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6 Types of Parenting Advice You Shouldn’t Trust

Separating the wise from the wrong.

By David H. Freedman |

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.

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About David H. Freedman

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David H. Freedman

David H. Freedman is the author of Wrong: Why Experts Keep Failing Us - And How to Know When Not to Trust Them (Little, Brown). He is a contributing editor at Inc. Magazine and blogs about the problems with medical-news headlines at MakingSenseOfMedicine.org.

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11 thoughts on “6 Types of Parenting Advice You Shouldn’t Trust

  1. Jen Koeppe Knox says:

    “And don’t even think about basing anything you do as a parent on a single small study or on animal studies.”

    I love that quote – reminds me, among other things, of the rush to not vaccinate children based (initially) on that one, tiny, very flawed British “study.”

  2. Lamprey says:

    Probably this author is right, however he rails against scientific publications and research findings and then does not include a single reference for his own claims.

    Hmmm.

  3. moominmama says:

    This is something strange about the anti-science bent of this article. Really, I think the problem is abandoning common sense and being swayed by media hype at the expense of real scientific findings (which maybe is what the author is trying to say?) The media is notoriously bad in its science coverage, and tends to latch onto gimmicky findings that make for good headlines. But there is a lot of really exciting, interesting scientific research going on out there that parents can benefit from. For example, I think a lot of findings in the book Nurtureshock are worth knowing (and personally, I didn’t find much of it shocking – my life experiences and gut instincts already told me that, say, avoiding any discussions of race actually encourages racism in children and that treating intelligence as innate and unchanging is false and does nobody any favors, including the bright kids). In the last two years our toddler has even participated in some studies at UCLA on spatial reasoning and language development, and we were really proud that she could contribute to scientists developing a greater understanding of how infants and toddlers make sense of the world and communicate. Just because Dr. Wakefield is a charlatan and Baby Genius videos are junk doesn’t mean we should abandon all scientific research and go back to thinking the world is flat.

  4. Samantha says:

    This article is breathtakingly ill informed and stupid. Your “expert” has a shockingly lack of knowledge about the science and the way science is performed. I just don’t even know where to go with the statement “there are only a very small number of disorders that are entirely determined by a few genes”. WTF? Can he really be this stupid?

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  6. Polly Palumbo says:

    As a former researcher, psychologist and blogger who writes about the science behind the media at Momma Data (http://mommadata.blogspot.com/), I agree there’s plenty for parents to be skeptical about. Good studies seem to get as much attention as poor ones. Freak findings as much as well-established ones. Mild risks turn into serious threats. Fringe researchers into oft-cited experts. Our new media complicates matters, with its preference for constant, short, dramatic bits of info – not to mention amateur or celebrity experts – a conflict that’ll worsen as the science gets increasingly complicated and specific. I hate to see parents shunning science – as a psychologist I know that’s one solution to handling an abundance of complex information – especially true with emotionally-charged issues, say vaccines and autism, breastfeeding, and chemicals with frightening names (e.g., bisphenol-a). More than ever parents need nuanced information from their parenting experts and media in general. If we spent as much time reviewing our parenting information as we did say, our entertainment choices or our car seats, than parents would be better informed. But alas, rating (and reading about) scientific evidence is not as easy or fun as rating movies.

  7. mamazee says:

    One more – it’s the God way to do things. There are a zillion books out there telling you the “right” way to be a Christian parent. Truth is, God knows you are an individual and so are your children. As for the really rigid people, there are huge dangers to following advice that asks you to ignore your parenting instincts (see http://abclocal.go.com/wtvd/story?section=news/local&id=3999826)
    Listen to your heart in raising your children! They need boundaries, food, love… it’s just getting the balance right that’s hard and no one can really do that for you…

  8. mamazee says:

    oh – and the non vaccinating? There a lot of parents like me who don’t vaccinate based on the fact that the vaccines are increasingly being cultivated in aborted fetal tissue. I have huge issues with this. And so do a lot of pro life people, and also just “informed consent law” people…

  9. Ellen says:

    mamazee, no one is cultivating vaccines in aborted fetal tissue. Step away from the kool-aid, please.

  10. Denise says:

    I think the authors point was to say that we shouldn’t trust science as if it is fact in every circumstance. Science changes all the time as new studies come out or old myths are debunked. To just blindly accept what someone says is scientifically proven is ridiculous because not all science is proven fact. The point is to be an informed consumer of information before you make decisions that influence your children one way or the other. It is extremely evident that our culture in general consumes products and information with little or no critical review . . . and look where that has brought us.
    I for one am very critical of science (and of government suggestions for that matter) because quite often it has been wrong about things. I wont just jump on a bandwagon because its what everyone else is doing or because the scientists or government regulations say its the right way to do something.

  11. Denise says:

    I think the authors point was to say that we shouldn’t trust science as if it is fact in every circumstance. Science changes all the time as new studies come out or old myths are debunked. To just blindly accept what someone says is scientifically proven is ridiculous because not all science is proven fact. The point is to be an informed consumer of information before you make decisions that influence your children one way or the other. It is extremely evident that our culture in general consumes products and information with little or no critical review . . . and look where that has brought us.
    I for one am very critical of science (and of government suggestions for that matter) because quite often it has been wrong about things. I wont just jump on a bandwagon because its what everyone else is doing or because the scientists or government regulations say its the right way to do something.

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