THE SELFISH SOCIETY: AN EXCLUSIVE NEW INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR
Sue Gerhardt author of a new book: The Selfish Society, can you provide readers with a brief biography?
I grew up in a materially comfortable but emotionally insecure family – the eldest of 3 children. We had “au pairs” to look after us, and private schools, but didn’t see much of our parents. I went to Cambridge University, where I studied English Literature, and became involved in the Women’s Movement of the early 1970s. After exploring various other lines of work such as community work, and film-making, I trained as a psychotherapist and studied early child development.
What are you currently doing?
My daily working life for the last 17 years has been mostly practising psychotherapy with private clients, as well as working with parents and babies in the charity I founded, OXPIP.
Two new projects are exciting me at the moment. One is being part of a new discussion group which is thinking about politics from a psychological point of view. This is really carrying on the work that I started to do in The Selfish Society.
The other is developing a film about the importance of babyhood, which has yet to take shape.
Your first book Why Love Matters detailed the science of ‘love’ on early childhood development, particularly neural development – can you explain in a few sentences why it is so important for all children, but especially infants 0-3, to be provided with emotionally solvent caregivers?
These early years play a central role in our emotional lives. This is when young children learn basic lessons from the people who look after them – first and foremost, lessons in how to manage their emotions and how to relate to others. They pick this up unconsciously from the way that caregivers behave with them. When the caregiver listens carefully to the child, the child learns how to take turns, and to listen to others. When the caregiver responds quickly to a child’s distress, the child learns to be soothed and in turn, to soothe himself.
Caregivers can’t help passing on their own level of emotional literacy. Without realising it, caregivers convey to children what emotions they feel are acceptable, and what emotions have to be hidden. A caregiver who is comfortable with her own feelings, is much more likely to be able to notice all the child’s feelings and help put them into words. This makes the child feel “seen” and understood. He or she develops confidence in sharing feelings with other people, and correcting any misunderstandings that arise. The child grows up with an optimistic outlook, expecting that other people will give support when it’s needed (and able to give it, too).
All of these experiences have a big impact on the actual structures of the brain, as well. They lay down the neural pathways that guide our emotional behaviour, and affect our physiological reactions to stress and challenge, often for a lifetime.
When a mother has to work outside of the home for long periods of time during the day, what advice can you offer in regard to choosing/hiring a Nanny?
I would get the mother to imagine herself as a distressed 2 year old, and ask whether she could see herself wanting to climb on this person’s lap and cuddle up. Alternatively, does she feel that this Nanny has the warmth and sensitivity that would make her feel comforted if she herself was upset?
I would also be looking for a Nanny who was intelligent and insightful- who might respond thoughtfully to my questions – not someone who would just react without thinking.
What deficit do you see occurring today within childcare whether parent-child or caregiver-child?
I suppose the biggest deficit is one of time. A child’s sense of self is really strengthened by having lots of individual time and attention in those early years.
Your latest book The Selfish Society appears to be driven towards modern consumerism. What is your central point/argument?
One of the points is that we tend to use material security as a substitute for emotional security. (Of course, we need both). In the 1940s, when children with tuberculosis (TB) had to spend months in hospital with only weekly visits from their parents, they were upset and distressed without them. Gradually, they adapted, getting more withdrawn. After many weeks of being deprived of their parents’ loving care, they started to treat their parents with indifference, and when their parents visited, ran straight to the mother’s handbag looking for the chocolate she had brought- barely giving her a glance. I think that our culture creates insecure relationships and leads many of us to think that “stuff” is a more predictable way to feel good than relying on people.
How and/or when did we become ‘selfish’ ?
We’re all capable of selfishness, and of altruism. The point though is that when society itself is organised to promote selfishness we’re in trouble.
I think we have a culture which is overly focused on materialism, where each individual tries to earn as much as possible by working long hours and striving to achieve. This doesn’t leave much time for relationships with partners or children, and doesn’t make us very open to caring for other people in general. As a result, there’s a high level of emotional insecurity and mental health problems are rife.
Briefly – can you outline why this book is so important for parents and Nannies to read?
Modern science over the last few decades has given us a whole load of new information about our psychological development. Everyone needs to understand its findings, but especially people who are raising the next generation. Warmth, sensitivity, responsiveness, consistency, kindness and understanding…are not just “nice” qualities, they are what children need from adults to grow into emotionally literate, competent human beings.