Living

Dr. Parent

It's time to stop treating parenting as a science

Reading the news these days, you’d think you need a science degree to raise your kids. Studies prove breastfeeding reduces allergies, say advocates, and research shows that day care improves cognitive and social development. Scientists link spanking to de-pression and anxiety, saying it leads to delinquency and impairs the parent-child relationship. Time outs were the healthy alternative, but now even they’re no good: Vancouver doctor Gabor Maté recently wrote in the Globe and Mail that sending an unruly kid to his room “sabotages healthy development” because “the young child’s limbic system, the brain’s emotional apparatus, cannot handle that much vulnerability.”

And the scientific references don’t stop there. My personal favourite is a Toronto online retailer that exploits recent findings on brain development. “Most infant educators believe that all babies are born super intelligent,” says its Web site. “It is up to us to nurture them properly in the first few years of life or this inborn intelligence will slowly fade away.”

All of this research is eagerly lapped up by parents trying to do what’s best for their kids. Ironically, though, most people haven’t got a clue about even the most basic science. I read about a radio station that advised its audience not to look directly at an upcoming solar eclipse, only to have a listener call in to ask: “If the eclipse is so dangerous, why are they having it?” One survey found that half of us think early humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Just one in five can define molecule. A third of women think sound travels faster than light. Ninety per cent of men cannot accurately estimate eight inches. OK, I made up that last one.

This doesn’t mean we’re all stupid, only that we’ve built a society in which we can get by perfectly well even if we don’t understand how our technology works. It’s worth reminding ourselves that the same is true for parenting: we don’t have to be neuroscientists to be good parents any more than we need to be mechanics to be good drivers.

Most people are smart enough to recognize when advertising preys on insecurity—it’s clear that the message of that Toronto retailer is: “Buy our infant flash cards for $69.95 before you turn your baby into a blithering moron.” What’s more subtle is the cumulative effect of all this new research: its slow erosion of the confidence of parents. When we go against our better judgment because we’re worried that latest study is right and we’re wrong—when we want to give a time out but hesitate, or we fret that our stay-at-home toddler might be lagging behind those in day care—we’re letting scientists who’ve never met our kids raise them for us.

Like most parents, my wife and I forge ahead with hopelessly uncontrolled experiments. We occasionally spanked our kids and found it didn’t improve their behaviour and made us feel worse, so we stopped doing it. I can’t imagine what further insight we might have gained from research about other children who were spanked by other parents. My wife breastfed our kids, but it wasn’t a purely rational decision, and she stopped when she felt the difficulty and stress outweighed the health benefits. Our children stayed at home until kindergarten, a decision that was right for our family, regardless of whether somebody else’s daycare kid had more synapses in his hypothalamus. My wife shows me flash cards every night, and still my inborn intelligence has not emerged.

I’m not suggesting that scientists stop doing research on parenting, nor do I think all of their studies are bogus. But all they can do is measure trends and identify risk factors. Individual parents are better off ignoring the science reports and trusting themselves to learn on the job. Discipline is too complex to be reduced to chemical reactions in the limbic system, and interacting with a baby is much more than applying stimuli to produce a predictable outcome.

When it comes to the most basic of human relationships, it’s not that we don’t understand the science, it’s that the science doesn’t understand us.