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The Riot Within

It seems like the smoke is clearing and the dust is settling after a week of rioting on the streets of our UK cities.  Most of us have been shocked, outraged and even scared by these events, and there has been widespread condemnation of the perpetrators of the violence throughout the media, social media, and by politicians and other commentators.  Words have been used varying from 'criminals' to 'scum', and the public have been united with an almost wartime spirit into a heightened state of 'us and them': 'us', brooms held high, keeping calm and carrying on, 'them', thugs, hooligans, cretins, low-life, and mindless yobs.

This kind of polarised language makes those of us on the right side of the fence and the law feel good.  It is comforting to know that the badness, the nastiness, the violence, belongs 'out there', to somebody else. Why should we care about such people?  But let's pause for a second, and take an imaginative leap.  Each one of the rioters was once a newborn baby.  At some point in time they were a bundle of potential, a tiny person, just begun, life in its entirety stretching ahead.  They could have been doctors, poets, scientists or artists.  They could have changed the world, or at least, changed their world, for the better.  Most importantly, they could have been kind.

What has been so starkly missing in the scenes of looting and acts of aggression is the quality of empathy.  That ability to pause, and to think about the effect of our own behaviour on another, and then to moderate our actions accordingly.  But this quality is not innate, it is a learnt behaviour, and we learn it, not at school or from our nagging parents as teenagers, but as a small baby.  As a tiny baby, our emotions are often in chaos, as we struggle to respond to a world that can seem fascinating, frightening, exciting and overwhelming, all at once.  Our parents provide stability, and help us to calm this inner riot, slowly begin to develop ways of making sense of the world, and most importantly, learn how, as we grow up, to provide this emotional regulation for ourselves.  If a parent holds their baby, tunes into them, and responds consistently and lovingly to their distress, they learn two fundamentally important things: how to take care of and be kind to themselves, and how to take care of and be kind to others.

This is not my own personal view, nor is it new thinking.  It is over sixty years since John Bowlby developed the idea of 'attachment theory', the notion that our future emotional well-being is shaped by the way we are responded to in the very early years of life. Since then this 'theory' has become a widely accepted tenet of modern psychological thinking, and in the last decade or so, we have seen more and more evidence of it's validity as the rapidly advancing world of neuroscience is able to map the brain's development in more and more detail.  And yet whenever I hear a politician speak about the answers, not just to rioting, but to any number of social issues, I never ever hear them refer to the first years of life as having any bearing at all on either the problem or the possible solution.

As Sue Gerhardt writes in her latest book, The Selfish Society:

...this knowledge that it is our experiences, particularly our earliest experiences, which have the strongest influence on our values and relationships to others, has not yet become part of our culture...There are still too many people who think that behaviour towards babies has no impact because babies 'don't understand' or 'won't remember'.

Politicians give advice about any number of issues, in particular those that may benefit our physical or emotional health, and of course in the long run also save tax payers money.  About a year ago, I saw a poster in my local doctors with the slogan, 'Back to Sleep - Tummy to Play'.  There is concern for those babies who are being held so little that they are developing flat heads, and 'Tummy Time' is seen to be a solution for this.  But for a very small baby, this slogan ignores their great need, not to be placed on the floor face down, but to be held, talked to, responded to, tuned in to, and mirrored.  This kind of interaction is absolutely invaluable, helping to keep a baby's emotional riot under control, to feel soothed, to feel loved, and to develop empathy.  A baby who is not responded to becomes an adult who still has this emotional chaos inside, and who does not have the tools to deal with it, and so they over-eat, or drink, or take drugs, or act it out in the real world with an anger and aggression that they cannot contain.

Until the fundamental importance of the first years of life is acknowledged by policy makers, and people are given help and support to parent in ways that develop empathy, attachment and kindness, I fear we will continue to see the symptoms of people's un-met childhood needs and deep anger and sadness manifest themselves in various ways in our society.  Meanwhile those of us who are struggling with the exhausting and frustrating task of looking after small children must try to remember the great impact we are having; with each, 'little, nameless, unremembered act of kindness and of love', we are helping to build an empathic adult.  As Ghandi said, 'Be the change you want to see in the world'.



  1. V interesting stuff. I especially liked the observation about 'tummy time'. I think so much is lost by prescriptive but ultimately unsupported parenting. I realized you weren't on my blog roll. You are now!

  2. Great insight into the importance of the early years. I also think in this country we have an endemic problem with poor attitude towards children in general. There are few places where children, even babies, feel truly welcome, and it only gets worse as they get older. Almost anywhere in the US shops, restaurants, and public spaces welcome children, which is probably why NPR sounds so bemused by our "youth problem". I think any group of people that feels victimized will eventually become apathetic, self destructive, or aggressive in the face of their oppressors. We're seeing the result of at least a decade of bad attitudes towards young people.


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