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Burman - Beyond the Baby and the Bathwater: Postdualistic Developmental Psychologies for Diverse Childhoods

Beyond the Baby and the Bathwater:
Postdualistic Developmental Psychologies for Diverse Childhoods1


by Erica Burman

The Manchester Metropolitan University, England

There is a well-known English saying: ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’, which invokes a metaphorical warning, as in: ‘don’t let’s throw the baby out with the bathwater’. In my talk today I want to subject this warning and its problematic to some scrutiny. I want to linger over it, and ponder its forms and relations. Perhaps you will think I am labouring or overinterpreting an innocent phrase. But - as those of us involved with childcare and education are surely only too well aware - practices of labour and interpretation are always implicated within particular gender, class, historical, geographical and cultural relations, and (therefore) are never innocent.  Similarly, word play is no more a frivolous activity for adults as it is for children; it is rather central to the struggle for the elaboration of more adequate tools of thought.  


        I want to offer two reasons for framing my discussion around what I will call ‘the baby and the bathwater’ paradigm. Firstly the fact that this is an English phrase - albeit with broad circulation - precisely expresses its difficulty. For we know that language creates and governs the horizons of what we can envisage. Language is a key expression of cultural practice, and I want to argue that the apparently general accounts developmental psychological theories offer are not so at all. Rather they are deeply culturally-embedded records of a particular times and places. Or, more specifically, they are records of a dominant culture, but one which has acquired such prevalence and predominance as to have become invisible, or presumed. This is where the agenda of attending to complexity, diversity and multiplicity that brings us here has arisen: to counter the globalisation of one, specific model of children’s development.  


          Secondly, it is (I think) significant that this saying has been applied somewhat unreflexively to discussions of developmental psychology. Perhaps some of you here also recall discussions that took the form ‘but rejecting Piaget wholesale is throwing the baby out with the bathwater’, or more controversially perhaps ‘to say that inheritance does not play a role in intelligence is like...’, or more recently ‘legislating against waged work for children is like...’. As is the way with many words and phrases, there has been an erosion of meaning that obscures the guiding framework, a linguistic drift towards weaker application of the metaphor.

Indeed those of you who recognise such subscription to ‘the baby/bathwater’ trope as an exemplar of an argument based around a false opposition will already anticipate my discussion here. I want to resist this dynamic of abstraction (from ‘babies’ to ‘baby’) and of metaphorisation (to say that ‘it’s only a manner of speaking, just words’). I want to suggest that doing this, taking our incidental assumptions seriously, is relevant to the broader project of resisting the abstraction and globalisation of (western1) models of development. Instead of the focus remaining on the terms identified (‘the baby’, ‘the bathwater’), we should rather invite an equivalent attention onto why these were identified as the key players in this relation, and indeed whether this is the appropriate way of conceiving of the action taking place. I want to propose that attending to the unacknowledged cultural connotations and legacies structured within the problematic of ‘the baby and the bathwater’ in fact represents - homologically rather than only metaphorically - some of the key broader challenges posed to all of us concerned with elaborating more adequate and culturally-located accounts of the contexts and processes of children’s development.  

The baby and the bathwater as the dualist paradigm

Let me begin by reminding ourselves of what ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’ is generally understood to mean, in terms of how it functions in conversa­tion or argument. Let us initially note something obvious (for often what is obvious is precisely what needs commenting on as exhibiting unspoken cultural assumptions that can be oppressive in their presumptions): it is typically invoked when motivating for a sense that something good or worthwhile is about to be rejected, or jettisoned, along with unwanted debris - whether literal or conceptual. There is a sense of a danger of overpurging, of over-evacuating, of expelling or getting rid of the object of your interest, concern or intervention in the act of being too vigorous, or zealous. After all, as the image invites us to imagine, if we found someone emptying a bathtub with the baby still in it we’d be justifiably worried for that child’s safety. Wouldn’t we?

1. Fictional fantasies of childhood

But here we see we have already entered the world of the image - for surely talk of the baby and the bathwater conjures up images - of what? Is it just me, or do other people see a Disney technicolour cosy fireside scene of a mother washing her child in a tin tub, of tender bodily care, of intimacy and play. All lit up by the nostalgia and sentiment of times that never were. Of course we know that the mother/child dyad is a recent post-world war two fiction of western societies, and that ‘the mother’ as full-time carer of her child was, and is, never as widespread as has been assumed to be the case - in terms of class, cultural, historical and geographical distributions. Moreover, we also know that - contrary to its typical representation within child development texts - the mother/child paradigm is woefully inaccurate. The reduction of the idealised hetero­sexual ‘parental’ couple to the ‘mother/child’ couple performs a number of significant ideological moves. It shifts the onus of responsibility for childcare, welfare and development onto mothers, with legal, policy and practice effects we now expend significant amounts of time and money trying to counter - especially in terms of women’s mental health (Marshall, 2000). Further, the prototypical male baby cradled in his mother’s arms essentialises traditional gender relations (whereby women care, and men are cared for, or serviced) and, in its normalisation of the heteroerotic character of intimate physical caring between parents and their small children (which after all forms the basis of all available accounts of how we come to form adult intimate relations), it marginalises homoerotic desire.

We may know all this yet somehow, as soon as we enter the world of developmental psychological theory, we seem to shed our knowledge that each child usually grows up in a family with other children, and indeed that the family itself maybe joint, or locationally distributed - whether via joint households or children living across households (as in joint custodial or extended family contexts). The innocent trope of the baby and the bathwater’ fills our minds, despite the fact that in practice not only might there be more than one ‘baby’ in the bathtub, but the bathers, i.e. those who wash the babies, might vary too (and very likely will include some children of the same generation of the baby being bathed - older sisters in particular. Indeed (you are probably already thinking) surely the very notion of an enclosed space in which bathwater accumulates speaks of a specific set of cultural-religious practices; for many children bathe and are bathed in running water, and by this I don’t mean only steam showers in chrome-tapped and tiled bathrooms.

We could carry on touching up this rose-tinted image - of soap suds, sponges, child-centred toys in the bath tub. After all, bathtimes are hailed by developmental psychologists and parent trainers as important times for interaction, relationship-building, language development, eye-hand co-ordination and the like. But do we really know how much these recommendations are framed by the cultural assumptions arising from the material and ideological contexts of their formulation?

  2     ...  and their oppressions  

And so we arrive at some of the ideological residues of this formulation. We have a conceptual domain with: firstly, a singular subject: the baby, or the child; and, secondly, the bathwater portrayed as the child’s context; the ‘other’ of the baby; what it is not. Two presumed separate entities, with no other parties explicitly specified (although we will move on soon to consider what this might mean). Similarly, modern developmental psychological models have typically worked from individualist assumptions: of what the (presumed separate, individual) baby does, and does next. Development is typically portrayed as an isolated activity, as an epic odyssey or journey, a trajectory that seems to speak of the specific child, but is in fact a methodological abstraction, a statistical fictional ‘individual’ synthesised through analysis of multiple patterns of populations in the course of which she has been stripped of all that tied her to her time, place and position (Burman, l994a; Rose, 1985), but which retains traces of a very particular set of cultural values.

Not only does this elaborate a fiction, mythical norm - mythical because no one ‘fits’ it; but the quasi-scientific status of this norm - as ‘fact’- facilitates a slippage from description to prescription such that the very contingent conditions - and contestable assumptions - which gave rise to this norm become rendered invisible and thus accorded ‘natural’ status. Whether milestones, gender types, reading ages, cognitive strategies, stages or skills (and the toys and consumer products these inspire), they become enshrined within an apparatus of collective measurement and evaluation that constructs its own world of abstract autonomous babies; of norms, deviation from which are typically only acknowledged in the form of deficit or ‘problem’. 

3.     Struggling to mind the gap

All this is probably only too familiar to you. Indeed the Vygotskian notion of zones of proximal development (e.g. Cole and Cole, 1989; Newman and Holzman, 1995, among others) and the recent emphasis on language as the site for the construction and negotiation of intersubjective meanings arise precisely to counter such individualist legacies. The British psychoanalyst Winnicott, that creator of the phrase the ‘good enough mother’ has sometimes (probably unfairly) been blamed along with Bowlby for the closure of the wartime daycare facilities that freed up British women to do low paid factory work and so contribute to the war effort (see Riley, 1983). But Winnicott is also credited with the saying ‘there is no such thing as a baby’ (meaning that we can only see the complex of relationships) (Phillips, 1988).  This is strikingly resonant of more contemporary discussions of how ‘the individual’ arises as a constructive effect of temporally and historically particular relationships (Newson and Shatter, 1974; Parker, 1998a).

Yet the fact that discourses of ‘maternal deprivation’ (and maternal responsibility) exercise such power on our minds is not only due to one or two theorists - or even the apparatus of developmental psychology. For the model of the child as problem solver, constructing and manipulating mental logical-mathematical schemes that then mediate ‘his’ engagement with the world expresses a modern western view of the individual that dates from the time of the seventeenth century French mathematician and philosopher, Descartes, with his famous formulation ‘I think therefore I am’.

In privileging thought over action and interaction, and positing thinking as an individual mental act that precedes action and relationships, we see effected within western European, and in particular Anglo-US, culture the dualism that the ‘baby and the bathwater’ paradigm expresses: once severed, we psychologists and educators are then faced with the task of trying to heal the rifts between nature and culture, between the individual and the social that are created by our cultural-political heritage - although through globalisation this is now a much more extensively subscribed to approach (so rendering inadequate any simple polarisation between minority and majority approaches to early education and schooling). And, significantly, the gender, class and cultural relations - that privilege male over female, white over black, heterosexual over homosexual, middle over working class - are deeply implicated within the technological and colonial development of nineteenth century Europe. Cultural analysts and philosophers have pointed out that one conceptual condition for all of this was the fixing of all these categories via the notion of ‘identity’ (cf Henriques et al, 1994). And here maybe we have some clues about how to move forward.

4.     Situating the struggle

So our psychological and educational interventions therefore do not enter a politically neutral space but are always already saturated with cultural assumptions. Once this subject of development is depicted as alone or singular within the task of development, then other features follow. Issues of culture and gender disappear within the generalised framework; for the singular child - once abstracted from context - comes to lack such markers, but becomes ‘pure’ potential, development in action (and so we have all these models, stages and phases, from Gesell to Piaget and beyond). But to use another metaphor, what is on offer becomes a standardised recipe that can never be cooked, or can never be recognised as being ‘done’, since the ingredients always have more qualification and specification than as defined by the instructions. Herein lies the paradox of a general framework such as that of the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. For irrespective of its laudable aims, its principles still require translation or interpretation into specific cultural practices, and therefore offers scope for the maintenance of some of the same sets of abuses it was formulated to eradicate (Burman, 1996).

        Of course culture and gender never disappear; the fact that they seem to is a classic vanishing trick of the dominant culture that normalises what is presumed; and only renders visible that which is abnormal, unusual, inadequate or deficient. Thus the child of developmental psychology is -  culturally-speaking - a boy; the problem-solver or mini scientist (as Piaget, 1957, liked to see ‘him’); while the state of childhood from which ‘he’ develops is feminised. Here we can note the classic colonial/industrialising frameworks in action - that portray women, children and so-called primitives as inferior, less developed and ranked on lower rungs of the ladder of evolutionary development. The feminisation of childhood is part and parcel of the same dynamics that feminise and infantilise majority peoples (or the so-called Third World), and produce the elision between women and children that make it so difficult to think of their interests as separable (and so make it difficult to engage in progressive alliances between the two movements). Thus allocated to women and all so associated is a position of passivity, inferiority and deficit (Burman, 1995a).

        But let us pause to ask: Why? If we know all these problems only too well why do these impoverished formulations and representations continue to populate our imaginations? Why are we saddled with this seeming unshiftable apparatus? One significant answer is that it is much simpler to govern a standardised subject: simpler to formulate policy for, provide for, assess, evaluate such a subject - but this is an administrative rationale that masks deeper issues. But a further reason is that we underestimate the extensive character of what drives it. For ‘it’, the apparatus of developmental psychology with its generalised unit of development, the child, implies and reflects an abstracted unified state that addresses and constitutes its subjects; a state that presupposes and covertly maintains national boundaries of cultural homogeneity. Herewith lies Fortress Europe and its constitution of its ‘others’, and the corresponding problems of elaborating a genuine multiculturalism.  

        Such are the ideological and politico-economic conditions that gave rise to modern developmental psychology (Burman, 1994a). The ‘baby and the bathwater’ expresses in microcosm the broader narratives of modern industrialisation, at a moment of national and increasingly transnational, economic development. Its privileging of abstract rationality and technological knowledge is deeply structured by all the key binary oppositions that compose western/minority culture; male/ female, white/black, self/other, culture/nature, reason/emotion (Walkerdine,1988).  

5.            Covert subjects of late modernity  

We could perhaps say that children - as the starting point or supposedly raw material for social development -are the victims of the asocial model of modernity’s bourgeois individual. For as the prototypical subjects of modernity - of the modern project of social improvement -- it has been the fate of children to be talked of as though gender, culture and sexuality are additional qualities to be grafted onto some apparently prior or pregiven ‘child’ . Thus the specialness accorded children seems to be at the expense of being apart from the very social structures concerned with protecting or promoting them. Moreover, as we have seen, the singular status of ‘the child’ confirms her or his position outside communities.  Outside, that is, not only cultural communities but also communities of other children - whether siblings who form significant, if not primary, caregivers for many of the world’s children, or political communities of other children.  Here we might recall the analyses made by Hoyles (1989), Hendrick (1990) and others of how ‘the child’ of developmental psychology and educational practices emerged at a political moment within industrialising societies when children and young people were becoming economically active, increasingly organised and therefore challenging - as are working children across the world today (Liebel, 2000; Gulrajni, 2000).  

        A significant conceptual link here is that the only mode of relation between these enclosed, pregiven individuals turns out to be precisely the sort of exchange relation celebrated by bourgeois liberalism, that flattens out power relations in favour of market ‘choice’, while the discourse of skills foreshadows the role of the worker in the industrialising economy (Harris, 1987).  

        Further, children are generally treated as a unitary category unless marked explicitly by gender (giving rise to the new international development category, ‘the girlchild’, who emerges as both not quite child and not only woman, see Burman 1995c). But despite this, the qualities accorded children remain allocated according to conventional gender stereotypes, with practical correlates; so that along with the cultural masculinity associated with the active, playing, problem-solving and singular of developmental subject (who is also often portrayed as a little boy, Broughton, 1988), it is also worth remembering that across the world it is boys who manage to access the efforts towards universal primary education better than girls).

6.          Functionalist approaches breed the romance of the child

It is a paradox that, despite the manifest failure of the project of modernity (with its an associated lexicon of progress, liberation and leisure through technological assistance, and ‘bigger is better’ philosophy), developmental discourse seems to be the place of where these hopes persist. Onto the child we heap the thwarted longings of decaying societies and try to figure something better. It’s a hard burden for children to carry. Surely they should be their own future; not ours.

        Moreover -as with orientalism (cf Said, 1978) - there is a seductive lure around such places and peoples identified as feminised/infantilised. For if the trajectory of individual and social development is a heroic masculine story of technological progress, then the costs and struggles this involves produces nostalgic desires for individual and collective pasts and unrequited longings (Burman, 1994b). Hence the trope of the child, and specifically the little girl, arose as the representation of the inner self. As the Its historian of childhood Carolyn Steedman notes  

"The idea of the child was used both to recall and to express the past that each individual life contained: what was turned inside in the course of individual development was that which was also latent: the child was the story waiting to be told.”(pl0-ll, emphasis original)

The romance of the other is rendered docile and diminutive in the form of the little girl (who is positioned as in need of protection, or even covertly of seduction?, see also Stainton Rogers & Stainton Rogers, 1994). This romance is written into models of psychological development as an origin story, with development marking distance from a thereby inferior, devalued but also fascinating, place. The child was the figure that provided the largest number of people living in the recent past of Western societies with the means for thinking about and creating a self: something grasped and understood: a shape, moving in the body... something inside, an interiority. (Steedman, 1995: p20)

Post-dualism and contextualising developments

We have now reached the ‘so what?’ point. The point where the critique of ‘what’s wrong so far’ stops, and the question of ‘so what happens next?’ is asked. What indeed does it mean to ‘go beyond’ the baby and the bathwater - or (in the manner of performative approaches currently circulating elsewhere in social theory, Butler, 1993) to ‘do’ postdualism?  It would scarcely be in keeping with the kind of critique of total or grand theories that underlies my account so far to now wheel out my own variety (and so highlight the capitalist subtext to possessive individualism of ‘now buy my new improved version’).  All I can offer right now is a set of intellectual and political preoccupations that I would hope could facilitate the emergence of useful and challenging work.  I will group these within the thematics of ‘Contextualising Development’ and ‘Decentring the Developmental Story’.  

As I see it, there are four related features within a process of contextualising development. These concern making alliances rather than maintaining prevailing oppositions that structure policy and academic debates.

1.         Subverting developmental reduction isms

Firstly, we can use the links between different kinds of ‘developments’, in particular those between economic and developmental psychological development, rather than (only) trying to shed or purge them away.  It is important to ward off the traditional dynamic of reduction between social and individual that has invested ‘the child’ and her surrounding contexts with stakes beyond their/her own development and welfare, and it is so important to highlight the oppressive consequences of attempts to fulfill broader economic and political agendas via child, school and family interventions. But fortunately we are not alone in these kinds of struggles, and we can find allies and helpful ideas within parallel struggles, in particular within development studies. Such a project of subverting the convergence between economic and psychological developmentalists effectively turns the tables, so that together the two disciplines of regulation and control - both wedded via a misguided ideological interplay of individual, regional and national development - can brush history against the grain (see e.g. Sachs’, 1992, collection which does for the category of international development what is needed for our models of individual development). Moving from critique and conceptual framework levelled at one discipline to the other, facilitates not only an unravelling of each discipline but indicates areas of divergent as well as common concern that ultimately unhooks the invideous reductionisms. As Crewe and Harrison (1998) in their book entitled Whose Development? suggest (of international development interventions):    

“The ‘deconstructors’ of development have argued that a tendency for oversystematised and simplifying models misinterprets and misconstrues the nature of social action and, relatedly, that the diverse motivations and perspectives of different actors in the development process are overlooked.  They rightly assert that more sensitive translation and interpretation will not resolve these divergences.  These critics also observe that developers are predisposed to find a uniformity and predictability within the communities with which they work that does not exist in reality.”  

These comments apply as certainly to the problem within current models of developmental psychology as they do to world economic development -  in terms of how the general models obscure the complexity of practices and contexts in which children live and develop, and mask the structurally diverse character of the economic, cultural and interpersonal relationships that produce these varied developments. They go on to point out  

Furthermore there is an implied compatibility, or even confluence, of interests between different people that should be explored rather than merely taken for granted. These more radical theorists see development itself as a Western-generated idea that has served to perpetuate relations of subordination in its creation of the ‘Third World’ and its underdeveloped ‘other’. (Crewe & Harrison,1998. p16)

This question of compatibility vs divergence of interests is an important one, since in work with or around children we are always too ready either to assume the passivity of those rendered as objects of the psychological gaze, or else to identify their agency as pathology or deficit. This is because we overstate the extension and remit of the discourse of development we subscribe to.  

2.         Transcending child vs women’s centred accounts  

Secondly the opposition between the baby/bathwater or the (putatively male) individual child and the (thereby feminised) environment maps onto the historical tensions between child-centred vs woman-centred accounts.  We need to move beyond the oppositions between women’s and children’s interests to address the inter-relationships as well as tensions between gender and childhood, both in terms of the practical gender relations of childcare and education, employment and even architectural practices therein, and within our conceptualisations of gender and subjectivity as engendered within children. Historically much of women’s oppression has been in relation to the presumptions around children (having them, looking after them, being responsible for what they become in later life etc. etc.). Correlatively some child rights theorists and practitioners have tended to isolate themselves from the enormously fruitful feminist discussions of the covert and far-reaching scale of gendered assumptions within our frameworks as well as our particular practices.  

        While it is important to maintain the independence of the interests of women and children, it is also practically and conceptually necessary to recognise their interrelations: for boys and girls become men and women; and in general it is women who care for and teach children. Somewhere, somehow, the arguments elaborated separately about women’s and children’s interests/rights have to meet up (apart from having separate Conventions - see my discussion in Burman, 1995a,b); and where they d0 -  as in say Valerie Walkerdine’ and others’ work on the relationships between class, pedagogy, and mothers and daughter’s relationships to psychology and education (Walkerdine, 1990; Walkerdine and Lucey, 1989; Walkerdine and the Girls and Mathematics Unit, 1990) -   they offer startling insights on both. We have a lot further to go in working this out.

3.         Beyond cultural chauvinism and cultural relativism

Thirdly, discussions of ‘going beyond’ prevailing oppositions structured by modernist legacies often get caught between a new version that seems to paralyse further work. Clearly it has been important to point out the ethnocentrism and colonial heritage of psychological models, and how extension and remit of western-based (minority world) models have been exaggerated.  But the alternative to the cultural chauvinism of previous grand theory seems to be a cultural pluralism/relativism that seems to disallow judgement and ushers in a kind of moral nihilism that reflects the worst aspects of liberal tolerance: a tolerance that ultimately -  in the name of cultural respect or difference - can become one of ‘I don’t care, you can do what you like’ disinterest and that ignores actual power relations governing the liberal so-called ‘free’ (but not free at all) marketplace of ideas and practices. But are we really caught between being paternalistic and colonialist if we think that child exploitation is wrong? Or if we feel committed to supporting a particular kind of educational intervention?

I don’t think so. Becoming trapped in this position arises from a misunderstanding of the critiques of universalist approaches. The problem with these was not only that they proposed general schemes that transcended specific contexts; but that they eshewed acknowledgement of the specific contexts that structured their - thereby rendered covert - ideological assumptions. Surely all of us in the child care, welfare and education professions are only too aware of the tensions between ‘speaking for’, and ‘speaking as’, specifically as they arise in relation to the representation of interests of a constituency such as children or young people who have historically been offered little opportunity to participate in decision or policy-making. As adults in positions of relative power, we have responsibilities to explicate (rather than eschew) our commitments; and we also have power to negotiate and consult with, and to provide opportunities for those for whom we speak to make their views known.

4.         From agents to actors/relationships

Fourthly, we need to draw on the critiques of dualism and take them forward in terms of envisaging forms of subjectivity and activity that do not privilege or rely upon abstracted agentic subjects. For these ways of thinking about individuals and identities are the residues of the developmental models whose persistence could inadvertently reproduce the inadequate and exclusionary premises from the old models, and so limit our future work. Instead we can engage in some cultural and disciplinary tourism and experiment with ideas from outside western psychology and education. This is not because the geographical/cultural periphery of the West has any privileged access to authentic truth, but because sometimes surprising and interesting effects result from such border crossings. Whether we draw on actor network theory, complexity theory, macro-ecology, Gibsonian affordances, the activity theory of Volosinov, African or Asian-centred or other non-Western European indigenous frameworks, we need tools to help us think about development in less individualistic ways, beyond culturally dominant centres, and to help us to be alert to contextual relations, connections, embeddedness, and rootedness of our social categories.

In particular I don’t want to be heard as simply calling for the jettisoning of the notion of the individual. As feminists and child rights activists have rightly pointed out (Jackson, 1993), it would be ironic indeed if we dispensed with the notion of the individual as reactionary cultural baggage just at the very moment that women and children were beginning to acquire some hard-won rights thereby. Rather what I am suggesting is that we should recognise the tactical character of our engagement with the discourse of individualism via rights approaches and work alongside this towards formulating more genuinely interpersonal and intersubjective approaches to development and education.

De-centring the developmental story

I want to call for a de-centring of the traditional developmental story that is enshrined in the baby/bathwater paradigm, in two directions. We need, firstly, to move away from the prototypical child as the developmental subject or the unit of development and talk instead of diverse children and childhoods. But the second direction is the correlate of first. For we also need to move away from the traditional abstracted storytellers of development (i.e. us), and as researchers, policy makers and educators - those who work with, for, and around children - begin to address what our positions and locations might mean for how we interpret and engage with these issues.

        Since I am sure the first issue is not controversial here, and better people than me are speaking to it, let me focus a little on what the second point might involve. For I do not want suggest this is a reflexive matter of sorting out our own personal childhood histories. Relevant though this may be to child-saving and working (Burman, 1999), this involves more than therapeutic personal reconstruction2. In my remaining time I want to suggest that we should engage in four sets of contests and refusals of dominant presumptions surrounding children, in order to move towards four aims.


Firstly, we need to be contesting the forms of emotionality around children. While images of children tug at the heart strings (and sometimes open the purse strings), the indulgence surrounding children is a form of paternalism that disempowers them. Sentimentality mixes pity and sadism (Winnicott, 1958), as children’s aid and welfare organisations are now acknowledging and working with (Save the Children, 1995).  Maybe we cannot avoid approaching our dealings with children through the lens of the childhoods we did, and did not, have or perhaps would have wanted. But this baggage belongs to a First, or majority world subject. Compassion and curiosity evoke different identificatory relations. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves and others who work with children to approach them in the same ways that we want them to approach us - as a good perspective-taking or modelling exercise! (see also Rahnema,1997).

        Secondly we need to contest childhood as a domain of normative regulation. We know that not only are children regulated and measured, surveyed and evaluated, in relation to fictitious norms elaborated by our models and associated practices, but also that the judgments we (often unfairly) arrive at have consequences for the ways we see families and cultures. It may seem far-fetched to claim a link between the prototypical child of developmental psychology and the emergence of the nineteenth century nation-state, with particular roles and oppressive expectations elaborated for the carers (usually women). But contemporary feminist theory is now highlighting the role of national identities as implicated in the elaboration of cultural and gendered identities. Women’s accorded positions within cultural as well as biological reproduction (Yuval-Davis, 1998) highlight how children form the node or pivot around which other key structural relationships are performed.

Thirdly, we need to contest and attend to the metaphorics of childhood. Here the contest or challenge is, not to expunge, but to interrogate the origins and consequences of these metaphors. How we see children - children as our future; children as our (individual or collective) past; children as good, innocent and sacred; or children as beastly and uncivilised - these are all key cultural resources that inform our frame­works for what development is considered to be, to be for, its starting points and its goals. This tells us about ourselves, about what we are supposed to be - in ways that normalise who ‘we’ are. It is worth reminding ourselves that one of the reasons why we might be either unduly indulgent, or alternatively punitive, towards children is because our own hold on received versions of maturity and competence is so fragile - thus expressing our own insecurities through our identification or repudiation of identification with children. Moreover we should also address how metaphorics of childhood are used to frame putative (political) subjectivities; whether our own in being mobilised to help or rescue; or children’s own in being enjoined to fulfill our, rather than their own, expectations. The motif of the child can function as a superegoic injunction telling us (and them) what to do (as in ‘The planet is our future. It has to be protected’, portrayed as expressed by a (white boy) child to us. But this blends fantasies of our responsibilities for ourselves and our children with children’s own wants and desires, and thus invites not only an assimilation of children’s interests into national, international and ecological concerns, but perhaps it also generates an irrational anger for the shame generated by failing at doing all this (see also Burman, 1999; 2000).

Fourthly, we need to situate the contemporary crisis of childhood in relation to broader discussions of developments in disarray, and families in transition. The numbers of children suffering abuse, exploitation, neglect, malnutrition, abandonment and displacement are key indicators of global crises - of poverty, disaster and war. But recent moral outrage around violent, abusive, and even murderous children have highlighted how children only qualify for the privileges of childhood if they play (rather than work), are asexual, and without aggression (Bradley, 1989; Burman, 1995c). Even beyond such salutory lessons in the exclusionary and mythical character of contemporary western/minority world models of childhood are the class and cultural evaluations that they bring in their as well. The current crises around childhood cannot be dissociated from broader global social and economic changes within gender and labour relations, and their corresponding reflection within family organisation and functioning.


From the contest I will move now onto four refusals. By refusing I mean we should be stubborn and look for stubbornness, not to dismiss or to dispose of these features, but - by recognising them - to try to afford other vantage points on how they have configured the ways we think. Fran Cherry’s (1995) book The Stubborn Particulars of Social Psychology offers a dramatic re-reading of some of the paradigmatic studies within social psychology. By asking ‘who?’, ‘which?’, and ‘where?’, Cherry exposes the suppressed gender, class and cultural contexts of these key works, and thereby arrives at a convincing re-evaluation of their claims. Acknowledging the stubbornness of the particular, its inevitable persistence as an invisible trace no matter how apparently abstract or general the story or model, is a valuable strategy.

So here are four stubborn or persistent contexts for our conceptualisation of children and childhoods that I think we should try to refuse, or to be vigilant about.

Firstly, we should refuse the special status of childhood. While we grant special privileges and qualities to children, we do so at the cost of abstracting children from the social relations that give rise to them and thereby perpetuating their mythological status. For as soon as children exhibit behaviours considered unchildlike they are regarded as outside the category of childhood. We preserve our concept of childhood and eject particular kinds of children from it rather than adapt the original model. So we need to beware of the hold of this specialness on our my minds with a view to putting into question when and where this is helpful (see Gronemeyer, 1992, on relationships reinscribed within ‘helping’), and whether we should be changing childhoods rather than only children. Let me make clear here that I am not advocating that refusing special measures for children as strategic/tactical interventions, but rather the reification of that ‘specialness’.

             Secondly we should refuse the (covert) gendering of the child. There is a tendency to talk of children as if gender does not figure or matter. (I have largely done this here too.) But there is no geographical, cultural, or discursive space that is gender-neutral. And even the discourse neutrality suggests the suppression of struggle rather than the transcendence and blending of distinct differences. But just as culture and class mould different childhoods, so boys and girls inhabit different developing worlds. Refusing to take at face value the apparent absence of gender marking within discussions of childhood is important both to expose the covert gender assumptions that - within patriarchal societies inevitably - enter into the ways we think, talk and act, and to and prompt attention to which different experiences are being marginalised or subordinated within such supposed generality.  

           Moving swiftly on now, thirdly, we need to refuse to invest children with qualities of lost or true self hood.  If authentic selfhood is a lifetime project and possibly a fiction produced by modern therapeutics (Parker, 1998b), then we do (conceptual as well as moral) wrong to impute children with such developmental burdens. Such moral evaluation only invites failures of attainment and corresponding disappointments (for us about them, and thus affecting the effectiveness of our responses). Moral action and intervention with and on behalf of children is better motivated and structured according to  more local concerns, with our frameworks and assumptions governing childhood displaced a little; put to one side.

           Similarly and fourthly the naturalness of the child should be refused. For natural children can only exist alongside unnatural ones, and how we determine which is which is surely more a matter of moral-political evaluation than empirical fact.  Claims to nature usually operate as warrants: either to discount or to dismiss the intentionality of action (as in ‘it’s only natural; boys will be boys’). Either way, discourses of nature have rightly elicited concern for their resistance to change, for determinism, and ultimately for their victim-blaming (Lieven. 1980). However seemingly benign, we need to be alert for where and how claims to naturalness are being deployed; and to what effect.  

Aiming towards...

Finally I want to highlight four areas that moving beyond the ‘baby and the bathwater’, and towards (what I have called) postdualistic approaches to developmental psychology, might mean. For far from critique ushering in a paralysis, there is lots we can do.

           Firstly, as I have already suggested, it means situating ourselves within our accounts of childhood, including our investments - both economic and fantasised - within particular childhoods). Returning to Crewe and Harrison’s (1998) provocative critique of progressive international development projects, they also point out difficulties with the turn towards deconstruction (that has been so useful for promoting critical work). They suggest that this position still retains a tendency to overstate the agency and importance of western development and developers, and ignore or devalue action that is independent of the developers. While they discuss this in terms of the tensions between what they call ‘development reformers’ and ‘development anthropologists', I think this applies equivalently to tensions between (deconstructors of) developmental psychology and childhood studies:

“Developers remain at the centre of the analysis while other people’s actions are read merely as responses to the fixed centre, rather than as formed and influenced by all sorts of circumstances, many of which will be unconnected to development activity.” (p18)

Paradoxically, this process of situating oneself, far from privileging it, should rather help throw into question and open up our accounts to other actors and agencies.  

           Secondly, we can try to move away from unified versions of childhoods, families and cultures to focus instead on multiple perspectives. This is not only a matter of documenting and celebrating diversity, but also involves working with the conflicts and power relations operating between these - whether between differently embodied and situated childhoods, or between different constituencies’ perspectives and constructions of these (including professional, familial, cultural, and class-based differences), and the various ‘stakeholders’ within any developmental intervention.  

           Thirdly, I think it is a real challenge for us to move away from the clear, if arduous and oppressive, certainties provided by unitary, universalised models and learn to live with the tensions. For staying situated, and not falling prey to the dualist oppositions structuring the baby/bathwater paradigm means surrendering claims to absolute truths, and seeing such claims as always complicit within acts of verbal and sometimes physical violence. We are unaccustomed to not resolving uncertainties; but this lack of foundationalism does not mean moral torpor or inaction, but rather it means being clearer about the tentative strategic foundations that warrant one’s interventions.  

           Fourthly and finally, there is a move from programmes to the programmatic. I think we should not be afraid to be prescriptive, or to acknowledge the moral-political character of our interventions. Rather it is a matter of accepting that nothing lacks values and so using this attention to particularity and specificity to create other, plural methodologies for mapping the complexity of childhoods and relationships around those childhoods. Moreover, borrowing once again from discussions in economic development, we might also come to recognise that mapping, however benignly conceived, is a methodological act of appropriation and surveillance (of the designated others’ space, knowledge, even claims to ‘voice’).  

           Notwithstanding the importance attached to participatory learning and co­operative research, I want to caution against a too uncritical subscription to this ‘method’, or its adoption as a technique. As Cooke and Kothari (in press) point out in their discussion of what they call the ‘new tyranny’ of participatory research within international development work, in the efforts to promote participatory approaches we again run the risk of insufficiently theorising the ways we produce what we intervene within, with consequent effects on what we ‘discover’ and what we make of these ‘discoveries’. Here we might do well to recall how secrecy and inscrutability have enabled many oppressed peoples to survive, and how enlisting people (including children and families the world over), within participatory projects can make findings that are produced in response to western developmental agendas apparently originate from within indigenous communities and so grant the interventions proposed by the projects incontestable warrants (see also Parpart, 1995; Scott, 1997). So working with the moral-political partiality of our accounts about children and their contexts also means coming to terms with the provisional and relational character of all our claims, including the evidence on which those claims are based.

Remoralising the gaze;  the baby/bathwater revisited

Having considered who does what in this encounter (and who else might be involved) have now arrived at the moral evaluations at stake in this sorting-out process of what to keep and what to throw away. Furthermore we have come to see how typically there is a viewer implied within evaluation; a third party - that we are being urged to agree with or identify with, as an invisible surveying other. This third party assumes the power of scrutiny and judgement; who says ‘do throw’ or ‘don’t throw’ to us, the implied supporter of these evaluations. Significantly, this moral evaluation comes from outside the interaction: as if the morality and knowledge lies outside the baby and the thrower (or throwers) of its bathwater.  

           I have been discussing the problems inherent in the erasure of this culturally and embodied structure of evaluation. Alongside the need to situate and embody child development and educational practices for the promotion of diverse and multiple childhoods, I have argued for the need to embody and render ourselves (especially including the diversity of who ‘we’ are) visible within these research, measurement and evaluation encounters. Hence instead of being more or less reluctant, or intrusive, voyeurs on the intimate dealings of babies and bathtimes, I have suggested that we bring ourselves in as explicit actors. By such means we can come to see moral-political judgements (about development as with everything) as not only necessary and inevitable but we can also render them into more visible forms that can be more contested. Hence the parameters governing inclusion or exclusion, of retention and rejection, and especially the structures of identification rnobilised therein can be opened to re-evaluation.  

           A final word on ‘the bathwater’. Talking of the morality of exclusion and rejection (‘throwing’), begs this question: how do we know that the bathwater should be disposed of? And, further, why does our phrase not tell us where to put it? The unspecified destination of the bathwater remains an absent trace of broader and deeper difficulties, that implicate the model not only within national but also colonialist/imperialist paradigms. Drawing on contemporary critiques of identity (e.g. Henriques, et al, 1984)  point out that (materially as well as linguistically) what is excluded becomes identified with its location: ground used for dumping becomes a dumping ground, and then a dump. Surely those of us in overconsuming societies have some responsibility to consider what we are dumping, and where. So where does our toxic bathwater go?  Does it accumulate and contaminate elsewhere? And where is ‘elsewhere’? 

           We know from environmental discussions that the richest countries of the world consume the most resources and also produce the most waste, while the poorest countries, and the poorer places within all countries, become the sites where such waste is deposited - such that the effects of exposure to this waste contributes to their poverty via ill-health, as in both chronic malnutrition and sickness (see also Sachs, 1999).  Examples of this are too numerous to mention, but we only have to think of where it is that nuclear weapons testing and dumping takes place; where the ‘world free trade zones' are; where the new markets for the tobacco industry are; on which populations drugs trials are conducted; let alone the more perhaps mundane matters of where scrap and land-fill sites are in all cities; and how children’s unpaid and lowest paid labour both historically and currently keeps household and industrial economies running. 

           Let me get more specific. Over the years I have been approached - sometimes by - sometimes  by colleagues who have travelled overseas, sometimes even by letters from universities and child care organisations - requesting books and materials on child development to be sent to African countries, to Latin American countries, to the Indian sub-continent. They are asking for the donations of materials for courses within educational institutions that have few or no resources. In my department (of Psychology) we have held book collections to send to the transitional countries of Eastern Europe too. At these times I look at my collection of unwanted big tomes on child and human development that were sent to me unsolicited by publishers and that I have spent years commenting on and disparaging. They are big, glossy, attractive books with lots of coloured pictures, helpful summaries and question ‘boxes’ that make them accessible, but with checklists and test manuals that produce a standardised knowledge out of a set of provisional and contestable debates, and thereby covertly do the work of globalisation that we are all now trying to challenge. Should I now send this intellectual toxic waste to these countries to poison (fill with western debris) the minds of childcare workers?  But on the other hand, could they be useful or selectively appropriated (in the ways all ideas and practices are) in ways that I, from my position, cannot (yet). envisage?. But at the very least I should do my own recycling.... 3

           But if we take a more conservationist or environmentalist ‘take’ on the ‘baby­bathwater’ couplet, in fact we effect a reversal. For surely this bathwater is a resource, something we can analyse for clues as to what this baby is all about, including what we think it shouldn’t contain (e.g. aggression, impurity, Bradley, 1989) and the relations of activity and passivity presumed (why assume the baby is thrown, maybe she wants to jump?). As such, far from jettisoning our cultural legacies (which is an impossible, and probably undesirable, demand), we can perhaps instead use these to better effect to look within, and beyond, ourselves and our categorisation systems, and emerge better equipped to work with those who have historically been devalued and excluded in order to build others.


[I]        In this paper I move between or offer alternative formulations used to discuss the different economic and social contexts of inequality operating between different societies and sectors of the world, including western/non-western, North/South, First/Third-world, or minority/majority. All of these are inadequate - since there are many norths and souths within the inequalities mapped onto Northern and Southern hemispheres of the world, for example; but all these terms speak to an alertness to the historically contingent but currently politically and economically powerful inequalities, and their contest.

[2]            See my discussion of the psychodynamics of child-saving and images of children in aid and development campaigns in Burman (l994b), Burman (1999); and Burman (1998) for a discussion of addressing the complexities of relations between women as mothers and non-mothers in teaching and training contexts.  

[3]            Readers of this paper who want to take me up on the offer of the materials should please do so - at the address on the front - and I will try to send some worthwhile material too.  


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This paper was originally published in the European Early Childhood Education Research Journal , 9 (1), 2001, and has been reprinted with permission.  


Keynote lecture given at the 10th European Early Childhood Education Research Association Conference in London, August 2000.    

Erica Burman is Professor of Psychology and Women’s Studies at the Manchester Metropolitan University.  She is author of Deconstructing Developmental Psychology (Routledge, 1994), co-author of Challenging Women: psychology’s exclusions, feminist possibilities (Open University Press, 1995) and Psychology Discourse Practice: from regulation to resistance (Taylor & Francis, 1996), editor of Feminists and Psychological Practice (Sage, 1990) and Deconstructing Feminist Psychology (Sage, 1998) and co-editor of Discourse Analytic Research (Routledge, 1993) Culture, Power and Difference (Zed/UCT Press, 1998).  She is currently working on projects concerning intersections between gender, culture and models of psychological therapy provision and practice, including attending to the role of representations of childhood and memory within these.  She is also a group analyst.

Correspondence about this paper should be addressed to:

Erica Burman
Department of Psychology and Speech Pathology
The Manchester Metropolitan University
Hathersage Road
United Kingdom