Interview with Dr. Elliott Barker
Canadian psychiatrist and child advocate Dr. Elliott Barker is the founder/director of the
Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (CSPCC) and editor of the quarterly journal Empathic
Parenting (no longer in publication). His compassion, insight and zeal have helped parents and professionals
world-wide to understand the critical need for treating children with trust and respect.
In the late 60's and early 70's, Dr. Barker was the Assistant Superintendent and Clinical director at a maximum security hospital for the "dangerous mentally ill" in Ontario. His experiences there with psychopathic patients and their memories of early childhood cruelty led him to focus on the prevention of child abuse. As he explains, "It is generally accepted that psychopaths are at best very difficult to treat. But we know how to prevent the 'diseases of non-attachment', as Selma Fraiberg called them. Parents generally seem oblivious to that knowledge. So we founded the CSPCC to make that knowledge better known to parents-to-be."
To that end, the CSPCC published the highly-regarded quarterly journal Empathic Parenting for 25 years (1978-2003). Although the journal will no longer be published, CSPCC will continue to educate parents through its website at empathicparenting.org. Dr. Barker plans to make the site "user-friendly to elementary, secondary and college students to get the best information possible on child-rearing in the early years. Our goal has always been to reach people before they have kids, and the website, as a source for school assignments, may well do more than the journal. We also hope to have all issues of Empathic Parenting available via the Internet."
The website, like the journal, will continue to emphasize the dangers of consumerism and its effects on children. As Dr. Barker sees it, "In the 70's, the world seemed hell-bent for daycare and by the 90's daycare seemed almost normative - though insane. I'm not optimistic about any real improvement for kids society-wide until consumerism is exposed for what it is and some sort of brakes put on it. The priorities of parents with young children are powerfully altered in the direction of getting the goods and services marketed as necessary and desirable, and parents are driven to overvalue social status and careerism. The values of consumerism are envy, selfishness and greed. Such values are inimical to the altruism required to care for helpless little infants and toddlers."
To avoid the temptations of a consumer society, Dr. Barker offers the following recommendations:
- Raise a child whose emotional needs are met so that there is a well developed capacity for affectionate relationships and little need for a compensating craving for things and thrills.
- Seek out a circle of like-minded people - existing organizations, intentional communities etc. The Internet is making connections between individuals and small groups of like-minded people possible as never before.
- Seek out non-commercial spaces (parks, YMCA etc.) and genuinely fun non-commercial activities (sports, cards etc.)
- Cultivate an awareness of and an allergy to all types of advertising - stealth advertising, "free" this and that, etc.
- Avoid as much advertising as possible - TV, radio, flyers, newspapers, magazines. Is the content worth the price of exposure?
- Avoid stores and malls as much as possible.
- In a practical sense, the world would place an appropriate value on child-rearing - reflected in the status accorded parenting - financially and in every other way. Every town would have an organization as motivated as the Chamber of Commerce to promote the best for its children.
- Prior to conception parents-to-be would be as knowledgeable about what is important in rearing a child as they are now of things like their favorite sports, music, cars, fashion etc.
When asked to give just one piece of advice to an expectant couple, Dr. Barker replied, "By the time a child is on the way it's mostly too late, in the sense that the parents' priorities are too established to alter much. They're locked into their expectations of a standard of living and what is valuable to them (usually without realizing it, like fish in water) - accepting their views as immutable and into which the child must fit. In a philosophical sense, perhaps infants and toddlers should be treated more like powerful little messengers from another world from whom we are meant to learn."
This interview originally appeared in Life Learning, May-June 2004, p. 32.
Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and
unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of
The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift
Elliott Barker Library