man-person-cute-youngEmotional and cognitive development do not happen naturally; they happen as a result of hard work by caregivers, work that is, unfortunately, invisible to most.

I just finished a book that questions the traditional approach to developmental psychology. It critiques Piaget, for example, and Vygotsky, two popular theorists in the field of education. It goes into detail about Marx and Lacan and Althusser and Foucault.

Uhhhh.

I read it because I think and write about human development, and I wanted to make sure I wasn’t missing something important. And I’m glad I finished the book, because it wasn’t until the second-to-last page that I understood why the author was so enthusiastic about “the anti-developmental project.” In a nutshell, it appears to be this:

“Babies are hard work,” the author (John R. Morss) writes on p. 157. “That work may or may not be ‘rewarding’ or rewarded, and if unrewarded may well be invisible. One consequence of that work is what we call development.”

Stay with me (and John Morss): He’s saying that, however we may feel about the work of raising or teaching children — of being what I call their “developmental partners” — that work is always in danger of going unnoticed, especially by people in power. He continues,

“If the work is done by someone other than oneself, it may appear that the results of [the] work are natural changes — the sort of natural changes we call development. A father might perhaps underestimate the work of a mother in this way. In the context of the school-aged child, both parents and teachers might ‘forget’ each others’ work in a similar manner. Developmental explanation facilitates this forgetting; it explains away.”

So a mother who has borne her son’s 45-minute-long tantrum, who has survived his emotional and physical attacks and has seen him through to a calming that allowed them to talk out what he was feeling, what he needed, and how he might go about getting his needs met differently — that mother’s exhausting work is nothing while her son’s tantrums are age-appropriate and bound to stop once he’s outgrown them?

And the teacher who overcomes fear of a particularly powerful and resistant student in her classroom by attending his sporting events, inviting him to eat lunch with her in her classroom, asking him about his interests and ambitions is extraneous, really, just a prop along the student’s natural developmental trajectory?

No, says Morss. The work that is done by caring adults counts. It is required. That is because human development is necessarily socially embedded. As my favorite psychoanalytic theorist, D.W. Winnicott, puts it, “‘There is no such thing as a baby’ — meaning that if you set out to describe a baby, you will find you are describing a baby and someone. A baby cannot exist alone, but is essentially part of a relationship.” (This quote is from a book by Winnicott called The Child, the Family, and the Outside World, published in 1964). That is, development is “work” that is accomplished by at least two people: a baby and his mother/caregiver, a student and her teacher. It is not biologically programmed and is utterly dependent on collaboration with other human beings.

Of course, according to Morss, often the other human beings are women.  And, “in a bizarre, alienating twist [the caretaking woman] may come to perceive even the results of her own work as merely natural” (p. 157). Here, then, is one of the purposes of the “anti-developmental project”: for developmental partners, men and women, to recognize the absolutely essential work they do to enact and foster development in themselves and others. Their work is not “merely natural.” Without hard-working parents and teachers, babies and students simply would not grow.

Sorry for the academic lead-in to this idea, but I was pretty excited to find something useful in Morss’s book (which, by the way, is titled Growing Critical: Alternatives to Developmental Psychology and was published in 1996). My excitement isn’t about my eligibility to now be “anti-developmental” but, rather, to discover yet another expression of the belief that drives me in my work:

Being a developmental partner is hard work. This work, which is, at bottom, emotional and relational, must be seen. Teachers (and parents, and other caregivers) deserve support in doing this hard work. To deny this foundation and this necessity is to continue to fail the teachers whose job it is to help all their students, especially the most difficult ones, pursue their potential, grow and change, develop. Development is not “merely natural” but rests on the strong shoulders of people who think, feel, suffer, and care.

This difficult work must not be invisible.