Babies are not dogs
I’ve been promising myself for some time that I would get around to regular blogging. I’ve written the odd guest blog, article for magazine and newspaper but never really got into blogging. Late on Tuesday night I was alerted to something which has compelled me to finally get around to writing my own blog.
Babies are not dogs. It seems a fairly obvious thing to say, doesn’t it? In fact, if you’d asked me what the title of my first blog would be, I don’t think I’d have dreamt in a million years of that one. Yet, here we are.
Just before midnight on Tuesday, I was alerted via a tweet to a programme on Channel 4 titled “How to train your baby like a dog”. (Thanks @stonegatetraining). The internet is a funny place, and Twitter in the school holidays is always a bit strange, so at first I thought the programme was a “Brass Eye” type spoof. Sadly, it’s not. Channel 4 really have commissioned a programme which will show parents how to train their baby like a dog.
As a parent, educator and advocate for early childhood education I have serious concerns about the ethics involved in producing this programme. It appears from the trailer to promote forms of behavioural control which are potentially damaging to babies and children.
Babies are not dogs (I said it again, just in case you weren’t sure). Babies require warm, loving, secure attachments in the early years. They need to know that their caregivers love them unconditionally. This does not mean that they are not taught boundaries, and how to regulate their behaviour, but using a clicker and extrinsic reward to do so is potentially harmful.
Very young children do not have the ability to express their emotions in the same way that adults, or even older children do. We sometimes hear adults telling children “Don’t be sad” or “Stop getting cross”, but these are both perfectly normal human emotions. We all feel sad from time to time, we all feel angry occasionally.Far better to teach young children that what they’re feeling is anger or sadness. Eg. “I can see you’re angry, I feel like that too sometimes, this is what helps me when I feel angry.”
Thus, we name the emotion, acknowledge it, accept it and then support the young child to find strategies to manage it. By developing children’s skills through co- regulation we support them to self – regulate as they get older. This takes time, but is much more effective than a clicker- based behaviourist approach, which could impact negatively on the child’s ability to respond appropriately socially and emotionally. The approach suggested in the programme might initially appear to offer a quick fix, but has the potential to be damaging. The child who is trained to respond only to extrinsic reward for an adult defined ideal is at risk of exploitation and grooming.
It is an uncomfortable truth that not everyone is kind to children. There will be some people who watch this programme to learn techniques which they could use to exploit vulnerable young children.
Of course, very young babies need comfort when they are distressed, much of the support to co-regulate and self – regulate comes much later. Babies need to know that their care givers love them unconditionally, and that when they express their basic needs, these will be met. Conkbayir (2017) states, "Toxic Stress and the stress hormone cortisol exert a powerful effect on early childhood development." When babies and children are continually exposed to stressful, situations or if their needs for attachment and affection continually go unmet, they can eventually develop a hyper-reactive stress response. This damages the developing brain’s architecture, which can have a detrimental effect on a child’s ability to learn and develop. Babies certainly don’t need to be taught to respond to a clicker to give an adult what they want.
If a production company produced a programme entitled “How to train your wife/husband like a dog” there would be considerable outrage, and rightly so. I am bewildered that it is considered acceptable to treat babies in a way in which most people would consider unacceptable for adults. It would appear that the programme is, if not in contravention of, certainly dangerously close to, some of the principles within the Ofcom Broadcasting Code (Jan 2019)
In particular, principle 1, which ensures that ‘people under eighteen are protected’. Particular regard should be given to:
- Material that might seriously impair the physical, mental or moral development of people under eighteen must not be broadcast.
The people involved in the making of this programme have no way of knowing the potential mental or moral damage that may be done. Not only in relation to the children participating in the programme (and their parents), but also to the countless children of parents who may well ‘try this at home’, without being fully aware of the implications.
1.28 Due care must be taken over the physical and emotional welfare and the dignity of people under eighteen who take part or are otherwise involved in programmes. This is irrespective of any consent given by the participant or by a parent, guardian or other person over the age of eighteen in loco parentis.
It would appear that little regard has been given to the emotional welfare of the children involved. More worryingly, it seems that, irrespective of the consent given by parents/guardians, absolutely no regard has been given to the dignity of the children involved in the programme.
To ensure that generally accepted standards are applied to the content of television and radio services so as to provide adequate protection for members of the public from the inclusion in such services of harmful and/ or offensive material.
To ensure that broadcasters avoid unjust or unfair treatment of individuals or organisations in programmes.
Babies and young children are not in a position to give informed consent, I would be very interested in the information which was shared with the parents of these babies, prior to filming. As someone who has undertaken small scale research projects in schools and nurseries, I doubt that such an experiment would be deemed acceptable by an ethics committee at any university.
The UNCRC Rights of the child, which the UK signed up to 30 years ago states that:
“Governments must protect children from all other forms of exploitation, for example the exploitation of children for political activities, by the media or for medical research.” Article 36 (other forms of exploitation)
“The best interests of the child must be a top priority in all decisions and actions that affect children.” Article 3 (best interests of the child) I would question whether taking part in this experiment, with limited knowledge of the potential long - term consequences is in the best interests of the child.
Article 16 (right to privacy) “Every child has the right to privacy. The law should protect the child’s private, family and home life, including protecting children from unlawful attacks that harm their reputation.”
Article 17 (access to information from the media) “Every child has the right to reliable information from a variety of sources, and governments should encourage the media to provide information that children can understand. Governments must help protect children from materials that could harm them.”
As an ‘in real time’ experiment there is no way of discerning the long- term harm and damage that could be done.
It appears to me that this programme seeks to exploit babies for entertainment purposes, with no consideration for the impact on their long -term emotional well-being and is in breach of several articles in the UNCRC.
The Government definition of emotional abuse also outlines the following:
- Coercive behaviour is an act or a pattern of acts of assault, threats, humiliation and intimidation or other abuse that is used to harm, punish, or frighten their victim
- Controlling behaviour is a range of acts designed to make a person subordinate and/or dependent by isolating them from sources of support, exploiting their resources and capacities for personal gain, depriving them of the means needed for independence, resistance and escape and regulating their everyday behaviour
3.1 Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 - Controlling or Coercive Behaviour in an Intimate or Family Relationship
Section 76 of the Serious Crime Act 2015 created a new offence of controlling or coercive behaviour in an intimate or family relationship. Prior to the introduction of this offence, case law indicated the difficulty in proving a pattern of behaviour amounting to harassment within an intimate relationship (the Statutory Guidance cites the following cases - Curtis  EWCA Crim 123 and Widdows  EWCA Crim 1500).
The new offence, which does not have retrospective effect, came into force on 29 December 2015.
An offence is committed by A if:
- A repeatedly or continuously engages in behaviour towards another person, B, that is controlling or coercive; and
- At time of the behaviour, A and B are personally connected; and
- The behaviour has a serious effect on B; and
- A knows or ought to know that the behaviour will have a serious effect on B
This programme appears to promote coercive control of babies.
I hope that Channel 4 will reconsider broadcasting this programme, I urge anyone concerned about this programme to sign the following petition:
Please also write to the commissioning editor at channel 4. Her email address is available on the channel 4 website. It may also be worth contacting the production company, Plimsoll Productions.
If the broadcast does go ahead, I urge those of you with concerns to raise them with OFCOM.
Babies are not here to be exploited for entertainment purposes. They are, in the words of Helen Moylett, “human beings, not human becomings.” They are people in their own right, but they are too young to give informed consent for this experiment. They are too young to have a voice, so we must speak up for them if we feel they are being exploited. I urge you to make your voice heard.
Thanks to Kate Irving for the inspiration and links to serious crime act and coercive behaviour / emotional abuse guidance and to Debbie Garvey for her really helpful knowledge of Ofcom guidelines and additional links.
Recommended reading: Early Childhood and neuroscience: Theory, research and implications for practice. Mine Conkbayir (2017)