Evidence Based Parenting (I Love Science!)

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Are you a kid person? When I had my first, after a while I realized I just didn’t “get” children, and as I have taken more of an active role in learning about parenting, I have noticed the same trait in a lot of other people. I’m not saying any of you are bad parents; quite the contrary. Most parents I encounter are doing the best they can with the information they have. You’re working your ass off for those kids. All of you! Well, except maybe these people:
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That’s gonna go in the family album.
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License to chill.
 
Anyway, we are doing a job that few are prepared for, and we’re getting less help and support than ever before. I just think we have all been given a lot of misinformation and been encouraged to trust our gut and listen to family and friends before turning to evidence and science when it comes to questions about parenting. When I say science I mean biology, zoology, psychology, neuroscience and beyond. As parents we have a wealth of knowledge at our disposal…CALLED THE INTERWEBZ! And yet I notice that some of the biggest debates are about spanking. Wtf. 
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Parents just seem to rely too much on  intuition about how to raise kids, and a lot of times it can be misguided. We like to joke that our babies didn’t come with instruction manuals, and it’s true. People will have us believe that once that baby is in our arms, our parental instinct kicks in, and all of a sudden we know how to raise a child. Not so. The only instinct that kicks in after birth is the biological drive to protect our children. Beyond that, the rest is pretty much multiple choice. I don’t personally know any parents with a degree in child psychology. Chances are, if you are like most parents, you’ve read one or two parenting books (if any at all) and relied on your own common sense from there on out, perhaps Googling a few topics here and there or asking your parents what they did when you grew up.
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When Danny was first born and throughout his first year, I did the same. But I was at a distinct disadvantage from everyone else. My closest cousins and aunts were 1500 miles away. I did not grow up around anyone who had a baby. My childhood was unstable at best, so I wasn’t really interested in drawing from my own experiences with my parents. I knew almost nothing about raising a child. So for the first year, I got advice from the people around me, I checked out Baby Center every so often, I read “Confident Baby Care” by Jo Frost, and I thought I was good to go. But then something changed. I don’t know what. It was so long ago now. But somewhere along the line I became seriously interested in parenting. Not merely to get by, not to make the best of a not-so-ideal situation (I was 20 when I had Danny), but to really thrive and be the best parent that I could be. So I started reading. Then I enrolled in school. And I just never stopped learning, and I never stopped reading.
Parenting has just become my thing. Not that I am particularly good or skilled, I trip up all the time and scar my children for life….BUT I have made it my mission to learn everything I can about parenting, and now that I am armed with more information than ever before, I realized in the process I adopted a stance on parenting that is called evidence-based, which is less about your own experiences and more about…well…evidence. For someone who had no experience or solid intuition about child-rearing, why not look into child psychology and scientific research on raising children? 
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Well it seems to be working. I have great kids. They’re funny and curious, sensitive and generous and positive, and when I look at them I just can’t believe that something so perfect came out of my own body. Just the other day, Danny told me that he doesn’t like that there are so many people in the world who don’t have enough to eat, and asked me if there was anything our family could do about it. And when I got out of the shower the other day, I found a small shoebox with a bow on top. Inside were some Legos and a car that Ash wrapped up as a “present” for me. Today, he brought me flowers from outside and told me I am special to him. We made a fire in our backyard earlier tonight so we could toast marshmallows and make S’mores, and the whole time we were outside Katy was shouting “Happy Birthday! Happy Birthday!” although in reality it sounded more like “Hap-Birday!” and my heart just melted if only because she equates fire with birthday candles. Kids are so…fucking…amazing. 
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Just look at that face.
 
Of course, they’re not perfect. Just the other day, I jokingly told Danny he is the king of throwing the baby out with the bathwater after he went on a tirade about spilled popcorn, and he very seriously said “Well, you’re the queen of being a rude mom.” Ash recently told me to go live in the woods when I told him he couldn’t have a popsicle before dinner. Harsh punishment, but can you blame him? Popsicles are freakin’ delicious.
 
But I digress. I adopted evidence based parenting because I wanted a closer relationship with my kids, I wanted to send kids out into the world that were happy and well-adjusted. I wanted to make the hardest job in the world most rewarding for both me and my kids. And from everything I’ve learned, I have noticed there are some things parents seem to be stumbling on that science (yay, science!) can help with.
 
I’ve mentioned this before in a post, but I still think that we have a habit of treating our kids as mini grown-ups; basically expecting them to be smaller and less refined versions of ourselves. Nothing could be further from the truth. Take toddlers for example.
If you notice a small child acting up, you usually see the parent speaking dangerously low in hushed tones telling them to calm down, sit still, get back over here, put the damn Oreos down because we aren’t getting those today…any number of pleads and threats. OR they are speaking with a nice, calm and soothing voice and using perfectly sound reason and logic. Funny thing, it usually doesn’t work. The thing is, kids that age are completely at the mercy of their right brain; they’re impulsive and uncivilized and absolutely humiliating in a public place. (I give up wine for 9 months, have a multitude of stretch marks and haven’t felt fully rested since 2007, and you do me like this, in a grocery store over some cookies? Ungrateful. Selfish.) 
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You can see it in her devilish eyes; she has already planned her next tantrum.
 
It seems the problem we have is with the way we are trying to calm them down. We are patient, rational and calm, assuming that our demeanor will influence theirs. In The Happiest Toddler on the Block, Dr. Harvey Karp mentions using a method called ‘Toddlerese’, where you mimic their energy level and emotions to show them that you GET IT, you know they’re upset and you know why! It kind of makes you sound like a caveman “Katy MAD! Katy want cookie NOW! Katy doesn’t want to sit! Katy says NO NO NO!” and it’s embarrassing and stupid and I hate doing it, but dude…it works. I’m not joking. It really flipping works.
 
So in that case, we try the Toddlerese because the evidence shows that being rational does not work with toddlers. We ignore our knee-jerk reaction to soothe in favor of evidence to the contrary. Something that legitimately works.
 
Another example is teenagers. I recently read a book called Nurture Shock, and they did a fantastic chapter called “The Science of Teen Rebellion.” Basically, they hooked up a bunch of kids and adults to an MRI machine, and gave them prompts about certain behaviors, asking them whether they thought the behaviors were good ideas or bad ideas. Some of the good were things like walking the dog, going to the beach, etc. and some of the bad were chewing on a light bulb or lighting your hair on fire. When it came to the dangerous behaviors, the adult’s brains lit up immediately as a bad idea; they answered instinctively. Teenagers? Not so much. Yes, they did correctly choose which behaviors were good and bad, but they had to go through a whole decision making process before answering. The brain scans did not detect an automatic response as with the adults. The difference? Experience.
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But sure, let’s blame all their shortcomings on cell phones!
 
The same goes for risk taking and poor decision making. I am sure you’ve experienced a parent yelling at their teenager who jumped off the roof in a dare and broke their leg. “What were you thinking? What a stupid, irresponsible thing to do! Do you have a brain in there? I thought you knew better than that!” Well, yes, they have a brain. But it’s not fully developed yet, specifically the prefrontal cortex. It doesn’t develop completely until their mid to late twenties, and guess which functions the prefrontal cortex manages…reasoning and risk assessment! This also explains why they are so prone to peer pressure and impulsive behavior. The reward centers in their brain have, in essence, hijacked their prefrontal cortex and the temporary high or “reward” they get for their impulsivity eclipses any thoughts about what could happen.
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Jackass: Generations
 
As a matter of fact, in the same book, there is another MRI study. During the test, the teens were put in front of a screen and asked to rate their favorite music, TV shows, celebrities, etc. While answering, they started seeing usernames and preferences of “other” teenagers pop up randomly on their screen. (There weren’t any) At that realization – that their own preferences could be up for everyone else to see, the danger and distress levels in their brains immediately lit up. The idea that their choices in music or clothing would be displayed publicly panicked them. The brilliant quote at the end of the chapter reads: “That’s the teen brain at fifteen in a nutshell – fearless to jumping off roofs, but terrified of having its love of Nickelback exposed.”
 
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Take a swig of this MD 20/20 or you’re out of the band!
 
So that’s the “thing.” That’s the evidence. It’s not just hormones, and our teenagers aren’t just plain stupid. Their brain just works in different ways and our approach to communicating with them should be altered accordingly.
 
Let’s look at an even simpler example. A few decades ago, parenting “experts” decided that kids needed self-esteem to become high functioning, confident adults, and thus the era of praise was born. In the last 5 years, however, that has taken quite a turn. The evidence showed that consistent, over the top praise of the child’s talents and gifts was actually destructive to their self-esteem, doing the opposite of what we wanted. Instead, we now offer praise for specific behaviors and acknowledge the child’s work ethic, rather than fawning over a natural talent. For example “You aced that test! You’re a genius! You’re a math whiz!” That’s a no-no. Instead, we say “Wow, you did great on that test! You turned in every piece of homework, studied hard and got extra help when you needed it. You really earned that grade!” We aren’t setting them up for failure in the future by insisting they have a natural gift. We are acknowledging that their achievement came from the amount of effort they put in. Evidence indicates that doing the latter will encourage them to put the burden of achievement on their persistence, rather than their innate abilities.
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Next, and though I really don’t want to get into it, I WILL. We can use evidence for the vaccination debate. Mountains of evidence show that vaccines are safe; that they don’t cause autism, and they have worked to all but eradicate many serious diseases that at one time had (literally and figuratively) crippled us as a population. All of the evidence we have at our disposal points to vaccines being perfectly safe to administer to children, even in the doses and schedules the AAP currently recommends. But then a few people come along shouting about chemicals, and scary things like autism and mercury and aluminum, and they’re shouting really loud…appealing to every parent’s biggest fear: Their child’s safety. Don’t every parent’s ears perk up when they hear those buzzwords? Mine do. And they got to a lot of us. A few loud-mouths fabricated some studies and wrote some books and claimed that “Big Pharma” was trying to inject our kids with poison, and they got a national platform, and a lot of people listened, and now we are facing measles and pertussis in epidemic proportions…gahhhh!
  
Our worries about safety and GMO’s and gluten and our confidence in our own ability to determine how much formaldehyde we should ingest has us ignoring our medically trained doctors and running to homeopaths in droves. We want natural! Give us natural remedies for serious ailments! Don’t fill my kid up with your unnatural chemicals; modern medicine is a SHAM! So now, instead of giving our copays to trained doctors and trusting decades of peer reviewed medical research, we’re shelling out money to people like Dr. Oz, who insist our bikini bodies are just a few goji berries away, and our kids’ serious illnesses can be cured with diluted lavender essence.
 
Let’s move on. There are a ton of parenting decisions and situations that call for the “traditional” way of doing things; or just what “feels right”, but could be better solved using science and evidence.
 
You’ve heard about “spoiling” babies by holding them too much? Someone in your family will always tell you not to hold the baby too much or it will become spoiled and never be able to self soothe. Wrong. Research shows that infants whose needs are attended to quickly and who are held consistently by caregivers grow into babies and toddlers who are more confident, less whiny and have a more secure connection with their caregivers. Leaving your infant alone to soothe himself or letting him “cry it out” significantly increases his cortisol (stress hormone) levels. Babies who eventually learn to cry themselves to sleep aren’t soothing themselves; they have become resigned to the fact that no one is going to come and comfort them. It’s okay. Go to your baby.
 
How about our obsession with over scheduling activities and our push for academics as early as humanly possible? Over and over again science shows that unstructured and pretend play are things that not only stimulate our children and entertain them, they also make them smarter, creative and imaginative and less likely to get bored when they don’t have an activity planned. And yet we still we look for the highest rated preschools, we push our kids to do more homework, to study and play piano and lacrosse and then get them a tutor in math to get into a good college. To add that, kids are, on average, are getting two less hours of sleep during the night than they did in the 1970s, which gives them trouble with concentration and memory, and are subsequently more anxious, and at a higher risk for becoming depressed and overweight. Yikes. Give yourself a break. Put out a big cardboard box and just watch them go crazy.
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Boyz only. No girls allowed.  WAIT…GET OUT OF HERE, EMMA!
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And finally, to wrap up my thoughts on evidence based parenting, I highly recommend you look into authoritative parenting style, because it has been shown to be the most effective style to raise kids who are happy and healthy, who are empathetic to others and who have a great relationship with their parents.  Also, read  Nurture Shock and All Joy and No Fun to get some high level thinking on modern parenting theory and how it’s affecting society.  They are less “How-To” and more about challenging our thinking on traditional parenting.
 
Thanks for reading, stay curious, stay informed, and as always…..
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Sources
 
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