What could possibly count as insanity in a world that votes to make a narcissistic sociopath its most powerful person? Admittedly, we didn’t all have the right to vote, but over two hundred million did. We are told many of those millions are mad as hell, but are they just mad? Are their delusions so profound they should be considered clinically psychotic?
I wrote last time that we have moved on since the anti-psychiatry movement of half a century ago. But “Explorer” put me right by commenting that it is actually still alive and well, as evidenced by the website Mad In America, where I discovered an article titled “In a Post-Trump Election World: What is Insanity?” by clinical psychologist Noel Hunter. She has posed some fundamental questions not a million miles from my own.
Moving on, this second blog on mental health will consider important new information that has come my way since last time from three sources: (a) a recent book on the damaging imposition of adult culture on children; (b) a study on the vital but incomplete role played by children’s own culture; and (c) an amazing new study on the mental health benefits associated with a well known but underappreciated hybrid model.
The book is Alison Gopnik’s The Gardener and the Carpenter, which was discussed extensively at the Institute of Ideas forum I mentioned last time and has been reviewed by Shaoni Bhattacharya in the New Scientist. The basic idea is that parents should be like gardeners, tending young shoots and providing fertile ground but then pretty much leaving the seed of their loins to grow naturally. Instead, many parents resemble carpenters, as Bhattacharya puts it, “chiselling away” at their offspring “to create an image of success that has little to do with their kids’ wishes, talents or needs. They wilt under oppressive over-direction.”
Gopnik, a developmental psychologist and philosopher, says that “parenting”, with its aim of manufacturing a preconceived end product, is a relatively recent and terrible invention. It has become a “management plan”, stuffed with endless schedules, heavy expectations and endless surveillance: some “helicopter parents” supervise their progeny’s essay assignments and cannot lay off even when their “children” become young working adults.
Gardening, by contrast, lets kids raise themselves to a considerable extent, so that they grow up robust, resilient and adaptable in a fast-changing world.
It starts with play. Play is fundamental to learning. Packing their schedules with “enriching” activities robs them of opportunities for mental development that is genuinely their own. Jean-Jacques Rousseau had a similar insight over two centuries ago in his Emile (especially Book II), but this is now backed up with modern psychological research. When children are chained to desks, forced to focus on a life radically different from our evolutionary past, mental health problems are to be expected. As Gopnic writes, there’s “a close connection between the rise of schools and the development of attention deficit disorder”. In the US, Gopnik tells us, 1 in 5 boys have an ADD label by 17. This is a deep systemic problem that has been with us since Rousseau’s day: he knew that over-tutored kids do not thrive. But intensive modern parenting is making things much worse, like the flooding that occurs when rain keeps falling relentlessly on already water-logged land.
I guess heretics here will already be leaping to tell me that ADD, or ADHD, as it is now psychiatrically designated, is massively over-diagnosed in the US, much to the benefit of pharmaceutical corporations but not children. Gopnik could not agree more. She says, “Instead of drugging children’s brains to get them to fit our schools, we could change our schools to accommodate a wider range of children’s brains.”
Psychologist Peter Gray has studied the decline of play in recent times and its implications for psychopathology. He is adamant that for the US at least, record levels of anxiety, depression, suicide, and feelings of powerlessness are now well documented among adolescents and young adults, and that lack of play from childhood onwards is implicated. I highly commend his TEDx talk on this.
In an article titled “The Culture of Childhood: We’ve Almost Destroyed It”, in Psychology Today, he tells us that wherever anthropologists have observed traditional cultures and paid attention to children as well as adults, they’ve observed two cultures, the adults’ and the children’s. The two cultures are not completely independent and separate, and much of what children do in their own world is an attempted imitation of the grown-up one. Crucially, though, in their own cultural space they are free to do things in their own way, practising and learning by interaction with their peers. Gray writes:
Little children communicate with one another largely in the context of play, and the communications have real meaning. They negotiate about what and how to play. They discuss the rules. They negotiate in ways very similar to the ways adults negotiate with one another. This is far better practice for future adult-adult communication than the kinds of “conversations” that children typically have with adults.
This isn’t just theory, nor is it confined to the culture of much freer kids in hunter-gatherer tribes. Anyone who has seen Channel 4 TV’s The Secret Life of 4-Year-Olds (a new series is currently under way) can see it happening in front of their very eyes, recorded by hidden cameras – as in the best wild-life documentaries!
We know that in traditional societies youngsters are often required to take on adult responsibilities at a much earlier age than in our own, but even among hunter-gatherers, Gray says, play extends into the teens. As for our own culture:
As children get older, and especially once they are in their teen years, their communications with one another have ever more to do with the emotions and struggles they experience. They can be honest with their friends, because their friends are not going to overreact and try to assume control, the way that their parents or other adults might. They want to talk about the issues important in their life, but they don’t want someone to use those issues as another excuse to subordinate them. They can, with good reason, trust their friends in ways that they cannot trust their parents or teachers.
Well then, having thus seen off overbearing parents and oppressive schooling, both of which leave too little room for children’s independent development and lead to mental health problems, what is to be done? Something less adult-driven, plainly, something less regimented.
So you might think the very last place to look for inspiration would be an organisation that began not merely with regimentation but with actual military assignments undertaken by boys in the course of the famous Siege of Mafeking in 1899-1900. I mean the scout movement. Robert Baden-Powell, a general in the British Army, had the bright idea of forming the Mafeking Cadet Corps. This was a group of youths who supported the troops by look-out tasks and carrying messages, including under enemy fire, which freed the men for military duties and kept the boys occupied during the long siege. The Cadet Corps performed well, helping in the defence of the town – led by 13-year-old Sergeant-Major Warner Goodyear. This early success gave Baden-Powell the kernel of an idea that he would develop into scouting over the following few years.
But don’t worry about indoctrinating kids with military values. The key thing about Baden-Powell’s Boy Scouts, as they were later to become, was a focus on self-reliance and kids patrolling independently of adults in small teams of their peers. It came to be genuinely about scouting skills – scouting out the land as backwoodsmen and explorers must do for survival in the wild. I have referred to it above as a hybrid model, because it combines adult values and background guidance with active children’s culture.
Now, get this. It was sensationally reported in New Scientist last week that Scouts and Guides grow up to have better mental health at age 50. Not just a bit better, a lot better. A study by Chris Dibben and his colleagues at Edinburgh University analysed data from a long-running survey of almost 10,000 people across the UK who were born in November 1958. They found that 28% of the study’s participants had been involved in the Scouts or Guides, and that these were a whopping 15% less likely to suffer from anxiety or mood disorders at the age of 50 than their peers who didn’t join.
The team found no association between better mental health and participating in church groups or other voluntary groups. Scouts or Guides were not more likely to come from families of any particular social status. Noting, however, that people from poorer backgrounds do have a relatively higher likelihood of mental illness, the report said this effect seemed to be reduced or even removed in those who attended Scouts or Guides.
During the 1970s, the period to which this scouting background relates, both the Scouts and Guides were still focusing on self-education in the context of small peer groups. There was adult assistance, but not direction. Outdoor environments and physical activity were a major feature, both of which are now known to be good for mental health. Dibben et al.’s detailed report in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health (free download: DOI: 10.1136/jech-2016-207898) speculates that “It may be that this early exposure to the skills needed to work with a small group enables adults to more effectively develop later life social networks”. This would explain why the mental health benefits of scouting extend at least into middle age and could well be lifelong.
Sure, there is a downside. There always is, with everything. The Boys Scouts of America, for instance, has long been a bastion of institutionalised homophobia. And my own older brother quit the scouts in England at about age 12 when he became an atheist and baulked at compulsory church attendance on Sunday. I don’t suppose they still insist on church, or even belief in God, which has traditionally been part of the Scout Promise (in Britain: “I will do my duty to God and the Queen.”) But some heretics here may not like the style of an organisation which features a top-down leadership structure and explicit prescribed values as set out in the Scout Law. This once included (and for some scouting organisations still does) Baden-Powell’s insistence that “a scout is clean in thought, word and deed”. Decent Scouts, he said, “look down upon silly youths who talk dirt, and they do not let themselves give way to temptation, either to talk it or to do anything dirty. A Scout is pure, and clean-minded, and manly.”
Nevertheless, boys will be boys. Not for nothing was there a saying in less PC times than ours: “He couldn’t organise a circle-jerk in a boy scout camp!” This was an expression of contempt for anyone’s incompetence, of course, not a reference to old B-P himself. It was also testimony to the capacity of boys to organise their own “social life” without adult help. As for B-P’s sexuality, he seems to have been too repressed and moralistic for circle-jerks. However, according to his biographer Tim Jeal he had a great fondness for seeing naked boys bathing and also delighted in “artistic” nude photography of boys that would get him into trouble these days.
So do kids need grown-ups as part of their culture at all? Elijah D. Manley ought to know a thing or two about this. He recently distinguished himself by becoming the first ever minor to run for President of the United States in the recent election, at the age of 17, gaining significant support as a candidate in the Green Party primaries. In an online interview last week he used a striking phrase in a plea for adults to back off from attempting to bring about what he called the “gentrification of youth” by means of attacking or trying to influence youth culture.
It is a line that echoes what we have seen above: kids need their own space, from infancy to adolescence. That is right. But I would ask heretics here to ponder why they need it. Peter Gray’s anthropological studies demonstrated that they need it not because youth have no need of adult wisdom. Nothing could be less true. The young are learning. They need space to practise without being judged. But quite soon they will be judged, in the workplace and elsewhere. They need a permeable arrangement, in which adult values are made known to them, and grown-ups are readily accessible, but which they can experience and talk about independently, experimentally, with freedom to take risks and make mistakes.
The mistakes alone will disabuse them of the idea that their own judgement is always brilliant. Sometimes it will be. In some respects, as with adopting new technology, they will often be quicker and smarter than their parents and teachers. But often not. There will be times when they will feel a need to seek the voice of experience – and, yes, the emotional help that can come from a quiet supportive word and an arm around the shoulder. The trick is just to be available, not overbearing. And the adults in this role will do well not to suck up to the kids by overindulging their delusions of maturity. The young need rights, for sure, including legally enforceable ones, but not the patronising pretence that they are grown-up when they are not.
That is why, I suggest, the scouting model works so well for the mental health of the young: it works with the grain of our psychological development, not against it.
Headlined as Part 2 of a sequence on youth mental health, the above piece has not been quite as advertised at the end of Part 1. As already indicated, this was because important new information came my way. However, the theme I originally hoped to consider in Part 2 remains important so I have decided to extend the sequence to Part 3. The UK data examined in Part 1 gave rise to a puzzle: Why is it that boys have more mental health problems in the pre-teen years but girls have it tougher as teenagers and young adults? I will have a crack at solving this puzzle in Part 3.
POST-SAVILE PROBES GO INTO MELTDOWN
The UK’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) is now visibly in total meltdown after the BBC’s Newsnight revealed last night that another senior lawyer has quit, with others poised to leave. Aileen McColgan, a law professor at Kings College London was the lead lawyer in the inquiry’s investigation into child abuse in the Anglican and Catholic Church and is the seventh lawyer to leave, according to today’s Daily Mail. She is said to have no confidence in the fourth chair of the inquiry, Alexis Jay, after the first three chairs were also found wanting. Even now, in the news bulletins today, prime minister Theresa May was still insisting she had “absolute confidence” in the inquiry. But it has plainly failed. It is dead. It is an ex-inquiry, as devoid of life as Monty Python’s dead parrot. The longer this is denied, the more ridiculous the government will look.
The news from IICSA comes not long after the Henriques report, trailed on Heretic TOC last month. Although the full report by retired senior judge Sir Richard Henriques was not published, the conclusions were utterly damning, with the Metropolitan Police blasted for “grave errors of judgement”, especially being too ready to believe dodgy informants in its Operation Midland inquiry into alleged VIP paedophilia. IICSA and Operation Midland have been among the numerous hysteric, sorry historic, child abuse probes set up in the wake of the Jimmy Savile “scandal”. One of Henriques’ most serious findings was that police misled a District Judge when officers applied for search warrants for the homes of the key suspects. As for the complainant known only as “Nick”, whose mad fantasies gave rise to sensational allegations against top politicians and other VIPs, the good news is that he is now under investigation for perverting the course of justice.