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Why Parenting Advice and Child Rearing Tips Can’t Be Trusted

When science meets tradition, profits are easier to make than sense.

Thanks to our modern world, the amount of advice available to modern parents is mind-boggling. Search for parenting advice on Google and you will find 240,000,000 results. An Amazon search reveals over 1,000 books on parenting added between July and September of 2019, which amounts to 11 new parenting books per day. One has only to sample that selection to find that many of these books offer questionable wisdom if not borderline abusive parental directives, but the advice just keeps coming, piling up not only on parents’ bookshelves, but in their emails, and across their social feeds.

To be sure, plenty of common parenting advice is well-founded or harmless, but there is a shocking amount of outdated and incorrect “information” being thrust at parents.

The distribution of bad advice is not just a modern phenomenon. Parenting advice has historically been dubious and unreliable. The problem is structural and economic. Parenting advice is born at the intersection of conventional wisdom and scientific inquiry, which means that insights are invariable retrofitted to suit the prejudices of the era and that even disproven ideas having considerable half-lives. Also, parental anxiety, a product of a challenging economy, is highly motivational. Parents need answers to get their kids ahead of all the other kids and they need those answers now. And, in the case of parenting advice, supply inevitably rises to meet demand.

Parenting advice, it is worth noting, has likely improved. Thanks to researchers, we know more than we used to about human development. Parents are no longer giving their children turpentine to soothe croup. That said, some parents are dosing their kids with bleach to cure autism. What can we make of this? That the body of evidence-backed parenting advice is, at any given moment in history, considerably smaller than the total corpus of advice. But even that advice — the good advice of this moment — is derivative of a process of data collection and cultural mastication ill-suited to grinding out truths or for spitting out fallacies.

Put differently: Parenting advice comes from old science and older traditions and stickier ideas tend to hang around even when they’re demonstrably wrong. Witness the most obvious modern example of this phenomenon, the anti-vaccine movement.

In 1998, the now-discredited British gastroenterologist Andrew Wakefield published a study in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet suggesting a link between MMR vaccinations and autism. Wakefield’s experimental design was crummy (he pulled a tiny sample group from a child’s birthday party) and he misread the data. But six years passed between the publication of the study and the publication of a complete debunking. In that time, Wakefield’s findings became wisdom for a dedicated community of parents. It remains exactly that today.

Why? Because persistent parenting advice is rarely based just on what can be proven. It is inevitably also based on what we wish to believe.

“Our desire for easy answers, our tendency to infer causation from correlation, and our trust in those we perceive to be experts all influence the staying power of bad advice,” says Dr. Stephen Hupp, Southern Illinois University professor, clinical psychologist, and co-author of the book Great Myths of Child Development.

Consider the common, and yet misguided, advice that parents should never wake a sleeping baby. ”There is often a nugget of truth to many of these ideas,” Hupp says. “Sometimes waking a sleeping baby can be a bad idea. Other times, it’s a good idea.”

But when you wake up a baby, they cry. Sometimes they cry for a long time. Because a baby’s cry pains parents, it becomes common knowledge that sleeping dogs and sleeping babies should be given the same treatment.

And on and on the bad parenting advice travels through our culture. Sometimes, for millennia.

Baby Jesus and His Baby Walker

A protean version of an infant walker can be found rendered in embroidery on a 14th Century English church vestment. The embroidered image depicts Joseph and Mary with a toddling Jesus behind a wheeled walker.

When walkers first emerged, getting a baby upright meant helping the child become more like an adult. In Medieval Europe, this was considered the point of parenting. Childhood was an unknown concept. French historian Phillippe Ariès points out in his book Centuries of Childhood that before the 18th century the most common devices dedicated to children were largely meant to help babies look and act more like adults. In essence, the walker was originally designed as a treatment for an ailment. The ailment in question? Infancy.

Centuries of research has amply demonstrated that infants are not small adults and should not be treated as such. Most trenchantly, we now know that babies will naturally learn how to crawl, stand, and stagger as they become curious and explore their world. The process isn’t often pretty or graceful, but the how of it matters less than the fact that babies don’t need walkers to get where they are going.

Parents spent hundreds of years investing time and energy into a process that did not work and, in fact, jeopardized the health of their children.

But the traditional emphasis on getting kids to walk as soon as possible has outlived the culture from which that tradition emerged. The use of walkers became the norm centuries ago. Since then, parents have done it because it was the thing to do and it was recommended by early “experts,” including one scrawling anonymous 1733 nursing pamphlet (“In short, in order to accustom him to go alone, he should be shut up in a little Go-Cart, or Go-Wain, which will roll him on as he goes”)
In America, patent drawings of baby walkers from the late-1800s show that designs for the devices changed very little until the 1990s when thousands of baby concussions from walker use caused manufacturers to enact voluntary safety standards. Those standards became mandatory in 2010, regulated by the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Infant concussions from baby walker use subsequently declined.

That’s a long way of saying parents spent hundreds of years investing time and energy into a process that did not work and, in fact, jeopardized the health of their children.

After the concussion scandal of the 1990s, infant development researchers became quite curious about walkers. Published in the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics in 1999, the study “Effects of Baby Walkers on Motor and Mental Development in Human Infants,” found that “Walker-experienced infants sat, crawled, and walked later than no-walker controls….” Baby walkers aren’t just dangerous. They do the opposite of what they’re supposed to do. Their use, advised for centuries, presented nothing but the heightened danger of concussion and developmental delay. Even so, many parents still use them. Why? Because having a baby upright and scooting around looks a lot like walking. We used to know it to be a good thing and now many believe it despite facts that indicate otherwise.

Also, babies seem to enjoy walkers. They’re fun, and it keeps them occupied and out of the way. A baby surrounded by a big plastic truck is easier to track than one scooting silently across the dirty floor.

“The science on baby walkers is breaking through for a lot of people,” Hupp notes. But progress is slow.

In Canada, the black market for baby walkers, which are illegal to sell, is thriving. And the Wonder Buggy Baby Walker sells for $70 on Amazon in the states. A 2018 Instagram video posted by presidential daughter-in-law Lara Trump shows her praising her son Luke for “walking” as he makes tentative tiptoe steps in teal and yellow plastic baby walker.

Extremely Unnecessary and Incredibly Close

Importantly, bad parenting advice isn’t always debunked by science. Sometimes it’s caused by science. For example, many modern parents are told to stay very close to their baby’s face as they talk and interact with them so babies can begin to recognize their faces and start decoding expressions. The basis for the advice is that babies can’t focus on objects at a distance. In order for parents to eventually be recognized and receive the first baby smiles they crave, they need to be inches away from their child’s face.

In 1964, a study published in Science demonstrated that when very young babies focus on visual stimuli closest to them. The authors of the study interpreted the data to mean that babies can only focus on objects at close range.

But it turns out that babies focus on objects close to them simply because those objects appear bigger. Babies can see things that are far away, they just have less refined visual priorities so they tend to focus on things that are big and close. There’s nothing wrong, per se, with close-talking a baby, but it’s not necessary. Still, the initial study has stuck in the public imagination. “The study, even now, is in almost every textbook you can find,” says Psychologist Richard Aslin, a Senior Scientist at Haskins Laboratories and previously the Director of the Rochester Center for Brain Imaging and the Rochester Baby Lab. “Parents are thinking they have to be ten inches away from their babies face. They don’t.”

The stickiness of bad research (bad conclusions, really) has a lot to do with the culture around parenting, which is a bit more laissez-fare than the culture around, let’s say, chemical engineering.

Aslin points out that when parenting advice based on old science finds its way into books — and, he says, most notably introductory textbooks in University courses — misconception become incredibly hard to combat. “They become part of the simple methods that are conveyed to the lay public,” he says. “The nuance gets lost later.”

And sometimes the nuance remains completely elusive. Despite the data published in the 1990s making it clear that babies can see color at birth and see far away objects, it’s easy to find advice on well-regarded modern parenting websites suggesting that parents stay close to their child’s face and use black and white flashcards to maintain their interest. According to BabyCenter, which claimed $35 million in profits in 1999, was sold to Johnson & Johnson for $10 million in 2009, and has since been offloaded on Ziff Davis, which also owns WhatToExpect.com, a baby will only be “able to see only as far as your face when you hold him.”

The stickiness of bad research (bad conclusions, really) has a lot to do with the culture around parenting, which is a bit more laissez-fare than the culture around, let’s say, chemical engineering. Parents are praised for trying to do the right thing and, for the most part, their kids wind up fine. Dad’s weird habit of looming in front of the baby has no real deleterious effect. But over time all these bad ideas build to create a considerable corpus of nonsense. This represents a hazard to the lay public not only in terms of baby health (there are higher stakes examples, like using liquid-filled frozen teethers), but in terms of pointlessly expended energy.

Parents who look for advice tend to find it. Whether or not it’s based in reality is another matter.

Viral Parenting Advice and the Internet

Through online forums and social media groups, the internet has allowed far-flung parents to connect with each other based on their shared experience. BabyCenter, for instance, boasts 4,516 groups dedicated to the topic of babies. The most popular of these groups, “Breastfeeding Support and Help”, has 147,119 members sharing unvetted advice, largely based on anecdotal personal experience. Visitors to these forums are offered such a wide array of contradictory advice, they can select advice as though from a buffet.

When it comes to social media, the story is very much the same. Search Facebook for “parenting” and you will find hundreds of groups with thousands of members dedicated to raising babies and children. But there’s no way of knowing if the advice being proffered in these groups is either good or based in fact. Facebook still hosts anti-vaccine parent groups and groups dedicated to chickenpox parties. You can even find the Family Pro Spank Workshop, “a faith-based 4-5 day workshop event for families which will include education on responsible discipline along with different spanking demonstrations and other discipline demonstrations.…” There is no evidence suggesting spanking works and plenty suggesting that it’s a form of abuse. Nonetheless, misinformed advice passes back and forth.

Our desire for easy answers, our tendency to infer causation from correlation, and our trust in those we perceive to be experts all influence the staying power of bad advice

This is troubling because, according to data from the PEW Research Center, some 59 percent of parents reported finding what they considered useful parenting information while looking at social media. And beyond simply finding advice, 39 percent of mothers and 24 percent of fathers reported asking a parenting question on social media. Regardless of the veracity of the parenting advice posted in these spaces, it is being shared robustly.

And searching for parenting advice using Google doesn’t necessarily yield better results. Though the information offered is less sorted by prejudice (and more likely to come from publications like this one with established expertise in the space), plenty of articles containing wrongheaded notions can be pulled up depending on what parents type in the search bar. And parents use that search bar specifically to request misinformation.

Consider infant milestones. Tracking children’s development based on the emergence of specific and discreet physical traits and abilities started in the early 20th century. The idea was that physicians needed a way to determine if a child was developing in step with their peers. But it’s since been discovered that every baby develops differently. Some babies skip milestones while others hit them earlier or later than the baby next door. Some matter. Most don’t. Experts tend to urge parents to ignore them.

Still, milestones are so deeply tied to the lexicon of baby development, a parent who wants to know if their baby is developing normally will most likely search the internet for the term “baby milestones”. That means that publishers like Fatherly (which offers debunks) and BabyCenter (which largely does not) reach parents by using outdated terms and ideas. The result is an ouroboros of parenting advice; parents search using outmoded terms and Google rewarding sites doing search engine optimization research. The snake eats its tail.

Changing the Way We Give (and Get) Advice

We understand the mechanisms of autism like never before, many early food allergies have been traced to their roots, and the crib (free of blankets and belly sleeping) has never been a safer place for infants. Science progresses. Parenting advice does too, but not at the same clip. Science refines and checks itself over time. Tradition does not. Parenting exists at the intersection of these two things and therefore the dynamics are unpredictable. Throw in grandparents and things get downright random — even rational people succumb to pressure and follow the advice of 17th-century Italian monks.

As a student of baby development myths, Dr. Hupp notes it’s important for parents to develop and embrace the skepticism that defines the process of scientific inquiry rather than becoming distrustful of research.

“When hearing a claim, I encourage parents to start in a place of skepticism, be willing to change their mind and use the most credible sources of evidence,” Hupp says. “For example, a consensus statement from professional organization is usually a more credible source than a recommendation from a single person. Similarly, a review paper summarizing several studies is usually a better source than a single study.”

But there may be a deeper lesson here too: The twin constants of parenting should be change and love. We should be sentimental about our kids, but not about how we help them grow.