Struggling with cultural prejudice while observing babies: socio-centric and egocentric positions

Graham Music


A struggle I often have with myself whilst hearing observations of infants and families is how to manage and make sense of the inevitable feelings of judgement that both I and group members experience when hearing such emotionally powerful experiences. It is impossible at times not to cringe inside when hearing of something that seems particularly painful, or want to judge what we might see as harsh treatment, or be excited and thrilled by what we experience as a delightful interchange between a mother or father and their baby. Indeed, it is generally these very personal responses in ourselves that are the clues to what might be going on, whether a nagging sense of unease at the way a baby's subtle wishes are not understood, or an acute awareness that the newly weaned baby is desperately seeking out the breast while its mother seems oblivious to this fact. In fact, students often report that what particularly changed them in the course of attending seminars is how they were slowly able to notice and attend to subtle (and often painful) emotional nuances that they were not able to be in touch with at the start of their studies.

In this process, inevitably our values and heartfelt beliefs intrude. I noted recently how a mother's decision to give up breast-feeding and use the bottle when her firstborn was three weeks old led me to momentarily feel despondent. Similarly, I could not help a slight hint of disapproval from entering my voice when discussing a young child still breast-feeding at three years old. My reactions are based on a range of diverse factors, including my personal life experiences, theoretical understandings, personal analysis, psychotherapy trainings, supervisions and other learning. I believe, for example, that the baby weaned at three weeks was losing a potentially rich experience, as was her mother, and I am also aware of the lack of boundaries consistently displayed by the mother of the three-year-old boy. Yet there is a danger that I take my views, values, and perceptions as possessing some kind of absolute validity whereas they are obviously the views of someone living in a particular time and place, whose thinking has been influenced by certain traditions, and who would have different beliefs if born into a quite other epoch or culture. While not wanting to take on questions of relativism or post-modern thinking head-on, I intend in this paper to ask something about how we manage dilemmas that are thrown up by the culturally influenced nature of our values, and how this intersects with what we think of as "emotional understanding".

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