Dear Parents: Please Ignore the Latest Research

Dear Parents: Please Ignore the Latest Research

In the above-linked NY Times article published today in Motherlode, writer Nicholas Day, author of a book on the science and history of infancy titled “Baby Meets World,” encourages parents to feel free to ignore the latest scientific discoveries regarding how babies “work.”  He tells us: 

Science works in small, boring ways. Findings have to accumulate, and they take their time to do so. They rarely arrive in a baby-manual-ready bundle, already replicated, with a massive data set backing up the conclusions. Unless you are a scientist doing infancy research yourself, a single study means very little. It has meaning inside the discipline; it has far less meaning inside the home.

His point is well-taken when he gives us this example:

A  few months ago, a study came out suggesting that
pacifiers in infancy stunt the expression of emotion later in childhood. In the experiment, the boys—and only the boys—who sucked on pacifiers seemed to be emotionally muted later in life. The tentative explanation was that sucking on a pacifier may inhibit a baby’s ability to mimic other people, and that early mimicry may be crucial for emotional development.

He explains that he doesn’t want to “pick on this study” as it “looks like good science, done by good scientists.” But, he goes on to pose the question regarding who should look at the study and pay attention to it.  He believes other scientists should, perhaps in order to repeat the experiment and collect data for a longer period of time or to see if the results hold true in a different setting, with different experimenters or different subjects.  He wonders whether or not parents should.  

As Day says, the study about pacifiers in infancy represents a “single data point in a very complicated matrix.”  He emphasizes that “parents rarely recognize this” and, therefore, are likely to take study results as absolute truth.  He goes on to say:

Any parent would want this sort of certainty; I do. Ironically, though, by paying attention to any given study, parents are more likely to end up more addled and less certain, even less knowledgeable, than they were before. They may think they’re seeing the forest—that they’re seeing how babies work—when they’re actually looking at a single tree.

His suggestion:  Wait until the evidence accumulates, and, even then, know that there may not be much practical advice at hand.  To make his point more clear, he asks us to consider this:   

A lot of the most insightful recent research on babies—on their Bayesian reasoning, say—has nothing to do with parenting. It will not help you at 2am. Developmental psychology can’t tell us how to raise our children. Developmental psychologists are like the rest of us: they wouldn’t be able to agree on how to raise their own children.

Which leads to an important point for all of us who are raising children.  It’s difficult to agree on what’s best unless there are years behind the findings.  Even then, people will still disagree on what worked best for one child versus another, even within the same family with children of the same two parents.  That said, there are certain truths we know about guiding an infant or toddler to reach his or her full potential, such as the importance of building language, social, emotional and sensory skills for success in school and life;  we have seen this truth play out time and time again.  Such truths were not discovered by one set of scientists in one, sterile laboratory setting.  Instead, they were truths that an overriding majority found to be true over and over again in the laboratory known as the real world.  It’s the stuff of what our grandparents and parents, and generations before them, have known for decade upon decade:  Give babies love, language, and learning opportunities and they are bound for success.   



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