Sometimes, Parenting Articles are Wack
Parenting articles are wack sometimes.
I love being a dad. I love parenting with my wife. As both a professor of human growth and development and a developmental neuroscientist a lot of parenting articles are ridiculous in the sweeping generalizations they make. Speaking as a parent, they often stress more than they help, depending on the child and situation. This makes them, often, wack as hell.
I think many of them give some help to parents, but the parenting article industry as a whole creates a ton of judgment between and within parents.
I am writing this to help provide some perspective by combining a robust knowledge of what the body of research on child development actually says. As a follow-up tomorrow, I will dispense some suggestions, that are not magic, but are things that maybe we want to consider. For those of you that don’t want to read this whole thing, below are my 6 things that usher parenting articles into wackness.
Things that make parenting articles wack:
1. Too many sweeping, often subtly insulting, generalizations about parents who use certain approaches in parenting. “A parent who does this is….(overemotional, ill-equipped, etc)”.
2. The overstating of research, and the ignoring of context/nuance.
3. The insinuation that the only reason the child is not a perfect angel, or the only reason the parent is going through stress, is because they have not tried the “magic method”.
4. The unwillingness of gurus to give any ground on their claims, for fear of losing status, sales, and sometimes the perceived assurance of their worldview. This goes right along with the silencing of questions, or critiques to the contrary.
5. The promoted societal idea of embarrassment and judgment of parents for whom the “magic techniques” do not work. These judgments come from within, and from others.
6. They often fail to specify different approaches by age or temperament. Really? The same approaches just work for “kids”? (oh wait, you have to buy the book…)
7. They are often built on a base of belief first, then cherry picking through the evidence to support that belief.
For those of you that want to keep reading, let’s really get down into the mud. Important note: I will not be linking to articles here. Sometimes I do that, and will discuss specific studies in the future — but I want these ideas considered. You can use this discussion as you encounter specific articles. Further, if you want some tips on looking at child development research, read this.
Wackness: Pejorative, sweeping generalizations, and a denial of the nuance in the research
Parenting gurus often gloss over the incredible amount of variance (differences from the norm) that exist in children, families, and situations.
Often, when you drill down into a research article, the final conclusion leaves out all the data points that disagreed with that conclusion. In other words — it ain’t true for everybody. Be careful of averages, and correlations.
Before I go any further, let me tell you where I actually agree with many of the modern parenting articles:
A parenting approach based solely on punishment or extreme permissiveness will likely hamper or derail a child’s development. Time outs, overused or as a mainstay, can be problematic.
Rewards can, when used without greater context and in excess, can lead a child to think that the only reason to do “the right thing” is to get “a thing”.
A parenting approach that never or rarely takes the child’s wants and needs into consideration is a parenting approach that can result in great harm to a child cognitively. This, in its extreme form, tells the child “I don’t value you as an individual. You should never be valued.”
A parenting approach that has physical punishment as the first or main approach, I think is a parenting approach that needs work and is often abusive. Overuse of physical punishment can, sometimes irreparably, harm a child’s ability to cope, form relationships, and even to reason through problems. This is a potential effect of any punishment, physical or otherwise when repeatedly done in anger. Children read emotion, and can internalize repeated intense displays of negative emotion directed at them.
All of the above statements are solidly and consistently supported by the available research, and generations of collective experience. The research and collective experience, however, do not always support the extreme versions of those statements.
Some things are a matter of degree and frequency. Some things are a matter of context. There is enough variability in, and enough missing in, the available research to warrant pulling the reigns on a lot of the parenting gurus. Overgeneralization abounds in child development. We want the “one pill”. We expect perfect children.
The research does not support the conclusion that anyone who ever smacks their child’s hand or bottom for any reason in any context is going to irreparably harm that child.
The research does not support that any punishment or reward for doing the right thing, or a good thing, will result in some emotionally stunted empty shell or an entitled brat.
The research does not support that, when you must, telling a child “hey listen, I know you want to do that, but we are doing this right now” is going to destroy a child’s self-esteem.
Further, and this is huge — the data often lacks predictive value. In other words, if a parent uses some of the above approaches, however sparingly, the conclusion is often made from modern parenting media that this parent is going to destroy their child.
Too many parenting articles like to make these kinds of statements. Why? It sells books/speaking engagements and solidifies audiences. You can silence your critics and preferentially promote the praise. It is fairly easy.
Does this mean that everything any parenting guru says is wrong? No. I disagree with throwing babies out with bathwater. First, babies do not bounce that well. Second, we have drain filters. Let the water drain out and catch the other stuff. I want to be your drain filter
Wackness: Insinuating that if the magic fails, the parent sucks or didn’t use the magic
Some parents truly have not tried some of the suggested strategies. Maybe they should try them. Many parents have, and it didn’t work. Some children can actually see right through what you are doing.
I will use the personal example of getting our daughter, The Sweet Girl, out of the house in the morning.
Strategies, like making a game out of cleaning up, work sometimes. I can usually get my daughter upstairs to get dressed by making it a race, betting her she can’t do it in some specified time. She is intermittently competitive, like many kids. I can get her out of the door in the morning most of the time by allowing her to do a little bit of what she wants to do, while I do what I need to do.
As a child development specialist, I have seen a great majority of the proposed strategies, and use them a lot.
She is incredibly intelligent, and knows exactly what I am doing. At times she decides that she is not going for it, just because. That is a lie. She isn’t really doing it just because. That is just what it seems like to us adults. She is exploring the idea of her own individual “agency” — the idea that she has her own will.
I would love to just wait it all out, until she is ready to have a reasonably calm discussion.
But check this, homeslice -
Homeslice means friend. Focus.
I have a job. I have a job that I would lose were I habitually way late.
Sometimes if she is not too far into her buffalo stance, I tell her “maybe if you don’t cooperate with me, I won’t cooperate with you. So, if you don’t help Daddy by getting dressed, I will not cooperate with you by letting you ____”
Sometimes, she has entered Defcon 1, otherwise known as the “hell to the naw stage”. She is not budging.
In these instances, I have had to make her put her clothes on. Yup. Sometimes I have forced her into her carseat. And every time, after she has calmed down, I have explained to her why. I have explained to her about how Daddy and Mommy have to work to provide her a place to live. We talk every morning about how important it is to cooperate and why.
Has our approach based on a desire to cooperate, but recognizing that sometimes ya just gotta do it, worked? How do we define “worked”?
Well, the ease with which I can get her out the door in the morning has increased exponentially over the past year. She now asks me about going to work. She has been to my job, and seen me teach my students. She has a knowledge of what I do and where I go.
We have a wonderful, loving, vibrant, assertive, fun loving, creative, intelligent child. Who sometimes throws tantrums. Who is learning to deal with her emotions and will. They are new things. Her parents still have to get shit done.
Further, some strategies are manipulations, right? I mean, really, should we be LYING to our kids about why they need to do something? Won’t that also destroy their fragile little minds?
(I am joking)
Oh wait, I am supposed to reason with my 3 year old. What if she simply disagrees with my reasoning because she lacks the life experience to know the context for it? What is logical to an adult may not be logical to a 3 year old. By the way, the same is true for teenagers, to a slightly lesser extent…LOL!
Wackness: The silencing of failures
The parenting gurus DO provide some useful strategies. But you will never see the people for whom their strategies fail, for two reasons: They are often too embarrassed to come forward in a public forum because they fear being painted as a failure. And they will be.
Do you think the guru who has staked their claim that their strategy is the end all to parenting will say “well, sometimes it won’t work because some kids are different”? Every once in a while, yes. But it is usually in the fine print and not often said, because that is a decrease in sales, or status. Backtracking can cause a losing of the audience at the extremes, which is where most sales come from. Come on, you know you download folks you are lukewarm about for free. Further, in the age of information overload, extreme opinions win the internet. And since the internet is how so many communicate…
Many parenting articles put it all on the parent, and fail to talk about the importance of a network of support. I will not expand on that here, but will in my nonmagical tips being released tomorrow, for only $19.95. Just kidding. They will be free on Facebook and Twitter.
Wackness: Not differentiating developmental stages, and temperaments
The idea that approaches to parenting should be applicable to “kids” is promoted, whether purposefully or lazily, by many (NOT all) of these articles. That is a ridiculous idea to even think, that the same approaches that work for a 7 year old, will work with a 2 year old. Abandon that thought, if you have ever thought it.
They are just simply not at the same level of capability or understanding. Please miss me with any “you would be surprised at what a 2 year old understands”. No I wouldn’t be. I have worked with and observed many exceptional kids. They are not superheroes. It takes experience to understand things. Our levels of understanding change as we develop. both through change and experience.
We have to get to know our children, and we have to find our way. Tomorrow, I am going to release some non magical tips for parenting that I have discovered through the combination of working with children/families over the years, and now parenting my own. Take them or leave them. I am not God.