The Flaw in Child Development Research All Parents Need to Grapple With

A recent Stanford University study suggests that child development research is too white to be universally applied.

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A child developing the ability to walk stands in a field looking worried

Ideally, parenting advice should be informed by child development research. But that’s more complicated than it would first appear. Because inevitably, every study presents a set of questions: How big was the sample size? How was the study designed? Are there confounding factors to the results? But even more importantly: Is the study biased towards a certain gender race or culture?

According to a recent study from Stanford University, it would seem that when it comes to child development research racial bias is wide-spread. And until the research becomes more diverse, non-white parents carry the unfair burden of reading developmental research with a massive caveat: Based on the racial makeup of the study participants (and researchers), the findings may not be valid for their specific family in their specific community.

The Lack of Diversity in Child Development Research

In 2020 psychology researchers from Stanford University’s Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity looked at the prevalence of race over five decades of psychological research. They examined over 26,000 publications and found that the representation of people of color was embarrassingly underwhelming. That was as true for developmental psychology — the science of how children develop into adults — as any other field.

“We looked at the top tier mainstream journals,” explains Steven O. Roberts, Ph.D., a psychologist at Stanford University, who was on the research team for the study. “These are the journals where, if it gets published, it could easily enter into the mainstream and have an impact. But the big point here is that it’s mostly run by white editors, who are less likely to publish stuff on race.”

The study authors found that from the 1970s to the 2010s only 8 percent of research published in child development journals highlighted race. During that period 83 percent of the editors-in-chiefs of developmental psychology journals were white. When authors did focus on race 73 percent were white. White authors of race-related child development research were likely to have more white participants than researchers of color.

Why Representation Matters in Child Development

Until the 1970s the bulk of child development research had a missing fathers problem. As science grappled with the psychological and physical growth of children, the studies were centered in a very specific context: the relationship between a mother and a child.

The bias against fathers wasn’t necessarily calculated. Mothers were primary caregivers. They were the parents most likely to respond to researchers’ surveys and accompany children to labs. And were there no difference between mothers and fathers and the way children react to them, that would not have been a problem.

But researchers have discovered that fathers have unique relationships with children. More than that, they have very specific and measurable effects on the way children develop. For instance, the way fathers typically engage in rough house play, helping kids develop coordination skills. Fathers are also more likely to challenge young children’s language skills helping them develop and hone vocabulary. And since the 70s it’s become clear how important it is to understand child development in the context of parental roles and gender. That seems obvious now.

But if a parent’s gender can so profoundly affect a child’s development, wouldn’t it follow that a parent’s race and the cultural environment they are raised in would also have an effect? That’s what the Stanford study argues.

“The reality is that racialized experiences shape how people think, develop, and behave,” Roberts writes. “To dedicate no attention to this reality, in our view, is a disservice to psychological science, especially in the face of increasing racial diversity, segregation, and inequality.”

A Needed Change in the Publishing Process

The submission and review process for scholarly journals is lengthy and rigorous. Articles are submitted for consideration and reviewed by peers in the pertinent field to ensure they meet a standard of quality before they make it to print. Typically the articles will include information about project participants, the authors, and how the research is framed.

In theory, this stringent gatekeeping is intended to ensure that only quality research and analysis are published. But another effect, intended or not, is that it maintains a high level of homogeneity in the research and publishing space.

“Most of the papers on race are written by white authors who study white people,” says Roberts. “So imagine the position of, let’s say, a scientist of color, who works with participants of color. That person now has to navigate a very white science community, and try to convince a white editorial board that this stuff is important and the research matters.”

That cultural environment can make it tough for non-white scientists to find exposure to broader audiences. ”So they send off this very important work to smaller-tier specialty journals, and that work never gets out to the mainstream,” Roberts explains. “Because there’s — to be blunt — there’s racism within the field, within science, and within psychology.”

Upstream Bias and Downstream Consequences

Most parents aren’t combing scholarly journals for advice on how to make their kids eat their dinner or discipline their toddler. They’re more likely to find that information in magazines, on social media or websites like Fatherly which use child development research as source material.

And while Fatherly takes pains to be transparent about the design of the studies we reference, including sample size, gender and diversity, those metrics aren’t always disclosed and available. So while editors of popular parenting publications might seek to control for bias, data-driven reporting can only be as unbiased as the data it reports.

Roberts encourages parents to pay attention to the details of studies they hear about in order to be aware of the bias that may be embedded due to homogeneity in the research and review process. “Be mindful of who’s writing the article and who’s editing it. Consider whose voice is not being shared or not being heard.”

The Potential for Equitable Research

The flip side to all of this is that psychology is in a great position to make the world less racist, Roberts says. He notes that studies are commonly used to inform public policy and in some cases have been credited for moving the needle in Supreme Court decisions.

And while Robert’s team received the inevitable threats and hate mail for their research, they also received positive responses from some prominent publications. For instance, based on the Stanford research the journal Child Development, the leading developmental psych journal, has changed submission requirements. Researchers must now note and justify the demographics of their samples. Additionally, researchers must now address whether or not their findings can be generalized to other groups.

“Some journals have taken the recommendations to heart and we’ve seen changes in policies. And we’ve seen the paper be picked up, surprisingly, by people in education, mathematics, and computer science,” Roberts says. “So even outside of Psychology, some people are looking inward and trying to make science more equitable.”

However, the journey toward more equitable science is just getting started. For non-white parents, that means even research-based parenting is suspect. Despite those frustrating conditions there does appear to be one bit of parenting advice pertinent to all cultures and peoples: More than anything kids thrive when they are shown love. The more rigorous details can only become more clear as child development research becomes more diverse.

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