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Experts Agree: It’s Best for Parents to Ignore the Experts

Experts Agree: Ignore Expert AdviceDid you hear about the brand new approach to parenting that swept the Internet last week? In a piece on The Huffington Post, “Latest Parenting Trend: The CTFD Method” David Vienna described Calm the F*$% Down Parenting. Basically, it encourages moms and dads to just, well, CTFD about their parenting anxieties.

“Using CTFD assures you that — whichever way you choose to parent — your child will be fine (as long as you don’t abuse them, of course).”

Seems simple enough, but it’s kind of a joke, right? Like, what parent in his or her right mind doesn’t worry about the job they’re doing — should my children be getting ten hours of sleep or eleven, watching a little bit of television or no television at all, and am I effectively teaching the little tykes to share and get along with their peers? A whole industry of books, magazines, websites, and videos has sprouted to address these worries, most claiming to provide expert advice based on tested, scientific evidence.

A recent essay on the New York Times Motherlode blog suggests that perhaps we really should just CTFD. In “Dear Parents: Please Ignore the Experts” Nicholas Day argues that parents should pay little to no attention to scientific studies on childhood development.

Day is an expert in this field himself. He writes that he’s endlessly interested in reports on infant development, so much so that besides his articles on the subject he’s written a book about the science and history of infancy called Baby Meets World. And yet he admits that information on an infant’s development does little to actually help you parent an infant. When the baby’s having a crying fit at 2 AM, no scientific study in the world is going to help.

Day argues that we should disregard reports in the media that use sensationalist headlines which make it sound like the stakes for our kids are extremely high, and the scientific findings solid and irrefutable. As an example, he points to a study on pacifier use that found boys who sucked on pacifiers as infants were emotionally muted later in life. That single study made its way into the press in the form of a pronouncement: “Parents who don’t want their baby boys to grow up emotionally stunted may want to pocket their pacifiers during the daytime.”

Day writes:

“These new studies fuel many parenting websites — and they fool parents into thinking that the science of infancy and childhood is filled with breaking news. They appear to offer parents peer-reviewed proof of what they should do. Any parent would want this sort of certainty; I do. Ironically, though, by paying attention to any given study, parents are more likely to end up more addled and less certain, even less knowledgeable, than they were before. They may think they’re seeing the forest — that they’re seeing how babies work — when they’re actually looking at a single tree.”

I stopped reading parenting books early on in Felix’s childhood for similar reasons. When he was having sleep issues as a newborn — taking a long time to go down at night, not napping much or on a consistent schedule — I surveyed the vast literature on children’s sleep, only to find so many conflicting reports that I felt more confused then I did at the outset. I found a lot of the so-called science was either based, as Day writes, on single studies rather than a great amount of data gathered over the long-term, or on anecdotal evidence gathered by child psychologists, developmental specialists, and even just plain old parents with no experience other than their own.

And so I gravitated toward CTFD’s cousin technique: Whatever Works. My wife and I stopped wasting, I mean spending, time reading books or websites that promised miracle solutions to developmental “problems” that really aren’t problems at all — kids all grow in different ways, and have a variety of personalities, and what works for some will not work for all.

Not everyone is down with this, I know. There’s an almost religious view of science these days, as if everything can be quantified, analyzed, and systematized. When Felix was a baby, someone recommend I structure his whole day based on a schedule some expert laid out in a book. And often I’ve described some new approach to modifying Felix’s behavior, only to have someone say “What’s his doctor think about that?” I call the doctor when Felix is sick, not when he’s throwing tantrums about putting on his shoes.

People are just trying to be helpful, I know. And parenting sites and magazines want to get clicks and sell copies, so they’re going to take scientific studies and run with them. As Day puts it, “Parents shouldn’t feel pressured to follow the latest science. They should feel liberated to ignore it. It’s not that that science isn’t worth writing about. It’s not that it isn’t worth reading about. It’s that a single finding isn’t truth; it isn’t expertise; and it certainly isn’t advice.”

In other words: CTFD and just do what feels right.

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