Bringing up baby is not an exact science

Okay, I’m not a neuroscientist or a psychologist, but I’m going to trust my gut feeling that most ‘parenting science’ is utter rubbish.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

At the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM) this summer, the psychiatrist Professor Stephen Scott gave a paper titled ‘Enhancement of Children’s Lives Through Improving Socialisation by Parents: New Jerusalem or Big Brother?’. The title intrigued me – as did that fact that this was a medical conference, about scientific interventions such as cognitive-enhancing drugs and the treatment of very premature babies. Can we really have a scientific/medical discussion about parenting techniques such as ‘time out’ – and if so, what does this mean for our approach to child-rearing?

Scott was director of research at the National Academy for Parenting Practitioners, the body set up by the New Labour government in 2007 to train its newly formed cadre of ‘parenting professionals’ in evidence-based child-rearing. The academy closed in April 2010, but we’ve now heard enough from the new Lib-Con coalition government to know that ‘early intervention’ policy was not just a moment of New Labour madness.

Iain Duncan Smith, the Lib-Cons’ work and pensions secretary, in July announced a review of early intervention, chaired by Labour MP Graham Allen in order to emphasise ‘the cross-party nature of prevention and early intervention’. Two years ago, Allen and Duncan Smith co-authored a report, the conclusion of which is in the title: Early Intervention: Good Parents, Great Kids, Better Citizens. And as I have previously discussed on spiked, one of the Lib-Con government’s first actions was to pledge continuing support for New Labour’s flagship early intervention programme Sure Start.

Given all this enthusiasm, what does the evidence about child-rearing actually tell us? At the RSM conference, Stephen Scott presented some graphs indicating young people’s outcomes at the age of 25 relative to how anti-social they had been at the age of seven. From this, he concluded that certain parenting practices do indeed enhance children’s lives, so long as they are introduced under the guidance of proper trained professionals as opposed to well-meaning novices in the voluntary sector. And from this, he raised the ethical question of to what extent birth parents should be forced to attend parenting classes: should it be like the French system promoting vaccination, where children who have not been immunised cannot go to school?

Here we have the core of ‘parenting science’. Bringing up children, which was once considered a taken-for-granted endeavour that everybody except for the most evil or least competent could do, is now treated as an exact science that must be dictated and overseen by professionals. To argue against ‘the evidence’ is hard, unless you happen to be a trained neuroscientist or psychiatrist yourself: all you have to go on is the gut feeling that most of it is utter rubbish.

And the implications of medicalising child-rearing are swingeingly illiberal. If science shows that parenting techniques work, and science shows that vaccination against measles works, shouldn’t we be at least as sympathetic to making parenting classes compulsory as we are to insisting children are vaccinated before they start school? Science, in this way, becomes the vehicle for overriding all arguments about parental autonomy, family privacy, personal choice and individual difference.

In the name of doing what is best for the child, human relationships and personalities are flattened out: ‘evidence suggests’ that if you do x, the outcome will be y. As the sociologist Frank Furedi, author of Paranoid Parenting, has argued, this leads to an idea of parental causality that ‘makes Stalin’s economic determinism seem almost subtle by comparison’.

The medicalising imperative has been particularly aggressive in relation to pregnancy, where women become the target of all manner of health warnings and policy interventions. This is regardless of the quality of the evidence. For example, the British authorities’ official advice to abstain completely from alcohol during pregnancy has been constructed, not on the basis of evidence showing that harm is caused to fetuses by low to moderate alcohol consumption, but on the basis that a small minority of children born to alcoholic women suffer from a condition known as ‘Fetal Alcohol Syndrome’.

Campaigners have effectively created a new condition known as ‘Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder’ – which seems to relate to any child who has any kind of problem – and statistics have been somehow concocted to make this look like a prevalent condition. Policymakers, meanwhile, have decided that women need ‘clear messages’ on how to behave in pregnancy, and that advice not to drink like an alcoholic is too complicated: consequently, official guidance advises total abstinence, and a pregnant woman who rejects the guidance is subject to moral opprobrium from others and a powerful sense of guilt from herself.

Elizabeth Armstrong of Princeton University has written a superb critique of the alcohol prohibition advice in the US, in her 2003 book Conceiving Risk, Bearing Responsibility: Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and the Diagnosis of Moral Disorder. At a recent conference held by the Parenting Culture Studies department at the University of Kent, she gave a paper on a different, but related, development in the policing of pregnancy: the panic about ‘maternal stress’. Armstrong noted the variety of ways in which a pregnant woman’s stress levels are hypothesised to impact negatively on her fetus, and the obvious consequences of this discussion: to raise pregnant women’s anxiety levels and make them feel bad about themselves.

The focus on stress during pregnancy is even more worrying, in my view, than the deluge of advice about what (not) to eat and drink. Stress comes from life events, and relationships – unlike paté and hair dye, these things cannot be avoided without being dead, or extremely lonely. If the prohibition on wine and cheese in pregnancy presents these things as toxic, the focus on ‘maternal stress’ presents normal interactions with other people as toxic, and implicitly demands that the pregnant woman sequesters herself away from the world.

Now, if some fusty old sexist were to call for a return to confinement, and demand that pregnant women kept themselves isolated from work and social life for the duration, there would be outcry. But when the ‘science says’ that mothers-to-be should avoid stress at all costs, along with going for a drink and eating interesting food, that is seen as acceptable. Because we all want what’s best for the child, don’t we?

Here again, we have the idea that we can know for sure what is best for the child, and that this should trump all other considerations. But as the papers at the Parenting Culture Studies conference demonstrated beautifully, even when it comes to pregnancy – where the effect of x upon y actually can sometimes be measured, in the form of teratology – much of the science that hits the headlines and informs parenting policy does not stand up to scrutiny. Should someone clever do a similarly thorough deconstruction of Stephen Scott’s behavioural outcomes, I am sure they would find similar holes in the ‘evidence’.

However, the problem is not just one of ‘bad science’. Even if evidence does suggest that drinking in pregnancy, or shouting at one’s child, has a deleterious effect, parents should still be free to ignore it. Why? First of all, because we are adults, and as such we are expected to make our own decisions about how to live our personal lives and raise our children. The medicalisation of child-rearing flips this around, presenting parents as hand-servants to their children (or fetuses), engaged in a sorry dance of anxiety and self-denial to ensure the optimal outcomes. This engenders resentment amongst parents, who are by and large responsible and grown-up people who want to grow a family, not efface themselves.

And this leads to the second point: that for the sake of the children, confident, autonomous adults are far more important in the process of child-rearing than any of the health or behavioural outcomes that may be subtly altered thanks to ‘parenting science’. A neurotic, rule-bound parent may give birth to a child with no obvious defects, but as any parent knows, bringing up children requires far more than simply doing no harm. How can parents socialise children on to the journey towards adulthood, if they lack the capacity to be adults themselves?

The one-sided, mechanistic approach of parenting science strips away the expansive, human aspect of child-rearing, to leave a set of contradictory scares and rules. And the problem is, even when people question one aspect of the ‘evidence’, or even if they know in their heart of hearts that ‘what the science says’ should generally be taken with a pinch of salt, it still affects what we do and how we feel about what we do. Because unlike the science of, say, rock formation, the subject of discussion in this ‘science’ is our children. It relates to us intimately and emotionally, breeching the rational screen we may use to engage with other issues in the world. To put it another way: when ‘the science’ says that our behaviour might be harming our kids, we get upset and we feel guilty.

Some of us may know that the guidance on alcohol abstinence in pregnancy is not based on science, that the health benefits of breastfeeding tend to be overstated, that epidurals in labour are really safe and that labour without epidurals amount to an unconscionable cruelty for the mother… but if you want to do what’s best for your child, it is hard to retain the self-belief that you know best, when faced with an army of professionals and pseudo-experts telling you the acceptable way to behave. And you don’t want to use your child as an experiment, so it feels easier to adopt the ‘better safe than sorry’ approach – even if you don’t believe it.

When the ‘parenting experts’, policymakers and journalists present their opinions in the form of ‘science’, it is particularly hard to do as Dr Spock (rather ironically) advised: ‘trust yourself’. Most sensible parents need and trust science, and the professionals who practice it: to give antibiotics when our children are sick, to vaccinate our kids from life-threatening diseases, to reassure us not to freak out when our baby develops a spot or a nosebleed. One unfortunate outcome of bogus ‘parenting science’ and bossy parenting professionals will be to increase cynicism about the science and the professionals that we actually want in our children’s lives.

But when it comes to bearing and raising children, we have to remember that the buck stops with parents. Parents are the ones who love, raise and nurture their children, in a thousand different and intangible ways, over the course of several years and life’s ups and downs. Children are not laboratory experiments and parenting is not a science: it is a human relationship, with all the flaws and wonders that this entails. Shouldn’t we just stop trying to measure it, and get on with living it instead?

Jennie Bristow edits the website Parents With Attitude. She is author of Standing Up To Supernanny, and co-author of Licensed to Hug. (Buy these books from Amazon (UK) here and here.

Read on:

A Guide to Subversive Parenting

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


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today