Re: [xmca] private speech, and more

From: Mike Cole <lchcmike who-is-at gmail.com>
Date: Sat May 10 2008 - 08:29:14 PDT

That is about so much more than private speech, Colin!!
What an amazing project and product. It sounds like it might be a really great
text for the right kind of course.
mike

On Sat, May 10, 2008 at 2:07 AM, C Barker <C.Barker@mmu.ac.uk> wrote:
> Saturday May 10, 2008
> The Guardian
>
> http://lifeandhealth.guardian.co.uk/family/story/0,,2279130,00.html
>
> Every breath she takes
>
> Psychologist Charles Fernyhough turned every moment of the first three years of his
> daughter's life into a research project. Viv Groskop asks him what he found out
>
> 'It's good so far. It's interesting," says Athena, eight, of her experience of trying to
> read the 273-page book about the first three years of her life. She shakes her blonde
> pigtails from side to side. "It's good knowing about what I was like when I was little. I
> remember going to school and going out with Daddy and going on lots of trips."
>
> This is Athena's verdict on The Baby in the Mirror: A Child's World from Birth to Three, a
> cross between a biography of a baby growing into a child, a scientist's case-study notes
> and a beautifully written novel. The author is Athena's father, Charles Fernyhough, 40,
> who lives just outside Durham with his wife, Lizzie Meins, 41. Athena's brother Isaac is
> four. Both parents are developmental psychologists and lecturers at Durham University.
>
> Athena's arrival was always going to be interesting, to put it politely: both parents
> specialise in infants up to the age of two and are used to scrutinising them. But if their
> situation is unusual, their home life could not be more ordinary. The rambling house is
> reassuringly lived-in, with sweeping views across the countryside. Athena good-naturedly
> bosses Isaac around as he tries to build a complicated train track arrangement. She
> eventually gets bored and heads for the piano to pick out the tune of a song she is
> writing for a friend.
>
> This relaxed family atmosphere comes across in Fernyhough's book. Putting his professional
> experience aside, he finds himself in awe of the process of becoming a parent and
> documents the experience as if he were describing the minutiae of life on another planet.
> He thinks himself into the experience of a new-born baby, likening it to that of a student
> after an all-night bender: "You've made this great friend - you call her Ma - and she's as
> out of it as you are. You're going home to crash for about three days. You lost your coat
> somewhere and you're freezing. But what a rave, what a light-show. What a night."
>
> The absence of material on this age group fascinates Fernyhough. Brian Hall's Madeleine's
> World (1998) attempted a similar trick with the author's three-year-old daughter, and the
> cognitive scientist Paul Bloom used his own children as case studies in his study
> Descartes' Baby (2005). But there has been little else. In fiction, children appear
> regularly, but few toddlers and babies. In general, we shy away from describing this phase
> of life. Possibly we fear it because it is so unknown and lost to our own memories, says
> Fernyhough: "I wanted to ask, what is it like to be a small child? It must be a strange
> place to be."
>
> Fernyhough was a stay-at-home father for the first seven years of Athena's life. From her
> first weeks in the womb to her third birthday, he catalogued in minute detail everything
> that happened to his daughter. He took hundreds of hours of video footage, thousands of
> photographs and dozens of books' worth of notes, detailing everything Athena said and did.
> The result is extraordinary, partly because of the elegant explanations of how his
> everyday observations dovetail with scientific theory.
>
> His insights are funny, clever and recognisable to any parent. In the weeks after birth,
> he realises that his baby daughter has identified her parents as "Breast" and
> "Not-Breast". He marvels at her ability to make the expression "laggy loo" into an entire
> language for several months. Once she really can speak, she is charming: "When I were a
> little baby, it were very sunny," she says, aged three, trying to think up something daddy
> can write about her memories of babyhood. ("That's what Daddy does," her father explains.
> "He tries to understand how little children think. That's his job.")
>
> As well as being a psychologist, Fernyhough is also a gifted wrAuctioneer, was described in the Daily Telegraph as "the debut of a considerable talent",
> and he is at work on a second. There are many passages in The Baby in the Mirror that have
> the quality of fiction, as Fernyhough tries to imagine his daughter's world and what must
> be going on inside her head. His lyrical description of Athena's experience has a
> peculiarly familiar, universal quality to it, almost as if he is trying to recreate his
> own babyhood. He uses his insights as a psychologist, parent and author to build up a
> picture of a world we rarely read about - a time of life we have all experienced but which
> few of us retain in our memories.
>
> Fernyhough is expert at putting these private moments of everyday life into an accessible
> scientific context. At one point, Fernyhough is explaining the concept of "private speech"
> - the process of speaking our thoughts aloud. This is his main area of academic research.
> He breaks off and discreetly indicates his son, mouthing, "This is what Isaac is doing
> now." Isaac is oblivious, rattling through Incy Wincy Spider repeatedly to himself. So
> this is what it is like to see a child as science in action.
>
> Fernyhough continues: "One school of thought says that private speech is about learning to
> think and that we have a stream of inner thought that is an internalised version of social
> speech. The other interpretation is that it has no function at all and is only happening
> because the child is trying to communicate but doesn't know how to." His own research is
> pointing in the direction of the conclusion that private speech is how our earliest
> thought patterns are formed. Basically, it's how we learn to think. "This is why parents
> shouldn't worry if a child talks to himself - in fact, they should encourage it. That's
> how children learn to think. We tell stories about ourselves and that is where the self
> comes from. That's probably the only piece of parenting advice I would be prepared to
> give," he laughs, slightly embarrassed. He prefers analysis and observation to advice.
>
> His study of his own children has made him question some of his research in another pet
> area - theory of mind. "This is all about children's understanding of other people's
> mental states - what others think, believe and desire." It is generally held that children
> develop "theory of mind" - the ability to understand that other people have different
> thoughts to them - from the age of four. "But I've now seen that when you're very close to
> a child you begin to see evidence of this much earlier. One day, when Athena was two, we
> wanted to have a tea party with her dolls. I went looking for one of them in the study -
> where I thought he was. She pointed to another room and said, 'In there.' She couldn't
> possibly have done that unless she had a theory of mind. In order to know that I wanted
> Jake, she had to understand what I was thinking."
>
> Both Charles and Lizzie are now re-evaluating how scientific methods work. Maybe children
> are more at ease in the company of their parents, they now think - something that could be
> impossible to replicate in scientific tests.
>
> It is because of the fallibility of our scientific knowledge about the state of babyhood
> that the two see their academic skills as being quite separate to their aptitude as
> parents. They insist that they are just as clueless as the rest of us. "We're completely
> in the dark," Fernyhough says. "I don't want to make a claim about what makes a 'good
> parent' until I've seen reliable evidence - and I can't get that on the basis of two
> children."
>
> He is particularly sniffy about parenting manuals - the ones that pretend to know all the
> answers. "When you have someone coming along and solving sleep problems with very specific
> advice ... I would be very sceptical about that because I am very aware of the lack of
> science. Dr X's sleep plan has not been scientifically tested. There are a lot of problems
> with behaviour genetics but I trust that a lot more than I trust parenting advice."
>
> The one person he is perhaps leastTearaways. But even her common sense has its flaws: "Byron makes a great story," says
> Fernyhough with a wry smile. "'Here's a child who behaves badly. But let's look at the
> parents' behaviour ...' It's misleading to say that is always the case, though."
>
> His own book is certainly not a child-rearing manual. The thought of it makes him shudder:
> "The Baby in the Mirror is not a parenting book, not least because I have no idea what
> makes a good parent," he writes on his blog (theladybirdpapers.blogspot.com). "I know what
> makes an abusive one, or a loving one, and I have a pretty good idea about what kinds of
> stimulation of children's minds can be beneficial at different ages. But to suppose that
> knowledge of the science is a foundation for training perfect parents is, to my mind, a
> dangerous way to go."
>
> Fernyhough, who is a self-effacing, tall man with the air of a poet, is nothing if not
> thorough and obviously put himself through some intellectual hoops over Athena's inclusion
> in the book in the first place. "I wanted to treat the child as a phenomenon, as an
> amazing natural wonder - and to let that child speak for herself. But I was concerned that
> it would put her too much in the public gaze. She might turn round one day and say, 'I
> wish you hadn't done that.' So I have talked to her at every stage. She likes the idea of
> having a record of her life. I can't say she has given her full approval because she may
> change her mind - especially when she's a teenager. But I hope she will recognise that it
> was done out of love and out of wonder."
>
> He needn't have worried: any parent's description of their small child is much less
> personal than they imagine - and any parent reading this book will, as I did, constantly
> superimpose memories of their own children on to the "baby in the mirror". This is a
> memoir containing all those little details you forget in the haze of early parenting - the
> first yawn, the first stretch, the first dribble.
>
> At six weeks, Fernyhough realises that his daughter has learned to blink. At four months,
> she can follow the line of another person's gaze and see what they are looking at. At 10
> months, she can clap on command. She starts frowning and her father realises she has begun
> thinking - and, he guesses, remembering. She can now say "bah". At 17 months she can name
> several animals. At two she says, "I write a book like Daddy." Athena acts as an
> everychild in that sense: you have an idea of her as an individual, but it is only a vague
> sense and not remotely intrusive. This is essential: the book would feel voyeuristic and
> exploitative otherwise.
>
> Fernyhough has invaded his own privacy, though, to poignant effect. The book is as much
> about his discovery of himself as a parent as it is about Athena's development. Fernyhough
> is open about his shortcomings as a father: "I still feel a bit in the dark about what
> parenting is. I often felt that I was stuck at home and not necessarily the best person to
> do it. But I am sure that it is in keeping with the experience of being a stay-at-home
> parent. There is a part in the book where I say, 'How can I love her and just want her to
> shut up?'"
>
> Of fatherhood, he says: "It is such a great change that it is impossible to imagine. It
> has brought so much wonder and happiness into my life and now I can't imagine life without
> them. As a young man I didn't like children very much" - at this point, Athena jumps on
> him, hard - "And I still don't," he laughs, teasing her. "I really don't see myself as a
> family man. I hope that people don't get the impression that this has been a rosy voyage
> of discovery. The disruption to your sleep is extraordinary. Isaac has only been sleeping
> properly for the past year." His son smiles as widely as is possible when you have a mouth
> full of grapes.
>
> Near the end of the book there is a moving chapter about Lizzie's second pregnancy: they
> told Athena, then nearly three, that she would be having a brother or sister. Then came a
> miscarriage. Fernyhough explores his feelings about whethertelling Athena. "Miscarriage is an undiscovered grief at the heart of many people's lives.
> It was a real shock to know how to deal with it emotionally. If you are grieving for a
> parent, there are ways to respond, it's a more examined grief. Grief over a child that
> isn't born ... Well, some people would argue that it is not grief at all."
>
> He did not intend to make a big statement about miscarriage and grief, he adds: "I just
> wanted to say that children are very complex at that age and their emotional lives are
> very complex."
>
> He is not sure whether Athena understood or shared their grief. "There's one way this
> process could have a negative outcome and that is if it makes her remember things she
> would rather have forgotten," he says, seriously. "I am not a Freudian. There is a lot of
> research that some things are best forgotten."
>
> At least whatever Athena wants to remember will all be there in black and white - an
> extraordinary record surely we would all love to have of the part of our lives hardly any
> of us recall.
>
> The Baby in the Mirror: A Child's World from Birth to Three by Charles Fernyhough is
> published by Granta at 12.99. To order a copy for 11.99 with free UK p&p go to
> guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0875
>
>
>
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Received on Sat May 10 08:30 PDT 2008

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