Let Rachel out to play

13th June 1997 at 01:00
Two children in a junior-school classroom. One is a boy from a working-class background. He has two siblings. His parents are married, but there are stresses related to frequent unemployment.

None the less, the dad is around and has a reasonable relationship with the boy. The mother finds the boy, let's call him Mark, difficult. The teacher finds him disruptive, challenging and with a short attention span. He seems to attract trouble. Although he does not seem of low ability, he performs tasks indifferently and without enthusiasm. It is very hard for the teacher to like him.

The other is a girl from a middle-class household. Her mother has no other children. She is heavily involved in her daughter's education, or at least in her daughter's succeeding in education. The little girl, let's call her Rachel, is extremely helpful in class. She is always there to put away and set out equipment, her work is neat and well presented, she gets upset if she has overlooked any requirement. It is very hard for the teacher not to like her.

What do these two children have in common? The answer might surprise you. Both their mothers had post-natal depression for the first two months of the children's lives. Dr Lynne Murray, who is conducting long-term research on maternal depression has now tracked the same group of mothers over nine years. The effects of maternal depression in the period immediately after birth are still clearly visible years later. Video clips show boys such as our fictional Mark far more anxious and easily distracted than the boys of undepressed mothers, more inclined to demand attention but less able to cope with it, far less co-operative, less creative in their play, less merry. Girls like our Rachel, on the other hand, display an almost tragic eagerness to help their mothers, a vivid fantasy life and unwavering attention.

What could the reasons be for this? The main predictor for maternal depression is either not wanting any baby or not wanting a particular sex of baby. It seems, perhaps, that mothers who did not want a boy find them particularly challenging. Boys tend more often to have irregular physical systems; it takes them longer to settle down into easy-to-run routines. They tend to demand more stimulation: hard to give if the mother feels low. (For mothers who want boys, these difficulties can be overcome.) Girls seem to settle more easily. Later on, of course, they will copy their mothers.

One of the girls in Dr Murray's video clips is shown tidying the dolls' house. She describes her father and brother as "lazybones" and adds "My teacher calls me a lazybones because I'm sometimes slow. But" - passionately - "I'm not a lazybones, I'm not!" So far from being a lazybones, in fact, that her favourite, most happy, times were tidying up with her mother while her father and brother lazed around.

So, what does this mean for teachers? A major marker for maternal depression used by Dr Murray was the quality of attention. At two months of age, the depressed mothers were not in sync with the baby. They would initiate smiling and talking with the child, but they would not as a rule respond to the baby's attempts to communicate. Quite often, they would also end it abruptly, leaving the baby futilely cooing and gurgling.

Video clips show girl and boy babies alike being puzzled by this pattern, but whereas the girls would tend, after a few vain efforts to revive the conversation, to give up, the boys would bellow and strain. In contrast, the contented mothers would spend a lot of time "chatting" with their babies and would clearly get a lot of enjoyment out of them.

Is it too fanciful to suppose that children of depressed mothers - post-natally or ongoing - obscurely feel responsible for their mothers' sadness and try either to make it up to them (girls) or to distract them from it (boys)? This may well be too simple a way of looking at it since, for instance, being middle-class can protect boys against educational under-achievement as can being female, but it does point to quite small measures which might be helpful.

Boys who have "ants in their pants" and are easily distracted need to have some extra time in which their endeavours can be appreciated - perhaps five minutes working at a task while the teacher simply watches.

And girls who are so eager to please can sometimes be relieved of the burden of being the helpful one and allowed just to buzz off. In short, get Mark to put away and let Rachel out to play.

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