Conduct disorder is not caused by bad parenting

I’m sure this adorable child never behaves badly.


Conduct disorder is when a child keeps behaving in a particularly bad way.  Behaviours indicative of conduct disorder in young children include lying, bullying, making threats, starting fights, damaging property, stealing, hurting animals, hurting people, and starting fires.  For older children, the list also includes sexual assault, staying out at night, and using weapons.

A recent longitudinal study in Massachusetts found that mothers’ level of warmth, over-reactivity or laxness had little to no association with early symptoms of conduct disorder in preschool children.  The researcher selected 197 children whose parents reported disruptive behaviour and followed them for three years, from ages 3-6.  Signs of disruptive behaviour were consistent across time as were parenting styles, but the two were mostly unrelated.  If anything, the study suggests that the children’s behaviour may negatively affect mothers’ warmth and lead them to over-react, rather than the other way around.  But even that’s a very weak relationship.

This finding goes against a deep running belief in our society that parents are to blame for their children’s behaviour.  It’s never been entirely clear whether the problem is supposed to be coercive parenting that sets a bad example or too lax parenting that makes children run wild.  But now it turns out it’s neither.  I’m not sure if it’s good news though because it would be nice to think that we could cure conduct disorder with no more than our own good behaviour.  The author does point to other studies that claim parenting makes a difference for older children, and for other behavioural problems such as defiance and attention-seeking.

Meanwhile, two researchers who interviewed snowboarding mothers note with dismay that motherhood leads to more cautious behaviour.  It’s true, it does.  Yes, voluntary risk taking can be a joyful thing, and yes, mothers are often depressed.  And yet… snowboarding mothers!  Snowboarding while pregnant!  I feel the shockingness, but maybe they’re right – maybe we restrict ourselves too much.

Depressed mothers in Qatar

Another report has been published about postpartum depression, this time from Qatar.  The researchers gave questionnaires to 285 postpartum mothers from South Asian backgrounds and found that about 1 in 3 were depressed.  “Depression” was considered to exist if the scores on the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale were equal or greater than 10. In other studies cited for comparison, the cut-off was higher, at 12 or 13, but the authors failed to mention this.  Instead, they said, “the prevalence of depressive symptoms in this study was higher than in other regional studies and sends an alarming message to policy makers and health professionals alike.”  This comes across to me as sheer dishonesty.  Of course you will get a higher prevalence if your cut-off threshold is lower!

Also, just in general, these questionnaire studies can be sketchy.
A shopping village in Doha with a fake sky


The most interesting part of this article was the association between postpartum “depression” and “a history of anxiety” during the current pregnancy.  It was the strongest association: mothers with a history of anxiety during the pregnancy were four times more likely to develop postpartum depression than mothers without such a history.  Why?

The researchers decline to explain how this history of anxiety was measured, but given that their questionnaire was short (22 items), including all demographic questions, it was probably a single item.  Just over half the mothers (159) reported anxiety during pregnancy (132 did not report anxiety, which adds up to more than the 285 mothers who were interviewed, but let’s just ignore that for now).

Maybe the mothers were asked, “Did you experience any anxiety during your pregnancy?”  Of course, ALL mothers experience anxiety during pregnancy, but only half said yes.  Why?  What were they anxious about?  Why did the other half say no?

The Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale also includes several questions about anxiety, for instance, “I have been anxious or worried for no good reason.”  No good reason.  Maybe that evaluation was implied in the general question about anxiety.  Were you [unusually or unnecessarily] anxious during your pregnancy?

The ambiguity of these questions makes them vulnerable to response bias.  A mother who thinks she has no good reason for the anxiety she’s feeling after her baby is born (after all, the baby is fine, right?  She should be happy) might also say that yes, she was anxious during her pregnancy (even though there turned out to be nothing to worry about!).  A mother in a different frame of mind might say no, I have not been anxious for no good reason (after all, I’ve just had a baby – what better reason could there be?) and no, I was not anxious during my pregnancy (no more than might be expected, anyway).  And hey ho, there’s a correlation between prenatal anxiety and postnatal depression!

Even so, it was interesting to read about South Asian mothers in Qatar.  For working age adults there, there are about 4 men to every women.  That’s because most of the population is immigrants who are there to work, and most of these are men.  There is also a number of female immigrants who are domestic workers and as such not subject to the same rights and protections as other workers.  However, I think the mothers in this sample were not domestic workers, because of those who were working, their incomes were much higher.  Also, domestic workers in Qatar tend to be from the Philippines and Indonesia rather than South Asia.

Nor is the law in Qatar particularly friendly to women.  Women get arrested and jailed for reporting rapePregnant women who were unmarried at the time of conception get put in jail, and abortion is mostly illegal.

What are those mothers doing in Qatar?  What are they anxious about?  How long are they going to stay there for?  Best wishes to them and their babies, in any case.


Mohamed, H. (2016). Prevalence of postnatal depression and associated risk factors among South Asian mothers living in a newly developing country. Asian Journal of Pharmaceutical and Clinical Research.

Uneducated mothers cannot “transcend their everyday experiences”

hb_29_100_48In Brazil, researchers interviewed six mothers and concluded that uneducated mothers find it difficult “to transcend their everyday experiences”.  Educated mothers, on the other hand, were able to consider complex aspects of their interactions with their babies and thereby “transcend” primary care considerations.

They reached this conclusion with the help of a French software analysis package called Alceste, which can eat up any kind of text and spit back out blocks of words categorized by their proximity.  The current researchers plugged in their six interviews and the computer spat back two categories.  The first included words like PUT, SLEEP, TIME, WALK and CRYING; the second category included words like ISSUE, MOTHER, THINK, EXPERIENCE, and BOND.  Without any further analysis, the researchers concluded that the first category was the everyday of the uneducated, whereas the second category was the transcendence of the educated.  It seems as if this was a conclusion that the researchers had in mind before they started the study.

One of the mothers in the study, the least educated, was 32 years old, with 5 children and an income two thirds of the minimum wage.  She is likely to be under immediate day-to-day pressures, and more so than the post-graduate mother of two with an income almost ten times greater.  She’s going to have less time to sit about ruminating about the quality of her bonding experience with her baby.  If there’s a difference in the way the two mothers talking about their relationships with their children, there’s no reason to suppose that it’s formal education that makes the difference.

The researchers seemed to be frustrated at the way some mothers (especially the uneducated ones) answered their questions:

It was noticed, when interviewing mothers, that some of them had difficulty in answering the questions formulated from reflections, getting quite restricted to the facts and personal experiences of the “here and now”. So they spoke from their practices and held in the minutiae of routine care for their babies, often at the expense of what was required of them.

This is perhaps the most interesting part of the study.  Mothers were asked about bonding with their babies, the parent-child relationship, what’s important for development.  In response, they spoke about the here and now.  They did not speak in the abstract.  They did not talk about theories or beliefs, even though that’s what the researchers seemed to want from them.

Maybe that’s because, after all, there is only the here and now when it comes to mothers and children.  When people talk about motherhood in abstract terms, it seems so bland and irrelevant compared to the immediacy of a child demanding something.  Maybe bonding is like culture – it only exists to the observer.  To the mother in the middle of it, there’s no bonding, there’s only getting up at night in response to a crying baby – there’s only constant vigilance to know where the baby is – there’s only patience as a rough toddler tries to climb on you while you’re picking up the laundry.

The researchers wanted their mothers to transcend the everyday, and those with an education were able to oblige to some extent.  But what does that tell us about motherhood?


Oliveira, A. D., Chaves Maia, E. M., & Alchieri, J. C. (2016). What do mothers say about the mother and baby relation?. Journal of Nursing UFPE on line, 10(9), 3212-3222

Gods of our own reality

The self-absorption of humans is extraordinary.   It’s a defining quality of our human psychology.  Some writers have even gone so far as to say mind and self go hand in hand.

What is it for?  The brain uses about 20% of our body’s energy.  Self-absorption is costly.  We don’t need to brood about ourselves to act selfishly and survive, so what’s it all about?

A lot of people seem to think that our sense of self is for decision-making.  They say that we’re so intelligent and in control of our environment that we need to use our deliberate reasoning powers in order to create impressive erections such as rockets to the moon and thereby demonstrate our dominance over nature.

You see?  It’s narcissism.  It seems to run as background noise all the time.  We are gods of our own reality and we can’t switch it off to say, hey, that makes no sense.

But the evidence points elsewhere.

  1. Truth is an illusion.  Well, duh.  Everyone knows that truth is an illusion, but we know it like an esoteric fact that we can pull out when the conversation gets philosophical.  It has nothing to with day-to-day truths like the dishes, supermarket car parks, and relatives.  Those things seem so real that they define our reality in the same way as knowing our hands are our hands when we stare at them while on the toilet.
  2. The brain is active not passive.  Everything we perceive, feel and think is an action.  It must be.  It is.  But it doesn’t feel that way.  If you’re lying on the grass and staring at the clouds, and the person next to you sees a heart shape, and then you see it too, it seems like you’re just taking in what’s out there.  You’re seeing clouds because there are clouds and your eyes are kinda videoing them with neurons.  You feel like you, yourself, are at the control center of the mind sorting through incoming perceptions and messages.  You get a pain message from your leg but you ignore it because you have a gut feeling that the other person is about to say something wonderful.  The control center makes a choice to lie still.  That’s how it seems.
  3. We don’t exist in our heads alone.  Of course we don’t.  Mind-body. We can’t live without the support of the group. Most of our actions are not done consciously, we are strongly influenced by the physical environment and by other people, we are owned by habits, and we have trouble controlling ourselves.  We know all this.  And yet, there behind my eyes it’s me.  I feel so sure of it, I love it so, my fragile self.


The miracle of rockets is not decision-making or reason, but coordination of large groups. Unfortunately for my self-esteem, I am not a rocket scientist but I bet that every piece of information that was used to build a rocket was established by trial and error and then shared.  There were a long string of errors to learn from.  It was the organization of group knowledge and effort that was the miracle, same it was for all other human miracles such as the pyramids, small pox injections and clean water in cities.  We are the hive.  Again, we know this…in theory.

It just doesn’t seem that way.  At the supermarket, with my shopping basket, my choices seem deliberate and planned.  They matter.  What kind of person am I?  What kind of dining experience will I create for my family tonight, and what will that say about me?  All around the world, millions of people are scurrying about with similar thoughts to this.  They’re all absorbed in their own lives and their own plans and it feels like reality.

Evolution doesn’t care about us.  It wouldn’t let us spend 20% of our energy on basking in our own divinity because it’s all just so real.  Our egocentrism must be have some immediate and essential function.  Our feelings of self are an action.  We do self, and the reason for it must be coordination with others.

Suppose you, me and some other losers are dividing up tasks between us. I can’t say who’s going to do what without a sense of self, and you can’t understand and obey without a sense of who you are.  I pick who does what based on my assessment of our competencies – which requires a sense of self and other.  You wouldn’t obey me without your sensitivity to hierarchy – which requires a sense of self within the group.  Sharing resources efficiently between the group requires a sense of fairness, as well as a sense of outrage when the self has been treated poorly.  Self is a function, and a good one.

Why mothers love normal

I used to hate normal.  Now I’m a mother, I’m all about normal.  Like everyone else, I moved to the suburbs.  I have a house with a fence.  I have a car.  I go to the supermarket and school pick up.  Mothers remind me sometimes of a converging herd of animals – seals maybe – all involved in mini-interactions, looking this way and that way, but somehow the end point is all of us moving in the same way, and being the same.


I met a new mother at the park last week.  She had just moved from an edgy inner suburb, and she was explaining her reasons for moving and they were all such weak reasons, and she seemed to know it and kept talking around and around as if she could figure out why she – who had sworn off the suburbs, who hated the suburbs, who was waaay too cool for the suburbs, had just moved here.  She was sleep deprived.  I wanted to explain the seal theory to her, but it wasn’t the right moment.

Moving to the suburbs isn’t really about having a back yard, because most people don’t, actually, have much of a back yard anymore and anyway, that’s just one thing.  It’s not about schools, because people move before they’ve even gone on a school tour.  It’s about being normal.  I think it’s a deep instinct that kicks in along with all the other mad mother stuff, along with the hormones in pregnancy.  Normality.

Social status protects children.  The fact is, social status of families is strongly and consistently linked to child outcomes in our society, in other societies, and even in other species.  And to take Ishiguro’s metaphor from the Remains of the Day, social status is not like a ladder, but like a wheel.  The closer to the hub (i.e., the more normal), the greater your social influence.  That is why normality in parents corresponds to good outcomes for children.

So many of the parenting rules seem ridiculous and random in those moments when we’re awake enough to think properly.  Kids need both parents.  They need a home, a back yard, music lessons.  They need to go to school.  None of that stuff can be justified in terms of mechanics of how children grow and learn, because children need those things because other children have them.  If we lived at different times or different places, then our children would need quite different things.  They need to be normal. Somehow, deep down, we believe that, and that’s why this normal thing happens when we have kids.

That’s my theory anyway.

Motherhood and the Watt Governor

Inspired by Louise Barrett’s brilliant book about ecological psychology, I’ve been thinking about the ways we can model human cognition.  It’s true that the computational metaphor has dominated cognitive psychology, and I’m particularly interested in alternatives because the computation model just seems like a bad fit for maternal psychology.  Characteristics of a computations framework include breaking a cognitive task down into parts and then linking the parts together sequentially.  For example, The Health Belief Model is one of many models of cognition that has discrete cognitive operations linked together in a flow chart.

Today I read van Gelder’s paper from 20 years ago called What Might Cognition Be, If Not Computation? (pdf), where he argues that using the computer as our main metaphor for conceiving human cognition is not essential, and that there are other metaphors we can use.  In particular, he describes a dynamical framework as an alternative to a computational framework for understanding cognition.

In order to explain the difference between computational and dynamical models, van Gelder begins with a description of two different ways of approaching the problem of governing the speed of a steam engine.  Here’s an adaptation of the computational model he put forward:

van Gelder
Computational model for governing the speed of a steam engine.  Adapted from van Gelder (1995)

This is compared with the Watt Governor, the device that was actually used to govern the speed of steam engines in the olden days.  How it works is, the engine is coupled to a fly wheel, which spins faster the faster the engine is going.  The faster the wheel spins, the higher the arms go, and the arms are linked to the throttle valve which controls how much steam is released.  So the higher the arms, the more the steam is blocked and the engine slows down.


Watt Governor


Most notably, the Watt Governor doesn’t need to work out engine speed or do any other calculations.  Also, it’s linked moment to moment with the engine in a way that the computational mechanism is not.  The goal of the Watt Governor is to maintain the train’s speed at a constant rate.  Of course, by goal, I mean the goal of the person who designed the Watt Governor or the person who purchased it and put it on the train.  The Watt Governor itself has no sense of a goal.  Similarly, living things can act towards supposed evolutionary goals without themselves desiring those goals or being aware of them.

Here’s how van Gelder describes the dynamical conception of cognition, which would be based on the Watt-Governor sort of metaphor:

In this vision, the cognitive system is not just the encapsulated brain; rather, since the nervous system, body, and environment are all constantly changing and simultaneously influencing each other, the true cognitive system is a single unified system embracing all three.  The cognitive system does not interact with the body and the external world by means of the occasional status symbolic inputs and outputs; rather, interaction between the inner and outer is best thought of as a matter of coupling, such that both sets of processes [are] continually influencing each other’s direction of change.  At the level at which the mechanisms are best described, cognitive processing is not sequential and cyclic, for all aspects of the cognitive system are undergoing change all the time. (p.373)

mothering in action

Because the regulation is continuous, you can’t watch in a sequential way how the Watt Governor manages the speed of the steam engine once it’s going.  It just settles into a constant speed, which is the point.  Superficially, this seems like a very good metaphor for motherhood, for thinking and doing.  Not getting anything done is a theme that keeps coming up in motherhood discussion (here is a joke about it).  Also, being constantly busy and exhausted without being able to articulate what you’ve been doing.
Last week, someone asked me what my plans were for the rest of the day, and I said to react to my children until it’s time to sleep.  She thought I was joking, and I was, although what I said was at least as true as any other answer I could have given.  I suppose it’s because we’re not supposed to react as mothers.  We’re supposed to respond.  Even though the two words mean basically the same thing.

So what would a Watt-Governor-type system need self-awareness for?

Are private goals useful?

The other day, my sandal broke and I put on sports shoes and walked through the park, and I found myself on a gravel running track in sports gear and the next thing I knew, I was going for a run.  For the first time in years.  Afterwards, I was sweaty and pleased.  I thought, oh, I’m a runner now.  I’m going to be like those running, fit women!  But I got my sandal fixed and two weeks passed without me running again.  Why?

Of course, I’d thought about running before that, but I think we all consider doing what we see other people doing.  Maybe because mirror neurons?  We imagine what it would be like to ride motorbikes, drive ambulances to emergencies, walk hand in hand with someone, and we imagine doing stuff we see often – such as running – more than other stuff.   And everyone in the world knows about losing weight and getting fit

If I had really come up with the goal of losing weight and getting fit though, why would I have chosen to run?  Why not skip or side shuffle?  Those other actions never crossed my mind.  The action that came to me automatically was the one I’d seen other people do, and above all, other women my age, in that sort of location, in that sort of outfit.  The goal of running, the conscious intent to run came after the action of running.  The pieces were in place to construct a goal-directed narrative: I’d considered running in a general and idle way, I felt that I should do more exercise and get fit [therefore] I went running, and I was pleased afterwards.  It was an easy story to construct, one about goals and action, but it wasn’t true.

I think the key element was the broken sandal and the sports shoes.  I’m not sure why, because I normally wear comfortable street shoes which would be perfectly adequate for running.  I could easily have run in them, except that I didn’t, which makes me wonder about affordances (here is a pdf file of Chemero’s paper on affordances if you’re interested).  I’d walked down that path scores of times in street shoes and comfortable outfits.  Why did I need sports shoes to run?

Now I’ve rejected the goal narrative, I go running (walking/running/hobbling anyway) regularly. I turn up to linear parks and swimming pools in appropriately sporty outfits and see what happens.  What happens is that I do exercise. It’s psychologically easy.  Whereas if I try to think in terms of goals of exercise and losing weight and planning it never really works in any kind of sustainable way.  It’s too early to say for sure, but so far it seems that the key to doing exercise, for me at least, is to deliberately avoid the goal of exercising.

This experience has made me wonder if our narratives of goal-directed action are ever real, or if they’re constructed post hoc.  Maybe only externally imposed goals make sense, such as goals at work, or goals related to other people.  Maybe that’s why people have personal trainers and running buddies.  Tomasello, Carpenter and Beyne argued that:

the crucial difference between human cognition and that of other species is the ability to participate with others in collaborative activities with shared goals and intentions: shared intentionality.

If shared goals are such a crucial evolutionary change, then maybe goals are for coordination with others.  They’re a social event.  Maybe we don’t need goals for our own private actions.