Developmental logics: Brain science, child welfare, and the ethics of engagement in Japan
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This article explores the unintended consequences of the ways scholars and activists take up the science of child development to critique the Japanese child welfare system. Since World War II, Japan has depended on a system of child welfare institutions (baby homes and children's homes) to care for state wards. Opponents of institutional care advocate instead for family foster care and adoption, and cite international research on the developmental harms of institutionalizing newborns and young children during the "critical period" of the first few years. The "critical period" is understood as the time during which the caregiving a child receives shapes neurological development and later capacity to build interpersonal relationships. These discourses appear to press compellingly for system reform, the proof resting on seemingly objective knowledge about child development. However, scientific evidence of harm is often mobilized in tandem with arguments that the welfare system is rooted in Japanese culture, suggesting durability and resistance to change. Further, reform efforts that use universalizing child science as "proof" of the need for change are prone to slip into deterministic language that pathologizes the experiences of people who grew up in the system. This article explores the reasons why deterministic models of child development, rather than more open-ended models like neuroplasticity, dominate activist rhetorics. It proposes a concept, "ethics of engagement," to advocate for attention to multiple scales and domains through which interpersonal ties are experienced and embodied over time. Finally, it suggests the possibility of child welfare reform movements that take seriously the need for caring and transformative relationships throughout life, beyond the first "critical years," that do not require deterministic logics of permanent delay or damage.
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