by Sinéad Murphy
An article published in the British Medical Journal in July 2020 reported that the first month of the Covid lockdown had seen a 1493% rise in cases of abusive head trauma in young children in the UK.
To every expected case of abuse of a young child leading to head injury, the UK Government’s lockdown immediately added almost 15 others.
The statistic is monstrous. Are those who contributed to it monstrous too?
It is easy to dismiss them as so. But those of them who had been violent to children before Covid must have been supplemented by those who had never done such a thing before in their lives. They are not monsters. They just couldn’t cope.
When I gave birth to my first child, I received an NHS starter pack. Included in it was a leaflet, with advice on what to do if you felt like shaking your baby.
It seemed to me an unlikely prospect. But there is really no knowing what tiredness, isolation and the demands of care can do to a person. I came quickly to appreciate why the NHS distributes that leaflet.
We do not always judge physical abuse of children to be monstrous. We acknowledge that it can be the effect of adverse conditions in which anyone might struggle to cope.
So, what were the adverse conditions in which the many people who had never before been violent with their children were all of a sudden driven to it?
The rise in financial insecurity and fear over the possibility of infection and illness were surely significant factors. But so too was something that we might not like to acknowledge as an adverse condition: our children were at home.
Children were returned to their families in March, by the institutions that care for and educate them. Almost at once, glossy magazines and television adverts told us what a boon this really was: at last, some family time.
But families had long been eroded by the expertise of institutions of care and education. So much so that many were unable to function when these institutions closed and the experts withdrew.
We have had good reason this year to regret the invasion of our lives by the recommendations of experts.
But we are wrong if we think that this invasion is something new. It is no more than a swaggering last mile of the long march of expertise that has, over the course of many decades, transferred capacity in the conduct even of our family relations to the impersonal ministrations of professionals in institutions.
Well before the Covid crisis, we had already surrendered so much of our personal lives to expertise that even our ability to care for and educate our own children was more or less beyond us. When our children were sent home to us in March, the shock was immense. Some coped. Some did not. But almost nobody thrived.
For many years now, and often at a very early age, our children are sent from their home to an institutional setting that is expert in their care and education.
This has had the effect of subordinating the relations between parents and their children to the highest standards of care and education of children as identified and assessed by specialists in the field. Measured against these highest standards, native modes of family interaction are rendered as less expert and therefore less effective.
The retention of a child within the less expert and therefore less effective family is reframed implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, as disadvantageous.
The result is that all but very few of our children are subject to expert care and education such that the role of the family in their care and education has contracted and rusted from underuse.
But institutions, as we now know, can shut our children out. The care and education of our children, which ought of all things to be reliable, can be suspended without warning and indefinitely.
Families would not have done this to children. Families would have continued to care for and to educate them.
As it was, by the time children were sent home in the early months of 2020, families had lost the knack of caring and of educating. Children and parents stared across at one another, bereft of practices of interaction that ought to have been unassailable but that had been quietly ebbing away for many years.
These practices of family interaction were in many cases hurriedly resurrected, of course – but only as a panicked version of the expertise that had corroded them: education via SeeSaw, exercise via Joe Wicks, entertainment via Netflix. Expertise in the care and education of children flooded the family that it had long defrauded of its rightful resources.
And that was the best-case scenario. That was the families that coped. The worst-case scenario was described in the British Medical Journal and hardly bears thinking about.
We are bombarded by assertions of the special bond between parents and their children, of the sanctity of the family unit – is there any idea that is sold to us so persistently and so garishly? This year has shown it to be a lie.
Once families are made subject to the high standards of expertise, we cannot simply return to them and expect them to be just as we left them. They are out of the habits of care. They have lost the ways to educate. They can do little more than cope. Or not.
My little boy with autism is still at home from school, though most children have now returned. He requires one-to-one support throughout the day, and his school is at present insisting that the person who provides this support will wear a mask. Joseph’s understanding of language is very limited. His attention is difficult to obtain and to sustain. That anyone in support of him at school would cover their face with a mask is out of the question.
Joseph has an ‘Education, Health and Care Plan’ – the city council is legally obliged to provide for him under these headings. During a recent phone conversation, the council’s Special Educational Needs coordinator suggested to me that a clear face mask might be the solution. She asked whether I might consider trialling a clear face mask at home for a few minutes, to see whether Joseph could cope with it.
Which is when I realised that the high standard against which the best recommendations of experts in the care and education of our children are measured is not the extent to which our children are thriving, but whether or not our children are coping.
If we are confused now at the new and grisly measures being taken by schools in pursuit of the Covid security standards outlined by experts – the swabbing, the masking, the distancing. If we find ourselves wondering how it is these measures can be compatible with the care and education of children, then we should realise that expert care and expert education require only that children cope with them, not that they benefit from them or flourish.
And if we wonder why we managed to do little more than cope when schools were closed and our children were at home, then we should realise that the application at home of expert solutions to the care and education of children – SeeSaw, Joe Wicks, Netflix, and the rest – inevitably means that coping and not-coping are the only available options.
And if we ask how it can possibly be that the number of cases of young children who sustained head injuries from abuse in the home increased during lockdowns by a factor of almost 15, then we should realise that, once expertise has eroded families’ capacity to care and to educate, there is a high chance that families will not cope when the experts retreat and only their solutions remain.
Expertise in any domain is eventually purchased at a price. Though often seeded in genuine commitment to better understanding and practices, once past a certain threshold it becomes counterproductive. It loses sight of the bigger picture that lies beyond its field and excludes contingent factors that fall outside its frame.
But when expertise is plied in directly human domains – of care and education, for instance – the threshold beyond which it becomes counterproductive is very low and the price that is paid is very high. For, what makes us human is the bigger picture of our background and circumstances. What makes us human are the contingencies of our character and abilities.
Expertise, even when it is aimed at noble human causes like those of care and education, is an inherently impersonal enterprise. Though it may begin in human sympathy, its pursuit of finer and finer distinctions and of bigger and bigger efficiencies leads it to end in inhuman indifference.
What this indifference means is that the human subjects of expertise are expected at last not to benefit from expertise but to endure it, not to be made healthier by expertise but to survive it, not to thrive on expertise but to cope with it.
If we have marvelled this year at the indifference of expert advisers to the Government towards the conditions they have consigned the UK population to, conditions in which the only options are to cope or not to cope, we may now cease to marvel. Experts in any field of human interest inevitably lose sight of the subjects of their enterprise, for the sake of faster results, latest methods and higher, or lower, numbers.
Experts have staged something of a political coup this year. We are addressed by them with pomp and ceremony, and we live by their guidelines as though they were carved into stone. But if this coup has been spectacular, it has long been prepared for behind the scenes, where even very intimate aspects of our personal lives have been gradually and quietly taken over by expertise.
Well before their armies took to our streets, the experts had already won our hearts that care and our minds that educate.
The new head teacher at Joseph’s school addresses us all as his ‘family.’ Given that he has this year banished his 630 children from his school and, having readmitted them, now treats them as biological hazards; given that parents are refused entry to his school building, even to his school grounds, and have never so much as set eyes on him: his bandying of the word declares how cheapened the family is by its subjection to the measures determined upon and implemented by professionals.
As families have this year aped the solutions of experts, experts have ever more boldly assumed the posture of family. In the middle of which flip-flop between expertise and family, real care and real education are lost without a trace.
Even real coping at last comes under threat. Which is why it is now advertised so aggressively, rebranded to sound more inviting – not coping, but ‘resilience’.
In the latest newsletter from Joseph’s school, a jolly picture accompanied its advertisement of the ‘resilience’ of the children, of Spring bunnies ‘bouncing back with vigour’.
But our children are not bouncing bunnies and braying about their ‘resilience’ does not make them so.
Urgent referrals for eating disorders among children in the UK are reported to have doubled during the course of 2020. The BBC published an article in February on the rise in self-harm seen in a hospital in Bradford among children as young as eight. A caller to Julia Hartley-Brewer’s Talk Radio show told of her young girl with autism, who is literally tearing out her hair.
Does this look like coping – sorry, ‘resilience’? Or are experts in the field as indifferent to the human subjects of their coping strategies as they are to the human subjects of their care solutions and their education policies?
Be not soothed by the calm indifference of the experts. Our children require real care and real education, and without them they really cannot cope.
Dr Sinead Murphy is a Research Associate in Philosophy at Newcastle University.