Knowledge forms and gendered moralities in policies of infant care in Brazil

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  • 1 Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil
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Inspired by the anthropology of social policy, this article explores the labyrinth of knowledge forms, politics and morality through which a certain programme for early childhood development (ECD) has unfolded in Brazil. By tracking the materiality of ideas – the actors who defend them, the experiments that back them, and the institutional vectors that assure them legitimacy – I weave together variegated threads from neuroscientists, BBC documentaries and Brazilian politicians to moralised motherhoods, criminal brains and, finally, a surprising appraisal on the diminished cognitive capacity of a whole population. Nurtured in the critical analyses of intensive parenting and correlated discussions on ‘chaotic concepts’, I hope to seize on the Brazilian experience to incorporate a new variable into the cost-benefit equation often used to favour ECD – that of the moral fall-out concerning visions of gender, family and class.

Abstract

Inspired by the anthropology of social policy, this article explores the labyrinth of knowledge forms, politics and morality through which a certain programme for early childhood development (ECD) has unfolded in Brazil. By tracking the materiality of ideas – the actors who defend them, the experiments that back them, and the institutional vectors that assure them legitimacy – I weave together variegated threads from neuroscientists, BBC documentaries and Brazilian politicians to moralised motherhoods, criminal brains and, finally, a surprising appraisal on the diminished cognitive capacity of a whole population. Nurtured in the critical analyses of intensive parenting and correlated discussions on ‘chaotic concepts’, I hope to seize on the Brazilian experience to incorporate a new variable into the cost-benefit equation often used to favour ECD – that of the moral fall-out concerning visions of gender, family and class.

In late 2008, while tuned in to a local television channel, I stumbled on a curious scene that spoke directly to my line of academic inquiry on the uses of knowledge forms in the public policies of family, gender and childcare. The white-haired gentleman being interviewed turned out to be Fraser Mustard, a distinguished Canadian medical researcher who was visiting my town (Porto Alegre, Brazil) to celebrate the success of the country’s first programme in the World Bank’s model of Early Childhood Development (ECD). After repeatedly affirming the importance of maternal affection for the normal development of a baby’s brain, Mustard looked pointedly at the camera and solemnly forewarned the audience in subtitled English: “If Brazil is a country of enormous illiteracy and poor school performance, it is not the fault of schools, it is not the fault of teachers. The problem is that children are not being well-cared for during their first three years of life.” Then, apparently carried away by the emotion of his appeal, he rose from his seat as though to punctuate his conclusions: “Brazilians, if you want your society to advance, please learn to take care of your babies!”

Mustard managed to condense in a few words the major themes running through this article. A first point picks up on the fact that Mustard, like the Brazilian programme’s coordinator, Dr Osmar Terra, is a medical physician who affirms with reiterated insistence that the brains of babies (up to three years of age) are key to national development. The two doctors were soon to join forces with an impressive line-up of international experts invited to speak at the Fifth International Seminar on Early Childhood Development including, alongside representatives of UNESCO, philanthropical foundations and the World Bank, specialists trained in medicine, neurobiology, developmental psychology and experimental criminology. How and when, I asked myself, in the centuries-old debate on child development, had the pendulum swung back from the more ‘social’ sciences towards this biologically based expertise?

Second, although few observers would quibble with Mustard’s stand that early childhood care is of great importance for a society’s wellbeing, it is intriguing to note the reductionist logic that appears to totally dismiss the relevance of different forms of structural violence here, in one of the world’s most unequal democracies.1 With decades of ethnographic experience among Brazilian working-class families, I am only too aware of how poor sanitation, crowded housing arrangements, racial discrimination and family members’ chronic unemployment weigh heavily on growing children. My field notes also contain a persistent register of the schools’ precarious infrastructures, which result in repeated momentary shutdowns. Between electricity blackouts, leaky roofs, bustling hornets’ nests, and even local gang wars, many youngsters are left with an average of no more than two hours of school per day. Moreover, there exists ample material in the country’s different centres of educational research to suggest that overcrowded classrooms as well as teachers’ long hours, sparse training and poor salaries contribute little to students’ academic performance. Where, I wondered, did these decades of research figure into the ECD discussions on child development?

And finally, I ask: what moral assumptions surrounding family are implicitly written into the ECD line of reasoning? Although, technically, an infant’s needs might be properly looked after by well-prepared professionals, the ECD model centres on parenting skills. Through a particular combination of babies, brains and home-based development, the responsibility not only for a child’s physical and emotional wellbeing but for national progress appears to shift squarely onto the shoulders of – even more than families – mothers – and, in particular, those from the lower rungs of society. Granted, it is this ‘problematic’ sector of poor, disproportionally Black, people who are targeted by the great majority of Brazil’s programmes for social intervention. However, most such programmes, involving access to education, employment and cash allocations, are presented as the hard-won gains of social movements. Parent coaching, on the other hand, appears to be spurred on by scientific expertise in the hands of society’s upper echelons. On what basis do these (generally White, male) experts arrive at a conviction – in blatant contradiction with most ethnographic observers (Fonseca, 2003; Fleischer, 2011; Honorato, 2021) – that babies in lower-income populations go unloved, unstimulated or consistently ignored?

Highlighting the global-local entwinements in the questions posed above, I have organised this article around three experts, all White men, who played important roles in my state’s ECD programme – Dr Mustard, Dr Terra and a world-renowned economist, James Heckman. Inspired by the anthropology of social policy, I follow the lead of their expertise to explore the labyrinth of knowledge forms, politics and morality through which a certain policy for early childhood development has unfolded in Brazil (Shore and Wright, 1997). By tracking the materiality of ideas – the actors who defend them, the experiments that back them, and the institutional vectors that assure them legitimacy – I am led to self-consciously weave together what in another light might seem to be mismatched threads: from neuroscientists, BBC documentaries and Brazilian politicians to moralised motherhoods, criminal brains and, finally, a surprising appraisal on the diminished cognitive capacity of a whole population. Nurtured in the critical analyses of intensive parenting and correlated discussions on ‘chaotic concepts’ (Lee et al, 2014; Williams 2014; White, et al, 2019; Faircloth and Rosen, 2020), my hope is to seize on the Brazilian experience to incorporate a new variable into the cost-benefit equation that is often used to favour ECD – that of the moral fall-out concerning visions of gender, family and class.

Scientific underpinnings of programmes for early childhood development

Education has been one of Brazil’s major challenges since the country’s return in the late 1980s to democracy after 24 years of military dictatorship. At the time, the average Brazilian had no more than five years of education, and pre-school facilities were limited to very few for-profit establishments catering to the elite. Nonetheless, as they participated in moulding Brazil’s new 1988 Constitution, academic researchers, in partnership with child-rights activists, lobbied to include early childhood in the category of basic education rather than simply leaving it to health or social welfare. By the mid-1990s, this well-consolidated perspective was written into the Law of Basic Guidelines for Brazilian Education, presenting daycare as the first stage of the public educational system (Prado and Hai, 2021).

During the decades of Brazil’s democratic reawakening, a progressive mood gradually paved the way for the expansion of public services. Although the 1990s saw only minor changes in the incipient system of daycare facilities, the 2003 inauguration of a president from the Workers’ Party, together with a consensus on the importance of early childhood education, placed the expansion of government-sponsored crèches and pre-schools high on the political agenda. However, at the same time, another current of thought concerning ‘alternative’ programmes for early childhood development began to take hold. Supervised in general by experts from the areas of medicine and developmental psychology, these programmes – enthusiastically promoted by the World Bank, UNICEF (United Nations Children's Fund) and UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) as particularly useful in situations of extreme poverty – were geared to improving family environment through parental education.

In a model well rehearsed in other parts of Latin America, the first such programme on Brazilian soil, known as PIM (Primeira Infancia Melhor, loosely translated as ‘Improved Infancy’), was inaugurated by Rio Grande do Sul’s state secretary of health in 2003. The programme works through female monitors who, aside from episodically distributing kits with disposable nappies, clothes and toys, visit mothers in their homes at least three times a month, keeping control over children’s vaccinations, diet and hygiene. In fact, thanks to a national programme of family health, community workers visiting the homes of pregnant women and young mothers have long been routine in most parts of Brazil. However, PIM enthusiasts claim their programme does even more: by teaching mothers ‘simple gestures’ such as patting their pregnant bellies and gazing into the eyes of their new-borns, it also enhances the emotional bonding needed for the child’s cognitive and emotional skills to blossom.

From the start, a solid coalition of child activists and feminist researchers in Brazilian universities expressed reservations about the ECD model of infant care. The emphasis on parent education, they held, ignored the fact that an unprecedented number of women were working outside the household, provoking an ever-growing need for childcare facilities2 (Rosemberg, 2003; Bilac, 2014). For most lower-income women, they argued, full-time motherhood is simply not a viable option. And, in fact, faced with a dearth of low-cost public daycare centres, many working mothers are forced to fall back on an older relative, a retired friend or one of the many unofficial for-profit crèches run in some neighbour’s home. Counting these different arrangements, around one third of Brazilian children aged 0–3 are currently enrolled in daycare. Nonetheless, in Porto Alegre alone, every year local authorities register a protest of between five and seven thousand frustrated mothers whose babies and toddlers have been turned away for lack of space from the free, professional public daycare centres.

Having invested much effort developing knowledge and techniques to qualify nursery and pre-school teachers, researchers in the field of education are not convinced that the ECD monitors work out much better than the grandmothers and neighbours traditionally summoned to help. As they point out, home visitors are invariably low-paid, pro-temp workers whose qualifications include little more than a minimum age (18) and a high school diploma. Underlining the fact that professionalised daycare and nursery schools continue to be largely a privilege of the rich, these critical observers caution that alternative, home-based models of infant care, despite propaganda to the contrary, may simply reinforce existing social and economic inequalities (Rossetti-Ferreira et al, 2002; Rosemberg, 2003).3

Yet, the ECD model has continued to grow in popularity thanks largely to its presentation as an entirely new approach to infant development based on cutting-edge scientific discoveries. Dr Fraser Mustard played a key role in building this image. In a foundational document (The Early Years Study) published at the end of the 1990s, he and co-author Margaret McCain brought urgency to the matter of infant care by evoking ‘critical periods’ during a child’s first three years of brain development – moments when the ‘windows’ for learning open and, if left without stimulation, the youngster’s development risks being permanently impaired (McCain and Mustard, 1999: 7). Curiously, despite the liberal use of neuroscientific vocabulary, The Early Years Study did not lay out particularly innovative medical or pedagogical recommendations. Rather, much like the Brazilian programme described earlier, it fell back on vague exhortations that mothers take their toddlers on their laps, tell stories, play games and laugh with them. McCain and Mustard (1999: 5–6) end by conceding that the ‘new’ evidence they raised supported, above all, ‘a celebration of what “good mothering” has done for centuries’.

With near-missionary zeal, Mustard and other enthusiasts would reiterate the same basic message couched in the same scientific rhetoric again and again over the next decade in international conferences and World Bank publications. The ‘betterment of human capital’, thanks to proper care during a child’s first three years of existence, would not only help combat poverty, illiteracy, ill health, inequality and violence; it would be the key to social stability, the promotion of equal opportunities, and (yes, even) the sustainability of the biosphere (Mustard, 2007: 60; Young, 2007). Interestingly, in a critical appraisal of the weak results of a pioneer ECD programme in their home state (Ontario), Mustard and his co-author McCain were forced to recognise the programmatic need for, aside from parent coaching, the expansion of certain public infrastructures. To ensure the attainment of hoped-for results, they recommended that child development centres should include quality day care facilities; services should be designed for a clientele from all sectors of the population; and ECD activities should be integrated into a strategic design conceived for the entire school system (McCain and Mustard, 2002: 32–3). The irony is that this self-criticism seems to have stirred little interest among policy makers. The popularity of Mustard and McCain’s original report continued to grow – systematically endorsed by international organisations as well as by diverse national governments – without subsequent nuance. And the early childhood programmes spread by the World Bank and its partners across Latin America continued – just as in Brazil – to consist primarily of advice geared to ‘at-risk’ families in projects completely divorced from the institutionalised system of education.

Chaotic concepts and folk understandings

Commenting on the way the neurosciences have been used to convey epistemic authority to particular childcare policies, White et al (2019) elaborate on the notion of ‘chaotic concepts’: a simplified form of science, ‘packaged to persuade’, of special appeal to policy makers. Working through abstractions that lump together dissimilar processes while fragmenting others beyond recognition, this information strategy would often act to blur the complexity of elements at play in the execution and evaluation of particular projects. Pointing to the example of ACEs (adverse childhood events), the authors describe how the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University deploys this sort of ‘pragmatic reductionism’ to enhance the value of their own line of reasoning. By allowing their audience to perceive expert opinion as coherent with long-standing folk understandings, the ‘conceptual chaos’ eases acceptation of and satisfaction with the Center’s particular technologies of interventions.

A similar blending of folk understandings with a popularised brand of science was also evident in a series of articles published in popular US magazines at the end of the 1990s urging mothers to enhance their child’s cognitive and emotional skills through an enriched diet of music, games and emotional interactions (Begley, 1996; 1997). The articles enlisted widespread readership through the strategic use of neuroimages, typically portraying the contrast between a brightly coloured ‘stimulated brain’ and a much more sombre ‘neglected brain’. Evoking neuronal circuits and windows of opportunity, they introduced the lay public to a vocabulary nearly identical to that used soon afterwards in the McCain and Mustard report. And they drove home the same warning: ‘Children whose neural circuits are not stimulated before kindergarten are never going to be what they could have been’ (Begley, 1996).

A closer look at the ‘scientific evidence’ behind this advice, however, suggests something akin to the chaotic concepts described previously. Take, for example, the iconic image of two three-year-olds’ brains – one ‘normal’, one ‘stunted’ – first seen in a poster presented by two Texas-based child psychiatrists at a 1997 meeting of the Society for Neuroscience (Perry and Pollard, 1997). No matter how much the authors insisted that their findings on possible brain damage pertained only to victims of ‘global neglect’ – that is, infants who had experienced severe sensory deprivation in the areas of touch, language and nutrition (such as a child ‘locked in a basement without human contact’) – the image would crop up time and again to give a scientific veneer to stereotypes of all sorts. It might be used to illustrate the damage done to the brains of children living in ‘unstructured families’, of those having witnessed ‘a lot of abuse’, having been cared for by mothers with ‘different, multiple partners’, or simply, those who had been raised in ‘impoverished homes’ (cf. Allen, 2011). In my own field of research, child protection and adoption, the image has proven to be astoundingly ubiquitous, appearing in seminars and discussion forums I have attended from Brazil to Mexico, Spain and the UK. Referring variably to children living in poverty as well as those in institutional care, its projection is generally used to justify the fast-track removal of babies from their inadequate homes so as to be placed, through adoption, in a healthy environment.

Understandably, there has been no lack of controversy concerning this sort of make-shift appropriation of scientific research (Macvarish, 2016; Macvarish et al, 2014). Neuroscientists themselves will point out how, in their area, empirical samples are generally small and contextually limited, lab conditions varied, and the interpretation of brain scans are open to debate such that researchers find it difficult to arrive at a consensual conclusion (Dumit 2004; Fitzpatrick 2012; Williams 2014; Gillies et al, 2017). It thus comes as no surprise that, around the time of Mustard’s visit to Brazil, 145 specialists internationally renowned for their work in the neurosciences, paediatric medicine, education, experimental psychology and other relevant areas published a manifesto calling into question any facile solution to the complex issue of child development. Cautioning against the opportunistic use of scientific research ‘to rationalize preconceived policies and popular notions’ about early childhood, the document asserts with unequivocal clarity that neuroscientific research, although promising, ‘does not [as yet] offer scientific guidelines for policy, practice or parenting’ (see also Bruer 1999; 2011; Hirsh-Pasek and Bruer, 2007; Santiago Declaration, 2007: 1).

Indeed, some critical observers argue that the rationality that ultimately backs up the brain-based policies comes not from the neurosciences, but neoliberal economics. These critics point out how it was during the austerity policies of the 1990s, together with the downsizing of public-funded social services, that rhetoric focusing on home care returned in full force (Penn, 2002; 2004; Rosemberg, 2003; Luccisano and Wall, 2007). Faced with the ravages of laissez-faire economic policies that produced a growing number of poverty-stricken individuals in need of assistance, governments encouraged small-scale, locally financed family- and community-based solutions. This new style of public management would be evaluated in terms of the ‘pay-off’ yielded by certain forms of ‘social investment’. Proper preparation of pre-school children, for example, would enhance the cost-benefit ratio of school achievement, and with improved ‘human capital’, the economy as a whole would run more efficiently. According to critics, by the end of the 20th century, these new calculative regimes of accounting and financial management were being deployed by the advanced liberal nations of the Global North, both at home and abroad (Rose 2006; 2013; Campos and Campos, 2009; Kjørholt and Penn, 2019). And, in countries such as Brazil, where major economists have been schooled since the 1960s by professors from the University of Chicago, it is not difficult to encounter material supporting this view.

Econometrics: from mathematical equations to moral injunctions

While a popularised form of neurosciences was alerting people to the dire results liable to be incurred by refusing ECD’s recommendations, another science – economics – took the lead in projecting encouraging visions of the future. Evidence used to generate the optimistic prognoses of ECD has been drawn from the work of one particular Nobel prize-winning specialist in econometrics from the University of Chicago, James Heckman. Inspired by studies carried out in the 1960s and 1970s that show positive results for disadvantaged children attending certain pre-school projects, Heckman has spent much of his life developing intricate mathematical formulas to demonstrate how this sort of intervention is good not only for children, but also for the national economy. His calculations underline the benefits of early childhood education by graphically depicting – in dollars and cents – the cost-benefit ratio in long-term results (see, for example, Cunha and Heckman, 2009: 19). And his conclusions, presented in innumerable events throughout the world (including an international seminar on ECD in Porto Alegre, Brazil), unfailingly drive home the fact that investments in a baby’s first years of life yield many times more than when the child is older.

Critics have pointed to different elements that might limit the scope of Heckman’s conclusions (Penn, 2011; Gillies et al, 2017). His sweeping generalisations are based on research that, carried out for the most part in the US, describes a social, political and economic situation that is hardly typical of the rest of the world. The databases he resorts to are often small, dealing with ethnically selective populations, and reflecting considerably different sorts of intervention. Furthermore, it is never quite clear how, extrapolating on evidence yielded mostly from studies on children in pre-school settings, Heckman manages to arrive at conclusions about the home environment. To back up his reasoning, Heckman could of course cite material from the ECD programmes themselves. However, on this front, evidence is as yet far from conclusive.

As critical observers remind us, existing evaluations of various projects throughout the globe, aside from limited to relatively short time spans, have inevitably been carried out by assessors who are somehow linked to programme management (Kjørholt and Penn, 2019).4 The double-bind of not-so-external assessors could explain the ambivalent tone of a recent report, funded by the Interamerican Bank of Development, on Brazil’s PIM. While citing evaluations that describe how children from the programme attain superior achievement in practically all areas (cognitive development, language, motor function, socio-emotional behaviour, and so on), the author goes on to point out the gross shortcomings – whether in terms of project design, sample selection or statistical analysis – of literally every one of the studies (Verch, 2017). In another more recent statistical evaluation carried out by university-based researchers of PIM, the authors clearly state that they have found no reliable evidence to demonstrate the programme’s positive impact on children’s cognitive or socioemotional performance (Ribeiro et al, 2018).

Notwithstanding the fragile nature of existing data, Heckman does not appear deterred from carrying over the persuasive power of his complex mathematical formulas to the distinctly moral realm of mothercare. This line of reasoning was well demonstrated in an interview the specialist gave during a 2005 visit to Rio de Janeiro. The inquiring journalist had invited Heckman to comment on a research project conducted by the prestigious Getúlio Vargas Foundation showing how children who attend daycare centres perform better in the job market, are less likely to enter criminal rings and the girls are less likely to fall pregnant in adolescence (Klingl, 2005). Apparently believing she was reinforcing the scholar’s own conclusions, she repeatedly lamented the lack of space in public daycare, underlining the fact that such facilities continue to be the privilege of wealthy urbanites. In response, Heckman made a comment curiously disconnected from the conclusions of the Foundation’s study: ‘The main factor in poverty, and I am sure that this must be even more true in the case of Brazil, is the difference in family environments and the influence of this on educational performance’ (Klingl, 2005). Heckman’s slip seemed to go unnoticed by the journalist who went on to state that, in addition to providing a better future for children, daycare centres also allowed mothers space for their own careers.

The laureate’s views on motherhood are phrased still more clearly in a paper he co-authored with the Brazilian-born, Chicago-trained economist Flavio Cunha, ‘The economics and psychology of inequality and human development’ (Cunha and Heckman, 2009). Leaping from econometric data to programmatic recommendations on family life, Cunha and Heckman take their bearings from the work of, among others, Alfred Marshall, a British economist who died in 1924: ‘The most valuable of all capital is that invested in human beings; and of that capital the most precious part is the result of the care and influence of the mother’ (Cunha and Heckman, 2009: 4). Recognising that Marshall lived and commented on a historical reality quite different from their own, Cunha and Heckman ask if the ‘Victorian program’ he endorsed is still relevant to today’s world. Their answer is unambiguous: ‘The evidence supports a move in that direction.’ […] ‘Parental environments and investments affect the outcomes of children. There are substantial costs to uninhibited libertarianism [sic] in one generation if the preferences and well-being of the next generation are ignored’ (Cunha and Heckman, 2009: 47)

To back their hypothesis, Cunha and Heckman cite the work of Patrick Moynihan whose statistical research, developed in the 1960s, describes the inner-city Black family as a ‘tangle of pathologies’. In an analysis repeatedly denounced since then for its racist bias, the US sociologist and senator blamed the ghetto’s matriarchal culture and inappropriate child-rearing practices for the minority group’s ‘cycle of poverty’ (Stacey, 1996). It would thus seem that, to shore up the gap between abstract econometric modelling based largely on pre-school experiences and the idea that a child’s welfare hinges above all on a mother’s care, Cunha and Heckman resort to a particular sociology of the family that, more than dated, is particularly controversial. It is, nonetheless, this juxtaposition of sophisticated elements from one academic field and well-thrashed ideas from another that allows the authors to fall into step with a narrative enhancing the scare value of ‘toxic’, suboptimal childhoods.

Returning now to the Brazilian Primeira Infância Melhor, we will see how ECD programmes furnish a propitious platform from which to broadcast this moral narrative.

Good mothers, proper guidance and criminality

In a country such as Brazil, with one of the world’s highest murder rates, it is no surprise that crime prevention becomes an important calling card for politicians. A look at the career of Dr Osmar Terra, ECD’s major proponent in Brazil, provides insight concerning the symbiosis between electoral politics, crime control and moral truths surrounding family life. Running for election at one level or another ever since the early 1990s, this medically trained politician has spent the past 20 years tacking back and forth between different offices in the state or federal legislature and appointed commissions in the executive branch. Since the early 2000s, as secretary of health in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, he spearheaded the ECD movement in Brazil. By the time of the World Bank’s Third International congress, held in Washington DC in 2005, he could proudly announce the manner in which, following the blueprint of the World Bank’s ‘Millennium Fund for ECD’, he had stirred up hefty donations from media conglomerates and banking corporations in Brazil to sustain his state’s PIM (Terra and Schneider, 2007).

No doubt, ECD’s promise to harness science for the preventive combat of violent crime has contributed to Terra’s enduring popularity at the polls. In the first years of PIM, especially, he repeatedly pointed out that one of the programme’s major advantages was its potential to break the crime cycle. His insistence on science-based policies led him to design a research project in which he proposed to run MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scans on juvenile offenders’ brains to investigate the link between biology and criminality. Although, having provoked a tremendous reaction from child activists and university researchers, the project never got off the ground, Terra soon found another way to broadcast his perspectives – through a documentary film, sponsored by UNESCO and the BBC, ‘First Steps: Catch them young (Primeiros Passos: Começar Cedo)’ (BBC, 2010).

Portraying the daily routine of PIM in a certain middle-sized city, the video starts with a female voice-over referring to the country’s scandalous murder rate:

‘Growing up can be dangerous in Brazil. If you avoid prison, illness or getting kicked out of school, there’s still the shocking truth that every 15 minutes someone dies from gunshot wounds and that most victims are under the age of 25. Around the world, the links between under-achievement and crime are well-documented. … The first years of a child’s life can make or break their future. By catching them young, can children … have a better future?’ (BBC, 2010)

The first half of the film accompanies the family of comely dark-skinned Denise, in her late twenties, who has enrolled her two youngest children in PIM. At ease in the spotlight, this amiable young woman exudes pleasure not only with her full-time motherhood, but also with the programme that, by providing health services, some group activities and advice on good parenting, has apparently made her feel secure and important in her domestic role. Interspersed among scenes filmed in the family’s modest wood-frame abode, interviews with various specialists assure us that it is thanks to their mother’s ‘active parenting’ that Denise’s children can have the assurance of a high-quality life in the future.

From Denise’s success story, the film shifts focus to another mother who, as the invisible narrator informs us, “realised too late the importance of programmes like this”. The camera settles on Ilaci, a soft-spoken, bespectacled middle-aged woman whose 17-year-old son is serving three years in an adolescent rehabilitation centre for having committed a “serious crime”. Among scenes of forlorn prison corridors, steel doors clanking shut, and adolescents idling on a barren patio, Ilaci’s lament is heard: “If I could go back, I’d do everything differently. I just didn’t have the knowledge.” In fact, Ilaci also shows the camera photos depicting tender moments of her son’s early years – snapshots of a grinning baby, for example; a nine-year-old, standing among a cluster of white-robed children holding candles as they take first communion; a teenager in traditional gaucho attire, participating in a folk dance. But she repeatedly comes back to her own guilt: “I needed help at the time. … We talked, but not enough.” Her words are accompanied by scenes of Ilaci visiting her adolescent son in confinement where he gives her a great bear hug and she fondly strokes his hand: “If only this fantastic programme [of early childhood education] had existed at the time, it could definitely have helped me out.”

The voice-over narration delivers a similar message: “Like many of the other young men interned here, things could have been different for Ilaci’s son had his mother had the proper guidance.” The institution’s director agrees that “children become a problem because of bad parenting”. At this point, Osmar Terra himself appears on screen: “All these things are the result of what happens in the child’s first years of life.” That poor families are indeed a population at risk is underscored by one of the narrator’s final comments as the camera once again focuses on the ‘good mother’ during a happy outing with her two toddlers at the zoo: now, thanks to PIM, Denise’s children “will have a good chance of not falling into crime”.

A critical analysis of this documentary would not gloss over the long-recognised link between poverty, on the one hand, and fragile health, poor school performance, reduced life expectancy and certain forms of problematic behaviour, on the other hand. However, it seems a strange rationale that piles the responsibility for all society’s ills on the shoulders of unloving mothers. In Ilaci’s case, one might ask: on the contrary, how is it that this apparently caring parent ended up with her son in juvenile detention? Following up on this question, one might learn more about the chronic scarcity of health, educational and recreational facilities in lower-income neighbourhoods, not to mention the straitened circumstances families face as they try to get by on (often, at best) a minimum salary. By depicting mothers as protagonists who, with proper coaching, will be able to single-handedly break the generational chain of poverty, the film’s argument appears to ignore the ravages of a political economy that has augmented the concentration of wealth while downsizing state services. ‘Bad parenting’ shows up here as a convenient scapegoat, deflecting attention from structural reforms that might prove helpful.

The question remains: to what extent does this narrative seep into the attitudes and practices of the documentary’s viewers – reinforcing tropes of guilt and blame? As has been demonstrated in other settings, the response of working-class mothers to parent education is not necessarily one of passive submission. While some women may go along with the proposed programme because they appreciate the modest gifts and extra benefits they receive, others, navigating between local community practices and personal initiative, are able to reconfigure the intended message (Landeira, 2021). The suggestion is, however, that the most consequential impact of the moral stories transmitted in the interviews, articles and documentaries such as those seen earlier is on the policy makers themselves. Not only does the narrative’s avowedly humanitarian goal aliment feelings of moral superiority, binding together experts and politicians, it also serves as a powerful political tool, able to attract electors from all sectors of society.

Masculine expertise and motherhood

There is a certain irony in the fact that, despite the existence of a veritable army of female scholars investigating childcare and child education,5 it is – at least in Brazil – a scientific contingent propelled largely by men that has brought mothers back to centre-stage. Whereas the lower echelons of the ECD universe (mothers, monitors, even local programme managers) are occupied overwhelmingly by women, in the higher ranks of administrative and political power, the emphasis on masculine experts and expertise becomes steadily more pronounced.

In 2013, after eight years as state secretary of health, Osmar Terra returned to the Federal Chamber of Deputies. There, he proceeded to showcase his concerns by organising an international seminar on ECD, highlighting the sort of expertise necessary to back his proposal of what would become the country’s first statute on early childhood. The profile of those occupying the podium at the opening event is telling. From the various executive directors of groups specialising in ECD – that is, the Parliamentary Front for Early Childhood, the Hemispheric Network of Present and Past Members of Parliament working for Early Childhood (Rede Hemisférica de Parlamentares e exParlamentares pela Primeira Infância), and the Vidigal Foundation (a major funder of Brazil’s ECD) – to the political dignitaries invited to share the limelight, and finally the seminar’s main speaker, James Heckman (delivering his conference via Skype), practically all were White males. The lone female on stage was a foreigner, representing one of the World Bank’s long-standing philanthropical partners. Sitting discreetly in the audience, two other non-Brazilian women with recognised expertise received a rapid salute: a pioneer scholar from the World Bank, and an education specialist with the Organization of American States.

The preponderance of men at a Brazilian political event is not altogether surprising. (A national law requiring political parties to include at least 30 per cent women among their list of candidates for electoral office has never been effectively enforced). However, an analysis of bibliographical references as well as scientific councils in the area of ECD suggests that its oft-cited ‘evidence-based science’ – both in Brazil and abroad – is produced above all by male experts. Foremost among these, alongside Mustard and Heckman, is Dr Jack Shonkoff, founder of the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University – a centre in which, as Terra proudly announced to the seminar’s audience, no fewer than 22 Brazilian congressmen have been enrolled. Hailing from the areas of medicine, economics, and (at least, in the Brazilian case) criminology, these experts form a circle of mutually referenced scholarship that has eclipsed other lines of reasoning in many potent political spheres.

Thanks to a broad coalition of politicians, international organisations and philanthropical foundations, the faith in the ‘hard sciences’ (whether neurosciences or economics) as key to child development and learning, has now been written into the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (2015), and further consecrated by a series of publications in the Lancet (see Kjørholt and Penn, 2019). In recent years, alongside the usual concerns with stress, lack of love and early stimulation, there has been greater acknowledgement of the problems that are structurally related (low income, inadequate nutrition, racial discrimination and limited learning opportunities), held to be relevant factors in certain populations’ persistent poverty (WHO, 2018). Yet, drowned out by the graphs and MRIs presenting the supposed truths of hard biology, the by and large female experts in the social and educational sciences – exactly those with tried experience in confronting wider, structural issues – appear to have been relegated to the sidelines. The debates surrounding ECD persist in giving negligible (if any) attention to expertise outside the areas of neurosciences and economics; meanwhile, intervention strategies continue to cluster around parent coaching, and the spectre of toxic childhoods remains lurking in the background.

Observations from a recent workshop, convened by the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC)6 to discuss early childhood education, suggests the direction a largely masculine expertise on motherhood may take. The group was composed of seven people – all men – including Flavio Cunha (Heckman’s long-term collaborator), three neuroscientists, an applied mathematician, a political scientist and a psychologist. Published on the official website of ABC, in a news item designed to resume the committee debates for a wider audience, once again the idea that the fundamental wellbeing of children depends on mothers appears: ‘Mothers are interested in sending their child to the creche, but that’s not what the child wants. It wants to stay home with the mother. And from an emotional and affective point of view, it is more interesting that the child stay with its mother …’. (ABC, 2009).

In their ‘Summary of conclusions and recommendations’, published online at the meeting’s end, the committee leans predictably on Heckman-style cost-benefit arguments that emphasise the need both to improve daycare facilities and support mothers in the home (Araújo, 2011). Nonetheless, flatly stating that relevant science-based studies are as yet inexistent in Brazil, the document contains no mention of the vast literature on daycare produced by Brazilian researchers in the areas of education, social psychology and social sciences (for example, Campos, 2020). Instead, it places the accent on ‘scientific evidence and official guidance from the most advanced countries’: that is, on a certain line of neurobiology and economics that harks relentlessly back to the cognitive sciences as key to rethinking the educational practices of both mothers and teachers (Araújo, 2011: 1).

Certainly, many of the committee’s recommendations pick up on generally consensual issues – for example, that present-day policies for infant care and education are insufficient, and that educators should be better prepared in order to ensure a high-quality learning environment for babies and small children. However, notwithstanding the supposedly objective language of brain structure, synapses and sensitive periods, it becomes clear at a certain point that narrow conceptions of what comprises a stimulating or emotionally rewarding environment can easily stumble on the pitfalls of class-bound prejudice. To justify the need for health workers to stimulate the cognitive development of Brazil’s infants, the committee members state – as though it were bedrock fact – that this development, at present, is ‘precarious in most Brazilian families, especially those of low socioeconomic status’ (Araújo, 2011: 5).

Are we then to understand that most Brazilian mothers (and especially those of modest means) are so inept, that their children grow up in an environment so void of stimulation, that the youngsters’ brains have been stunted? The absurdity of this logic helps us see more clearly the moral fall-out of Mustard’s televised exhortations seen at the beginning of this article. From images of infant brains to econometric line graphs, the findings of experimental sciences are led, in leaps and bounds, to apparently support the recommendations of conservative family moralities as well as the eugenic attitudes of the past. Lest women heed their responsibility as dedicated, full-time mothers, their progeny will suffer the consequences: doomed to become cognitively impaired or – worse – biologically prone to pathological behaviour.

To conclude, from the case described here, by the time science finds its way into policy planning, its ‘technical’ contributions will have long since been taken over by pre-existing political and moral imperatives. And, just as political debate has become polarised, so the different approaches to infant care, rather than enjoying a productive complementary relationship, appear to compete. Barely a month after Brazil’s Early Childhood Statute was approved in March of 2016, Terra voted alongside the majority of congress to impeach the second-term Workers’ Party president, Dilma Roussef, for minor infringements of the budgetary laws. That same year, within weeks of being promoted to the rank of Minister of Social and Agrarian Development, one of Terra’s first moves was to inaugurate a national version of his ECD programme, now dubbed Criança Feliz. In 2019, with the election of Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right ally of Terra’s, to the Brazilian presidency, the government sealed its emphasis on conservative family morality by decreeing the legal admissibility of home schooling for children of all ages. According to a recent analysis of the congressional budget, in 2021 Criança Feliz was receiving over 3.6 times the federal funds reserved for the country’s daycare centres. Whereas daycare funding had plummeted to less than one fourth the levels of 2019, support for the ECD programme continues more or less stable. Meanwhile, Brazil’s 20 per cent better-off families are nearly twice as likely as their lower-income counterparts to have children 0–3 years old enrolled in daycare (IES, 2021), and quality control runs up against ever more challenging hurdles.

Notes

1

With 9.1 per cent of the population living on less than US$3.20 a day, and nine million living in total misery (under $1.90 a day), Brazil has a poverty rate between three and ten times that of any of its close neighbours (Oxfam, 2019).

2

According to the 2015 census, the financial mainstay of over 40 per cent of Brazilian households was an adult female.

3

See similar reservations expressed by researchers in other parts of Latin America: Penn (2002), Wall (2004), Luccisano and Wall (2007).

4

As the programmes grow progressively more reliant on private financing, they need positive evaluations to survive – not only to satisfy sponsors, but to attract new backers. Professional evaluators who are paid for their work become shareholders alongside project managers rooting for success.

5

The Carlos Chagas Foundation in São Paulo is but one of Brazil’s many well-consolidated research centres, firmly connected in international networks (with Inter-American Development Bank, Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization and so on), that has carried out exhaustive studies – empirical, theoretical, methodological – on early childhood education in institutional settings (Campos 2010; 2020).

6

The ABC, founded in 1916, is an honorary society that joins together the most eminent scientists in Brazil, and acts, when requested, as government consultant. In 2022, the first woman ever elected president, Dr. Helena Nader, vowed to make the Brazilian science establishment more inclusive.

Funding

This work was supported by the Conselho Nacional de Pesquisa Científica (Brazilian federal government), grant no. 404070-2017-5.

Conflict of interest

The author declares that there is no conflict of interest.

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    • Export Citation
  • Bruer, J. (2011) Revisiting ‘The Myth of the First Three Years’, event: monitoring parents: science, evidence, experts and the new parenting culture, university of kent, 13–14 September.

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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cunha, F. and Heckman, J. (2009) The economics and psychology of inequality and human development, National Bureau of Economic Research, Working Paper 14695, www.nber.org/papers/w14695.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Fonseca, C. (2003) Patterns of shared parenthood among the Brazilian poor, Social Text 74, 21(1): 11127. doi: 10.1215/01642472-21-1_74-111

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gillies, V., Edwards, R. and Horsley, N. (2017) Challenging the Politics of Early Intervention: Who’s ‘Saving’ Children and Why?, Bristol: Policy Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hirsh-Pasek, K. and Bruer, J.T. (2007) The brain/education barrier, Science, 317: 129. doi: 10.1126/science.1148983

  • Honorato, I. (2021) Entre idas e vindas: arranjos familiares e circulação de crianças no Amazonas [Between comings and goings: family arrangements and the circulation of children in Amazonas)]. Federal University of Amazonas, Doctoral thesis in Anthropology.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • IES Instituto de Estudos Socioeconômicos (2021) A Conta do Desmonte – Balanço do Orçamento Geral da União [The Cost of downsizing – An evaluation of the Federal Budget], Brasilia: INESC.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kjørholt, A.T. and Penn, H. (eds) (2019) Early Childhood and Development Work: Theories, Policies, and Practices, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Klingl, E. (2005) Exclusão Social até na Creche [Social exclusion even in daycare], Correio Braziliense, Brasília.

  • Landeira, F.P. (2021) Entre la oficina estatal, el barrio y las casas: Fronteras inestables y sentidos en tensión en torno a la ‘buena crianza’ en una política de primera infancia [Between the state administration, the neighborhood, and homes: Unstable borders and tense meanings surrounding “good care” in an early childhood policy], in L.R. de Castro (ed) Infâncias do sul Global: Experiências, Pesquisa e Teoria Desde a Argentina e o Brasil [Childhoods in the Global South: Experiments, Research and Theory in Argentina and Brazil, Salvador: EDUFBA.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Lee, E., Bristow, J., Faircloth, C. and Macvarish, J. (eds) (2014) Parenting Culture Studies, Basingstoke/New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Luccisano, L. and Wall, G. (2007) The shaping of motherhood through social investment in children: examples from Canada and Mexico, Paper presented at 48th Annual International Studies Association Conference, 28 February–3 March, Chicago, IL.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Macvarish, J. (2016) Neuroparenting: The Expert Invasion of Family Life, London: Palgrave Macmillan.

  • Macvarish, J., Lee, E.J. and Lowe, P.K. (2014) The ‘first three years’ movement and the infant brain: a review of critiques, Sociology Compass, 8(6): 792804. doi: 10.1111/soc4.12183

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • McCain, M.N. and Mustard, F. (1999) Early Years Study: Final Report, Toronto: Canadian Institute for Advanced Research.

  • McCain, M. and Mustard, F. (2002) The Early Years Study, Three Years Later, Toronto: The Founders’ Network.

  • Mustard, J.F. (2007) Experience-based brain development: scientific underpinnings of the importance of early child development in a global world, M. Young (ed) in Early Child Development: From Measurement to Action: A Priority for Growth and Equity, Washington, DC: World Bank, pp 3564.

    • Search Google Scholar
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  • 1 Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil

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