The 9 Most Important Scientific Studies for Parents of 2017

Scientists were almost as busy as parents this year. Here's what they learned.

As busy as 2017 was for parents, it may have been busier still for the development psychologists, biologists, neurologists, and family-focused sociologists researching how children become functional adults — or why they don’t. The last year saw the publication of an outsized number of game-changing studies that might, over time, alter the way that parents go about parenting and, by the transitive property, the way that kids go about kidding. Do scientists know for certain how to raise the best possible person and how to track that persons progress from the crib to the board room? No, not by a long shot. But they know a great deal more than they did a year ago and, thanks to their diligent work, parents know more too and can make better informed decisions. 

Here are the scientific breakthroughs from 2017 most likely to inform parenting decisions for the next decade — or at least until the next breakthrough comes along.

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Parents Trigger Bad Behavior By Looking at Their Phones

Researchers: Brandon McDaniel, a professor of family and consumer services, and Jenny Radesky, a physician and professor of pediatrics at the University of Michigan.

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Why it matters: There’s a growing body of research that shows that smartphones are not the smartest thing for adults and kids to stare at, but the study by McDaniel and Radesky specifically links parents phone attention to children’s bad behavior. Working with 200 families, the researchers were able to demonstrate that when parents interrupt family time by checking their emails or texting, kids become more likely to exhibit oversensitivity, hot tempers, hyperactivity, and whining.

What it means for parents: On some level, it seems that kids compete with phones for attention by acting out. Given that fact, it’s easy enough for parents to save both themselves and their kids some stress by checking the phone in a different room or turning it off at the dinner table. The short term dopamine boost of communication is not worth the long term price. Better to check emails on the toilet and raise a happy kid.

Kids Are Getting Better at Delaying Gratification

Researchers: John Protzko, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

Why it matters: The Marshmallow experiment was first developed in 1972 at Stanford University and showed if kids could delay gratification (i.e. eating a marshmallow) for 15 minutes with an incentive (more marshmallows) they would go on to lead more successful lives. Since then, the results have been duplicated over 30 times. This year, Protzko published a review of the literature and found that kids are actually getting better at the marshmallow test, giving hope for a new generation of successful adults with awesome impulse control.   

What it means for parents: The idea that “kids will be kids” informs a lot of parental decision making, but it’s actually not totally true across time and generations. Kids will be kids, but that doesn’t mean that they’ll be kids in the same way as their parents were.

Letting Kids Wallow In Failure Might Actually Help

Researchers: Noelle Nelson, Selin Malkoc, and Baba Shiv of Ohio State University.

Why it matters: Parents’ understandable impulse not to let their kids dwell on their mistakes or feel awful about their myriad failures may actually prevent kids from improving as much as they otherwise would. The Ohio State research team found that when people focused on failure, particularly how bad it felt, they were less likely to repeat the same mistakes. This lends some credence to the idea that you can frontload stress and be better of for it. 

What it means for parents: Feelings of failure may actually be an adaptive tool and shielding kids from those feelings might limit their potential to succeed. Don’t rub it in when kids make a mistake, but don’t minimize it either. And lead by example: Don’t hide disappointments.

Spanked Kids Grow Up To Be Violent Husbands and Wives

Researchers: Jeffrey Temple, a professor of women and child services at the University of Texas Medical Branch, and colleagues.

Why it matters: There’s already ample evidence that when kids are subjected to corporal punishment their more likely to display violent and aggressive behavior later in life, but this is the first study to link childhood spanking to abusive relationships. Intimate partner violence accounts for approximately 15 percent of violent crime, but this study suggests some of that could be stopped with different disciplinary methods.

What it means for parents: No matter how tired, frustrated, and tested by your kid you may be, there’s never a good reason to spank your kid. It’s bad for them and it’s bad for people they’re going to interact with throughout their lives.

Nice Husbands Cure Colic

Researchers: Chandran Paul Alexander, a professor of pediatrics at Penn State, and colleagues

Why it matters: When mothers reported having more postpartum support from fathers, their babies experienced fewer symptoms of colic, a study of over 3,000 families shows. This adds to a growing body of research that shows when dads support moms during the postpartum period, babies are more set up for healthy development.

What it means for parents: Always nice to your partner, but if you put in extra effort during this postpartum period, your baby’s belly will benefit.

It’s Possible to Teach Kids Not To Be Racist

Researchers: Gail Heyman, a professor of psychology in the UC San Diego, and colleagues.

Why it matters: The study of nearly 100 Chinese children demonstrated that teaching kids how to differentiate between different African American faces at age five reducing racial biases. The results suggest that when kids learn that people of a different race aren’t all the same, they’re less prone to make other generalizations about groups of people.

What it means for parents: While racism may seem like a complex topic for 5-year-olds, teaching them how to tell individuals of a different race apart isn’t complicated at all and may inoculate them against later bigotry. Learning how to tell individual things with similarities apart is an important cognitive process for kids. Surrounding them with a diversity of characters as they learn may help them avoid becoming bigots.

Brain Scans Could Predict Autism in Infants Before Symptoms Start   

Researchers: Joseph Piven of the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and colleagues.

Why it matters: Brain scans of babies can help doctors predict autism with 96 percent accuracy as early as 6-months-old. Though the results are preliminary and need to be duplicated, they give hope for earlier diagnoses and interventions.

What it means for parents: Part of the reason autism diagnoses are so emotional is the heartbreak of going two years believing your child is perfectly healthy. Even if earlier diagnoses doesn’t automatically translate to more effective treatments, but at the very least, it may lessen the blow and help moms and dads deal with the news in a more proactive, mentally resourced way.

First-Born Children Have Some Massive Advantages

Researchers: Sandra E. Black, Erik Grönqvist, Björn Öckert of the  IZA Institute of Labor Economics.

Why it matters: The study, which only looked at Swedish boys, found that first-born children were 30 percent more likely to become managers and take on leadership positions than children born at a different spot in the birth order. The researchers concluded that this likely has something to do with firstborns receiving encouragement that makes them more likely to stay in school and do their homework. Having higher IQs also helps.

What it means for parents: It’s OK to recognize that your oldest may be more predisposed to academics and leadership. You’re not playing favorites and their siblings will have different individual strengths to play to.

Baby’s Poop Can Predict IQ

Researchers: Rebecca Knickmeyer, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina, and colleagues.

Why it matters: The research found that certain microbial communities in the poop of 1-year-olds predicted higher levels of cognitive development a year later. Interestingly, kids with more diverse microbiome performed worse on cognitive tests at age 2 than those with less diverse gut bacteria.

What it means for parents: That’s not a dirty diaper in your hand. It’s an IQ test.

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