsewhere, is that the ways they do that, you know, in the name of early intervention to prevent something later, they actually failing to attend to and failing to engage with all the other conditions and situations that promote or facilitate unhelpful ways of living, unhelpful conditions of people’s lives. But it’s a lot cheaper to install a parenting program, or tell people how to bring up their children better than it is to end child poverty and family poverty.

Jen Lumanlan 24:00

Erica Burman 24:01
For example

Jen Lumanlan 24:02
Yeah. For example, yes, the parenting should not be positioned as the only way that we address these challenges for sure,

Erica Burman 24:09
For sure, yeah

Jen Lumanlan 24:10
A lot of the time because the same people, right, the policymakers are also parents, in a way, it kind of blows my mind that we’re still struggling with this. We’re still trying to figure out how do we make sure that every family has what they need and can live in a fulfilled way because of the structures that we’ve put in place in our society that somehow seem so hard to shift even though we were the very ones who created the policies in the first place. I can see why people would go down this rabbit hole of let’s give out a free book at a well child visit is one of the resilience interventions to promote reading between parents and children and and look for some measurable impact in 15 years on this child’s resilience levels.

Erica Burman 24:47
well-intentioned, but it’s just wrong, and I think, you know, so many people approach their ideas about parenting was very well-founded suspicion because What isn’t evident because of this sort of illusion or confounding between child development, individual development, actually, through the sorts of quantitative and statistical technologies, the norm is an abstraction that doesn’t actually correspond to any specific individual. That’s what statistical norms do. They’re abstractions. And that norm is generated from studies, sort of rich parts of the world and privileged people in it. And so it’s not surprising that it doesn’t fit the lives of marginalized minoritized people, but they’re the ones who are always deemed to be deficient or pathological.

Jen Lumanlan 25:40
And in need of intervention

Erica Burman 25:42
Yeah, exactly. So it becomes very sort of self-confirming legitimation, strategy pathologizing, the poor and minority populations, etc. But actually, we need to think critically about the knowledge base. Unfortunately, people are generating very different kinds of studies designs, knowledge is now to amplify that the base on from which you know, around the cultural norms, the gendered norms, class base norms, and so on.

Jen Lumanlan 26:12

Erica Burman 26:10
But it’s still very hard to budge. You know, even if the psychological studies are getting much more sensitive around these questions, the delay into the sort of social policy, but national and international levels is really quite amazing. And you see it again and again, in something like, people talk a lot about Bronfenbrenner’s model, I don’t know if you’ve talked about that yet to your listeners. So you look at textbooks, and you see these concentric circles, and you look at international policy documents on child development. And you see, again, the concentric circles, well, Bronfenbrenner apparently never made this diagram. You know, because it’s actually quite static and structuralist and he was talking about moment by moment. reconfigurations. Interestingly, as a reflection, I think of the dominant individualist ideology or, you know, the sets of assumptions. You look at those models, and very often it’s not the child and its caregiving system in the middle. Is the child alone that actually is a completely wrong representation of Bronfenbrenner’s ideas.

Jen Lumanlan 27:19
I think that elucidated in the book, the examples that you walk through on the visual Cliff studies, ah, I’d love to kind of walk through that to help listeners see how this actually happens in the research. I wasn’t familiar with these studies before I started reading about it. So I looked it up. And I guess it’s a set of studies by Eleanor Gibson and Richard Walk in the 60s on what’s called this visual cliff. And it’s a table with two sides. And one of them has a checkered board pattern on it. The other side is made of glass, and the checkered board pattern kind of disappears on the floor underneath. And so if you put a baby on the checkered board side, and they can appear over the edge to the glass side, it looks as if they’re going to fall off, because the checkered board seems to disappear. I’m curious about what kinds of things you see coming up in these studies that maybe we don’t usually explore when we’re looking at this kind of work.

Erica Burman 28:04
It’s a while since I’ve looked at all that material. The intention was to try and document the emerging skill of depth perception, wasn’t it?

Erica Burman 28:13
You know, there are a lot of things going on there that are not about depth perception, because the child is being enticed to cross, or there might be a chasm. So it’s about trust and relationships, and it’s an absurd and bizarre situation. many levels, you can see the stripping away of everyday social context in these efforts to try and experimentally isolate this kind of shading of these kinds of squares, etc, which there were endless permutations. At the time when I was studying developmental psychology and cognitive study, I think I still got the book. There was this special issue of Scientific American with these classic key studies, including Gibson, Walk and as well as Harry Harlow.

Jen Lumanlan 28:13

Jen Lumanlan 29:04
The monkeys talked about the under attachments

Erica Burman 29:06
I guess on those, I suppose perhaps, you know, there are so many issues that aren’t there, so many babies are carried all the time, the conditions of babies’ lives are so different in different cultural contexts. You know, in a sense, you can read these classic kinds of experiments as a particular enactment of ideas about autonomous individualism, the child on its own making its journey across this dangerous territory.

Jen Lumanlan 29:06
Okay, I guess just to pull out a particular nugget from what you said, what I wanted to really emphasize to listeners is that this looks like a study of how children develop depth perception, but actually, we’re looking at a certain specific set of children who happen to be available at 10 am on Tuesdays with their mothers and can drive to a campus that’s probably not in the middle of town and not accessible by public transit, and we can put them in this very strange situation and assume that they’re going to reproduce behaviors that they would do naturally at home in very different contexts with different people around them and that the mother, we’re going to just say it’s the mother, it probably was standing on the other side of the table in the early studies didn’t take into account whether the mother was making afraid looking faces or excited looking faces. And later on, they started to do that, so the child is seen as the entire unit of study. And what the child does is the only thing worth examining, when actually, in real life, the child is functioning within a dynamic system of people and objects and everything around it. If we can say that x ability is present at x age in a lab, does that actually help us to understand anything useful about a child’s experience? Possibly not? Okay, so I wonder if we can shift gears a little bit and talk about how mothers show up in research on children, because we alluded to this a little bit in the studies of the visual cliff, but they show up in very strange ways. In studies, sometimes it seems

Erica Burman 31:02
Mother’s appear as the sort of a presumed natural environment to children. And, you know, historically, nowadays, rather more sensitive to these questions than they were, I was fortunate to sort of have all these, I think I put an acknowledgement to the library, my college, they basically wanted to get rid of loads of old books, and a lot of them were actually classic textbooks, but they’re kind of full of littered with all these very derogatory comments about mothers, about women, as researchers, about how no woman could possibly study her child, etc, etc. Mothers are presumed to be the people who look after children. And all too often that remains true actually, or women caregivers. But of course, it’s a very particular model of parenting that is being presumed here, and generally doesn’t acknowledge shared parenting contexts, or cross generational grandmothers and aunts, and as well as mothers looking after children, or multi generational households, joint households, etc, that actually reflect the ways in which people live outside Europe and North America, and even increasingly within it. And this is a question that always sort of, I learned very rapidly from my days in teaching Gender and Women’s Studies, you know, you have to think about which mothers the norms in scribing, the developmental models are those of the middle class white families with sort of division of labor with the Father as the sort of breadwinner, and the mother as the looking after the children etc. And all too often, you know, there’s also an assumption that there’s only one child and each of the studies rather than loads of children and probably siblings helping to bring up the children. So it’s a very peculiar model of parenting in there. I think one very important point. The other is that, again, if you go back, and this is where I would want to alert readers to a classic book by Anne McClintock, that’s called Imperial Leather: Race, gender, and sexuality in the Colonial Contest.

Jen Lumanlan 33:05
And just to clarify, for non-English listeners, Imperial Leather is a brand of soap.

Erica Burman 33:11
Yes, exactly. It’s still going unbelievably. And she writes about how I can’t reproduce the exact quote. Basically, she’s writing agenda to history of colonialism and the model of the family that came to be dominant, this model of the bourgeois nuclear family that we think of as arising through a particular moment of the development of capitalism, the division between public and private, etc., and the division between productive work and social reproductive work of caring the social reproduction of the bearing and caring of children. But all of that was happening alongside the colonization of the global south and English cases, you know, apart from Ireland, which was, of course, England’s first colony. And those legacies really, really carry on you know, we’re talking about Africa and India and and so the point that I’m McClintock makes it so clearly, and lots of other studies do but it’s an McClintock’s count is very well known is that that model of the bourgeois nuclear family kind of not only emerged alongside that colonizing process, but there was a relationship between the two thing one relationship is that the colonized people were deemed to be like, like children in need of the colonial parent. Yeah, I know. And I’ve been working on fan on and things. He does lots of things with these metaphors. And the other is that within the bourgeois nuclear family, it was sort of seen as a microcosm of those relationships. So what you have is the benign father ruling over his children, which is the mother and the children and their his property that configuration was in a sense part of what the determinate of the colonial authority and the other way around the to work in relation to each other. So I think the contribution to that feminist work and that post colonial work has study of the colonial archive, if you like, has been to show how race and gender enter in really deep ways in the intimate, everyday family relations. So yes, mothers have been pivotal in all social policies and the regulation of women’s sexuality, dress, whether they have children, when they have them, and what related kinds of sanctioned relationships are okay or not, etc. It’s always been a very unfair, but huge object of concern for governments, as well as international policymakers, and will continue to be now that we have other sorts of configurations of ways of having children and bringing up children. Those concerns will really generalize from the intense scrutiny and regulation of and surveillance of women as mothers to anybody else.

Jen Lumanlan 36:06
Yeah, and this ideal of the nuclear family with a mother and a father and one, two, maybe three children at the most, there are not that many families in the world that look like that anymore. I know that in the book it says the majority of the world’s children are born to women under the age of 20. In our culture, it’s seen as something that’s completely irresponsible. The number of babies born to single mothers was 40% across the EU in 2012, and over 50% in several countries. And yet we still see this nuclear family as the center of all the policymaking we do is around how to make more families like this nuclear family. What’s going on? With that, I guess I’m thinking about how to make this really concrete because we’ve talked a fair bit about the interaction between families and the state. And you’ve also talked about how women and mothers are surveilled, monitored, and controlled. In a way, I’m thinking back to an interview that I did pretty recently with Dr. Andrew Grogan Kaylor on spanking and whether spanking should be banned, and he’s of the opinion that spanking should be banned. And I’m thinking, okay, well, I agree that I don’t want children to be spanked. But I don’t know if banning spanking is the right way to go about doing that. Because it introduces more monitoring of certain kinds of families and sort of brings it back to your argument about tracking children’s welfare and tracking a mother’s ability to do their job as it were of raising your child. Where would you come down on a specific topic like that? It really makes concrete this idea of monitoring women’s monitoring families and having them perform in a certain way.

Erica Burman 37:40
I do remember a long time ago, there’s a British comedian, Ben Elton, who stands up for observational calming, used to say, “Why did women take their children to supermarkets to hit them?” You know, and the point he was making was that the supermarket is laid out in a way that entices, the sweets, so by the checkout, and the child’s going to say, “I want this, I want this please,” you know, money, or whatever. And it puts parents in an impossible situation. It’s the environment that solicits particular kinds of action, and social geographers have done an amazing job of thinking through the ways environments promote or inhibit certain behaviors. In the policies they put forward to planners about betting shops, you know, how to limit gambling and things like that, you know, you change the organization, space, and the environment, and you enable a different range of behaviors. So, you know, if we supported parents better, in various ways, materially, and gave them a better context for children to live in, you know, the poor working class minoritized parents and would not be the ones, you know, who were continuously being castigated for hitting their children. I don’t think it’s helpful. I don’t like, you know, violence against anyone, especially children. And there are many kinds of violence. But I don’t think criminalizing spanking is necessarily the way to do it. I mean, and again, it’s the easy way to blame the individual and not take responsibility for how that context came about. Yeah, I’ll give you an example from research that I did. More recently, the study was about the impact of so-called welfare reforms, which means cuts in welfare support to children and families have a particular emphasis on education because, you know, I joined an education department, and it was a joint project with counseling psychologists and others. So we interviewed parents, and it was about a particular welfare reform, which means a cut in the allowance that families, which means parents get extra money according to the size of their household and particularly were deemed to have a spare room, then that money was docked. It has to be said that Britain has one of the smallest space allocations for houses in Europe and the so called developed world. So people live in very small spaces, actually, which has been just terrible for people during lockdown. Obviously, we were conducting this study and all kinds of interesting things were thrown up, you know, including that cuts in welfare support were making it much more difficult for parents with shared custody arrangements, who had a spare room, some of the time for their child to come and live with them. It’s taken a decade to try and sort that out, actually, because it’s now, well, nearly a decade of quite a lot of court cases. And it actually drove one father to instigate custody proceedings against the mother that threatened, you know, seemed like such a stupid move, because he was going to lose all custody rights if he did this, because he was so desperate about the loss of money and that you want the child to come and live with him full time, you know, in this terribly sad, very specific situation. I didn’t conduct the interviews directly with parents, but we had a one of our counseling psychology trainees in did some of the interviews. And she interviewed this woman who was talking about, you know, having the choice between heating our house and eating herself or feeding her child and feeding herself. You know, the money was so short. And this is in a rich country, supposedly a welfare state. And she, apropos of nothing, said to the researcher, “Tell your professor, we are good mothers.” Yeah, she said that. And we weren’t asking about mothering. We were asking about coping strategies. We were asking about what concerns about children’s education, but so closely is everything to do with how children are tied up with parents, and especially women’s identities of themselves and needing to be seen as good mothers, not just good enough mothers as Winnicott would put it, but good mothers. You know, it was such a telling kind of comment, in a sense, I felt heartened to hear it because she was speaking back, it wasn’t tell your professor, I’m a good mother. There was a sense of knowing that she was part of a class of women as mothers, more of families who were going to be negatively viewed by many, many scrutineers, and that she had a view on that. Yeah, And she was asserting that there were other ways of looking at this.

Jen Lumanlan 42:26
And I love how that came out. I think I read that in the paper. And it reminded me of an ethnographic study that I read some time ago, and I cannot, for the life of me, find it again, since that was about working class mothers who smoked, and they, you know, have very little money. And conventional wisdom says, why are they wasting their money on cigarettes, which are bad for them and bad for their children? We should tell them how bad it is for them and their children, and they will stop. And this researcher went and spent time with these families and found that the mothers are smoking because the nicotine is an appetite suppressant. And they don’t have enough money to put food on the table for everybody. And it’s cheaper to buy a pack of cigarettes for yourself. So you’re not so hungry, that it is to put food on the table for everybody. And so when you come in with this prescription of this is how you’re going to fix your terrible parenting, your terrible mothering, you miss all that context. I’m curious about your view of where we are going in our understanding of children in our understanding of families.

Erica Burman 42:27
In a way, I think deconstructing developmental psychology is meant to be like an alternative textbook in the sense that it speaks to the dominant discourses that it destabilizes. You know, this is what Derrida, in deconstructing, is inviting us to do, and attend to the dominant assumptions and their associated norms or axes of power. And if you kind of unsettle them, then you’re loosening things up to being able to say things could be different. And so in a sense, to my surprise, deconstructing developmental psychology, you know, I was asked to do various revisions and the second edition and third edition, and I don’t think I’m going to do a fourth.

Erica Burman 44:06

Erica Burman 44:08
But you know, and I can see how the fact that it’s still needed is a matter of concern for me, because I would have hoped, well, some of these arguments would be more widely understood and accepted. But you know, if you look through the different editions, as I suppose some biographer might want to do, you know, it’s the attachment chapter that gets bigger and bigger, you know, the industry of work around attachment. I think it speaks to something about the social concerns and the way that wider political concerns get all the time miniaturized into the regulation of parenting then gets miniaturized even more to something digital or you know, neuro psychological that some people actually argue that, you know, psychology is over. It’s all neuroscience now. You know, it’s very paradoxical that, you know, we have a whole regime has psychology that has no psychology in it. I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing. But, you know, I think it’s quite Yann Devos makes this argument. It’s a very important one. But for me personally, what I then did was write another book that sort of moved from deconstructing to pluralizing developments. So not taking apart, not reconstructing there’s a philosophical issue here about reconstructing—if you reconstruct, you are already tied to a particular normative understanding of what it is you are reconstructing. that doesn’t work with that approach philosophically, but I moved to sort of thinking about developments in a much more plural way. So both acknowledging and then sort of disrupting, attempting to disrupt the alignments that I identified and deconstructing developmental psychology between the individual the child national development, transnational development, etc, all these different developments and try to sort of explore what we can do to sort of rub them off against each other rather than use them to sort of pile the pressure on the individual child and family and parents, etc. That came out last year as a second edition.

Jen Lumanlan 46:15
And tell us the name for people who are.

Erica Burman 46:17
So it’s called developments. And the subtitle is child image nation, although you know, now in the second edition, there’s more about transnational relations as well.

Jen Lumanlan 46:28
Yeah, you’re revealing me as an unprepared researcher, because normally, I would read every book that somebody writes in my interview, but there was so much to dig into just a DDP that I got stuck down that rabbit hole and didn’t go into this one.

Erica Burman 46:40
I guess DDP is you know, the more direct sort of relevant I mean, book development is interdisciplinary. It has as much cultural studies. And, you know, it’s me trying to actually doing what I’m talking about in terms of attending to culture and philosophy and different theoretical resources and geographies, psychoanalysis, to think differently about children and childhoods, and everything else that children and childhoods gets us to think about very excited about the paper called “Found Childhood.” Analyzing photographs of bits of material culture around children that seem to be unique to overdeveloped contexts like mine, you see all these sorts of children’s gloves, boots, and toys littered about, but in other parts of the world, you don’t see anything like that.

Jen Lumanlan 47:28
The set of photographs in one book, I think it was the Victorian era, of women who were propped to hold their baby for a photograph. There was a sheet like a black sheet draped behind them. You could see where it was hung up and the sheet came over the mother’s face and over her entire body. And all you see is these pens that are protruding through the sheet that are holding the baby on their lap. amazing posing for his photograph. I thought it was a beautiful metaphor for, you know, how we see mothers’ roles in these psychological studies.

Erica Burman 47:58

Jen Lumanlan 47:59
No way. I’m glad I didn’t go deeper, because we couldn’t possibly have done any more breath justice in the time that we had. So thank you so much for talking through all this with us for sharing what’s in the book, as well as what’s so far beyond the book. And I’m really grateful for your time.

Erica Burman 48:14
Okay, thank you very much. And I hope this is of interest to your listeners.

Jen Lumanlan 48:17
Oh, yes, I’m sure it will be. And so references are all of the studies that you heard about today, including the long list of ones that I have yet to track down as well as the references to Dr. Freeman’s books themselves can be found at YourParentingMojo.com/DDP.

Emma 48:32
We know you have a lot of choices about where you get information about parenting, and we’re honored that you’ve chosen us as we move toward a world in which everyone’s lives and contributions are valued. If you’d like to help keep the show ad free, please do consider making a donation on the episode page that Jen just mentioned. Thanks again for listening to this episode of The Your Parenting Mojo podcast.


About the author, Jen

Jen Lumanlan (M.S., M.Ed.) hosts the Your Parenting Mojo podcast (www.YourParentingMojo.com), which examines scientific research related to child development through the lens of respectful parenting.

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