Stephen Hawking believes that the mysteries of the universe can be summed up into one equation- a theory of everything. If discovered, this equation could help humankind understand our existence and control our destiny. Parents think just like Hawking. They want an equation to simplify the complex, an equation for parenting.
This quest to simplify parenting is evidenced by the rising popularity of structured educational and parenting practices (e.g. tutoring, sports and extracurriculars) within developed nations. Even though experts caution that overuse of these practices do not necessarily improve child outcomes and may even hinder a child’s development. So, why do parents persist in wasting their time, money, and energy on such practices, which may result in their child knowing more, but being less equipped for life?
The simple answer is that parents are lured in by the polished packaging of educational products and parenting practices, which glisten with the promise of successful futures for their children. But this problem does not stem from an inherent misunderstanding of child development. To the contrary, modern parents are more informed than ever about learning and development.
Rather, the issue occurs when well-meaning parents seek to control the very complicated process of development through over simplification. Like coding a robot, parents think about development in a reductive, mathematical way: take “Educational Input A”; add it to “Educational Input B”; and together they will equal a “Successful Child Output C”. In real life terms, this line of reasoning might sound like: sports added to advanced academics equals college bound children.
Sports + Advanced Academics = College Bound Children
However, unlike coding robots, a child’s development depends upon a complex web of interdependent neural networks. These complex networks are intertwined by a plethora of social and emotional inputs and outputs and other environmental and genetic variables.
So, instead of a code like “A + B = C”, the equation for development is more like a function where (A) and (B) are products of any number of constantly changing operations and variables, each of which have confounding operations and variables. In short, The output in the equation for development is not easy to predict.
For example, when a child learns to count to ten, there is much more going on than the simple inputting, or coding, of numbers 1 to 10 into the child’s memory. Each piece of numerical data is bogged down by other pieces of non-numerical data, which can tack onto the code and interfere with how the numbers are processed and retrieved.
For instance, if a child is feeling stressed while learning his numbers because his teacher is negative in demeanor, it may interfere, not only with the child’s ability to learn and remember numbers 1 to 10, but may also impact how he approaches future numerical learning.
This explanation of child development is untenable to most parents, because without a simple, static equation, the master coder (Mom or Dad) cannot manipulate the child to control the outputs. In other words, without having a simplistic view of development, adults cannot fully predict how parenting and educational practices will influence children consistently. This means that parents cannot reliably make children turn out the way they want them to.
The concern that many experts share is that the lack of a workable equation for development causes well-meaning parents to create their own simplified version. But not without consequences, as the make-shift equation for parenting operates just like a defective code might on development.
Culture & Parenting Psychology
Modern parents are not, of course, individually to blame for oversimplifying the equation for parenting. The phenomena is more cultural than individual. Over the past century, changes in the cultural norms and family dynamics, increased public access to information and innovation in the sciences have all revolutionized modern parenting in developed countries.
Ironically, positive cultural change like the proliferation of the internet, feminism AND the heightened awareness of the importance of child developmental are all, in part, culpable for some of the negative changes in the way we parent at the turn of the century.
To rewind, past centuries of Western women have had few options in their adult lives apart from managing a household and child rearing. Abortions and birth control were either illegal or socially unacceptable and staying at home to care for lots of children was a way of life for many women.
In 1957 in the USA, the FDA approved The Pill as a prescription only medication to be used to treat only “severe menstrual disorders.” Without surprise, the number of reported “severe menstrual disorders” rose drastically that year.
Masters of house and home, women solicited the advice of neighbors and family for child-rearing questions. In a pickle, they found a copy of one of the few available parenting books of the times like Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care, which was the gold standard for child-rearing in the 1950s. As the feminism movement gained footing in the mid-twentieth century, women gained widespread access to birth control and to careers outside of the home. Consequently, children began needing alternative sources of childcare. These changes in family dynamics sparked a plethora of studies on the impact of alternative childcare arrangements upon children.
Just as women began finding footing in the workforce, the internet became a new sensation. Almost overnight, a surfeit of information on child development became accessible to popular audiences. Along with the abundance of information on child rearing, came plenty of unsolicited advice on parenting from people around the world in the form of articles and blog posts.
“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change.” -Stephen Hawking
Social media blossomed, and with it, the advent of Facebook and Pintrest. Now, not only advice burdened parents, but scores of pictures of perfect families, challenged parents to be better mothers and fathers.
The old phrase, “Keeping up with the Joneses” took on a whole new dimension. Instead of just one obnoxiously perfect neighborhood family to keep pace with, modern parents have the challenge of keeping pace with the entire world.
The Pill, internet and other types of cultural change all increase the parental level of accountability and, consequently, parenting workload. Adding this burden to increasingly tight schedules, modern parents are left to find quick ways to make sense of child development.
For instance, the advent and widespread accessibility of birth control allowed parents to reduce the number of children in their household. But, fewer offspring also means less opportunities to “get parenting right”, so to speak. According to the US Census Bureau’s reported birthrate for 1960, parents used to have about four chances to produce an ideal offspring, and modern parents now only have about two. Oddly enough, modern parents spent an average of 21 hours a week parenting in 2010, whereas they used to spend about 10 hours in 1975, according to a recent longitudinal study in the Journal of Marriage and Family.
This means that modern parents spend more time caring for their two children now, than they used to spend on four children in past generations. This also means that parents have increased their parenting load by about one and a half times, regardless of the fact that families have fewer children and that 75% of mothers now work outside of the home, according to a recent Pew Research poll.
Similar to how the widespread use of birth control enhanced parental accountability, the proliferation of parenting and child development information through paper and electronic means in the late 20th century, until today, is another significant source of enhanced parental accountability. As social science research in the fields of education, psychology and neuroscience gained funding and coverage of their findings in the popular media, more scientific knowledge about how children learn and develop became accessible to the average parent.
Demand for scientific knowledge on child development was fueled in part by the growing affluence of Western nations. The median household income steadily rose throughout the 20th century. As families became wealthier, they had more disposable income to invest in their children’s development and education. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, the average family income has nearly doubled since the 1950s.
Research Tidbit: A new study out of Ohio State demonstrates that mothers who identify most with their maternal role, post the most on Facebook. These moms had stronger emotional reactions (positive and negative) to social media interactions and tended to have higher rates of postpartum depressive symptoms.
A primary way that parents determine how to best invest their hard-earned money on their children is by using the internet, and, more specifically, crowd-sourcing on social media outlets. As social media and the internet evolved over the Turn of the Century, the ideas and possibilities for how parents can and should parent became increasingly numerous, easier to implement, but also arguably more intrusive.
Consider the day-to-day life of the modern family. On average, both parents work and in return earn two incomes, minus childcare expenses and increased taxes. In exchange of receiving the benefit of two incomes, parents also assume more stress, less leisure time, and, if you recall, still have more societal pressure to parent well than in past generations.
With less disposable time, modern parents economize and sift quickly through copious amounts of information available on parenting. Without time to process and absorb the information that they are inundated by, parents do what any intelligent creature might. Parents compare notes and simplify the data.
The “keeping up with the Joneses” parenting mentality, which was measured by comparing oneself to the neighbors, evolved into a comparison to all the articles, blogs, and pictures posted on social media sites. The advent of the internet and social media raised the parenting bar up to impossible levels.
For example, the public’s outpouring over Mozart and his melodies demonstrates how reductive parenting logic materialized around the Turn of the Century. Poor journalism, opportunistic politicians, and harried parents innovated a trend based upon a misconstrued notion that listening to Mozart increases your IQ and causes better performance in math.
Parents ditched their Barney sound-tracks and swapped in sonatas because of the over-generalization which concluded that Mozart’s music, plus math, equals academic success. Of course, like most bad journalism, there was some truth to the story. The Mozart Effect was published by Francis Rauscher in a top journal, but was limited to ten minute improvements in spatial skills of college students, which can actually be found while listening to any type of music while performing a spatial task.
The mass media, parents and politicians took Rauscher’s findings out of context and applied them broadly to situations that needed a quick fix. Of course, while listening and learning to play Mozart is enriching, it cannot guarantee future improvement of a child’s cognitive performance in school. No reputable scientist would ever try to assert to the contrary. But, often advice from scientific articles can be misconstrued.
Instead of helping parents make better decisions, misinterpreted research-based advice can burden parenting with its broad generalizations. Learning and development is just not that simple.
Timing Is Everything
Another common phenomena of modern childhood is the packed schedules of children in middle and upper class families. Modern professional parents report a pressure to facilitate and maintain a daily agenda of structured children’s activities, out of fear that if they do not, their kids will not receive enough enrichment and will fall behind their peers.
This parenting assumption is also, like the Mozart myth, the product of faulty logic. Mainly, the faulty assumption is that parent-directed activities are better than child-directed activities for development. In other words, modern parents falsely believe that in order for children to be learning, an adult must be actively engaging the child in instruction. But research demonstrates the opposite conclusion.
Dr. Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, renown professor of cognitive developmental psychology at Temple University and author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, explained in an interview that when her team of researchers studied learning in preschoolers, they found that children were more motivated by, and retained more knowledge from, learning experiences that adults facilitated, but did not direct. Instead, child-directed learning experiences demonstrated a higher long-term recall rate.
She commented that parents need to evaluate their children’s learning experiences before assuming that they are worthwhile. Dr. Hirsh-Pasek joked, “What is a four-year old going to really gain from soccer, when they don’t care yet about the rules and just want to kick a ball?”
Instead of filling the family calendar with countless activities, she suggests that parents who want to improve their children’s outcomes should facilitate learning experiences by providing opportunities to freely play and learn. For example, parents can display a set of building blocks at home and demonstrate ways to use them, while allowing children to freely experiment with the blocks. She also implores parents to limit screen time and provide opportunities for children to experience boredom and unstructured play outdoors.
Experts, including Dr. Hirsh-Pasek, have been sounding the alarm for the past decade. Child development does not just happen in adult-directed activities, which often dominate a modern child’s day. This practice is developmentally inappropriate and potentially harmful to child development.
“A little nonsense now and then is cherished by the wisest men.” -Ronald Dahl
Citing rising rates of anxiety, depression, suicide, and dissatisfaction with life in adolescents and young adults, experts are wondering whether or not this trend may be influenced by “helicopter” parenting. Helicopter parenting is the general over-involvement and control of parents in a children’s learning and development.
However, by this definition, many well-meaning, loving parents could be considered helicopter parents. In fact, it is safe to say that this pejorative way of referring to parents from the past is the new modern status quo of good parenting. Now parents who are overly involved in their children’s lives rebrand their actions as “taking parenting seriously” or being “child-centered.”
By modern standards, if a parent is not leading the Girl Scout troop, room parent, baking for the sports league and offering seasonal-theme crafts for playdates, then that parent’s commitment to their children might be called into question. And, worse, that parent is certainly not keeping up with his or her online peers who post their successes and parenting feats online.
The Equation is the Solution
When parents are held accountable to impossible standards, with less disposable time to figure out how to parent best and more stress, they do what any rational, time-restrained, stressed-out logical human might. Parents subconsciously formulate an equation to solve the problem of parenting. They know the desired end result of their work, which is kind, happy, successful and independent kids. they ALSO know that people who make kids like this provide all sorts of good opportunities for their children, like music lessons, sports and foreign language classes.
So, parents subconsciously slap-bang an equation together on the fly. And this equation for parenting allows for unlimited inputs with every expectation of the ideal output. However, the equation neglects the very human elements of development, which get lost in the stressful lives of modern families.
Child development cannot be completely predicted and, therefore, controlled. A child is not a robot, who can receive endless inputs of reductive code so long as he is plugged into an electrical source and has enough data space on his hard-drive. To the contrary, a child is a mysterious combination of organic matter that is social, rational, curious and deeply emotive.
Instead of playing the part of the computer programmer, parents ought to don the cap of a different type of scientist. Parents are not a mastermind creating AI. Rather, they are more of an expert facilitator, so to speak, of their own child’s development.
“Time is a game played beautifully by children.” -Heraclitus
As the expert on their own child, parents can possess an eye for the sublime and appreciate the mysterious complexities of their children’s growth and development; all the while accepting that even as the experts, parents are really not in control of what happens next, but rather, are just along for the glorious ride.