The most annoying part of parenting? Wading through a ceaseless stream of contradictory studies that claim to know what’s best for your kid.
The parent-industrial complex, a corporate monster that uses fear to separate moms and dads from their children’s education savings, gets a lot of deserved grief in this column. But it’s time to also call out the other side of this paranoia-inducing coin—parenting studies and the mainstream media that spread them.
This past Monday, the American Association of Pediatricians (AAP) journal Pediatrics published new studies saying TV can be good for your kids—or it can, y’know, turn them to a life of crime.
This inspired headlines ranging from “TV Can Improve Kids’ Behavior, Study Finds” and “Certain Television Fare Can Help Ease Aggression in Young” to “Criminality linked to kids’ TV time,” “Preschoolers get lessons in ‘mean’ from kids TV,” and “Kids becoming prisoners of TV.”
This comes after last fall’s “science-heavy policy statement” from the AAP saying, to quote Wired’s headline, “It’s Official: To Protect Baby’s Brain, Turn Off TV.” Around the same time, The Guardian ran a piece warning the “Archives of Disease in Childhood says children’s obsession with TV, computers and screen games is causing developmental damage as well as long-term physical harm.”
Of course, parenting studies delve into far more than screentime. Just this week, The Journal of Child and Family Studies warned that over-involved parents will make their college-age children depressed, while Parenting: Science and Practice journal found “‘Hovering’ moms may take fun out of play”—even though an earlier study said, “Parental bonding makes for happy, stable child.”
Others found “Parents are to Blame for Sedentary Lifestyle” and linked “Parent Engagement to School Success.” But be careful! An Australian study this week asked “Can a parent do too much for their child?” in its examination of over-parenting, which was defined as “a misguided attempt to improve their child’s current and future personal and academic success.”
Now, who wants to bet that these over-parents got that way, at least in part, by stressing out over all these studies (especially the one that warned, ominously, “Parents’ Depression and Stress Leaves Lasting Mark on Children’s DNA”)? By the way, other studies show that kids are psychologically damaged if parents fight over money and also that if you pay for your kid’s university, they’ll get bad grades.
Googling “parents” and “a new study” finds over five million (!) pages and, like a Newtonian law, for every study there is an equal and opposite study. The media love ’em because they can get away with sensationalistic headlines by adding the words “study says” before them. It’s the equivalent of unproven gossip stories ending on a question mark.
And, of course, parenting gurus love them because they can pick and choose the studies that back up their sales pitch. Time magazine noted how attachment parenting guru Dr. Sears cites several studies in his claims that “antisocial behavior, poor school performance and a tenfold increase in the risk of ADHD are also the dangers babies face if their parents don’t respond immediately to their cries” (before debunking his claims). He’s not alone, of course. Science Daily recently ran a piece entitled “Modern Parenting May Hinder Brain Development” in which a Notre Dame psychology professor claims that allowing a baby to cry, to sleep in its own room, or to not have “almost constant touch” will “influence the development of conscience.”
But wait—before you freak out that you turned your sleep-trained toddler into a sociopath, CNN reported on a Developmental Psychology study saying that “a majority of infants over the age of 6 months may best be left to self-soothe and fall back to sleep on their own.” Given concerns about the impact of sleep-deprivation on parental depression, Temple University researcher and professor Marsha Weinraub found that “parents might be encouraged to establish more nuanced and carefully targeted routines to help babies with self-soothing and to seek occasional respite.” She added, “mothers who rush to their babies in the middle of the night because they are crying are doing a disservice to their babies. They’re interfering with their babies’ ability to learn to self soothe and go back to sleep.”
But wait, what about all that permanent damage? A long-running Australian sleep study began looking at babies who were half-sleep-trained and half not. When they followed up on the kids at age six, researchers discovered “the children in the two groups showed very little to no significant differences in terms of emotional health, behaviour, or sleep problems. Mothers’ stress or depression levels were roughly the same, as were the parent-child bonds in both groups.”
Look: Few studies, even the seemingly sound ones, definitively prove anything. Plenty say that spanking creates anti-social kids, but is it not also possible that anti-social kids are the ones doing bad things that result in spankings? Gauging cause and effect with human beings is tricky. Does violent TV create violent kids or do violent kids prefer violent TV? Or is it a little of both? That’s why you can find a study to prove whatever your preconception might be.
As ever, I just can’t recommend moderation enough. Over-parenting and under-parenting are both bad, as is too much TV, though some is fine. Try not to stress your kids out and, for that matter, try not to get too stressed out yourself. Play with your kids and also let them play alone. Sleep-train or co-sleep. Don’t let them laze around all day on the couch and don’t over-schedule them, either. I don’t have a study to prove these statements, I just have sense.
“Modern parenting” has broken down into endless battles with everyone brandishing studies to prove their cases. So let’s get back to retro parenting, before it became a multi-billon dollar business and before seemingly bottomless grant money was spent on studies proving each other wrong.
Parenting is hard, but it’s not nearly as hard as the parenting industry would have you believe. So just do what feels right and reasonable for your family and let the scientists and salesmen argue amongst themselves.