How not to f*** them up, Oliver James

Oliver James discusses parenting, or mostly mothering, styles of under-three year olds in order to help parents to do their best in raising children. He references many studies and notes his biases as he describes three types of mothering-styles: organisers, huggers and flexis.

I found this book really helpful. It gave me a context about parenting and children and validated a lot of what I thought and encouraged me to do more of it. I have taken note of bits of pieces of the book and will post those to give readers a taste of what he writes.

The most important things I took away from the book were that under-threes are satiable and you cannot spoil them, they do not have control over their behaviours and so anything wrong they do must be the parent’s responsibility. This does not mean that they don’t need to learn how to behave socially.

Parents need to be healthy and happy in order to take care of their children but this does not mean that they don’t have to sacrifice in order that their children are raised in a healthy and helpful manner. Selfish behaviour is not the same as making sure you are giving yourself enough space to be healthy, mentally and physically.

Under threes do not need socialisation or education. The most important thing for them is loving and responsive care from an adult.

It really does matter enormously how you care for under-threes. (3)
For the vast majority of children it is not true that their mental abilities – language, reading, number skills – will be helped by early education. (22) What counts with under-3s is responsiveness from a familiar adult who understands needs that cannot yet be conveyed by words. (41)

Babies and toddlers are satiable (56) Babies and small toddlers are largely interested in the company of one responsive adult and get little from other children. (67)


On the whole, babies whose mothers go to them when they cry in the night or who co-sleep are less likely to sleep through the night. However, there is also good evidence that strict sleep routines do lead to more insecure, and to more irritable and fussy, babies. While you may be scared that ‘indulging’ them will be just the first step towards a clingy, greedy, needy, selfish toddler and to a child who cannot obey rules at school, the very opposite is the case. It is the babies whose needs have been met who become the secure, calm, satisfied children and productive schoolchildren, and adults- the ones you might say were spoilt and indulged as babies. (103)

The longer a child was cared for by substitutes, the greater the risk of the child becoming aggressive and disobedient.(104)

There is a lot of discussion about daycare which I recommend you read so I don’t misquote.

There is a massive advertising and marketing industry, backed up by implicit role models portrayed all over the media, which suggests that being selfish is a good thing. Making sure that you create a life which truly reflects your wishes and needs is not the same as that – it would take a large account of your child and partner’s needs too, in order for you to feel yours are being met.(257)

Putting your happiness ahead of that of everyone else is not what is meant by balance.

Since 1950 when 30% of all adult women had a paid job, the increase to more women than men in employment has been entirely in part-time workers. This is true even in Scandinavia.(269) 77% of women have low-paid, low-skill jobs which most say are not stimulating or fulfilling in themselves.(271)


Thus far, results from Britain’s Sure Start programme have been desperately disappointing. A possible explanation is that, although it was originally intended to be more than just day care, Sure Start rapidly turned into a method for cheaply enabling low-income mothers to discard their under-threes and return to work (even its apologists admit this – see Sinclair, 2009, p44: with the expansion of the Sure Start programme ‘came a reduction in spend per child and an increased emphasis on day care to help women, particularly single mothers, get back to work) (277)

There seems little doubt that day care raises cortisol levels. While disrupted cortisol levels may be associated with many problems, including depression and fearfulness, there is considerable evidence they also affect aggression and good conduct. If so, when children raised in day care are compared with ones raised at home, they should be more aggressive.(283)

Studies found that the more time a child spent in non-maternal care (most of it day care), the more disharmonious was its relationship with its mother when with her. Equally true at six to 36 months as at five years old.

The greater difficulties were in –
• assertiveness: they talked too much, bragged or boasted and argued a lot
• disobedience: they talked out of turn, were disobedient at school, defiantly talked back at school stuff and disrupted school discipline
• aggression: they got into many fights, were prone to cruelty, bullying or meanness, they physically attacked others and they destroyed their own possessions.

Scientific studies prove that we are made insecure if the care we receive between six months and three years of age is not responsive and reliable. The insecurity takes three main forms: clinging, avoidance or a confusing mixture of the two (known as ‘disorganised’).

Rates of insecurity are easily highest among children cared for by unresponsive mothers. (288)

Only 9% of daycare in the US and UK is of high quality.(292)

The NIHCD study found that when mothers said they believed it was beneficial for their child if they worked, their infants were more likely to be insecure. For example, such mothers strongly agreed with the statement ‘children whose mothers work are more independent and able to do things for themselves ‘. Mothers with these views were less sensitive or responsive.

it is well established that insecure parents are less sensitive than secure ones.(293)

It should be clear by now that it seems very likely that day care, in and of itself, increases the risk of three problems for children: cortisol dysregulation, aggression and insecurity.

Also, there is evidence that extremely neglectful care causes children to develop indiscriminate friendliness in which the child acts with equal niceness to strangers and people it knows, possibly in an attempt to attract love and attention, and because it has not learnt the most basic elements of intimacy.(294)

other findings indicate that extended or repeated separation from the mother in itself causes long-term emotional problems in adulthood, in particular borderline personality disorder.(295)

Assuming that your child’s attributes are an unchangeable, genetically determined destiny tends to be accompanied by the feeling that you have little control in the relationship. Mothers who attribute a lot of power to their children are at greater risk of maltreating them.(314)

perceiving children as wilful and intentionally bad, the ‘oh they can be little devils’ way of thinking, is associated with abusive parenting and adverse outcomes.(315)

believing that personality and intelligence is malleable means people / children perform better.(319)

Caring for an infant in the earliest months produces dysphoria, a state of low-grade, depressed mood allied to total exhaustion.(323)

These quotations are taken out of context so do read the book for a better understanding. I am very glad I read it.

Oliver James, How Not to F*** Them Up

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