Separation anxiety and the psychological health of schooled children

I always find something a little sad about September, not least because of the sight of all those children returning to school. I cannot help noticing that the little ones attending primary school seem really little these days. This is not just one of those things that happen as one grows older, like policemen looking younger; the age at which children start formal education genuinely has dropped over the years.

The legal situation in the United Kingdom is that children have to begin full-time education in the term after their fifth birthdays. Hardly any child is enrolled at school that late though. It has become a universal practice for children to be offered a place at school a year earlier than this. Subtle pressure is placed upon parents to accept these offers, because it is made plain that if they don't take the place now, it may not be available the following year. This is all of a piece with the official notion in this country that children are actually better off in institutional care than they are at home with their mothers and fathers. Socially caring governments announce proudly that every four year old shall be entitled to a school place, every three year old a nursery place and eventually all two year olds will be guaranteed the right to nursery or day care. I suppose the eventual aim is that the baby should be whisked away from the mother almost as soon as it is born and taken off to day-care. This is of course the situation in Sweden.

I have been re-reading some of John Bowlby's work lately. Bowlby of course developed Attachment Theory and invented the term' maternal deprivation'. Briefly, he suggested that a human baby, like other young animals, forms an attachment with one person for the first few years of life. This person is, for purely biological reasons, usually the mother. If the connection between the child and this attachment figure is broken or disrupted during the first five or six years of life, Bowlby found that there could be serious and irreversible consequences. These ranged from delinquency and depression through to reduced intelligence and increased aggression. In cases where the attachment figure is separated entirely from the child, as can happen in long hospital stays and children's homes, he found that the result could be the creation of an affectionless psychopath. He called the feelings of the child on being separated from his mother, 'separation anxiety'.

Now most of Bowlby's work back in the fifties and sixties was with children who had been removed entirely and permanently from their mothers for various reasons such as breakdown of the family and long term illness. He thought that any disruption of the maternal bond was a bad thing, but fifty years ago children remained at home with their mothers until after their fifth birthday and so he did not investigate the type of maternal deprivation with which we have become familiar today. It is always hazardous to postulate a cause and effect relationship for two events based simply upon the fact that one follows the other. There is the risk of falling into the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy of reasoning. Nevertheless, I cannot help but observe that the decreasing age at which small children are regularly separated from their mothers in this country has coincided almost precisely with an increase in rates of delinquency, depression, aggression, antisocial behaviour and various other negative behaviours in young people. If Bowlby was right, and most professionals today believe that he was, then taking a child from her mother regularly at the age of two or three is likely to cause psychological harm in many of them. The earlier this removal from the mother occurs, the more likely is the damage to the child.

Even if we do not subscribe to every detail of John Bowlby's ideas about maternal deprivation, there is a host of other good reasons for not sending two and three year-olds into full-time education and day-care. Small children learn essential skills not from other children but from adults. Skills like how to hold a conversation, for example. A child's cognitive skills are also best developed in the company of an adult and not other children. Thrusting a small child into a group of other children and depriving her of the loving one-to-one care of a parent strikes me on an instinctual level too as a shockingly bad idea!

The idea that a baby should go off to day-care, nursery and school almost as soon as it can breathe has become ingrained in the thinking of early years professionals in this country. While it is true that there are homes where the child is not receiving sufficient stimulation and care and would probably be better off spending the day elsewhere, there is no reason at all to suppose that such homes are particularly common. This wholesale removal of small children from their mothers and fathers on a regular basis and an increasingly young age strikes me as very bad idea for many reasons. I am aware that many home educating parents are fanatically opposed to anything which looks even remotely like formal testing and examination of their children, but I have a strong suspicion that any examination of the psychological health of adolescents who had not been removed from their families in this way might well show significant differences from those who had been hustled off to such institutions during their early childhood.