Too often we see parents taking the latest scientific research findings as gospel, which results in parents altering their methods of parenting. Guilt often sets in when parents believe that their previous ways of parenting “damaged” their child.
Don’t get us wrong. Research is necessary and informative. One of us is a scientist who studies parenting and infant development (Ed Tronick) and the other one of us (Marilyn Davillier) is a director of a program that trains professionals who work with parents and infants using research findings.
I (Ed Tronick) studied foragers in the Ituri forest who live similarly to our human ancestors. All the 17 infants in the group were always held and comforted throughout the entire first year by 20 or so members from the group. Ninety percent of infant cries were responded to in 10 seconds or less. Does our study* mean you should hold your infant for the first year and respond to every cry because it is natural? Should you get 20 people to live with you and to take care of your baby?
Any new study should not immediately translate into parenting advice. What should parents do when they see a new study finding on parenting? Here are some practical questions you should ask when evaluating research:
- Is the finding sensible? How crucial is it for you to start a new way of engaging with your child? In our society, there has been a strong emphasis on parents buying strollers that allow their child to be at the eye level of the parent, with some studies showing greater activation in the brain when infants are engaged in eye contact with others. Does this activation mean you should purchase the stroller right away and make sure that you and others engage in eye contact with your child as much as possible? If this level of eye contact is so important, the entire generation of infants who rode in prams (the precursor to the stroller) would have had problems engaging with others.
- Did they use appropriate study methods? How many study participants were involved in the study? Who were they? The study finding may not be applicable to you and your situation. If a study has included a few participants with the same educational level or cultural background and no other study has found the same findings, it’s premature to start incorporating new methods of parenting based off this one finding.
Consider your own mental health in determining whether to incorporate research findings and parenting advice into your everyday life. Weigh the single study finding against others whom you trust and respect. In fact, you might even try asking your own mother! Many parents before us have been successful without the latest news on child development research by simply acting sensibly.
* Tronick E, Morelli GA, Winn S. Multiple caretaking of Efe (Pygmy) infants. American Anthropologist 1987; 89:96‑106.
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