Momma Data

Debunking the latest studies about children's health and well-being

Some Advice for the Parenting Experts

Are there any helpful suggestions for the parenting experts?

Parents, forgo the usual resolutions this year. Forget about eating organic, maintaining calm in the school carline or finishing the baby scrapbook your kid will never take to college. Instead of trying to parent better, parents should ask for better experts. The pediatrician, the education guru, the breast-feeding specialist or whoever else is claiming how to make kids healthier or smarter, why not hold them accountable for what they preach? This goes double for authorities in the media, the ones with the national platforms telling how to discipline, potty train and get kids to bring home good grades. Ask them for the evidence behind their claims. If the evidence seems off, ask again. Email. Call. Post a comment. Go ahead, I dare you. 

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The parenting media rife with experts and advice should make a few resolutions of their own. I have a couple suggestions. Personally I will keep asking for more accuracy and nuance. Politicians shouldn't get all the attention when it comes to suspicious claims. I would appreciate more attention to the accuracy of claims about children and maybe you should too.

When's the last time you read about the accuracy of any parenting advice or better yet, a serious look at the empirical evidence behind the advice? Exactly.

When's the last time you wondered whether the latest recommendation or study was bunk? Exactly.

Oh sure we've been treated to high-profile fact-checking in the wake of brain dead remarks about pregnancy and rape or vaccines causing mental retardation. Some folks might be suffering from fact-checking fatigue given the recent election and every other politician and pundit bending reality. I apologize for creating more work here but we expect those seeking political office to come up with their own truths and remedies. Not so much our sleep consultants, child psychiatrists or speech therapists. I'd argue their remarks matter just as much if not more in daily life.

Unfortunately it's rather easy to get away with misrepresenting the facts when it comes to kids. Unless you cause a national crisis (vaccines cause autism!), run for political office or irritate the attachment, lactivist or natural parenting lobby, you can pretty much say what you want. 

News organizations have been kicked around lately and no doubt feel pressure to churn out fresh content but that's no excuse for the lax reporting of the latest and rarely greatest discoveries in children's health and well-being. Just because there's a press release about some new research that some university deems significant, it does not mean the study is valuable from a scientific standpoint much less to your child's future health and happiness. Maybe studies filling up space in the media should come with the warning may contain questionable content.

At the very least parents should get findings laid out in practical terms as opposed to the ever dramatic "four-fold increase in ADHD" or "twice the risk of binge drinking." A mother deserves to know exactly how many fewer colds or bouts of diarrhea she can expect to clean up if she breast-feeds until her kid starts walking. Honestly, would you have breastfed as long as you did if you heard it meant one less cold?

Then there's the issue of correlational versus causation. I don't want to read about video games, background television or exposure to air pollution causing anything unless there's a randomized experiment involved. I certainly don't want to read about effects unless a number of alternative explanations have been ruled out.

Finally If I'm reading about a study showing children of divorce are more messed up I need to know that the "children" are now pushing eighty because it's kind of important in determining whether I can ignore it. On a similar note I really need to know who the pollsters found at home or who the experimenters convinced to come down to the lab. If the research involved rats ingesting toxins or orphans in pre-World War II Britain, it could matter especially if I'm wondering if the study applies in any way to the human offspring in my backseat.  

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D., is a former research psychologist and founder of Momma Data, a non-profit organization that tracks and fact-checks parenting media. more...

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