I don’t remember much about my first few mothers’ group meetings. I juggled a baby who fed every two hours, protested loudly when tired but refused to sleep, the painful healing wounds of a 24-hour labour and emergency caesarean and an overwhelming anxiety that I was doing it all wrong.
The main message I remember from the maternal and child health nurse who attended those sessions was:
“Don’t listen to your mothers. They did it all wrong.”
She then proceeded to regale us with evidence-based ‘tips’ and studies which taught us the best way to ensure optimum development in our babies.
Also horror stories as to why our mothers had been doing it all wrong – but it wasn’t their fault, they weren’t to know.
Here are just a few discoveries about parenting that research has given us in the last decade or so:
- by using positive bedtime routines, controlled crying or controlled comforting children’s sleep improved and mothers’ depression symptoms reduced.
- the way parents and others talk to young children about the past is crucial for their memory development.
- a mum’s diet during pregnancy may influence her baby’s taste.
- reading children books with pictures of vegetables can increase the likelihood that they will eat their vegetables.
- children are more likely to have an above-average vocabulary if they read digital and print books, than if they read printed books only.
- some anger management issues in children could be genetic.
Ann Sanson and Sarah Wise, from the Australian Institute of Family Studies, point to ‘an increasing level of social intervention aimed at supporting parents to rear productive, well-adjusted citizens.’
How did we get here? When did parenting transition from ‘Mother knows best’ to a scientific endeavour?
Nature vs Nurture
Nurture: Blank slate babies
Wouldn’t it be nice if John Locke was right around 300 years ago when he philosophised that children were tabula rasa – a blank slate? The thought that you could mould that squishy little bubba into anything you liked.
Screw genetic selection, I’ll just bed the nearest bloke and then bombard our progeny with flashcards, language apps and piano lessons and they’ll turn out to be the next prime minister.
This theory that children could be moulded into anything with the right environment continued into the 20th century. It was given fancy names like ‘classical conditioning‘ and ‘reinforcement theory’ but at the end of the day, it also meant that if your child turned out to be a delinquent, it was your fault.
Nature: Pre-fab babies
In the 18th century, Rousseau, a French philosopher, concluded that children were born with a sense of reason (clearly he’d never met a toddler at dinner time). Parents could encourage and guide their children but essentially it was the child’s innate nature that they were born with which would dictate the person they would become.
Unfortunately this sort of thinking lead to the whole ‘bad breeding’ theory and simply reinforced prejudices – how can a child of criminals ever expect to be anything but a degenerate law breaker?
Nature AND Nurture: a revolutionary marriage of ideas
From around the early 20th century, thanks to big thinkers like Freud, Piaget, Bowlby (you can thank him for attachment theory) and, more recently, Bell (1968), we’ve figured out that kids are affected by both their genetics and environment (nature) AND the way they’re brought up (nurture).
The rise of evidence-based parenting advice
Nature AND nurture is a pretty handy philosophy because it means that, with enough research, we can boil parenting down to a fine-tuned science with a set of rules to follow.
Hooray! Babies now come with a Parenting Manual!
If you follow all the rules you’re guaranteed to raise a superstar child!
The fine print: You’ll also need to keep up with the new parenting research results which are released daily and change the rules constantly.
I never said it was easy to raise the next prime minister.
Today: It’s still the parent’s fault
The good news
You can now find an evidence-based answer to every tiny developmental question you ever had about children (in fact, you may find several, all with conflicting advice).
The bad news
If something goes wrong with your child it’s your fault because you chose the wrong partner (genetics), your fault because you ate the wrong food, were too stressed or took the wrong medication during pregnancy (epigenetics) or your fault because you failed to get degrees in psychology, sociology, occupational therapy, early childhood education, nutrition and medicine before you took on the massively complex and scientific job of raising children.
It’s unclear whether all this research and theorising has resulted in a world where we’re raising healthier, happier children who are better able to contribute society in a meaningful way.
It is clear, however, that we’ve become astonishingly adept at beating each other about the head with whichever parenting study results happen to be handy at the time.
Perhaps we need more parenting studies like the one reported in the New Yorker by Sarah Miller:
A recent study has shown that if American parents read one more long-form think piece about parenting they will go f@#$ing ape shit.