Incredible Years as a Tool of Governmentality: A Foucauldian Analysis of an Early Years Parenting Program
Educational policies have significant impacts on the lives of those involved, silencing or strengthening one mode of pedagogy over others in society. The way that issues are re/presented within policies limits what is considered to be desirable or even possible in society (Bacchi 2000). Consequently, looking into how a certain issue is problematized and framed in policies invites individuals to unpack the unspoken regulations and issues that derive from these policies. Examining a predominant parenting policy in early childhood education such as Incredible Years provides much insight into “what is unsaid yet present” assumptions and taken-for-granted values and beliefs in the current field of parent education.
Foucault’s concepts of “governmentality” and “discursive normalization” are particularly helpful in this respect as they provide tools to systematically unpack a regime of truth and other ways of being that are “eclipsed” and “hidden” underneath this “truth” (MacNaughton 2005). Foucault (1991) describes “governmentality” as “the conduct of conduct”; “a form of activity aiming to shape, guide or affect the conduct of some person or persons” (p. 2). He argues that this activity enables only a certain type of practice and thinking possible and visible to its practitioners and those on whom it is practiced. If a system of power produces a specific form of knowledge as the only conceivable way to understand and characterize a particular context, how can one see what is supposedly made to be “invisible” and “unthinkable” while she/he operates within the same system of power?
Foucault suggests looking deeper into what has been presented and considered as “normal/natural” as well as into the gaps and silences in the milieu and to reconstruct a particular mode of “techniques of power” or “power/knowledge.” He argues that practitioners of this method are enabled to discern how and what power/knowledge relations are at work “to observe, monitor, shape and control the behavior of individuals situated within the range of social and economic institutions such as the school, the factory and the prison” (Foucault 1991, pp. 3–4).
Drawing from poststructural and postcolonial theories, the problems of current parenting education in early childhood education and the possible implications of these issues are explored. By unpacking discourses of parenting produced by Incredible Years (IY) as an accepted parenting program through Foucault’s notion of “governmentality” and “discursive normalization”, the “norm” of parenting that is promoted by the current system and how this concept of “truth” in parenting influences the everyday life of families are examined.
What Is Incredible Years?
For its wealth of “evidence” and “science-based” strategies, Incredible Years [IY] has been chosen and implemented by many countries as an official parenting program “to prevent and to treat” children’s conduct problems. The aim of the program is to equip “high risk” parents with behavior management skills and developmentally appropriate techniques, so that they can provide better support for children’s development of social and emotional competence and school readiness. Presenting reports of various clinical trials as evidence, the developers and the supporters of IY argue that the program is an efficient tool to prevent “predictable negative consequences” such as violence, delinquency, and substance abuse among these child/ren in adolescence and adulthood (The Incredible Years® 2013). This argument, however, needs more thorough consideration because evidence-based approaches can be criticized for the gap they leave in our knowledge of the reality of children and families’ daily lives. Whether IY does provide sufficient, sustainable, and meaningful support for children and families as trial reports suggest still remains to be seen.
“Desirable/Positive” Parenting in Incredible Years
A particular model of parenting is identified as “desirable/positive” within the policy: a self-managing, economically sound, and functional individual who are in control of their children’s education and behavior. The discourses of IY provide a clear illustration of what is considered as a desirable norm of knowledge and valued forms of relationships and interactions between parents and children in the current system. Individuals who demonstrate these attributes are presented as capable and valuable members of society, turning the domain of parent education into a “a site of intense regulation” (Baez and Talburt 2008).
Scientific Discourses as the Universal Truth
Attributable to the last few decades’ growing interest in different approaches to child development (e.g., Vygotsky’s cultural-historical account and Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory), the use of terms such as “developmentally appropriate practice” has been less popular and is even avoided in some educational disciplines (Burman 2008). However, this does not necessarily herald the decline of developmental psychology. On the contrary, developmental assumptions have become ingrained and naturalized in the way professionals understand and assess children’s learning so that their subtle yet effective power has become less obvious and more difficult to notice at times (Burman 2008; MacNaughton 2005). Traces of Piaget’s stage model of cognitive development still can be found in many teacher training courses and research journals in education, perpetuating the privileged status of developmental psychology as universal, factual, and absolute truth (Burman 2008).
Each of the programs is thematically consistent, includes the same theoretical underpinnings, and is based on the developmental milestones for each age stage.
Each of these core programs emphasizes developmentally appropriate parenting skills and includes age-appropriate video examples of culturally diverse families and children with varying temperaments and development issues.
The programs have been found to be effective in strengthening teacher and parent management skills, improving children’s social and emotional competence and school readiness, and reducing behavior problems.
With such a certainty, the discourses in these narratives authorize developmental psychology as the only factual and correct truth by which to understand and measure children’s learning and behavior management skills as the “one-fits-all” answer for the challenges that all children and parents face in life. In this way of thinking, other types of knowing, beliefs, and values in parenting must be set aside and are considered unnatural (abnormal), incorrect, and inconsequential for normal/good individuals because scientific knowledge is “The” universal/absolute truth.
The assumption underneath this approach to knowing is that all human beings are the same, thus discovering and implementing the universal and absolute truth that encompasses this essence of human existence will solve the problems of society and achieve further human progress (Smith 1999). Subtleties, complexities, and the messiness of real life are ironed out neatly, reducing the multifaceted challenges individuals experience to a simple and straight problem. In the case of immigrant children and families, there could be a variety of reason for their less than favorable behaviors (in the eyes of teachers and other experts). These children and families experience adjustment of social and verbal languages, and environments (climate, food, cultures, and beliefs), which could make it more difficult for them to demonstrate the desirable conducts in particular contexts. Or it could be financial strains and working at a job that is much less than they are qualified for in their home countries that add extra stress and pressures on immigrant parents.
However, the problem with perceiving and judging individuals in relation to the absolute/universal truth of what postcolonialists refer to as “the West” (Smith 1999) is that the complex challenges immigrant children and parents experience are ignored, while the whole weight of the children’s welfare/success rests on parents (Suissa 2006). Instead of endeavoring to understand and support the genuine issues in children and parents’ lives, this approach concentrates on highlighting what they are not doing right in accordance to the norm, and how to fix this (Suissa 2006). Through this developmental/behavior psychological lens, the immigrant child’s frustration that derives from difficulties to master different social skills and languages may be seen simply as aggressive behavior and the manifestation of his/her parents’ inadequate skills and knowledge in parenting. Regardless of various socio-economic backgrounds, genders, contexts, cultures, and beliefs, the normalizing discourses suggest that being equipped with this universal/absolute truth should improve the behaviors and performances of problem children and parents.
Foucault (1977, 1980, 2003) challenges this notion of scientific knowledge as universal, indisputable, absolute truth with objectivity. Using an example of penal system and mental institutions, he highlights the regime of truth as “culturally prejudiced, partial, situated and local” for it is a product of particular knowledge/power relations (MacNaughton 2005, p. 23). Therefore, he claims that the regime of truth, or the politics of truth, should be understood as the manifestation of a power struggle over meanings in a specific milieu, rather than as indisputable truth that encompasses all human lives (Foucault 1980).
For example, to traditional Korean parents who are brought up in Confucian discourses, what is perceived as good parenting may include teaching children to respect elders and to value a strong family morality (e.g., teaching children to offer help such as lifting heavy things for elders, and putting the family’s needs first, if need be sacrificing their own gains). These values and beliefs are considered as the truth of parenting by some Korean parents, yet they become invisible, irrelevant, and even inadequate in a context where scientific knowledge is positioned with privileged status.
This does not imply that the traditional truth of Korean parenting holds less value/worth than the scientific knowledge. More accurately it unveils the excessive singularity of psychological discourses in modern societies like ours and how it enables the modern disciplinary power to punish the soul of the normal/the abnormal. Contrary to the widespread representation of scientific knowledge as a neutral and universal truth, it is highly political, and situated (Foucault 1980). Neither does the knowledge re/produced in Korean parenting have more value than the scientific way of knowing as it comes with its own sets of problems and limitations. The strong value placed on family responsibilities and social hierarchies should be understood in terms of how these discourses support the mechanism of power operating in the particular Korean context, rather than as a representation of higher moral values and stronger family bonds within the population. It is a manifestation of “the subjection of those who are perceived as objects and the objectification of those who are subjected,” thus providing a useful insight into how the existing power mechanism sustains its authority by producing certain discourses (Foucault 1977, p. 185). In other words, “truth” should be understood as a system of power that regulates and distributes the body, governing the soul of individuals for economic and political production in societies; how normalizing discourses differentiate between the normal and the abnormal; and by whom and how these discourses are authorized.
The Normal/Natural Relationship
The foundation of the Incredible Years programs focuses on building warm and nurturing parent–child and teacher-child relationships through children directed play, social and emotion coaching, praise and incentives. (The Incredible Years® 2013)
Drawing from behavioral science and developmental psychology, these statements emphasize the “warm and nurturing” type of adult-child relationships, and the “positive” verbal interactions for a child’s learning. The problem arises from the subjective nature of the terms “warm and nurturing” from culture to culture. Some of the more traditional contexts in Korean and Tongan cultures may discourage verbal acknowledgement of desirable behaviors and may seem firm and strict, yet there may be a strong and nurturing relationship between child and parents nonetheless. However, as relationships and interactions between these children and parents do not match the exact representation of the norm, they may appear harsh or inadequate/abnormal childrearing practice to people who are in a position of power to assess and to control (e.g., early childhood educators, health professionals, and social workers).
By presenting discourses of the “normal/desirable” way to be as a parent and a child in an explicit manner, these narratives implicitly categorize those who do not fit into this norm as abnormal, rationalizing the disciplinary power to intervene and conform these individuals (Foucault 1977, 2003). Once abnormal individuals are identified, various institutions get involved to catch them early so that “predictable negative consequences” will be prevented (The Incredible Years® 2013).
In addition, the appropriate forms of parent-teacher and child-adult relationships are identified in the document. Parents are “to partner with teachers and to be involved in children’s school experiences,” and to engage in “child-directed play” for the child’s academic success and social/emotional competencies (The Incredible Years® 2013). There is no regard for different cultures’ approach to child-adult, parent-teacher dynamics, not to mention a complexity and multiplicity within the same culture. The discourses in IY present active involvement at school and child-led play as the normal parenting practice, whereas other norms of childrearing practice are ignored.
For instance, among various styles of parenting that exist in Japanese and Korean cultures, those who are brought up with more traditional values expect a distinctive role for each individual in relation to the social hierarchies. In the case of the child-adult dynamic in these cultures, it is adults who are assumed to be wiser and more knowledgeable, placing them in a higher position in a social hierarchy. This is not unlike the way that “Western hetero-patriarchal cultures” (Smith 1999) perceive children and adult hierarchies. The difference, however, is the trajectory of this dynamic. Some Japanese and Korean cultures have a more candid manifestation of this child-adult relationship expressed with a more authoritative approach and with defined roles for each party. Either parents decide what is good for their child, expecting the child to comply with their commands, or the child and parents get engaged in separate activities that are appropriate for each position (i.e., “Playing is for the child, and adults need to work, and be responsible and mature.”).
The normalizing discourses of active involvement and child-direct play fail to grasp these subtle cultural interpretations and representations of power in complex social dynamics, condemning these parents as unhelpful, uninterested, and incompetent. It is highly presumptuous to assume that these parents care less or have no interest in their child’s learning just because they do not demonstrate the precise style of parenting provided in IY. On the contrary, many of these immigrants choose to move overseas to give their children a better chance in life and high-quality education, even if it means making significant sacrifices such as giving up secure careers and being separated from families and friends.
The Normal/Natural Interaction
The program’s content and objectives provide added insight into a standard/model behavior of child and parent. The IY’s developers claim that the warm and nurturing relationship can be achieved by applying positive tactics such as incentives and praises. It is also suggested that competent parents should coach/model socially and emotionally acceptable behaviors, and manage children’s misbehaviors with “proactive” disciplinary techniques. The desirable interactions and relationships between children and parents are described in microscopic detail.
Program Two: Using praise and incentives to encourage cooperative behavior.
Getting and giving support through praise
Recognizing social and academic behaviors that need praise
Understanding how to “shape” behaviors
Understanding how to develop incentive programs that are developmentally appropriate
Understanding ways to use tangible rewards for problems such as dawdling, not dressing, noncompliance, not going to bed, and toilet training (The Incredible Years® 2013)
Many of these behavior management strategies promoted in IY entail verbal and explicit responses. To “shape” children’s behaviors into desirable and normal patterns, parents are encouraged to use a great deal of verbal praise, “negotiate” with children, and “motivate” them with “developmentally appropriate” incentives. On the one hand, academic and social skills are distinguished as key competencies to be mastered in the early years and worthy of recognition and verbal praise. On the other hand, noncompliance, not sleeping at given bedtime, reliance on parents for toileting and self-care, and insufficient movements are placed at the opposite end, the abnormal/detrimental behaviors.
By providing these infinitesimal details of desirable parenting, the modern disciplinary power regulates the movement of the docile body, “clears up confusion; it dissipates compact groupings of individuals wandering about the country in unpredictable ways,” and increases the efficiency of the power in the system (Foucault 1977, p. 219). This subtle and calculated technique of subjection enables the disciplinary power to establish a meticulous chain of surveillance, exploiting the body’s ability to produce to maximum capacity. Multiplicities of each individual are broken down and reduced into inconsequential and manageable pieces of movement for the systematic control of bodies. A fine web of surveillance across disciplines and institutions allows the disciplinary power to distribute the bodies in the most effective manner according to the individual’s attributes and skills, and if need be to recodify the soul of the citizens so they become useful/compliant subjects in the system.
For example, in some cultures (e.g., some traditional Afghani, Chinese cultures) children do not have a fixed bedtime. Being fully integrated into adults’ lives, children stay up with adults to participate in family gatherings and late night feasts. While this is regarded as a normal part of life for these families in their home countries, in the milieu where “Western hetero-patriarchal culture” (Smith 1999) is at the center, the parents may be criticized for failing to ensure enough length of sleep for the child’s health and his/her quality participation in educational settings the next day. The clash between their own values/beliefs and the dominant truth is most likely to be resolved by parents giving in to what is believed to be normal in the context in which they operate. Education, health, and welfare institutions identify abnormal children and parents, and refer them to intervention programs such as IY in order to correct and cure them. Or they may cave in to the pressure of normalizing discourses and make a decision to conform to the norm so that they will no longer be categorized with deficit labels: incompetent and irresponsible parents who have neither sufficient parenting skills nor knowledge. In spite of the dissonance these parents experience concerning cultural beliefs and dominant discourses in parenting, the elusive power of discursive normalization pressurizes individuals to perform according to the norm, reproducing and reinscribing a particular form of childrearing as the truth (Foucault 1977).
The attributes of “Desirable/Positive” parents reflect what is valued within modern society – autonomy, efficiency, economic productivity, science-based and measurable knowledge, and self-betterment. Throughout the policy parenting is described as a form of performance to prove your capability in society; thus failing to meet this specific norm of parenting practice not only indicates one’s inadequacy as a parent, but also incompetency as a member of society.
Caution must be exercised for this construction of parent education as it could operate as an apparatus of the current system, regulating/dominating parents’ and children’s soul and body to conform to the norm of the modern colonizing and scientific regime of truth. Compared with the norm, families and children with different values and beliefs are most likely demonized and pathologized as dangerous/abnormal, being excluded further, and suffering pressure to conform. By identifying these dangers that derive from the current way of understanding parenting, policy makers, educators, and other stakeholders in early childhood education may be able to disrupt what is considered as the only truth in modern parenting, and open up more possibilities for future.
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