Dictums feel essential when raising a kid. A source of security in the daily melee of child-rearing, a credentialed source can help parents assure themselves that their choices are consistent and their hypocrisies de minimis. But many of the parental meta-narratives coughed up by self-appointed experts amount to little more than daisy chains of received wisdom, which is a very nice way of saying that they are bullshit. Ultimately, anyone who confidently professes to an understanding of parenting in toto is naive, delusional, or selling something. Despite an increasing amount of research, parenting is a pursuit defined by unknowns, which seem to proliferate daily.
“We don’t know most stuff,” explains Dr. Celeste Kidd, head of the University of Rochester Baby and Kid Labs, succinctly. “A lot of the different parenting philosophies basically have little, or more often no empirical evidence behind them. They’re most often guesses.”
Kidd says the once ubiquitous Dr. Spock has become the poster adult for not understanding children. His overconfident, comprehensive, and holistic approach amounted to effective marketing but was not adequately informed by science. His advice on how a child should sleep, for instance, likely increased the number of SIDS deaths in America. He suggested that babies be laid on their bellies to decrease the likelihood of asphyxiating on expectorant, which seemed like a common sense solution, but ultimately proved to be both dangerous and wrong. Children sleeping face down suffocate on blankets and mattresses. Once scientists figured that out, the recommendations changed. The danger posed by Spock’s certitude and the brief monopoly on parenting advice passed as people realized that best practices were still evolving. But other dangers arose as parents flocked to the internet and formed like-minded communities, many of which reinforce what seems like logical ideas without actually testing them.
“While basing decisions on logic might be the best thing to do in the absence of data, it’s potentially perilous because sometimes there’s consequence that you didn’t think of,” says Kidd.
Still, that hasn’t stopped parents from spending a lot of time fretting about adherence to a number of norms that are largely unsupported by actual research. Here are six that have proven particularly sticky.
There’s a Right Way to Teach a Toddler
There is scant evidence to suggest that one early education model is better than the next. That’s particularly true in the case of alternative education models such as Montessori or Reggio Emilia. Parents might feel that their kids are being better served outside of the typical public school model–and that may be true–but there’s no empirical evidence suggesting that the money they spend on unique curricula will lead to demonstrable gains.
“There’s reason to believe that a lot of things that happen in Montessori classrooms are probably good,” says Kidd. That includes kids working on interactive projects or working independently. But, she notes, there’s no evidence that the prescribed toys and methods are somehow better for a child. “We don’t know that it’s any more effective than any other classroom set-up or early education system that you might have.”
That doesn’t mean that science hasn’t figured out good things to help children develop. Reading is good. Interacting with objects and other kids is good. But those are also pretty universal experiences.
Developmental Toys Are Integral to Proper Development
As a child grows, parents get particularly antsy when it comes to developmental milestones. They want their kid to be on, if not ahead of, schedule. This angst has fostered a massive industry that plays on the parental need for assurance. There are toys that claim to speed up walking, increase dexterity, and even build empathy.
“The claims on these kinds of products are not backed by science,” says Kidd. “It is, however, possible and likely that the environment has some kind of influence on a kid’s motor development.”
The problem is, there’s no evidence to prove that’s the case. So a kid that learns to walk by cruising along couches and tables isn’t necessarily going to walk slower than a kid who has a high-end push-along toy.
“Your baby is not a passive sponge waiting for your to put the right thing in front of them,” Kidd laughs.
Young Children Need to Know Stuff
What’s true for physical development toys is also true for toys and programs that claim to boost a kid’s intelligence and give them an edge over their peers. Whether it’s Baby First TV, Baby Einstein or any number of apps, flashcards or electronic toys. None of them are likely to make your kid any smarter than their genetics have already determined.
“For most things, there are ways of teaching a kid early,” says Kidd. “The deceptive part is that there is no known benefit to doing that.”
Also, Kidd suggests, the world that a baby will encounter every day is way more diverse than any flash card, TV show or toy could ever be. Exposure to that world is key. At the same time, Kidd understands that some of these toys exist because babies like to play with them. “If your kid likes something and there’s no reason to think that it causes harm it’s probably a good idea,” she says. Just don’t expect they’ll somehow be getting benefits aside from having fun.
Crying Babies Need Attention
Kidd is a parent to an 8-month-old child. She remembers being in a pediatrician’s office where she was told she should not respond immediately when her child cries. The idea was that it could increase crying behaviors.
The thoughts on this have changed over the years. At one time, not responding was said to increase independence. Then expert advice shifted towards responding to your baby no matter what. The problem is that there is no scientific evidence to suggest the better technique.
“What bothers me is that this and empirical questions,” says Kidd. “I could be tested.” It just hasn’t been. She knows because she checked.
Screen Time Will Turn Children Into Zombies
For all the articles written about what parents should and should not do about screen time, it’s important to know that science doesn’t really know what exposure to screen-delivered media does to a kid.
“There is not enough empirical evidence to have strong feelings at the moment,” says Kidd. She is so unconcerned about it that she has given her 8-month-old one of her used cell phones. In fact, Kidd sees that there might be some interesting implications for interactive screens. She was recently surprised by observing a 2-year-old putting together a very complicated digital puzzle, something that could not have happened with an actual puzzle due to the child’s lack of undeveloped fine motor skills.
There is one caveat. The real screen time danger is the light. There is empirical evidence showing that the light from a screen can affect circadian rhythms. Also, Kidd warns that there could also be problems if screen time is keeping kids from moving around and experiencing the outside world. Other than that? “I think it’s fine,” says Kidd.
We Know How to Discipline Children
The reason for any disciplinary action is to teach kids self-control, the hope being that their ability to keep themselves in check will make them better people. Kidd notes that there is really only one disciplinary tactic that has been the subject of longitudinal studies to understand its effect in adults. That tactic is spanking and there is empirical evidence to suggest that it is not good for the future health and wellbeing of children.
As for time-outs, heartfelt talks, grounding or straight ahead permissive parenting, there exist no longitudinal studies that are able to report whether the achieve the goal of making better, more moral adults.
That said, there are small short-term studies suggesting a child will react in a certain way to certain forms of discipline. But this is largely about training, not long term results. And studies on discipline can often be contradictory.
“There’s contradictory studies because of the way that they’re done,” says Kidd. Generally, the studies are conducted in a lab and kids are briefly exposed to one intervention or the other. Measurements are made before and after the intervention and compared statistically to glean an outcome. But what is most often shown according to Kidd is that “Many things affect many other things.” That has very little bearing on long-term consequences.
There’s very good reason for that says Kidd. “You’d have to raise a whole population of kids under one circumstance versus the other and then compare them based on real world metrics,” she explains. “Given the amount of time that takes we don’t have anything like that.”
And we likely won’t anytime soon. Which means maybe parents should cut each other a little slack when it comes to parenting methods and agree on one thing: As long as a person is parenting with love and not hitting their kid, things will probably turn out fine.