Part 2 of our review of the Netflix documentary series ‘Babies’
The is the second in the two-part review of the series ‘Babies’. In this post, we examine some scientific claims and ethical concerns related to research with children and their families by taking the first episode on ‘Love’. You can revisit our previous post here for an introduction to the series: https://masalachaimusings.com/2020/03/06/babies-as-brains-is-this-the-future-of-childhood/
The series attempts to answer “what it means to be human by examining the smallest, youngest creatures, our babies” by offering an insight into some of the science behind specific aspects of children’s care like sleep, speech, movement and love. The first of six episodes explore affectionate exchanges between parent and child starting at birth titled with the clear intent to captivate the viewer, Love, a great way to start. In our review, we will not examine all the episodes, taking only a portion of the content and claims from the first episode to make our point. These can be extended to other episodes as well, especially about speech and mobility or crawling.
The importance of documentaries
There is a great value for providing audio-visual information online, especially videos of real-life situations as these can be informative and instructional. In the case of children’s care, young parents in urban, educated families, often do not have the benefit of their counterparts in other settings and earlier times, where young adults experience several babies before having their own and also had the benefit of social support in the child’s care.
Documentaries prepared by renowned media agencies have an even greater responsibility because of their reputation. They are expected to fulfill the promise of providing authentic information since these will be treated as scientific truths by the audience. Thus, it is necessary to ensure that the scientific research selected has been vetted by experts from around the world, especially since the series is being viewed globally. In the case of the series under discussion, the sincerity of purpose and authenticity of the sources are undeniable. The experts are well-known scientists and the families who have opened up their homes and hearts to the camera need full acknowledgement for their service to humanity. Yet, there are serious problems regarding some of the scientific observations, the coverage of the cases and claims of the studies. At no point in the series is the sample selection placed in perspective. The restricted nature of the group featured in the documentary, the 15 infants of 15 couples, has not been discussed. This is, in fact, a minute selection of small slice of the world’s people who can in no way represent the world of babies, how they are, or how they should be brought up. Apart from the social interactions, the language used and the conversations between family members, the conditions depicted are unfamiliar and unaffordable for most families around the world. The problem is that many of them will have access to cable television! Let us examine the series in greater detail.
1, 2, Infinity…….
In the search for life outside of the solar system, scientists use the principle of 1, 2, infinity to explain possibilities. For now, within our limited knowledge of the universe, we know that we are the singular example of life. The positive discovery of any one other will open up the floodgates of infinite possibilities, which is held in place until such an example surfaces. For now, we are alone. A discussion of this can be located in a conversation with Jill Tarter, the Astrophysicist on whom the story and film Contact was based (Find the link in the Notes section). Let us use this principle to examine child care. Imagine that we live in a society where all children ever born are cared for within a uniform system, a mother and a father with their offspring. Using the principle of 1, 2, infinity, we search for other possibilities and look around at other social groups. What do we find? We find scores of other arrangements within which children are born, cared for and taught. Having made this discovery, we can never scientifically, argue that there is only one possibility for family life and children’s care. In fact, research has actually shown us that the shrinking family is more the exception than the norm (Article by Brooks, see Notes section). The moment we have ONE OTHER example of a system in which children are cared for, it permits the possibility of an infinite number of arrangements. We cannot act as if the couple and its offspring are the only form of family. Doing so underestimates the adaptability of human arrangements, of motherhood and of infant adaptability (See essay on motherhood: https://masalachaimusings.com/2020/01/23/motherhood-as-fungible/.
The Coverage: Thinking Locally, Acting Globally
The babies studied in the documentary are all being raised in nuclear families with two adults and an occasional sibling, although in one instance, the gay couple who have had their son through surrogacy mention that the birth mother and her family are their extended kin as far as the little one is concerned. In another scene in a later episode, two obedient looking grandparents are seen on a computer screen making attempts to interact with the baby. Thus, our first point of departure relates to the coverage of the families and children. Although every research study or documentary cannot make claims to have featured all possible scenarios, there is a responsibility to declare the limitations based on sampling, as well as the cultural context of the families. At no point does the series make any reference to this limitation, going straight into claiming as if this depicts the ‘world of babies’. The problem becomes even more serious in the research on parenting styles based in Singapore which we will discuss in detail. These are typical example of ‘thinking locally and acting globally‘ a phrase popularised by Prof. Misra and colleagues in a 1996 publication on the tendency of American psychologists to act in culturally-blind ways by assuming that local conditions are globally applicable. This issue also comes up in the critical review by Henrich et al (links to papers provided in the notes) who have demonstrated in their landmark review that a majority of the research done on human subjects comes from a small fraction of the world’s people, those living in White, Educated, Industrialised, Rich and Democratic Societies WEIRD Societies). Yet, when findings of these studies are applied world-wide, there is little or no mention of their initial limitations. Researchers tend to act as if culture is only relevant when it is a non-western sample!
The series Babies does something very similar. The handful of babies chosen are all living in urban, Western homes, and with a few notable exceptions, the scenes are taken from White, Middle-Class nuclear families. The exceptions are an African American couple from Connecticut and gay parents from Canada. Thus, when the claims are being made about materials available, housing arrangements, milestones, care practices, lab facilities, medical care or resources required, it is as if these are universal experiences: The hospital delivery, breast-pumping, small families, separate rooms, and so on. There is no discussion of context at all. It is assumed that these are things that children experience everywhere.
All research studies, documentaries or media stories have a finite range of people they can access for the purpose of their reports. For human participants, consent becomes and additional issue which further reduces numbers. In the case of intimate interactions like the ones featured in Babies, where intimate scenes of family interactions are to be presented, this becomes even ore problematic. I remember the one and only time we attempted a lab-based study in collaboration with a foreign University, we found it so hard to explain how our populous nation was running short of cases to come from home to the lab for a study on children’s pro-social behaviour in standard situations. Home-based studies for young children were also arduous, but people were far more open to our visits than coming to the lab. After making every possible attempt within ethical limits (we stopped short of kidnapping mothers and their babies :P), we fell well short of the targeted numbers. In sum, people are wary of coming in to the lab, and very often, their own family situations and care of the young child makes it difficult for them to pull away for an appointment. So we are very aware of the trials of doing field observations and lab experiments. Despite our experiences and training, both as scientists and mothers. we sometimes felt that the camera was being too invasive. It was featured somewhere that some of the home scenes were filmed by the parents themselves and not under the eye of a camera crew, but that knowledge did little to lift the discomfort of intrusion. It is therefore, even more important to acknowledge the parents’ contribution to this project. We find it hard to imagine what it would be like to handle a neonate under the focus of a camera (with or without the crew)!
Regarding sampling and location, therefore, it is not the characteristics of the people studied, but the fact that this is treated as universal that is the problem here. For someone living in a remote part of the world with access to Netflix, such a presentation could have adverse consequences. You could evaluate your own circumstances as inadequate or worse still, erroneous. The patterns of care presented (sleeping, feeding) could be taken as ‘best practices’ and cause unintended changes in cultural practices, and so on. Thus, we believe that such a presentation must be accompanied with a commentary about the sample selection and its specificity as well as a caution that these practices meant as a specific cultural solution to the care of infants and not a promotion towards universal standards of child development and care. The tagline of a “scientific” approach a child’s mind can carry several messages of tacit positive judgements.
There are always constraints
The issue of time and resource constraints in preparing documentaries is very real, and it is important when variation has to be presented. How many cases should be taken? How many places? What kinds of homes? The ecological diversity of childhood circumstances is staggering. Despite the challenges, it is not only possible, but also crucial to address diversity because single scenarios can imply a moral imperative or ideal form. For example, the artistic way in which the objective of diversity is achieved in the 2010 film with the same name, and is a case in point. Babies by Thomas Balmes features just four infants in four different parts of the world, and without any commentary, the film achieves the goal of illustrating different ways of bringing up children, and also the amazing resilience, motivation and individuality of each of the infants captured in the documentary. Babies are viewed in a community care context, in an urban nuclear family living in a metropolis, among farm animals in the isolated grasslands of the North. Context is presented without commentary, not because there is nothing to say, but because we do not need to say or show everything in order to get a point across. Not only is the documentary under review found wanting in the commentary, it is also limited in the ways in which caring is demonstrated if we take the world’s families into consideration.
The claims of some of the studies in this episode are problematic when you examine the details of research designs and the claims made. The first example we pick is of the Oxytocin study by Ruth Feldman. With all the careful experimentation and minute measurement of saliva samples, Feldman loses credibility in a single statement she makes in the commentary. Looking for the ‘other half’ of the parenting story, she examines fathers and the levels of Oxytocin, the love hormone, among fathers who are involved in the daily fork of caring for their children. Feldman concludes with confidence that the Oxytocin levels of mothers and fathers among couple where the fathers are as involved as mothers in caring for their children are “identical”. But this is suspicious, since science experiments simply do not yield such clean results and it would be worth looking into the details for where the error may lie. Apart from the fact that the Love Hormone study seems overstated, there is also the underlying assumption that all love (for and of the child) can be explained by hormonal levels. This too is a sort of reductionism, the sort that is sprinkled all over in this series, where brain imagery, amygdala and hippocampus sizes are interpreted as straightforard evidence for experiences stress, anxiety or comfort and exploration. The studies may very well have showed differences, but the direct interpretations of the findings are hard to accept.
Let’s take another example from the same episode, the study of the impact of parenting styles on levels of stress, learning and exploration. This study has been completed with 20 babies for whom MRI images at birth were available as standard practice in Singapore hospitals at the time, allowing for careful comparisons with data at birth. The purpose of the study was to explore outcomes of parenting styles (not sure if they used Diana Baumrind’s categories of authoritarian, authoritative, democratic and permissive) that were assessed through laboratory observations of parent child interactions and self-reporting on questionnaires. The assumption of the research design was that the amount of stress the child is assumed to experience with a responsive or otherwise parenting style, would impact brain structure through the experience of stress that would impact exploration and learning. The findings support the hypothesis: “The size of the hippocampus differed according to parenting style. The infants who had received less responsive caregiving, their hippocampi were a bit bigger. This is really important, (she adds) since the hippocampus is related to learning!.” There are several unsubstantiated leaps in these claims. For one, measuring “parenting styles” has not been explained, and the use of the tool in a lab setting can be highly unreliable, I am trying to imagine myself in such a situation! Furthermore, self-reporting by adults has also known to be a shaky measure of caregiving. But after all that, to link these factors to the size of the hippocampus and go on to claim that babies who have less responsive parenting are more stressed and therefore have larger hippocampi and are therefore reluctant to explore than other babies are serious statements that are in our opinion, exaggerated or even false claims. First of all, the measures of Parenting Styles are unexplained, and they have been known to be unreliable when used with different cultural groups, secondly, making assumptions of impact based on a flimsy sample of 20 babies is hugely usceintific and unethical in our opinion. I cannot imagine how hurtful it would be for a mother to read the results of a study where her way of beinging up her child would emerge as resulting in changes in brain structure and subsequent learning. I wonder if the results of the study and its implications were shred with the 20 mothers. We also believe that neuroscince has become the latest fashion in making claims for the best way to learn or the best way to raise a child, precisely because it impresses people into believing that the claims are scientific. Despite strong crticisms from neuroscientists themselves, such trends have gone unchecked because there are so many consumers. In an article (Link below) Breur writes that: “When I received a telephone inquiry from a journalist about the report, she wanted to know what I would advise parents about choosing a preschool based on what neuroscience tells us about brain development. My answer was brief: ‘Based on neuroscience, absolutely nothing.'” As caregivers who are also consumers who want to do the best for our children, we must inform ourselves about overstated claims based flimsy evidence of neural activity and brain development. The human brain has a life-long capacity to learn, heal itself, and renew itself.
The Forbidden Experiment
We have a lot more to say about the episode on love, as well as the one on speech, especially the observations about bilingualism, but we fear that the essay is becoming too extensive. So here are just a few more points to note. As a former parent of young infants, I was disturbed by the delay that the eminent psychologist Ed Tronick, well known for his work on children in different parts of the world, imposed on a baby in the scene of the Still Face experiment that he is well-known for. One can see how uncomfortable the research assistant is as she reminds Tronick about the fact that the baby is distressed, and I too wanted him to stop. As soon as the mother eases up the baby bursts into tears of distress. It is a small reminder of the chilling outcomes of the fictional version of the legendary Prison Experiment: Das Experiment, a film that everyone interested in psychology must see since it depicts what uncontrolled manipulations of people can lead to. I am not implying that this is what Tronick intended with the Still Face Experiment, but where does one draw the line? Then there is the discussion of the Forbidden Experiment. You can read more about it here:https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_deprivation_experiments.
In the end, it is important to note that despite the fact that the documentary series has followed several protocols in making the episodes and consulted well-known scholars in the field, we have found that the implications of many of the statements in the series can have unfavourable impact if this is taken as scientific truth about childhood. We need to return to the field and watch real children as an antidote to the documentary. Until next time, watch the series for sure, but keep these points in mind when you’re facing the screen and develop your own list of evaluations, both favourable and otherwise, and we would love to hear from you. In case you wish to review another episode for us, we welcome your essay. For now, stay safe and well……….we will return next week with another essay on childhood and family life. Namaste’ from Masala Chai. We leave you with three videos of an ordinary interactions between family members as an oblique answer to some of the questions raised. Perhaps it will help us to see that beyond the reductions to hormones and brain activity, the mystery of a child’s engagement with other people will always remain an awe-inspiring experience.
- Thinking locally and acting globally: https://works.swarthmore.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=http://scholar.google.co.in/&httpsredir=1&article=1421&context=fac-psychology
- WEIRD subjects: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/behavioral-and-brain-sciences/article/weirdest-people-in-the-world/BF84F7517D56AFF7B7EB58411A554C17
- Conversation with Jill Tarter: https://onbeing.org/programs/jill-tarter-it-takes-a-cosmos-to-make-a-human/
- David Brooks: Was the Nuclear Family a Mistake: https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/03/the-nuclear-family-was-a-mistake/605536/
- Breur, Brain and behaviour: A bridge too far: https://www.jsmf.org/about/j/education_and_brain.pdf