Separating the wise from the wrong.
Instinct, intuition and common sense are invaluable to us as parents, but they only get us so far. We ought to know enough to know that we don’t know quite enough. There will always be aspects to raising kids that seem complex, mysterious, obscured, and fraught with potential error. Is there some edge we’re failing to impart to them? Some harm we’re inadvertently doing? Are we failing to protect them from some lurking risk? Driven by these vague and not always entirely irrational insecurities, we turn to experts.
That’s all well and good. Why shouldn’t we parents want to get insights into better ways to ensure our children sleep soundly, grow up healthy, enjoy full emotional and cognitive development, and become successful students, athletes, friends and mates? Experts, of course, oblige us: we get hit with all sorts of advice from every direction.
But what is it that draws us to certain advice over others? To be sure, there are plenty of mediagenic, charismatic pop gurus whose lack of any formal credentials or evidence doesn’t keep them from slinging hit-or-miss parenting advice. But many of us pride ourselves on attributing more credibility to experts who can back their pronouncements up with research studies and solid data. And there are legions of physicians, psychologists, educators and journalists who seem to have the goods when it comes to research, be it sleep studies, brain imaging, classroom observations or educator surveys. Just one little problem: Most of these data-driven findings are wrong. That multi-parameterized list of the best doctors in your area probably won’t tell you anything about which doctor is actually best for your child. The study pointing out how eating fiber-rich foods will improve cognitive function is probably mistaken. The children’s sunscreen recommended by a medical panel may later be found to cause harm. The newest recommended infant sleeping position may be tomorrow’s “don’t do this” picture on the pediatrician’s wall poster.
It may sound reckless and anti-science to suggest most research is off base, but in fact scientists themselves have extensively studied the question of the reliability of published studies, and have found them generally to be not very trustworthy at all. There are many reasons why research runs off the rails. For example, researchers and other experts are pressured into providing simplistic answers to complex questions (you wouldn’t find it very useful to read that any of 45 different diets would have a one-out-of-five chance of being best for your child, depending on which of 97 criteria she meets), they rarely have full access to the sorts of people and observations they really need (feel like turning your toddler over to a science lab for the next three weeks?), and they are prone to a range of measurement and analysis errors (does that child’s grunt get marked down as a squeal of delight or a shriek of fear?). These problems plague even hard sciences such as physics, chemistry and biology, but become much worse with the more complex, vague, and subjective questions that pop up where parenting is concerned.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ever trust scientists or other experts – we just need to be smarter and more discriminating about how seriously to take which sorts of findings. Here are some clues to sorting out the dubious stuff from that minority of expert findings that are likely to hold up.
What Not to Believe: 6 Signs of Less Trustworthy Parenting Advice:
It’s the latest breakthrough finding. Most new, surprising findings will turn out to be wrong in some way – even if they’re published in prestigious journals, even if they make mass-media headlines, even if they seem to be backed up by impressive studies. The reasons are a little complicated, but just know that this effect is well understood and documented by scientists themselves. Instead, look for advice whose support has been quietly building over multiple studies for several years. And don’t even think about basing anything you do as a parent on a single small study or on animal studies.
It’s pushed by a popular, charismatic, authoritative-seeming expert. That’s probably the main reason the advice is gaining currency, not any special quality to the research itself. The best research comes from geeky scientists who toil away in the lab and wouldn’t dream of spending large chunks of time promoting their findings to the public. Don’t get taken in by the Wizard of Oz effect.
It’s appealing. “Kids who watch toddler-learning videos develop better cognitive skills,” we were told. Hey, perfect – you can plop your child down in front of the TV with a DVD and actually get some work done around the home while your child becomes a genius! Yeah, right. Appealing advice gets a free ride in the media, but good parenting is rarely about doing what you feel like doing.
It’s presented as a sure thing. Good science is all about embracing the uncertainties, complexities and doubts that underlie just about any finding, not sweeping them under the carpet. And human health and development are particularly resistant to straightforward, one-size-fits-all solutions. The more definite, simple and universal a finding sounds, the less likely it is to hold up.
It’s about nutrition. There are thousands of factors that determine the effects of various foods and supplements, and they all act in a complex, dynamic network that leaves scientists struggling just for glimpses of understanding. The ubiquitous studies claiming “children who eat more [fill in the blank] turn out to be more [fill in the blank]” are deeply troubled by a wide range of potential flaws and rarely scratch the surface of what’s actually going on. Besides, every kid is different when it comes to food (and just about everything else)
It blames something on genes. We keep hearing about disorders, risks and behaviors that have been traced to particular genes, as if these are critical insights that will lead to important tests and treatments, or that we have to accept that our children’s characteristics are hard-wired and immutable. In fact, there are only a very small number of disorders that are entirely determined by a few genes – if one of these applied to your child you’d probably know it by now – but otherwise you can probably safely forget about learning all that much from your child’s genes. Part of the reason is that the line between nature and nurture is a very blurry one, because everything your child experiences and even thinks and feels can turn genes off and on. What’s more, genes, too, work in complex networks that scientists have barely begun to grasp. Sensible food, exercise, clean air, nurturing parents and caring teachers will likely do far more for your child’s development than a supposedly “good” set of genes.
Can you trust your pediatrician to sort all this out for you? Well, I hope you have one you trust. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do a little homework on your own – studies and mass-media articles about research findings are easily turned up online – and feel comfortable raising questions if her advice runs counter to your own reckoning. When it comes to your child, you’re the one expert who always has a right to weigh in.