Friday, August 07, 2009

Sue Palmer - reply to reply

Thanks Sue – good of you to reply to my last post (see comments). So let’s carry the debate forward. I have read Toxic Childhood and 21st Century Boys. I did so after seeing you in the Brighton Festival two years ago (I’m a Trustee), when I attended and reviewed the debate hosted by Polly Toynbee. I thought then, and think now, that this species of ‘parenting’ literature is ‘toxic’ only in the sense that it is largely middle-class bile. Let me explain.

Toxic prejudices

You claim that you love technology but every single chapter of Toxic Childhood has a go at technology. “At the moment, too much technology is dumbing down our children....if the gap left by preoccupied parents is filled by the fruits of technology, toxic childhood syndrome begins to take hold”. Technology in schools “has made no noticeable impact”. “insidious.. screen-based activity..imagination-rotting, creativity-dumbing”. I could go on.

I’m also not at all convinced on your claim about very young children. The opening salvo in Toxic Childhood is against a teenager you describe, in the Uffizi Gallery of all places, as having, “the multiple trademarks of the brat...Poor child. Poor Parents. Poor Western Civilisation...the whole of the developed teems with miserable little creatures”, and that’s just on the first page! All of this from the observation of a bored teenager in an Art Gallery in Florence! Go to any art gallery and you’ll see bored teenagers – it’s normal. You go on to blame this epidemic of misery” firmly on the “clash between our technology-driven culture and our biological heritage” calling children “battery children...technobrats”. Difficult to backtrack from your claim that “My research suggests that children’s development in every one of these areas is threatened by the side-effects of technological...TV and computer games at home”. I really winced at your description of working class kids as “pinched and angry, with dead eyes....Their parents, deprived, uneducated, often scarcely more than children themselves...this feral generation”. Then the outrageous, old, racist chestnut “the birth rate among the have-nots is soaring, while among educated classes it is falling...could eventually threaten social stability”. At this point, and all of this is in the first chapter, I thought I was reading a BNP manifesto.

Toxic marketing

You make a great fuss in these books about the “siren call of the marketing men” (sexist or what?) but the opening chapter of Toxic Childhood (in itself a marketing ploy) is titled ‘Toxic Childhood Syndrome’. This is hysterical, and worse, borrows terminology from science (toxicity) and medicine (syndrome) to hyperbolically market your ideas. You are not a physician and hyping this term you’re doing a disservice to language, medicine and psychology. AIDS (Acquired Immunity Deficiency Syndrome) is a real syndrome. You’re ‘syndrome’ is a piece of marketing. ‘Toxic’ infers actual toxicity, again usurping a scientific term for the trite purposes of marketing. In truth, your ‘syndrome’ is an attempt at popularising a piece of polemic.

Marketing seems to be ‘good’ if it’s associated with hysterical parenting literature, but ‘bad’ if it comes from companies selling their wares. ‘Parenting’ literature is marketing at its worst, and ‘Toxic Childhood’ is perhaps the worst example I can think of, exaggerating the case, using pseudo-medical language to blame everything and everyone, especially poor parents, for the ills of society in general.

Toxic claims: ADHD, Autism

Here’s where things get really ‘toxic’. Autism is NOT caused by emotional deprivation, that much is clear, and to attribute causes at this stage is to move well beyond the research findings. The most promising line of research at the moment seems to be complicated genetic factors (multiple genes), so let’s be sensible. It is a mistake to see autism as a problem that is curable through some simplistic parenting books, it is a lifelong condition not caused by ‘good’ or ‘bad’ parenting. It is a downright insult to the parents of children with these disorders to blame them, even in part. Rich or poor they deal with the problem, while schools often struggle to even recognise the issue.

Similarly with ADHD. Genetic factors are clearly involved as shown in twin and genetic studies. More worrying, however, is that the lack of real evidence from brain studies is puhsing many researchers towards a more sceptical stance, looking at over-diagnosis. To blame technol,ogy is simply speculation.

The hysteria whipped up around the MMR vaccine is the most recent example of dangerous amateurs dabbling in areas they know nothing about. Non-scientific populist writing flooded the parenting ‘market’ causing the current problems with measles. Schools (my own included) are still dealing with parents who refuse to vaccinate their children, putting other children at risk, because of the so called ‘toxic’ arguments.


The research quoted in Toxic Childhood is simply one-sided and unrepresentative. In among the cherry-picked reports are lots of secondary and tertiary articles from newspapers (including that journal of fairness the Daily Mail), personal interviews, anecdotal speeches and personal emails. In no sense can this be regarded as a balanced look at the research. To take one of many examples, to exclude Judith Harris, from this debate is to exclude someone who really has done the research on the nature/nurture debate, a serious area of research which you describe in the book as “tediously familiar”. Perhaps the most hyperbolic example of one-sidedness is your description of Laynard’s book ‘Happiness’ as, “surely the most extraordinary book on economics ever written”. Sorry Sue, it doesn’t get into the Top 100.


I agree that your books are not just about the malign influence of technology, but that’s my field and that’s what I’ve focused on. You do have a go at technology in every single chapter of your book, so it’s not just one small part of the problem. It underpins your whole argument. Even here, it’s all about one-sided. TV, on the whole, is bad for young children, except, of course for the BBC, where you’re an advisor. You can’t have it both ways. You criticise the “glut of TV nanny programmes” but isn’t Toxic Childhood, exactly that in print? The main difference being that only middle-class parents will buy and read your book, which is not the audience you’re aiming for.

Primary teachers

Primary school teaching has been more than guilty of introducing problems of its own into the education of our children. At no point have you really addressed the point that it was educational professionals, advisors and teacher training establishments that caused many of the literacy problems that authors are blaming on ‘screen-based’ culture and other causes. There’s a lot of blame attached to other causes but little thrown at the ‘whole-language’ Taliban, who wrecked the literacy of so many children for so many years. I witnessed it myself with my own children, when spelling remained uncorrected and no attempt was made to explain or teach the underlying phonetic structure of our language. The ‘entire primary teaching profession’ is the very body that delivered the flawed teaching, and some of it is still hanging around in the system.


Unknown said...

Hi there Donald. This is a reply to your reply to my reply. But it's both brief and final because, sadly, I still have to earn a living and therefore don't have time to attend, read, listen, watch and comment except during my hols. And they're very nearly over.

So I'm just logging in to rejoice that, despite our obvious differences, we seem to have a great deal in common. We both feel pretty passionately about social injustice, esp the problems of children from disadvantaged backgrounds (sorry my description of the saddest cases offends you, but I see them all too often and that's what they end up like if they don't get 'warm-but-firm' parenting -- it's tragic). We both cite evidence to support our arguments (me by trawling the plethora of research, news stories and other writing about childhood; you by quoting decontextualised snippets from my books). We're both impressed by Judith Rich Harris's work (if you glance back at 21st C Boys, which you seem to've read less assiduously than Toxic, you'll notice I reference her quite a bit in Chapter 5 -- she's ace). And we both hate wholesale application of whole language teaching methods (I campaigned against it vociferously in the early 90s, despite being spat upon by many colleagues in education). I utterly agree with you that it was heavily implicated in many of the problems we have in the UK with literacy teaching, and was particularly poisonous for children from disadvantaged homes.

In the circs, I'm sure I'd really enjoy having a drink with you and chatting about it all. But since we live at different ends of the country, that's not really on. And, as mentioned above, I don't have time for virtual debate. So I'll just have to agree to differ on some things, esp our attitude to new technology.

Please believe me that I've no problems with it per se. I really do love it. But my experience and ten years of research convince me that children need to live in and learn from the real world and real people before they're socially, emotionally and cognitively equipped to use technology wisely.

Good luck with Plan B.
Sue (Palmer)

MiguelAngel Gonzalez said...

Dear Mr Clark and Ms Palmer, I invite you to remember the immortal words of that magnificent sage of the last century, Forrest Gump: "Life is like a box of chocolates"... so deep are his words that I still don´t quite get what he meant by that, but I´m sure that two such brilliant (and enormous, I guess based on the size of your heads) will be able to bring out the light from such an utterance. You both seem to have so much in common that you should really try to work this out some other way. On the other hand, you are equally witty on your resposts to each other that maybe we´ll be better off encouraging to continue your debate (?) for the on going enterteinment of us, the partially-read, not so fully employed (nor idle), but nevertheless gagging for comedy of a different level. Keep it up, please. C´mon Sue... it can´t really take THAT MUCH of your time... I´m sure Donald will be game. And, at times like this, I could do with the entertainment. As for education, the media, technology and all the rest... well, it still fascinates me that theories, points-of-view, or social-development opinions reached form an anglo-euro-middle-class-centrist perspective are not posed with a little more... humility? But then, that´s just me. Do, please, keep it up. It is truly better than TV.


Donald Clark said...

Hi Miguel
"anglo-euro-middle-class-centrist perspective" - ME!

Rob Alton said...

I think we have a draw here.

Donald Clark said...

A draw! I give a long set of arguments, with quotes, and Sue replies 'I'm far too busy to debate'.

If that's a draw, no wonder education has become what one Minister for Education described as an 'evidence free zone'.

Anonymous said...

great debate folks. I am currently studying a few chapters in the 'book'. Would tend to agree with the remarks about evidence at the moment.

keep up the comments