The words “parenting study” provoke nothing but the most extreme of reactions. There are some parents who, when they see an article with the words “new study” in the title, get giddy and accept that here, at last, is the gospel truth that only someone without a brain would ignore.
Then there are other parents, who, when they see the word “study,” feel like – as one mother so eloquently put it – they “want to punch someone in the throat.” “Parenting experts” to them are condescending know-it-alls telling them how to raise kids they haven’t even met.
Everybody seems to be in one of those two camps, and there aren’t many people in the middle. But perhaps that’s where we should be.
Parenting studies aren’t the gospel truth, but they aren’t worthless, either. They’re like good advice from a reliable friend: they’re worth listening to, but they’re not necessarily more valuable than your own experience.
A lot of reasons people have these reactions are the way we hear about the studies. We read a lot of crazy articles that leave out a lot of the details. But there are a few tips that can make you a bit savvier in understanding what a parenting study is really saying, and when it might be worth asking a few questions.
1 | The article you’re reading is probably sensationalized
Scientific studies are boring. They’re written to be as accurate as possible, which often means as boring as possible. The studies are carefully worded, admit limitations, and make pretty modest claims.
Writers have to punch these things up a bit when they turn them into popular articles or else nobody would ever read them. Often this means completely changing what the article says.
Usually, writers will find the most exciting idea in the whole thing and flesh it out. They’ll take ideas and conjecture, stating that they’ve been proven. But the actual studies themselves usually don’t pretend to have discovered half as much as the article says they have.
The result is a headline like this one: “Too Many Extracurricular Activities Can Harm Children’s Prospects.” This article makes it sound like putting your kids on a Little League team is going to ruin their futures, but the actual study doesn’t say that at all. Instead, it says that extracurriculars are beneficial as long as you don’t go over 17 hours a week – which, for the record, is a crazy amount of time to spent of extracurriculars.
2 | “It’s just a generalization”
It’s pretty easy to criticize something by saying, “Well, that’s just a generalization.” That’s often the reaction we have to a lot of articles. When we see something that says first-born children are smarter, girls do better in school, or boys do better on standardized tests, we tend to scoff and say, “Well! That’s just a generalization.”
And you’re not wrong – it is just a generalization. In fact, pretty much every study you’ve ever read is “just a generalization.”
The purpose of most social studies is to make a generalization. Researchers realize that there isn’t a single thing you can say that’s true about every single child because all children are different. Researchers are just trying to figure out what’s “generally” true.
When you see an article that says its new parenting technique is “proven effective,” what it really means is that it’s effective for most children. It means that the researchers tried something out on a group of kids and, for most of them, it worked.
That means that it’ll probably work for your family too – but it’s not guaranteed. Odds are there are a few kids that it didn’t work on, and your kid might be one of those.
A “proven” study is like having 30 of your friends all try the same and having 25 of them say, “Well, it worked for me.” It’s worth listening to those 25 friends, but there’s still a chance your child isn’t like theirs. If their idea isn’t working for you, your child might just be a little different, and you might need to try something else.
3 | If it’s shocking, there’s a good chance it isn’t true
Like we said, most studies just show that something works “most of the time,” but sometimes it doesn’t even really prove that.
You’ve probably seen more than a few studies that – as the headlines promises – will “blow your mind.” You may have seen, for example, a “new study” that says that music lessons are pointless or that extracurricular are useless or that spanking is effective.
We internet writers love stuff like that. If something goes completely against all reason and common sense, people tend to share it on Facebook, which is why websites are full of that stuff. But that doesn’t mean any of those things are actually true.
Somewhere out there, there’s a study that’ll back up anything you want to believe. Just like there are studies that say global warming doesn’t exist, there are parenting scientists who will claim anything that’ll get your attention.
But half of these studies can’t be reproduced. It’s pretty easy to do a study and come to the wrong conclusion – and that happens a lot. If you see an article that goes completely against everything you’ve heard, you might want to take it with a grain of salt.
Most studies on these subjects find the same results: extracurriculars are good for kids, music lessons help, and spanking isn’t worth it. Just like climate change, there’s a “scientific consensus” on a lot of these things, so if you see one that goes against everything else you’ve ever heard, there’s a good chance it was just a fluke.
4 | Correlation doesn’t mean causation
If you see the words “predict,” “correlated,” or “related” in an article about a study, it’s worth being a bit cautious about what you’re reading. Those are all words that show you’re looking at what’s called “correlational study,” and it might not mean very much.
A “correlational study” is something like this one, which says that kids who drink skim milk are more likely to be obese than kids who drink whole milk. The people who did this study didn’t force-feed kids skim milk for a few years or anything like that. Basically, they just got a bunch of kids who drink skim milk and a bunch of kids who drink whole milk and checked their body fat index.
Since the kids who drank skim milk had a higher body fat index, they got to release an article that makes it sound like skim milk makes you fat, but they didn’t actually prove that. What they proved is that more obese kids drink skim milk than whole milk.
That could mean that the skim milk is making kids obese, or it could mean that obese kids’ moms make them drink skim milk. They didn’t actually prove what the cause is, they just proved that these two things go together.
By the same logic, you could point out – as one person did – that deaths by drowning go up whenever Nicholas Cage releases a lot of movies.
Unless you see words like “experiment” or “control group” in the article, the study probably didn’t prove the cause. Sometimes it’s worth questioning whether these things are really connected.
5 | Studies don’t “prove” something
If you ever see the words “new study proves,” you’re definitely being lied to. Studies don’t “prove” anything, they just help us try to understand things.
You might see, for example, a study that “proves” bribery doesn’t work. In one instance, a researcher gave kids a new type of yogurt and bribed half of them into eating it. At the end, they found that the kids who were bribed still didn’t like the taste of the yogurt, but the kids who weren’t bribed had started to like it.
They didn’t prove bribery doesn’t work nor do they claim that they’ve proven that. They proved that kids who get bribed to eat yogurt don’t develop a taste for it, or, more accurately, that that didn’t happen when they tried it. Bribery, though, still might work like a charm. They haven’t proven, for example, that promising a kid ten thousand dollars if he gets straight As won’t improve his grades.
That’s why, when you see the words “parenting study,” it’s worth reading the whole article. You’re getting advice, probably good advice. But sometimes, it’s worth reading a little bit closer to know what that advice really is.