Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Child Development Research: Is it Really Worth Your Time?

In response to hearing reports of child development research reported in the news, I have heard some parents make comments along the lines of, "Duh, why do we need research to figure that out." I have at times felt the same way about some of the research I've read. These comments, however, do cause me to really consider why it is important that we, as parents, take the time to even glance at child development and parenting research. After all, don't parents know what's right for their child without reading what academics have to say? Having been trained in a university setting for several years, I often take for granted the value of academic research. This is lesson number one in graduate school--research is valuable. I still firmly believe this. So I thought I'd outline some of the reasons why I think it's still important to be aware of child development and parenting research even if it seems irrelevant.

1. My experience isn't your experience. That is, anecdotal evidence isn't reliable. Each of us has our own experience with our children that may be very different from someone else's experience. Oftentimes people read research findings and say, "Well, my kid doesn't do that" or "I tried that strategy with my kid and it didn't work." Implicit in those statements is the idea that since it doesn't apply to me, then it must not be true or valuable. To me, this is where research is very valuable. Research studies usually examine hundreds or thousands of individuals. In a sense, studies combine hundreds of individuals' stories to uncover the big picture of what the "average" individual looks like. If we solely rely on each individual's experience then we would be pulled in a hundred different directions as to what strategy might work or what behavior is "typical." Research helps us understand what strategy or treatment would work for most of the individuals. Of course, there are always individuals who vary from this but the research helps us know where to begin.

2. Anything could be true. It is human nature to make sense of information; to make it fit in neat little categories in our minds. This means that when we read something that sounds plausible we often (unknowingly) come up with reasons for why it might be true, especially if it seems like common sense. This reminds me of an exercise that we did in a psychology class once. The teacher handed out slips of paper that had "research findings" on them. Each student received one slip of paper and could not share it with their classmates. Unknown to the students was that some of the "findings" were real and some were completely bogus. Each student was asked to say if they thought the "finding" was true and if so, why they thought so. With very few exceptions, each student thought the "finding" was true and they had very coherent reasons why they thought it was a real research finding. This is all to say, that just because something sounds like common sense doesn't mean it really is. This is another reason why research is important. Research helps us test out ideas in a logical, scientific way so that we won't be easily swayed by ideas that sound good.

3. Kids (and parents) vary, but usually within a range. We all know that each child is an individual and that kids differ quite a bit from one another in their temperaments, personalities, behavior, etc. Any parent of multiple kids will tell you this is true. However, research helps us understand the range of this variation. This is helpful in a couple of ways. First, if my child is doing something I think is odd, I can look to research to know if this behavior is within the "range" of normal/average. If so, then as a parent I know I don't have to worry too much; other kids have gone through this too. On the other hand, it may also be helpful know if a child's behavior falls outside the range of "average" so that I, as a parent, can know how to respond or seek out help to understand why my child is behaving this way. This is not to say that every child has to be "typical" or "average" but it does help to know what the range is so that we have a context for understanding the child.

Becoming a parent myself has changed how I read and understand research. I definitely seek out research that has more direct, applicable findings. However, in some ways becoming a parent has strengthened my belief that research in child development and parenting is valuable. If I have a question about something my child is doing or how to react to a behavior, I know someone out there has probably done a study that addresses my question. Although the research may not give me some perfect answer or fail proof strategy, it does usually offer some insight into the situation and helps me understand my child's ever-developing mind.

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Note: This article was originally published on The Thoughtful Parent and is reprinted here with permission from the author.
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