This is the second part of a two part series critiquing the prevailing research on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE). The first part analysed the questions in the ACE questionnaire, and how the answer to these questions might be linked with the dangers of family hierarchies.
The adverse childhood experiences research tells us that adults who have had four of more adverse childhood experiences are likely to increase their chances of ‘chronic pulmonary lung disease by 390 percent; hepatitis by 240 percent; depression by 460 percent and attempted suicide by 1,220 percent.' Adverse childhood experiences are life limiting, and they impact on mental and physical health. The research provides a range of solutions for children, young people and families identified as ‘at risk’. One consistent and responsive adult in a child’s life can significantly change the outcomes for that child. Parenting using play, love, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy can help a child to feel safe, reducing anxiety and toxic stress. Developing social networks can support parents with social and economic stressors, meaning that parents or adults do not feel so alone in coping with difficulties, as well as getting practical support for economic or relationship problems. Also, abuse can be spotted, and preventative support can be netted around behaviours. Community is also a good in itself, as we know that isolation also causes emotional and physical health problems.
The research solutions are positive but they still employ an assumption that growing the social networks with professional guidance, with hierarchy unquestioned, and with experts having authority will solve the problem. There are remnants of the faulty individual view, as the interventions are only open to those identified by the State as at risk, which is a damaging supposition for somebody already suffering from adverse experiences, and especially if that view is taken by someone in a position of power and authority. The negative judgement which has initiated all this interference feels shameful, and reinforces our oppressed identity.
Regardless of how one might imagine child-rearing in the future, the possibility of hierarchy and oppression cannot be simply just ruled out. This is because those looking after children will necessarily be responsible for their young charges, and will, of necessity, be in a position to prevent them from acting in ways that are not in the minors’ best interests. This could be preventing immediate, quantifiable harms, e.g., running into traffic, or ingesting toxic substances, or preventing long-term, less quantifiable harms that might impede their future flourishing, such as neglecting their education. But when you are in a position to justifiably prevent others from doing what they wish because it would be counter to their interests, you are also in a position to prevent others from doing what they wish for less noble reasons.
Therefore, the matter of how best to prevent early oppression and adverse childhood experiences within necessarily hierarchical relationships is not a simple design problem: it is not a matter of saying, ‘if we brought up children like this the hierarchies would immediately and permanently disappear and the oppression could not ever get started, therefore, adverse childhood experiences would be a thing of the past.’ Rather, the solutions require an understanding of hierarchy and oppression and require us to maintain our vigilance; we must be able to see when it arises, as it sometimes will, and to take action. The solutions are thus to be found in educating people about the ACE's research, creating community support and conscious non-hierarchical social networks, trauma-informed relationships, and enabling nurture strategies to flourish.
Mutual Aid and The Community of The Family
The family structure is part of the ideological state apparatus. It teaches us to do as we are told and embeds the nature of hierarchy and submission, and also practically ensures children and young people are not out on the street causing trouble. The family is both a pacifier and a policeman, and it is difficult to imagine how that can change under capitalism. Both Marxists and anarchists have argued however, that if we abolish the family then we could dismantle capitalism. Most of these reimaginings of the family focus on communal child-rearing, which is a possible solution and has roots in socialist and Marxist traditions.
Sophie Lewis in a recent interview states that, “It sounds scary, emotionally, when some people hear the phrase ‘family abolition.’ But when we say we want to abolish the family, we’re not talking about taking away the few relationships and infrastructures of love that we have in this world.” So, how do we ensure we encourage nurturing, loving relationships that keep children safe both emotionally and physically, but get rid of hierarchy and possibilities of abuse? I think using a mutual aid framework gives an interesting anarchist alternative to capitalist nuclear families and communal approaches.
We can separate the functions of child-rearing into the necessary and the contingent. Necessary means essential and required. Contingent means accidental or by chance. When we are children, we are necessarily kept safe by adults, or, sometimes, by older siblings to whom adults may temporarily delegate this responsibility. In most cases, the family provides this necessary function, although other non-familial or extra-familial types of child-rearing also take place (within, say, children’s homes or communes, for example). The initial and necessary relationship of hierarchy in the child-rearing environment provides safety for children, and the hierarchy exists by virtue of the fact that adults are older and have experience. Children need adults to keep them safe, and if they don’t provide this function then we begin the cycle of toxic stress. This is a relationship of safety and is essential.
The contingent part is whether these adults can provide a nurturing environment, co-regulate children’s emotions, and minimise the hierarchy. We cannot change the necessary conditions by definition, but we have to mitigate against this necessary and inevitable hierarchy through the contingent features of the social relationships involved. To think of the contingent social relationship within the child-rearing environment, then, is to see an opportunity to change. If the contingent aspect is nurturing and empowering, and if a minimising of hierarchy takes place, this can help to mitigate the abuse that could arise from that initial and necessary hierarchy. Thus, changing the contingent aspects of the child-rearing environment can affect for the better exactly how the initial hierarchy works. It is difficult for us to think about the contingent parts of child-rearing, since what we have now is treated as the normality of common sense. It is important to remember, however, that many aspects of our society are contingent and can be changed. Family structures as we have them now form a part of State rule, and are promoted by the State. As the anthropological study of collective child-rearing among foragers shows, this is a historically specific practice, and does not have to last forever.
It is here that I think mutual aid can help us. Mutual aid was first discussed by Kropotkin, who drew on the findings of his fellow Russian naturalist Karl Kessler to argue that cooperation, not competition, was the driving force of evolution. Communities that help each other out survive and thrive. In fact, communities require cooperation to merely exist and sustain themselves. Ideally, mutual aid practice is non-hierarchical, and is organised by members of the community, rather than outsiders. Mutual aid usually uses consensus decision making, as well as forms of participatory democracy, and it is egalitarian.
Adults engaged in child-rearing could organise themselves into mutual aid communities. They could still live in small (often, but not necessarily) familial groups, but would also be part of a mutual aid network with other groups of adults and children. By family, I mean any group of adults and children for whom the adults are responsible, regardless of whether the children are biologically related to the adults, and regardless of whether child-rearing is a paid occupation (such as with a person working in a children’s home) or a commitment undertaken freely and without pecuniary compensation, as is often the case with biological parents and step-parents. The carers and children of three or four families could gather together each week for facilitated community meetings.These mutual aid groups should be explicitly political and consciously premised on non-hierarchical principles, along with utilising playfulness, love, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy (PLACE) within interactions.
Within the mutual-aid community, hierarchies would be prevented from developing because of a number of mitigating factors:
- Firstly, there would need to be conscious competence about the dangers of hierarchies; a watchfulness, reinforced by education, plus desire to create change. Resources could be created and shared, and non-hierarchical processes developed and used. It would be an explicitly political activity;
- Secondly, the individual families would maintain their autonomy and so could act as challengers and supporters to other adults within the community if needed;
- Thirdly, the children would also be given voice in the meetings. If decisions were taken, the children’s voice would count like an adult’s. Nobody would be an expert, and everyone would contribute guided by trauma-informed PLACE interactions within equality of relationships. The children may also understand better than anyone how actions and decisions make them feel. They must be able to voice these feelings.
So the mutual aid community becomes an active process of flourishing and thriving, engaged in producing consciously non-hierarchical, non-abusive relationships. The community is a social and moral good.
Children would still live in small autonomous families, who would be clearly responsible for the necessary hierarchical relationship of safety, and the parents/carers would be aware of this. The contingent mitigation is produced within the community of reflection and the mutual aid relationship with other families.
Mutual aid is also empowering, and mitigates the judgement that we discussed, and which we have termed as our oppressed identity. Our social relationships are based on the underlying premise that everyone has something to contribute. We feel empowered in the eyes of others because we have something to give. Our carers see us with pride as they recognize our capabilities and capacities. We therefore apprehend ourselves with pride, as being persons of value. We are not being ‘done to’ by a team of professionals who are supporting us, or even friends supporting us. Our ideal parent/child relationship, opposed to the internalisation of an oppressed identity within oppressive hierarchies, is, instead, a liberating and empowering identity that has something important to contribute and a say in decision making.
Emotional health would be supported in this system. Co-regulating each other's emotions would happen naturally and inevitably in a safe and nurturing social environment without hierarchy, where everyone is valued. Children would experience themselves as being of worth, with something to say and equally able to contribute to the community. Overwhelming emotions could be contained, empathised with, understood and normalised within the community of families. Emotional health would be improved and our degrees of hierarchical damage reduced, as the contingent aspects of the family social relationships mitigate the effects of the necessary hierarchy. Abuse would be less likely in this situation as children would have a voice and would feel valued, and adults would be supported within a nurturing community themselves.
This seems straightforward. All I am describing is a group of friends who have common and shared ideals in community and non-hierarchy, respecting a degree of freedom and autonomy, whilst sharing some public aspects of their lives together. Of course, it should and must seem straightforward: Kropotkin discussed mutual aid as a cooperative evolutionary process that enabled progress to happen. It is simple, natural and sustainable, and encourages creativity, authenticity, and flourishing. It is empowering. It is premised on the core belief that people do not wish harm to be done to themselves or others. This is the belief, supported through my own experience, that adverse childhood experiences do not usually happen intentionally through ill will by carers: most often it is as Socrates says, that no one does wrong knowingly.
Mutual Aid and the Community of Professional Services
The community of professional services around the family and children, including schools, family support workers, social workers and mental health services, also need to understand the non-hierarchical model if they are to help. These professional services need to change considerably in order to be more supportive and less regulatory, so that they no longer hold the coercive power that current services do. Parents and children can often feel disempowered by professional services. Professionals working with families today in our current society need to name hierarchy as the problem, challenge hierarchy wherever it arises, and not default to ‘authoritarian’ and ‘expert’ models.
As mutual aid family communities develop and thrive, the need for a group of professionals acting as experts should end, as we all learn and trust that human beings can and will flourish through actively engaging in non-hierarchical processes. It is this active, cooperative learning process within mutual-aid communities that empowers and ends the need for ‘experts’.
Hierarchy and adverse childhood experiences are bad for our health. They are literally killing us. Hierarchy leads to an increased risk of lung disease, diabetes, hepatitis, and depression, and work stress increases the chance of an early grave. Suddenly, political philosophy has gone from discussion around moral goods and competing values to something concrete and material.
The adverse childhood experiences research is an important framework that is bringing real benefit to people’s lives by locating solutions to emotional, physical and mental health in social networks and nurturing strategies. It is breaking with a model that there is something biologically wrong with us, that we were born this way or that way. We know that human beings are not fixed, but are dynamic and developing, and that the brain has plasticity. We are born with some propensities, but our environment and what happens to us, especially as children, creates and changes us biologically, emotionally, and psychologically. In the case of adverse childhood experiences, the damage can be profound and shocking and can have life-changing (and life-ruining) consequences. Equally, if we get things right, we co-regulate our emotions, nurture and develop safe and trusting relationships, and all flourish together.
Hierarchy is fertile ground for adverse childhood experiences and for abuse. It creates an oppressed identity for us, because we understand that we have parents who ‘create us’ in their judgement, as if we were an object for them. The oppressor always treats the oppressed as if they were an object, denying them their right to freedom at every turn. This oppressed identity is internalised and dictates our future sense of ourselves, and our capacity for agency and change.
Furthermore, the adverse childhood experiences can be understood as degrees of hierarchical damage which happen to us because we are oppressed and powerless at the bottom of this familial hierarchy. Thus children suffer abuse because it is the danger of all hierarchies to be abusive, and these abuses affect our health and life expectancy. We all become victims of a toxic system.
The social and nurturing solutions that lie in the contingent realm need to properly mitigate against the dangers implicit in the necessary hierarchy of safety. The solution, therefore, lies in families organising themselves into consciously political, non-hierarchical, mutual-aid relationships which are empowering and liberating, and which protect the child from the hierarchical dangers present in their need for adults to both survive and flourish. We should employ playfulness, love, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy in our ways of relating to each other, and minimise hierarchies if they arise. The community of professionals around families should rid itself of ‘expert’ roles and instead embrace mutual-aid structures, and learn from these.
We need relationships where we apprehend each other authentically in freedom; where parents/carers apprehend their children as liberated, capable of choices and of change, and as empowered; where we all apprehend ourselves with pride and agency: within mutual-aid; without hierarchy.
At the very least, in our families, in our communities, and in our work, we must recognise the terrible danger that hierarchy presents to all of us from our earliest breath, and strive to do everything we can to change, and do things differently, and better.
'So that all may live this rich, overflowing life.'
Peter Kropotkin, ‘Anarchist Morality’
Family Abolitionists - Some Recommendations
Bookchin, M. (1968) The Ecology of Freedom: The Emergence and Dissolution of Hierarchy.
Feyerabend, P. (1975) Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge.
Freire, P. (1968) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (trans. Ramos, M., 1970).
Golding, K. S., and Hughes, D. A. (2012) Creating Loving Attachments: Parenting with PACE to Nurture Confidence and Security in the Troubled Child.
Hume, D. (1739-40) A Treatise of Human Nature.
Kropotkin, P. (1897) Anarchist Morality.
Kropotkin, P. (1902) Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution.
Sartre, J-P. (1943) Being and Nothingness: An Essay on Phenomenological Ontology (trans. Barnes, H., 1956).
Steinberg, D. (2004) The Mutual-Aid Approach to Working With Groups.
 'As your ACE score increases, so does the risk of disease, social and emotional problems. With an ACE score of 4 or more, things start getting serious. The likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease increases 390 percent; hepatitis, 240 percent; depression 460 percent; attempted suicide, 1,220 percent.' Stevens, J. (2017) What ACEs and PCEs do you have? Paces Connection [online]. Available from: https://www.acesconnection.com/blog/got-your-ace-resilience-scores (Accessed, 6 April 2021).
 'Preventing ACEs could reduce a large number of health conditions: up to 21 million cases of depression; up to 1.9 million cases of heart disease; up to 2.5 million cases of overweight/obesity.' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. (2019) We Can Prevent Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [online]. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/injury/features/adverse-childhood-experiences/index.html (Accessed, 6 April 2021).
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