Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

Parenting Relativism: Putting Research into Perspective

AUDIO RECORDING of this article: 

Eight months pregnant with my first child, I was sipping ice tea at my baby shower.  I was the first of my friends to venture into the uncharted territory of motherhood and, while I enjoyed my beverage, I recounted the horrors of registering at Babies”R”Us with my guests.  The list of “must-have” baby goods provided by the store was overwhelmingly large.  And I, ever the over-prepared planner, was also foolishly convinced that I needed all the recommended registry items.  All except for one thing- a diaper wipes warmer.  Come on, really?

Just as I was about to launch into a passionate tirade about how the very invention of a diaper wipes warmer symbolizes how modern parents now believe their duty is to perpetually shield children from all of life’s harsher realities, the only actual mother attending my baby shower expressed how absolutely essential a diaper wipes warmer was for a new mom and her new baby.  I managed to not shove my foot in my gaping mouth, but I couldn’t keep from silently condemning this mother’s passion for the diaper wipes warmer. I was certain that I knew what all babies need and a diaper wipes warmer was not on my list.

That afternoon, I played the role of the smug mother (well, mother-to-be), which is a role that every parent plays from time to time.  We all have our virtues and vices and, in an effort to reassure ourselves that we are excelling in the most important job that we’ll ever perform, we like to recall our virtues and highlight others vices.  But, could one even transform an opinion about a diaper wipes warmer into a philosophical question of parental duty, let alone a scientific question of how parenting is best approached?

If you try to keep up with the plethora of studies related to parenting and developmental science, you’ll notice several interesting patterns, which undermine the value of the research.  First, most conclusions that researchers make about scientific questions can be rebutted by other studies.  For example, parents are advised to put their children to sleep on their backs for safety-sake, but are reminded that back-sleepers do not always sleep as soundly, and a lack of sleep can lead to physiological and behavioral issues.

Additionally, popular theories that most experts accept to be true in one decade, can be rejected in the next.  For example, Freud’s stages of psychosexual development, Piaget’s genetic epistemology and Chomsky’s universal grammar theory were well regarded ideas during their time, but since have all been dismissed by creditable scientists.

Scientific studies are also notoriously inaccessible to the average reader, making gleaning insights from research feel like a chore to non-scientists.  This leaves frenzied and (literally) pooped-out parents to rely upon journalists to interpret research in their steed.  But, even journalists misinterpret research at times or, in a push to sell headlines, only report the sexy findings which highlight counter-intuitive points.  And, to add to the confusion, even scientists (who can wade through the boring lingo) do not rely upon the findings of other scientists.  Recently, studies in the social sciences have been under intense scrutiny for inconsistently demonstrating reproducible findings.  Therefore, if studies use unreliable research and statistical methods, then their findings are also unreliable.

In short, keeping up with scientific research and talking to your pediatrician can teach you a good deal about child development, but the advice comes packaged with limitations.  Parents are tasked with the complicated, yet essential, job of figuring out how to layer the advice of experts with their own intuition and experiences.

Parents are the experts on their own children.  While the official experts can offer advice on how most children learn and develop, only parents know how to best apply their advice to their own children.  Remember that scientists strive to conduct research that is representative of their target populations, but obtaining naturalistic and diverse  samples is not cheap or easy.  Scientists can generalize, but parents can specialize in their own unique and wonderful children.

The conclusion?  Don’t sweat the small stuff.  Instead, become a parenting relativist.  This means curbing personal opinions on bottles verses breast feeding, public verses private school, infant verses parent-directed schedules, and bilingual verses multilingual early learning to our own families.  Then, use the freedom that parenting relativism provides to contemplate and take on issues of significance to the wider community, like child hunger, abuse and neglect.

I know you’re wondering if I ever ended up buying a diaper wipes warmer.  I didn’t buy one on principle, but I feel like I missed an opportunity because both of my babies screamed during most of their diapers changes.  Then again, I don’t think it really mattered either way.

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