Wednesday, 21 October 2009

More on crying

And a hypothesis
I have just caught up with an interesting posting by Susie Mallett, concerning children’s crying in conductive groups, especially when they are new to them:

She makes the very important, normative statement that this is one of the things that childen do in such circumstances, and is not specific to Conductive Education.

This is certainly one of those many practical themes, of concern to anyone involved in this work, parents and staff, that really does merit further exemplification and discussion. Thanks, Susie, for keeping tis in our attention.

That said, I should like to add my own fourp’th: two tupp’ths, in fact.*

Something over and above?

Yes, young children’s crying in new and unfamiliar circumstances, not least if separated from their parents and family for the first time, and adults’ having to act in some way in response to this, are hardly news and one should not allow too much to be made of this in CE.

But those circumstances may be all the more new and familiar not just for disabled children entering any new setting, but maybe more so for disabled children (and their families) on first starting out in Conductive Education.

It is hardly my role to enumerate here why this might be.

Correspondingly, there may be all the greater requirement for the adults involved to take especial conscious measures to respond to this, as part of their upbringing and pedagogy.

Hardly my role either to talk about, as I am neither parent nor pedagogue…

A special case

In the first crazy rush of British and other non-Hungarian parents to Budapest back in the late eighties and early nineties, circumstances were certainly new and unfamiliar to everyone involved (and it was not just children who gave way to tears). Parents were away from home and the rest of their families, separated, isolated, lost a strange foreign. ‘communist’ land where people spoke and ate and did everything ‘foreign’. Many of them were living alone with their child the first time, very intensively, and their only social contacts, often equally intense, were with the febrile and atomised little community of other foreign parents. Some emotional background for their little children…!

The Institute and its staff did not know how to deal with this unanticipated influx. Who would? There were problems of language (mega-problems), of welfare, of culture-clash and of mutual misunderstanding (not least those surrounding valuta, love of which is the root of all evil). Incorporating these strange little children into existing groups soon gave way to a way of working totally unknown to the conductors: short-term, rapid turn-over, with new groups in perpetual formation. ‘New child in the group’ soon became the normal status for foreign children. And did some of them cry!

So here’s the personal situation. You have arrived with your child Budapest for a three-week stay. You have raised a small fortune to get there and the hopes an fears of your families, and of your local community (and itd media too in many cases) are heaped upon you. You have had an exhausting journey. Your accommodation may be less that you had expcted, and you may not have eaten properly yet. You are lost, confused, broke, but you are buoyed up by the most colossal hope. Hhere on our first day, you hand over your confused and disoriented child to a lady in white who hardly speaks a word of English and bears him off into a strange room that sounds like its full of screaming, distressed children. You hear him beginning to start up himself, and you are out in the corridor…

More experienced mums downstairs in the Bufé may comfort you by telling you that theirs screamed in the group for the whole of their three weeks thee…. And they will also tell you, in awe, of the progress that their children have made.

Your child may calm down and even start loving it, or may indeed find the whole situation aversive for the whole of your stay. But you too will likely soon be remarking the progress that he has made, the things that he can do that he could not do before. And then, all too soon, you will be safe home again, your family and neighbours will be remarking the change, so maybe will the local media, and you will join the switchback struggle to raise the money to get vack to Budapest for another three-week fix, crying or no crying…

Crazy days.

A hypothesis

Is my account a gross travesty of those days? It is up to others to corroborate, refute or elaborate my account. I saw all this, and more, some twenty years ago. I witnessed the distress experienced by both children and their parents in those circumstances, and the progress, the triumphs that were sufficiently concrete to bring parents back for more, everything notwithstanding.

And I can also confirm that many of these children progressed, despite their distress. How could I account this to myself? My hypothesis made at the time is a simple one:
  • that it was not necessarily the conductive pedagogy as such (alone or at all, I could not say) that was moving these distressed children on.
  • it was what they and their families were now freed from the physical restrictions and the restrictive expectations and understandings that had been heaped upon them.
This hypothesis later led me to recognise and appreciate the iatrogenic, nocebo effect of so much of what our society (inclding its 'services') to the development of disabled children and their families. Funny, you do not see much of that in the ‘professional literature. Two of the few useful, relevant concepts that I have found in the Western psychological literature are learned dependence and learned helplessness, though I would take them further and consider taught dependence and taught helplessness. You do not see much of that in the disability ‘literature’ either.

I would therefore add a rider to my hypothesis above, which was expressed to me by several of the parents (usually young mothers on their own with their child in Budapest). They told me that this was the first time I their lives in which they had been thrown entirely upon their own resources and, however, awful this was, they were being forced to confront their problems for themselves, and solve them. And this included living more intensively, interracting with, getting to know their disabled child in the long in-between-times and weekends in a strange and alienating city, in ways that just did not happen back home.

Crying is not nice, bad times are horrid. But they are part of life. We may even learn from them.

Previous item on crying

* Horror: my computer does not recocognise the words ‘tupp’th’ and ‘fourp’th’


  1. Andrew Shalom,
    Your account of the typical first encounter with the the Institute rings very true for us. It was a warm fall day when we left Miriam at the door of her Hungarian speaking group - the windows were open and we could hear Miriam wailing the whole way on our walk up the street. We were so lucky to have a wonderful English speaking conductor in our group, who could explain and calm our fears. But the crying fairly quickly turned to satsifaction as Miriam learned Hungarian(!) and also started speaking, sitting, and then standing in rapid succesion. And there was so much to enjoy in Budapest! I remember the difficulty of isolation when I was on my own with Miriam but the comaraderie of the Israeli parents together. As to your thoughts on the origins of the kids' amazing progress, it is no doubt a result of the "Conductive lifestyle" which our kids enjoyed. It was a total atmosphere where these kind of achievements were expected and normal.
    It was difficult, and it changed our lives forever.

    Marc Render

  2. Oddly I have a slightly different story with a current child (although we do have those who cry in group too!)

    This child will cry and refuse to do anything if their mum is in the room and will look to her to be 'rescued'. Mum leaves the room and literally 30 seconds later he will be all smiles. We don't even have to really do anything, he realises she is gone, thinks 'oh well, don't have to bother now' and stops. It took at viewing by mum on the CCTV system to convince her of this. He has now learnt to stay calm when she comes back into the room at the end of the session too.

    We have another child who will only initiate steps when walking towards dad at the end of the day - whilst crying his eyes out...

    I doubt I am the only one to have these types of experiences.


  3. Nice to hear from you, Marc. And of course, nicer still to be reminded that some famiies and their children do move on from this introductory state to what, I know to be the case with you and yours, life-time involvement and commitment within the system.

    Your own happy otcome is wholly in accordance with the original point that Susie made, about the sheer normality of children's crying in the great scheme of things, to which my own posting was intended to be simply a rider.

    I wanted to air the sad point that some experiences of CE are so fleeting that crying and distress may consume a disproportionate amount of the brief, hard-bought time available. I picked on my sharp-etched memory of Budapest twenty or so years ago to ilustrate this, though I could perhaps have equally written about contemporay summer programs where children are separated from their parents....

    I do hope that in doing so that my clumsy accound did not give the impression that I do not wholly concur with you when you write about 'the origins of the kids' amazing progress':

    ' is no doubt a result of the "Conductive lifestyle" which our kids enjoyed. It was a total atmosphere where these kind of achievements were expected and normal.'

    But you were involved in something long term, you had the cameradie of which you speak, amongst parents who were determined to make Conductive Education a family process... I suspect that, despite some excepional pedagogic practice today, there exist situations in which such essential bedrock for upbringing and development is just not there.

    Never mind the kids, this makes ME want to weep, and I know that I am not alone in this.

  4. Thank you, Ben, for raising this so-familiar situation (not one restricted to children with disabilities by any means).

    You illustrate very well how crying is not some single phenomenon, with therefore some single simplistic causation (not least the awful biologistic causes that Susie mentioned!). Rather, it might arise within some learned systemic context, here as a way of controlling a parent.

    He presumably finds yourself and your colleagues a little less open to manipulation!


  5. I would like to use the human birth episode as a metaphor in this discussion. When a child is born he/she cries. How disturbing it is if not happen...whether it is because of the new demand of the newborn lungs, or because of the dramatic change in the environment, new demands on the physiological system, or the psychological one. Either or all, isn't it similar to the conductive experience both for parents and children?
    For many it was a second birth, both distressing and relieving...