Parenting: it’s not rocket science

Mums and dads should trust their own judgments more, and resist the tyranny of the new ‘science of parenting’.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Politics

A few months back, I stopped to help a silver-haired lady in my neighbourhood unfold a stroller. She balanced her granddaughter, a cute girl who looked to be about a year old, on one hip, while struggling wildly with her free arm to open a trendy but stubbornly folded stroller.

Having only recently escaped the stroller ghetto myself, I knew the secret: that is, the button or lever or clasp hidden in plain sight on every stroller manufactured in the past five years. The one that, with a single touch, miraculously transforms 20lbs of metal and water-resistant canvas into a chariot robust enough to do several miles a day on the streets of Brooklyn.

She thanked me with a mixture of relief and embarrassment. ‘That’s okay’, I told her. ‘Strollers are a lot more complicated than they used to be. I only know about this one because I have one, too.’ ‘It seems like everything is more complicated’, she sighed. ‘I sometimes feel like I need a PhD just to babysit. I don’t know how parents today manage.’

The idea that parenting is more complicated than ever before is an observation I hear often from my older relatives, and even mothers with children born only a decade earlier than my own. And though there’s always something of a ‘generation gap’ between families as childrearing fads come and go, I couldn’t help but think the silver-haired lady had a point.

It’s not simply that parents are spending time deliberating things like whether their baby’s first food should be rice cereal or pears or avocado – once simple decisions that are now apparently terribly complicated. It’s the way we are deliberating. The whole language we use has undergone a transformation. We investigate. We research. We weigh the evidence.

Eavesdrop on a conversation between parents about something like breastfeeding and you might be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled upon an impromptu gathering of nutritionists, epidemiologists and child psychologists. The highly technical language we use to discuss ordinary aspects of childrearing belies a collective lack of confidence. We no longer feel comfortable justifying our beliefs about bringing up our children on the basis of ‘common sense’ or experience. Instead we now rely on science.

Parenting and The Science

By science, I don’t mean the rational investigation of objective reality. I’m talking about what Frank Furedi, writing on spiked, refers to as ‘The Science’: the turn towards science as a source of authority both to validate and to shape our behaviour (see>The Tyranny of Science, by Frank Furedi). We look to The Science today in the way we once looked to religion and morality to guide us in making the important decisions in our lives; in this case, how we should bring up our kids.

In one sense, science and childrearing have been linked for some time. From the moment when the eugenics movement first launched campaigns to ‘grow better babies’ to JB Watson’s experiments in conditioning ‘little Albert’ and today’s focus on neuroscience and brain development, science has gone hand in glove with each successive wave of childrearing orthodoxy. But unlike in the past, when it was primarily parenting experts or the authorities looking to science to bolster the case for their particular agendas, today The Science has become essential for parents themselves.

A case in point involves the reaction to an article published in the science section of the New York Times in October 2008 (1), which reported on a new study in The Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. The study suggested that running a fan in the room with a baby reduces the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) – also known as ‘cot death’ – by 72 per cent. The study, as the article itself pointed out, doesn’t really add anything to our understanding of this rare and tragic phenomenon. If you control for sleep environment – things like whether the baby sleeps on its back or with a comforter – the presence of a fan in the baby’s room is statistically insignificant. But that didn’t stop it from becoming a huge point of discussion for parents across the US.

On the parents’ mailing list in my own neighbourhood, we discussed the rate of SIDS internationally, the merits versus the risks of co-sleeping, the difference between cause and correlation and the meaning of statistical strength. We might have been an expert panel – except we weren’t. We were just parents; parents who spent their evenings googling the rate of SIDS and the prevalence of co-sleeping in different parts of the world; parents weighing ‘the evidence’ and, ultimately, parents seeking to justify our own decisions about where and how and with whom our children slept. This exchange was particularly ‘sciencey’, but like any discussion about parenting, it had an emotional intensity a world away from actual scientific discourse.

Such is the power of The Science in today’s climate that even a random study about SIDS can call into question individual parents’ choices about how they put their babies to sleep. It makes this impact because virtually everyone in American society agrees that science has a role to play in determining even the most intimate details of the parent-child relationship. The disagreement is not over whether science should be applied to personal choices, but over how we apply it. Rather than enlightening parents and putting scientific research to good use, this new relationship between science and parenting threatens to undermine both.

Validating personal choices

We should be clear that all discussions of science and parenting are anything but scientific. Science in the sense of humanity’s ongoing discovery of itself and the world can give us facts and information but it cannot interpret them or give us advice about what to do in our specific circumstances. To use the example of SIDS, there are a number of things science can tell us about these tragic deaths but the main thing is that they are incredibly rare. According to the Centers for Disease Control, of the 4.38million babies born in the United States every year, approximately 4,600 infants die for no obvious reason. When these deaths are investigated, about half are officially attributed to SIDS, making it the leading cause of death in infants under the age of one (2).

As frightening as this might sound and as tragic as any child’s death is, it is important to realise that the chances that an individual baby will succumb to SIDS are tiny: about 0.05 per cent. If parents made decisions on the basis of the numbers alone, few would bother very much about SIDS prevention. But of course, parents don’t make decisions this way, nor should we expect them to.

The parents who let their infant sleep on his tummy because he won’t sleep any other way are no more or less correct than the parents who put their baby to bed in a Spartan cot with a ‘sleep positioner’ or the parents who sleep with their infant in their arms. The decisions we make as parents are reasonable: that is, they are the product of our judgement, synthesising what we know of the facts and our own child, what is expected of us by others and our own moral sensibilities, into a solution that is right for our individual situation.

In this sense, no scientific theory can ever serve as a guide to individual action. It’s like giving 10 people pots of yellow and blue paint and expecting them all to mix the same shade of green. It’s possible in the abstract, but the reality is far more complex. Furthermore, the attempt to introduce science into the realm of family life has led to a highly unstable and divisive culture of parenting.

Science and counter-science

One of the main flashpoints for disputes between parents is childhood vaccination. Though the safety and efficacy of the immunisation programme is well established, rates of childhood vaccination have begun to drop over the past decade. There are many contributing factors, including the public’s disillusionment with mainstream medicine, the defensiveness of the medical profession, and theories, largely discredited, about a possible relationship between vaccines and autism. But the fact that vaccination has become a perennial source of anxiety and actual conflict between parents has everything to do with the current vogue for scientific parenting.

Disagreements over vaccination have been played out publicly in the row between celebrity parents, Amanda Peet and Jenny McCarthy. Peet caused a furore when, in the August issue of Cookie Magazine, she referred to parents who don’t vaccinate their children as ‘parasites’ (3). This led self-proclaimed ‘warrior mom’, actress Jenny McCarthy (who believes her son’s autism was triggered by his childhood vaccinations), to shoot back that Peet ‘has a lot of balls to come forward and be on that side, because there is an angry mob on my side. I like the fact that I can say she’s completely wrong.’ (4)

Although McCarthy and Peet have very different views on the issue, they are both following an increasingly common social script about what it is to be a good parent – that is, taking nothing for granted and putting in the due diligence necessary to get The Science right. The problem, of course, is that when science fails to validate parents’ beliefs, many simply look for other science that does. The Science that figures in discussions of parenting is really the ‘science of choice’: that is, a particular interpretation of science that gives personal preferences an air of authority.

This is clearest in McCarthy’s case. Speaking on the Larry King Show in April, she declared: ‘Parents’ anecdotal information is science-based information. When the entire world is screaming the same thing – “doctor, I came home. He had a fever. He stopped speaking and then he became autistic” – it’s time to start listening to that.’ (5)

Amanda Peet’s views on vaccination seem infinitely rational by comparison but her scepticism about anti-vaccine prejudice does not apply to other issues. She explains that she buys ‘99 per cent organic food for Frankie, and I don’t like to give her medicine or put sunscreen on her. But now that I’ve done my research, vaccines do not concern me.’ (6)

It’s unclear whether Peet intends to ‘do her research’ on non-organic foods, medicine and sunscreens or whether she has already done so and consequently bought into fears about them. In any case, it highlights what has become a never-ending task for parents, namely subjecting anything that touches their children’s lives to the ‘science test’. Unfortunately, when parents begin to look to science to validate their decisions, it soon becomes difficult to distinguish good research, which stands on its own merits as science, from research that simply advocates for one course of action or another.

Trusting our judgement

While most people instinctively recoil from preachy theories, adding science to the mix has confused matters. Parents consequently feel obliged to treat the pronouncements of researchers and parenting ‘experts’ with far more seriousness than they deserve. The proliferation of these moralising theories sporting a ‘scientific’ gloss has led to a groundswell of scepticism. Blogs like Mainstream Parenting Resources and Rational Moms have sprung up to offer a refreshingly critical take on the so-called ‘science of parenting’.

However, challenging bad science alone is not enough. The problem is not bad science per se, but the way that parents’ relationship with science is steeped in moral significance. They cannot take it for granted nor can they escape its tyranny in their daily lives. It may be that the most ‘rational’ course of action for parents in these circumstances is to rely first and foremost on their own judgement and leave contesting science to the scientists. That may at least help to make bringing up children seem less fiendishly complicated.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

Previously on spiked

Nancy McDermott met the ‘world’s worst mom’. She interviewed the widow of Dr Benjamin Spock, who said ‘parents take parenting too seriously’. Jennie Bristow provides a regular guide to subversive parenting. Frank Furedi explained the culture of paranoid parenting. Or read more at spiked issue Parents and kids.

(1) Fan in Baby’s Room Lowers SIDS Risk, New York Times, 6 October 2008

(2) Sudden, Unexplained Infant Death Initiative (SUIDI): Overview, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

(3) Amanda Peet: Vaccines and Autism, Cookie Magazine, August 2008

(4) Jenny McCarthy is a Parasite, Spectrum Magazine, October/November 2008

(5) Interview with Jenny McCarthy, CNN Larry King Live, 26 September, 2007

(6) Amanda Peet: Vaccines and Autism, Cookie Magazine, August 2008

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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