Our Gender, Ourselves

The changing American family

The Psychology of Studying Your Children

How much privacy does a 3-year-old require?

Back in the early days of my psychology practice, I remember hearing new mothers talk about the challenges of becoming a new parent. While I was trained to listen to them, and to help them figure out what sorts of mothers they wanted to be, it wasn’t until after the birth of my son that I could fully appreciate just how much motherhood pulls on every single aspect of your emotional and physical life. Becoming a mother myself gave me a new understanding of parenting and, thus, of the subjects I was researching. Sometimes, I even wondered what it might mean for me to include my own children among my work. I knew them the best, after all, which meant there were fewer variables. And they were right there! Why not? I thought. It wouldn’t hurt them. Or would it?   

In “The Birth of a Word,” MIT researcher Deb Roy talks about a phenomenal experiment he launched in which he recorded almost 250,000 hours of audio and video from the day he and his wife brought their infant son home from the hospital until the boy was 3 years old. For those three years, as part of his ongoing research into language development, Roy recorded 70 percent of his son’s waking hours. It was an impressive, and unprecedented study of how humans learn to speak. But what, I wondered as I had so many years earlier, does it mean when your role as a parent and as a professional overlap? How effective can you be as a scientist when your primary subjects are your family? And how effective can you be as a parent when your child is, at least in part, a means to an outcome?

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Roy is certainly not the first researcher to involve his own child in his work, nor is he even especially rare anymore. In the early 1900s, Austrian psychologist Melanie Klein first developed a method of analysis known as ‘play therapy,’ meant to be used on a therapist’s own child, in which she could analyze kids as young as two and three through their non-verbal behavior. Play therapy is still used today, though more commonly by therapists working with the children of others. Child development therapist Jean Piaget was also a proponent of including his own children in his work. These days, an increasing number of researchers—psychologists, but also medical doctors, scientists, and others—are using their children as research subjects. Those who do say that studying their own children is easy and cheap—finding test subjects can often be tricky, while research financing is often under-funded—and ultra-convenient. The kids are often more compliant and better behaved. A not-insignificant added bonus: There are no review boards to seek approval from. Some may argue it’s even more effective: Spending so much time with your test subjects makes for a very comprehensive view.

It’s true that we will likely find no more reliable (or pliable) a test subject than the one living in our house and answering to our rules. But is that the one we want, as researchers? And is that the sort of family dynamic we want, as parents? Parents have a variety of roles: teacher, protector, provider. Researcher is not one of them, and for highly trained scientists, the pursuit of research—that ultimate goal—may interfere with the functions of the parent. At the very least, since so much of parenting is about influencing and shaping, objectivity is near impossible. How can you either parent or research without a conflict of interest?

One possible exception: when research is born out of a child’s need, such as in the case of an early education professional whose child develops speech problems choosing to focus on language disorders, or the neurologist parent of a child with severe migraines opting to look into environmental factors for headaches. In such cases, a child’s needs influence the parent’s actions, and not the other way around.

I caution the ever-growing body of researchers including their children among their work. For one thing, it’s impossible to know what sort of effect such an unconventional relationship may have on a child, or on the parent-child relationship, years later. Aside from the challenges to conducting fair and objective research, using children as test subjects is a clear invasion of privacy. How much privacy does a 3-year-old require? Try asking him, and see what he says. It’s not an entirely fair question, of course, to ask of one without the capacity to give a considered answer.

It’s likely that the better question is the one the researcher poses to himself: How much is my science worth?

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and the children they produce. Follow Peggy on Twitter and Facebook and learn more about Peggy at www.peggydrexler.com

Peggy Drexler, Ph.D. is a research psychologist, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University and author of two books about modern families and their children.

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