Saturday, 3 April 2010

On meaning well

I was very struck yesterday by a comment which somebody posted here:

'Because parents only want what is best for their child, there is never any reason to doubt their motives or doubt their judgment concerning their child's education or well-being.'

This is a fascinating thesis and I wonder how widespread this strange idea is generally among home educators? Let's look a little more closely at this and see what we can make of it.
I am very much inclined to agree with the first part of the statement, that parents only want what is best for their child. I don't know though to what extent , if any, this statement leads logically on to the idea that there can never be any reason to doubt parents judgement concerning their child's well-being. The idea is presumably that because parents want what is best for their children, they will as a matter of course provide it for them. This is a peculiar notion indeed. Using examples from parents whom I have both known and heard of, I want to explore this a little.

Perhaps I should begin with my own child. I certainly wanted what was best for her and to that end raised her as a vegetarian and didn't buy her sweets. This seemed quite sensible to me, but some other parents thought that it was both cruel and neglectful. Cruel, because children like sweets and I did not given them to my daughter and neglectful because many people believe that growing children require meat in order to become healthy and strong. I think that they were mistaken, but already my own idea of what was good for my child had caused others to view me askance. Now I want to think about friends of mine who were strict vegans. Their child really was a bit pale and unhealthy and I have a suspicion that the family diet had something to do with it. I confess I felt a little uneasy at times and believed that his parents were not really feeding him properly.

Now I want to mention a home educating family who we got to know through Education Otherwise. This family never ate any hot food; it was opposed to the mother's principles. The consequence was that her eight year old daughter had never had a hot meal. I honestly found this awful. The child was so shy that I never actually met her. She would always hide upstairs when visitors came and only call over the bannister to her mother.

Next up are some macrobiotic acquaintances, whose diet was very restricted and who periodically ate nothing but brown rice. Their child was kept to the same diet and it showed. She was always going down with coughs and colds and I am sure that she suffered from a vitamin deficiency. All the parents we have seen so far have certainly had their children's welfare at heart and only want what is best for them. In America there have been cases of macrobiotic parents whose children have become seriously ill because of their parents' crank diet. The parents, I am sure, loved their children and wanted what was best for them, but they were mistaken. I am afraid we do have reason to, 'doubt their judgment concerning their child's education or well-being' They were actually following a course of action which harmed their child.

Still on food, we come to a mother who thought that her children were eating too much junk food. She decided that it would be much healthier for her children to eat raw vegetables and a little porridge. She also worried that her children were eating too much and being greedy, so she would serve the food up in one bowl and all the children would have to take small portions from the same bowl. Because they were hungry, some of the kids took more than their fair share, while others got little and ended up losing weight. This mother too wanted what was best for her children, although perhaps she had a strange way of going about things. Her ideas were no different in principle from my vegetarianism or the friends who were macrobiotic fanatics. Her name was Angela Gordon and of course her daughter Khyra ultimately died as a result of the diet which her mother had imposed.

Sometimes, although parents are trying to do what they think is best for their children, their actions will actually be harmful. This is true of diet and it can be equally true of education. We cannot really judge simply by motives and intentions; it is very rare for a parent to set out to harm a child. In the case of somebody like Angela Gordon, we have to ask ourselves to what extent others should have respected her rights as a parent. When she specifically instructed the staff at her children's school that they were not to be allowed second helpings, should the staff have gone along with this? Would it have been right for the state to intervene? Should her 'rights' as a parent have been respected? Would it have been right for the state to make sure that my own daughter was allowed to eat meat? What if I had been giving her nothing but brown rice, would that have been sufficient for the state to take a hand?

The fact that a parent is genuinely trying to do her best for her child does not necessarily mean that her judgement is sound. Some parents hit their children, which I would never have done. Are they wrong? Should the state intervene? There are no clear cut and black and white answers to these questions. I thought that keeping my child out of school and in my company more than in the company of children her own age was a good idea. Others did not. The fact is that there are certainly cases when the state should interfere, but it is horribly difficult to say when this should be. Deciding this is a purely personal matter. However, my purely personal decision might very well be a wrong and ill judged one. This is why we need a little objective and impartial oversight from time to time of our actions as parents.


  1. 'Her ideas were no different in principle'.

    please read the sentencing remarks from the judge in the case , Simon. If you can bear it, read the entire judgement. This was a clear cut black and white case where no-one did the job they were supposed to do and currently have remit in law to do.

    “[It is] agreed that for approximately two weeks before Khyra’s death his schizophrenia did substantially impair his mental responsibility. He was unable to comprehend that Khyra was dying; his mental state significantly deteriorated; he became more brutal towards the children; his behaviour was strange; he was self neglecting; and had become totally preoccupied with decorating the house but was doing so in a completely disorganised manner due to his disorganised thinking. He believed that exorcising Khyra from the djinns was in her best interests and this belief was delusional.
    Prior to the final stage (meaning the last two weeks) there is evidence that he was able to think more clearly and plan his behaviour. He was aware that hitting the children and depriving them of food was an attempt to change their behaviour. He, therefore, had the cognitive capacity to appreciate the impact of his actions upon others. Prior to the final stage we agree it was unlikely that his schizophrenia impaired his mental responsibility.”
    In the light of the agreed medical evidence the prosecution took time to reassess the case against you, Abuhamza. It was right that they should do so and having done so they came to the conclusion that in the light of the agreed medical evidence there was no basis upon which they could invite the jury to convict you, Abuhamza, of murder and that a verdict of manslaughter was inevitable.“We are agreed that Miss Gordon developed clinical depression at or around the beginning of 2008, initially this was at a mild level but deteriorated over the coming months through moderate to severe depression. She was suffering from severe depression for approximately one month prior to Khyra’s death.
    … Junaid Abuhamza’s schizophrenic illness was a significant psycho social stressor which contributed significantly to Miss Gordon’s depressive illness during the three month period prior to Khyra’s death.The cruelty which these children suffered at your hands was horrific and made more so, I am sure in the eyes of many, because you Gordon were their mother. It is not right to say that these children suffered from neglect. Neglect is an inadequate and inappropriate description of the way they were treated. Rather, they were subjected to a domestic regime of punishments which was chilling in its harshness and cruelty – a regime introduced by you Abuhamza as it had its origins in your own upbringing but a regime to which you Gordon became a party.
    The punishments included making the children stand for periods in some form of “detention”; pouring cold water over a child and making that child stand in front of a cold fan or outside the house in the cold; beating them with a stick, marks from which were found on Khyra’s body at the post-mortem examination, some of which had been inflicted comparatively close to her death at a time when she must have been very weak.A further punishment and one which is central to this case was depriving the children of food. It was that deprivation of food, which must have extended over a period of months, which reduced Khyra to the skeletal condition in which we have seen her in the photographs and computer graphics and so compromised her immune system that she was unable to resist infection. It was infection resulting from malnutrition which led to the bronchopneumonia and septicaemia which were the immediate cause of her death. In real terms, however, she died of starvation in a house in which there was an abundance of food.

  2. The state should be the parent of last resort. When there is cause for concern they should step in and do something about it. A macrobiotic diet can be healthy if planned correctly (according to AMA Council on Foods and Nutrition anyway, I know little about it) much as any diet (but especially any diet that bans some foods), so choice of that particular diet by itself should not be cause for concern. If there are signs of ill health that might be diet related the same would apply to this family as for families following any other diet.

    I know a family whose daughter followed a vegan diet. Their doctor became interested and questioned the family because he had concerns about the adequacy of her diet. Once he realised that they had considered the pitfalls and had acted on them (the daughter took B12 supplements, for instance) he relaxed.

    There must be many children following a vegan diet who do not come to the attention of their doctor. Do you think that all families should have to produce dietary plans to ensure nutritional suitability? Should all families be visited and the children questioned to make sure they really are eating the planned diet and the parents have not just copied and pasted an example of a suitable diet from the internet? Should someone have checked that your daughter was getting enough iron from her vegetarian diet? Can I assume you would be in favour of a change in the law to enable these checks? I mean, a poor education can be corrected once you are an adult, the same cannot be said for some of the harm that can be caused to a growing child by a poor diet. You could have caused a heart murmur and delays in growth and development in your daughter if you hadn't ensured her diet contained enough iron, for instance. I can't see why would someone consider education neglect to be more important than dietary neglect.

    In Angela Gordon's case the evidence of harm was clear. It is patently not normal for a healthy child to drop from the 75th to 25th percentile in the weight charts and it's even more unusual for a child to lose weight as opposed to not gaining as much as other children of his height. Even overweight children are usually advised not to actually lose weight but to aim to slow their gain in weight so they drop percentiles as they grow taller. A doctor recognised this problem within Angela Gordon's family and did nothing about it. Teachers recognised the problem and alerted social workers to the problem several times but again, nothing was done.

  3. Simon wrote,
    "I thought that keeping my child out of school and in my company more than in the company of children her own age was a good idea. Others did not. The fact is that there are certainly cases when the state should interfere, but it is horribly difficult to say when this should be. Deciding this is a purely personal matter."

    You have a point. Social services appear to be using 'at risk of emotional neglect' as a reason to intervene more often. They have used this when parents attempt to HE a SEN child and the reason given is the child's lack of opportunity to socialise with their peers despite evidence to the contrary. Not much of a stretch from a child with SEN to your daughter if someone had raised concerns with social services about a child not going to school in your home. The issue of social exclusion and attempts to produce a cohesive society are already used in other countries to ban home education and this seems part of the same continuum. Do you really think you should have been stopped from home educating your daughter or that it would be appropriate for that to happen at some point in the future?

    Some social workers recognise the developing problem:

    "Another insidious development is the increasing use of the rhetoric of social exclusion to imply that people who are different and who do not share the dominant values should be made to conform because they are 'at risk' or 'socially excluded'. Recent government proposals to introduce greater regulation of home education is a good example of its efforts to extend the 'nanny state'. Social workers must take a stand against this authoritarian trend which puts the profession in a very bad light."

    The Urgent Need for Reform of Child Protection

    This retired social worker also recognises the 'increasing the size of the haystack' problem that has been discussed here. It already appears to be an problem and, should they ever be enacted, the current plans would only make it worse.

    "At the root of the problem is a government that has undermined child protection work by introducing the Common Assessment Framework which requires social workers to gather masses of information on children not at risk of harm. Social workers find it difficult to focus on those at greatest risk because they are overwhelmed with computer-based work for children in need."

  4. Yes, I have already read the judgement in this case Tania. It does not alter the fact that the business with food arose from the mother's worries about her own weight and attitude to food. Obviously, having a madman in the house didn't help, but the mother originally thought that getting the children to avoid junk food was a healthy thing. She also semed genuinely to want to educate them at home, at least to begin with. The point I am making is that she was wrong about her choices. Yesterday, somebody said of parents in general,

    ' there is never any reason to doubt their motives or doubt their judgment concerning their child's education or well-being.'

    Sometimes there is reason both to doubt the motives and judgement of parents conerning their children's education and well-being. This is true of both home educated children and also those at school.

  5. Well, I certainly agree with you about my doubts about the statement "there is never any reason to doubt their motives or doubt their judgment concerning their child's education or well-being" - as I discussed with a previous poster yesterday.

    Perhaps a relevant comparison would be vaccination - often discussed on the HE lists with a lot of passion. Now I shall come out here and say that I am ardently pro-vaccination for a number of reasons, the most pressing of which is the fact is the personal trauma I experienced when I nearly died in childhood as a result of complications of measles. I spent about 3 weeks on a ward of an "isolation hospital" in NW London, in the days when parents were only allowed to visit on Sunday afternoons for an hour. However I don't think it is just my personal feelings which have affected my judgement- my 1st degree in biochemistry so I understand how vaccinations work. I do have a lot of sympathy for those who feel that their childs autism is linked to vaccines although as a mother of an autistic child I know in our case my dd already exhibited odd behaviour and responses before her MMR, and that didn't change after it.

    In an ideal world, of course, I might wish that everyone else had their child vaccinated except me, since that would avoid the risks (low though they may be) but we would still have the benefit of everyone elses immunity.

    However do I wish that vaccination was compulsory in the UK? No, the perceived benefits aren't worth the loss of personal freedom. When it comes to health, we live in world where the NHS will be able to treat successfully the vast majority of the sick unvaccinated if it comes to it. I think the same sort of reasoning applies to the whole home ed legislation. Yes, new rules, may deter a few "non educating" home educators from continuing and the children concerned *may* get a better education in school; but they or other who end up never trying HE, may not. After we already know far more about failing schools, with much larger numbers of children involved; and yet we can't sort that out, so whilst I would want to see every home educator offering their child the best education, the loss of personal freedom and the probability of targeting the wrong people aren't worth the risks.

  6. Interesting point, Julie. Of course we could argue the same business about loss of personal freedom with seatbelts and crash helmets. If a child's illness involved only the parents then I suppose that it might just be acceptable to say that it was up to the parents, but illnesses usually involve a lot of resources from the health service. To what extent have we the right to adopt a strange and illogical course of action and then expect society to pay the bill at a later date?

  7. While I agree with much of what you say, Simon, the problem lies here,

    "This is why we need a little objective and impartial oversight from time to time of our actions as parents."

    It is difficult to find objective, impartial oversight that remains humane and flexible. Without being humane and flexible, the oversight can cause more problems than it solves.

    I think that, for most of us, the advice of those we love (extended family or friends, for example) is valuable because, though it cannot be characterised as objective or impartial, it is based upon a relationship of trust. Because people aren't machines, the most objective and impartial intervention isn't always the most effective.

  8. Simon wrote,
    "If a child's illness involved only the parents then I suppose that it might just be acceptable to say that it was up to the parents, but illnesses usually involve a lot of resources from the health service."

    So if the parents paid for private health care would you feel differently?

  9. Simon said "Of course we could argue the same business about loss of personal freedom with seatbelts and crash helmets."

    Yes, undoubtedly so; but these measures did become law. I can remember going to a meeting at which an advertisement bod talked about the success of the seatbelt campaign "clunk click, every trip" and whther the concept was transferable to other campaign messages. I can't remember a lot of the details, but I think that although some people resented the new law and opposed it, public opinion was won over by good scientific evidence as well as good campaigning. Presumably too the Govt of the day wasn't being faced with an election, and perhaps too the public at large were less fed up with the whole "nanny state" thing. Times are different now - we all trust politicians a lot less and there is certainly no Jimmy Saville figure to bolster Ed Ball's messages!

  10. "...Obviously, having a madman in the house didn't help..."

    Abuhamza showed symptoms of schizophrenia. There has been much speculation about the causes of this condition - whatever the cause, there's little doubt that it has physical origins and probably a genetic component. He had a traumatic childhood himself.

    This does not absolve him from responsibility, but to describe him as a 'madman', or 'evil person', which I believe you have done previously suggests a worryingly dismissive approach to mental illness. I strongly suspect that if appropriate support had been available for this household sooner, tragedy could have been averted.

  11. Yes, I'm, afraid that he was suffering from the sort of schizophrenia which was not diagnosed until he was actually in the dock charged with murder. This diagnosis was a last ditch effort by his legal team. I do not have a worryingly dismissive approach to mental illness; merely a dismissive approach to wicked men trying to wriggle out of a life sentence for murder.

  12. Whether he was mentally ill or not is a separate issue from whether or not he committed murder. As is any attempt by his legal team to reduce his sentence on grounds of poor mental health. He could quite possibly been showing signs of schizophrenia for years, undiagnosed and untreated.

    How would you define 'mad', Simon?

  13. Describing this dreadful person as a madman was being charitable about him, Suzyg. He lived his life as a petty criminal and heavy user of cannabis, got religion and behaved horribly towards a group of vulnerable children. As for how I would define madness, probably as a psychotic state, where one is unable to distinguish objective reality. I do not really think that this man was in such a state. I have to tell you that it took an awfully long time for the defence to track down a psychiatrist who would agree to testify to this. He was a particularly nasty piece of work and calling him a madman was an attempt to be as charitable as possible and concede that he might not have been fully responsible for his actions. I don't believe a word of it though.