Harry Hendrick is a critical thinker who established the history of childhood as a legitimate academic discipline in Britain. His book, Child Welfare: England 1872-1989 (London, 1994) is a phenomenal account of the history of children’s rights in England since the late nineteenth century, and his later works have demonstrated why historical study should be foundational to planning new child welfare policies. His outstanding oeuvre in the history and sociology of childhood is unparalleled. Narcissistic Parenting in an Insecure World in some ways moves away from this earlier work and shifts attention onto parents and parenting practices. The result is somewhat mixed, with some excellent work on the history of children’s rights tied in with a more experimental narrative of rising parental ‘narcissism’. Hendrick’s argument is that liberal parenting trends in the interwar period led to a period of stability from the 1940s to the 1970s when government policy and approaches to child-rearing were progressive and focused on improving future generations. However, from the 1970s, this optimism was lost as parents became more likely to regard children as a nuisance and started to apply cold-hearted behaviourist tactics derived from new ‘neoliberal’ principles of managerial control. Part 1, ‘The Origins of Social Democracy’s Family Ideal’ covers some familiar territory on how the First World War dashed Victorian hopes of progress and rationality. This led to the rise of psychoanalytic styles of reasoning and a reassessment of ‘civilisation’ in the interwar period. Hendrick argues that the ‘Child Guidance’ movement was a shrewd liberal attempt to engage all children in the process of creating a stable democracy. The evacuation of children during the war further encouraged engagement with ‘problem families’, to make them into better citizens. As is well known, this encouraged a focus on mothers as the stalwarts of social and psychological health in the work of John Bowlby and others. This work had a clear impact on government policy concerning child welfare, eventually resulting in the 1948 Children Act. Hendrick argues that this created early social policies that fostered stable psychological health, and a social conscience, in all children. Part 2 argues that the 1940s to the 1970s saw the blossoming of a ‘Golden Age’ of social democracy and family support. Hendrick claims that the Labour party struggled to accommodate managed capitalism and collectivist welfare, whilst also ‘fostering a citizenry sufficiently mature to understand the need for self sacrifice’ (p. 92). The result was the establishment of a ‘democratic parenting culture’ amongst left-leaning intellectuals, epitomized by psychoanalyst Donald Winnicott’s theory of ‘containment’ and the ‘holding environment’. Atlee’s government enabled these ideologies to take root, and psychoanalytic thinkers became the professional distributors of child ‘adjustment’ and social justice in a period of social and emotional protectionism. Hendrick overtly criticizes ‘second-wave feminists’ such as Denise Riley for not appreciating the political optimism that sustained the work of these ‘golden age’ psychoanalysts. He claims that Winnicott and others were inspired by a kind of ‘passive-hedonist collectivism’ and when this was challenged, all that remained was a ‘moral vacuum’ that threw Keynsian social democracy into crisis (p. 162). Whilst this is a thought-provoking thesis, Hendrick unfortunately does not engage fully with the growing literature on the history of autism that has covered this transition in depth. Hendrick seems nonplussed as to why Bowlby’s theory of ‘maternal deprivation’ was reassessed in the 1960s and 1970s, though the history of autism makes it clear this was primarily conducted in order to integrate populations of children who had previously been socially excluded. The child guidance movement and its offshoots had failed to integrate many children who were thought unsuitable to its narrow ‘social’ model. To put it bluntly, the 1940s–1970s was not a ‘golden age’ for the many children held in institutions for ‘mental defectives’ or other ‘reform’ institutions. Whilst Hendrick is right to credit post-war psychoanalysis with some phenomenal achievements in the area of child rights, such as the abolition of corporal punishment and an attempt to ‘contain’ social democratic citizens, there are also very clear reasons why many of its conclusions were rejected. Part 3 examines the influence of US initiatives on British approaches to childcare. It considers Lyndon B. Johnson’s ‘War on Poverty’ and Richard Nixon’s attempts to remove the poor from ‘cycles of dependency’ through ‘empowerment’. This is perhaps the most interesting section of the book in which Hendrick argues that behaviourism gained ground in child psychology as part of a wider political project to create ‘autonomous self-managing behavioural subjects’ (p. 183). Part 4 explores these trends in Britain via the growth of the New Right and Thatcherism, examining how child psychology was stripped of it social democratic goals. Hendrick argues that ‘authoritative’ parenting styles were advocated that ‘normalised’ children’s problem behaviour, rather than engage with its deeper political meaning. Conservative MP Keith Joseph’s work on the ‘cycle of deprivation’ then paved the way for New Right approaches to policy that focused on children who were ‘a risk’ or ‘at risk’, rather than engaging with all parents as the bearers of democratic socialism. This is an interesting theory yet again it omits the fact that one reason for the rise of the new behaviourism was the fact that some ‘social democratic’ institutions such as long-stay child residential homes were in decline, leaving many parents with greater parental responsibilities and arguably a greater need for quick-fix behavioural methods. This period also witnessed the integration of all children, no matter what their presumed intellectual ability, into the education system, thus demanding new psychological methods to manage a new approach to social inclusion. In other words the new psychology of the 1970s made important inroads into new forms of ‘social democracy’ that were no less valid than those made during the previous ‘golden age’. Hendrick’s main argument is that ‘neoliberal’ objectives have encouraged greater instability in working relationships that have affected family lives too. He argues that the rise of New Labour reinforced attempts to create ‘self-managing behavioural subjects’. For example, the 2004 Children Act showed an ultimate disinterest in children’s rights and emotional well-being in preference for training children up to become merely good citizen-workers. The introduction of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders in 1998 was another example of the demonization of specific groups of children rather than an attempt to engage all children in the democratic process. New Labour sought to penalise supposedly offensive behaviour and to encourage ‘respect’ and ‘responsibility’, rather than inspire tolerance and liberty. Hendrick claims this has encouraged ‘narcissistic’ attitudes in parents and has been detrimental to the lives of children caught in the quagmire. In the final section, Hendrick moves into the area of cultural criticism and argues that children of ‘neoliberal’ worlds are characterised by ‘flexible, fractured, fragmented, decentred and brittle’ forms of selfhood. Hendrick criticises Anthony Giddens and others for neglecting to consider childhood in their theories of the self in late modernity. There is much that is admirable in Hendrick’s use of historical analysis to critique current policy approaches to parental support and child welfare. Nevertheless, to claim that the late 1940s to the 1970s was a ‘golden age’ in progressive thinking on childhood neglects some of this history. For Hendrick, the critics of this ‘golden age’ are primarily ‘radical’ feminists. However, the most important critique of post-war psychoanalysis actually came from new psychologists focused on developing statistical and population-based studies of child development. This is not just a story about a shift from ‘social democratic’ morality to the creation of a ‘fractured’ self, but also one of changing scientific approaches. To claim that this has led to ‘narcissistic’ parenting styles is a leap into the field of psychology without enough consideration of the history and philosophy of science. Nevertheless, Hendrick’s narrative is wide-ranging and he has correctly identified a major shift in thinking about child development that has seeped into policy-making and influenced parental approaches from the late 1970s onwards. His book encourages reflection on how attitudes to children have changed since the 1970s and how far social democracy is reproducible if children’s interests are elided. Overall, this is a welcome addition to his work on the history of child rights, and an important attempt to use the history of childhood and parenting as a tool to rethink wider changes in social and economic policy. © The Author . Published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved. For Permissions, please email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Twentieth Century British History – Oxford University Press
Published: Sep 27, 2017
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