Author: Jean Mercer
Type: Non-fiction, essays
Full title: Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings
I read it: June 2014
This review was originally published on Levi & Laura.
When we brought Isaac home from the hospital, he had already been alive for more than a month. In his room in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, we learned from the staff nurses how to give him basic care. Since he slept a lot, it was a regular thing to see the nurses alternate sleeping positions. Some afternoons we’d come in and see him swaddled tightly and resting on his back, while the next morning he might be laying on his stomach (without the swaddler), head turned to the side and comfortable.
At home, we quickly noticed that he liked sleeping on his stomach. He seemed to snuggle in sooner and his body was more contained. We made sure to keep any loose blankets out of the way. As the months went by, stomach-sleeping was his default mode. But we knew we were doing something supposedly wrong. When his pediatrician mentioned that after a while we could try putting him on his stomach instead of just his back, we kept our mouth shut. He’d already been sleeping on his stomach for months at that point.
There are a thousand and one pieces of advice about babies and kids. What to feed them, how to clothe them, how to soothe them (or not soothe them), when to lull them to sleep (or not), the best position for teaching them how to ride the dog like a small cowboy. In addition to personal advice, there is no lack of resources online or on the printed page. Where to start? It’s a gamble. We happened to latch onto The Happiest Baby on the Block and found it handy, even listing it in Our Top 10 Newborn Essentials. But as useful as we found the book’s techniques, it’s clear that the author has something to sell and is set in his ways. I even found out he is an “infants should sleep on their backs only” guy, even though the evidence for that idea is dubious.
Is there a way to sift through so-called evidence around parenting tactics? There is. It’s tough, and it takes scientific-based research. The answers are often messy or non-existent. Things are more complicated than we would like. But the effort is necessary, and thankfully some people are out there doing it. One person is Jean Mercer, who has painstakingly compiled a bunch of modern research about children, from newborns up through adolescents, with no product or name recognition at stake.
The book is filled with readable essays that distill research on a given topic. Because it’s so common for people to hear and repeat parenting items that may not be true, she titles each section with a concept that is a myth, mistake, misunderstanding, or has missing evidence. She then dives into the supporting evidence and research (or lack thereof). Here is a sampling of chapters:
- Claim 7: Mothers care for their babies well because they have a maternal instinct.
- Claim 13: A baby’s sleeping position can cause or prevent sudden infant death syndrome.
- Claim 21: Having kids listen to Mozart makes them smart.
- Claim 31: Children have different learning styles, depending on whether they are left brained or right brained.
- Claim 36: Sugar is a major cause of hyperactive behavior.
- Claim 44: High self-esteem makes children perform better in school.
Remember, those are the myths (or if not complete myths, then misunderstandings that need clarification). It takes some effort to set aside personal investment while going through these. Sometimes they are hard to process when we’ve always thought a certain claim to be true. Isn’t it weird to think that sugar itself does not make kids hyperactive? I know, it’s tricky to shake some of these. And admittedly, the research evidence presented to counter each claim is not an iron clad rebuttal–it just gets us more in the right direction. There is still plenty of gray area to go around, and Mercer does not shy from pointing this out. She also takes the opportunity to instruct about experimental methods and scientific thinking. The book is filled with phrases like the following:
- “Statistical analysis of data can explain many things, but it alone cannot tell whether one factor caused another. The only way to determine causality is through experimental work that can control for confounded variables.”
- “Because children develop at individual rates, one cannot use an exact chronological age to predict an effect, even if more information about the connection between age and outcome were known.”
- “It would be a mistake to think that research has clearly answered questions on this topic.”
- “Characteristics of groups of adults may not explain what they were like as children, and, discouragingly, characteristics of children may or may not predict who they will be in the future.”
- “Empirical research, not simply speculation, is needed to help understand these possibilities.”
- “There are often confounding variables at work, such as family income or level of parental education.”
That last point especially is mentioned again and again. So many times we are quick to judge a single individual choice or circumstance as having a powerful affect on the development of a child, when in actuality the larger factors such as economics, education, and home stability play a much greater role across the board. This book helps us take the blame off of parenting that falls short, and helps us recognize the bigger picture. Take the first claim I listed for example. There are risks to perpetuating this belief, because it “increases the chances that the public will punish and reject abusive mothers as inhuman–lacking in the normal instinctive makeup shared by other human beings.” Good parenting is learned, not magically bestowed upon new fathers and mothers.
This is the type of parenting partner you want on your side. An author who strives to be objective and has nothing more to sell than a collection of the latest scientific, evidence-based research. Someone who would not think twice of updating future editions when more pieces of truth are brought to light. She warns of how difficult it is to change someone’s mind, even if the evidence is presented clearly. And she mentions how the entire field of child development is still young, so we know frustratingly less than we would like to know.
Parenting is overwhelming, and a deluge of bad information does nothing but damage. On any given topic some websites might be right, some might be wrong. Our parents, siblings, and coworkers might be right, or they might be wrong, influenced by a claim that “involves a tiny portion of reality and logic, mixed with a large dose of fantasy.” The only thing we can do is hold up all claims to critical evaluation if we ever hope to pass on good parenting advice to the next generation.
Isaac continues to sleep on his stomach most nights. If solid research suggests it should be otherwise, we would be willing to change our habits. It’s all about admitting what we know and what we don’t know, and acknowledging that nothing is set in stone.