Why parenting advice is only helpful when backed up by evidence
Isn’t it wonderful to have a new breed of celebrities? No-one could have anticipated that scientists would become the new TV stars, or that our Chief Medical Officer would be racking up 180,000 followers on Twitter. What was it that Michael Gove said about experts? Are we allowed a little ‘got that wrong, Michael’ or would that be unattractive? So many questions and so much time to think about them.
At Parent Zone, we think about expertise a lot. Parenting is a funny old business. It’s something we do instinctively and most parents do it instinctively well. Some people recoil at the term because – they argue – ‘parenting’ isn’t something you do. Instead, they say that ‘being a parent’ is something you are.
We tend to feel uncomfortable with parenting advice once our children get past the first few months, because we dislike being told how to raise our children. We prefer to rely on our own experiences of being parented, our unique knowledge of our children and our cultural preferences and touchpoints.
As we gain confidence in our parenting, we become more comfortable with the role. Being someone’s Mum or Dad, step parent, or carer becomes a central part of our identity, more powerful than any previous incarnations. Jumping in with advice and support risks entering a private domain that hasn’t asked for your input.
Hang on, I hear you say. Aren’t we already awash with parenting advice? It’s true that everyone from celebrities to washing powder manufacturers shares tips and recommendations on the subject. Unfortunately, that isn’t the same as having a reliable source of well-evidenced parenting advice.
In fact, some of the ‘tips’ that are shared – particularly in the space of online safety – are at odds with what we know about good-enough parenting. They’re not quite as bad as some of the more extreme historical examples – such as ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ or ‘never breastfeed whilst angry because it gives a baby colic’ – but they can be deeply unhelpful.
So, in this moment when science is leading the way and we’re listening to information that would have bored most people rigid a couple of months ago (R value, anyone?), let’s also remember that there’s a lot of research on good-enough parenting – and if we follow that, we can avoid worrying about a lot of confusing messages.
What are ‘parental attributions’ – and how can they help?
One of the most useful things to understand from the parenting research is the concept of ‘parental attributions’. This refers to the explanations parents use to explain their children’s behaviour. They are generally grouped into attributions based on our own memories and expectations, and ones that are based on circumstances.
Think about the attributions you give to your own children’s behaviour. When your teenager drops his wet towel on the floor, what do you think sits behind that behaviour? Do you think ‘He’s been told so many times not to do that, he must be doing it to annoy me’? Or do you think ‘He’s never had to deal with dirty washing and has always found a dry towel available in the bathroom, so he doesn’t even think about dropping his wet one on the floor’?
When your 12-year-old is quiet and wants to spend more time alone, is your first assumption that they are heading towards the difficult teenage years? Or do you think ‘Perhaps they are struggling with a difficult friendship’?
Our ability to find the correct attribution to behaviour – and to set aside assumptions, expectations and perhaps unhelpful messages – is one of the most important skills a parent can develop. Thinking about the blames we place at technology’s door can be a really interesting exercise. For instance, we’re often told that too much social media can cause children to have low self-esteem – so is it any wonder that we jump to that conclusion if our children start to worry about their appearance?
Challenging ourselves to check that our attributions are correct isn’t easy, but what the science tells us is that if we can check the assumptions we’re making and cast a wider net, we can often find better ways to manage difficult situations. Perhaps excessive gaming is due to the way that games draw children in and encourage them to keep playing – but perhaps it is because they are bored or even having trouble joining in with other offline activities.
The other useful bit of parenting research tells us a lot about how different styles of parenting can impact on children’s outcomes. There are four, widely established parenting styles: permissive, authoritarian, authoritative and uninvolved. It’s easy to work out what the different styles mean and most of us slip into different ones at different times.
What the research tells us is that if we can base most of our parenting in the authoritative space, the benefits to children are immense. In practice, that means having high expectations of our children, offering high levels of warmth and support, being consistent in consequences for bad behaviour and allowing children to make mistakes and helping them to recover.
The hard thing can be to deliver that sort of parenting when it comes to managing tech in their lives. It’s hard to feel confident enough to let them take risks and learn from mistakes when the consequences can feel so worrying – and when your observations of their relationship with tech can feel unhealthy.
Indeed, it’s easy to slip into ‘uninvolved’ parenting when you’re told that they know so much more than you and their digital lives seem so different to your own. Trying to be authoritative about something that you haven’t grown up with can be exceptionally hard – and if you don’t feel well informed and authoritative, you’re much more likely to turn to other sources of help that may or may not be useful.
Three evidence-based takeaways
Perhaps that all sounds a bit ‘parenting geeky’ – and I would certainly accept the label of parenting geek. I admit to finding the role of parents in shaping children’s futures absolutely fascinating. But even if you don’t enjoy wading through the evidence base and if all of this talk of science feels at odds with your own intuitive approach, there are still some really useful things to take away.
Firstly, knowing that there is an evidence base. Parenting has been heavily researched since the 1960s and thank goodness we’ve moved forward a lot in what we know and understand. We do know better than we did when advice such as ‘Don’t hold your baby too much because they’ll become needy’ was fashionable. It’s simply not true to say that ‘No-one knows what works’ – because we do.
Secondly, knowing that what children need is an authoritative parent, someone who feels confident in them and in themselves. Giving children warmth and support and the space to make mistakes in the context of having high expectations for them is super important – and whilst it’s not always easy, if you can do that for even 80 per cent of the time, you’ll be nailing the whole parenting thing.
Finally, understanding that how you interpret your child’s behaviour – and therefore react to it – is one of the most important skills to learn. Setting aside messages that don’t resonate for you; ignoring out-of-date tropes such as ‘teenagers are always difficult’ or ‘two-year-olds are terrible’ helps you to focus on your child and their unique loveliness. And perhaps most difficult of all, not pointing to an external cause – for instance technology – to explain children’s behaviour, but rather looking at the whole picture so that you can properly read the symptoms and identify all the causes.
Perhaps the best way to narrow it down is to say ‘Listen to your instincts and don’t be swayed by messages that don’t have any real evidence underpinning them’.
At Parent Zone, we align all of our information with what we know about what works for children. We’re often described as pragmatic and we’ll take that. We don’t want to tell parents what to do, we want to help them to do what works for their children by explaining the evidence.
If the current situation is teaching us anything, I hope it’s that science can be very useful. Even in parenting.