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Abstracts: Ethics, History and Mental Disorder

John Stewart (Oxford Brookes)
Child Guidance in Inter-War Britain: building ‘integrated personalities capable of taking their place as members of the family of the Church and of the State'(1)


The Child Guidance Movement took off in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the First World War and then, thanks in large part to American philanthropy, spread shortly afterwards to Great Britain and to Europe. The Movement sought to address emotional and psychological problems in children primarily through the use of psychiatric techniques and was thus, initially at least, part of a wider search for ‘mental hygiene’ in the inter-war period.

This paper explores this transfer from the United States to Great Britain, focussing on three particular, inter-related, issues. First, one of the clear aims of the movement in general was not only the treatment of ‘normal’ but emotionally and psychologically disturbed children, but also their observation for research purposes. Both of these were to take place in specifically designated clinics. Little thought appears to have been given, however, to the ethical dimensions of such observation. Child guidance was thus part of what medical sociologists such as David Armstrong have identified as the increasing surveillance of children in the twentieth century.

Second, the transfer of practice and philosophy from the United States was of itself problematic. It is clear that many British social workers sent to the United States for training in this field were greatly disturbed by the American emphasis on sexual matters. If this was true of social workers, it was even more so in respect of the general public and leading proponents of child guidance were at pains to deny its association with explorations of child – and indeed adult – sexuality. All this meant that British child guidance was on one level much less ‘scientific’ than its US counterpart, and indeed tended to fall back on moral categories of classification in respect of its patients.

Third, and related to the previous two points, other characteristics which can now be seen as raising ethical issues, but were again little commented upon at the time, impacted upon British child guidance and tended to separate it out from the American model. Most obviously, religion played a part, especially in Scotland where the first ‘proper’ child guidance clinic was also a Roman Catholic institution. This had quite explicit religious aims while simultaneously seeking to adopt a British variant of the medical/psychiatric model of child guidance. Such an approach clearly had significant ethical dimensions and overtones.

(1) Sister Jude (Maureen McAleer), Freedom to Grow: Sister Marie Hilda’s Vision of Child Guidance, (Glasgow, 1981), p.35.