Information Overload: Navigating the Research on Kids and Families

by Carrie Howe March 14, 2022

father and daughter and the beach

You’re reading through your daily Facebook posts, and a headline pops up: “Why so Many Rich Kids Learn to Like Healthy Food.” You’re intrigued because you sure haven’t had much luck getting your daughter to eat her broccoli lately, and wonder what the experts have to say.

You click on the link and are brought to an article in The Atlantic covering a recently released research study. You skim the article and learn that kids sometimes need to try new foods somewhere from 8-15 times (research study #1) and that low-income families buy what they know their kids will like because can’t afford to waste food (research study #2).

Linking these two research studies together, the journalist reaches the conclusion that has informed his article’s title – rich kids learn to like healthy food because their parents can afford to waste food they don’t eat on the first ten tries.

But wait, can it really be that simple?

If you find yourself asking that question, then you’re onto something. It isn’t as simple as the title or even the nicely-written article claims.

While the article cites strong and important research on both of these topics (repetitive offerings and spending patterns of low-income families), there are a multitude of other factors that also influence the foods that kids like, such as how early kids are exposed to a food, what their parents eat, how the food is cooked, what is served in school, access to fresh vegetables, and more. (A week later, I heard this NPR Story on Bee Wilson’s book First Bite, in case you’re interested in this topic.)

I believe that many of these factors could also be linked to socioeconomic issues, and need to be equally attended to to alleviate disparities.

So perhaps the title of the article should have been:

“Economic Factors Influence Families’ Ability to Expose Children to Food Repetitively, Making One Strategy to Encourage Healthy Eating Inaccessible to Low-Income Families.”

You might not have clicked so quickly on that one.

Sometimes the message of research is lost in translation.

Therein lies the challenge with how research is shared online. There is outstanding research being conducted that should help parents in their day-to-day pursuit to raise happy and healthy kids, but sometimes the message of that research can be lost in translation.

The language of scientific research can be entirely inaccessible to those who have not been trained in these practices and researchers are not always good at leaving that language behind.

At the same time, some journalists and blog authors will be tempted to write a misleading article (whether intentional or not) because they can get a better response with a title like “Why such and such will solve your child’s behavior problems” than they do with a title like “Research shows that such and such a strategy may contribute to better behavior in children.”

See the difference?

So, what is the average parent to do?

As a trained researcher, I am hypersensitive to misleading research summaries. I always find myself digging deeper to make sure the summary is on target with what the actual researchers intended. But you don’t necessarily have to have a Ph.D. to get your questions answered.

Here’s my advice to parents who want to make sure they’re getting the right information:

Be a Critical Reader

I don’t mean “critical” only in the sense of “critique” – the point isn’t just to try to poke holes in the author’s argument. I also mean “critical” in the sense of “critical thinking.” Dr. Stephen Brookfield, a prolific scholar in the field of adult learning, says:If you can’t think critically you have no chance of recognizing, let alone pushing back on, those times you are being manipulated” (2011).

Being a critical reader means digging below the surface and asking questions about what the author presents as fact. What kind of assumptions are they making about the research and how it applies to our day-to-day lives? Do those assumptions sound too simplified? One clue that an author might be making a jump from the research findings is a title that infers (or directly states) that this research provides conclusive evidence that there is a definitive “solution” to your problem.

Most scientific research articles include a list of limitations as to how far their research findings can be generalized. For example, if they did their research on 50 kids in a small suburban elementary school they likely list limitations about whether their research can be applied to kids in, say, inner-city schools. Does the research summary include those limitations or boundaries, or are they left out?

Another common disclaimer in academic research is that the research found correlation between two things (an input and an outcome, for example) but that they cannot definitively claim causation. In other words, they can’t always say that one thing causes the other, or that there might not be other (perhaps unknown) factors contributing to the outcome.

Don’t let these disclaimers ruin your impression of the value of research. The magic happens when multiple studies in multiple contexts arrive at similar findings. An article that presents more than one research study on a topic of interest may be a stronger source of information.

For example, Amber Leventry’s recent Parent Co article on children and creativity used multiple sources (research, interviews, examples, personal testimony, etc.) to present a compelling argument for making space for our children’s creativity to blossom.

Understand the Messiness of Research Limitations

Here’s the thing – our kids are not machines.

It might feel frustrating to read research studies that contribute to our knowledge about a given topic but don’t answer it definitively. But here’s the thing – our kids are not machines. There is no users’ manual to tell you that connecting wire A to wire B will lead to outcome C.

Research on kids, or on humans in general, is not that straightforward either.

Be open to reading articles that offer promising strategies, compelling correlations, and potential solutions – not just amazing revelations or answers to “why.”

Read them and think about whether they apply to your own family, or could be tweaked to apply to your family. Try some of the things the researchers suggest, but don’t assume that they are the ONLY solutions. You are the one who knows your family best, after all.

Here’s an example: In our house we notice that our son’s behavior goes downhill after he watches a television show on the tablet. I’ve been reading up on sensory sensitivity issues, and while I’m not eager to diagnose anything the research is helping me to think about whether watching “shows” on the tablet is a good choice for my son.

We’re trying to limit tablet use to interactive activities to see if that helps – our own little experiment. The research gives us some ideas to go on, even if we don’t attempt to take it as “fact.”

Consider Reading the Research Yourself

I know, I know. Who has time to read scientific journal articles on a regular basis? Moreover, who can understand those things? But if you’re really interested in the topic, or it’s extremely relevant to your family, it is worth it to go to the source. And here’s a little secret for you – there is a formula to how scientific articles are written that can help you to browse quickly a paper and get the basic outline of the study and its conclusions.

Almost every scientific research article includes the following sections:

  • Abstract – the paragraph that gives you a summary of what the article will tell you, including the problem they were examining, their approach to the project, and a summary their findings.
  • Introduction – the opening section (or sections) that introduce you to the topic of the research, the problem the research is trying to address, and why the research is relevant.
  • Literature review – this often can be included as part of the introduction. What other research has been done on this topic to-date and how does this new study build on that research?
  • Methods – a detailed description of how the study was conducted (who was studied, with what tools, for how long, how the data was analyzed, etc.).
  • Results – the scientific results of their research – often with lots of tables and research jargon.
  • Discussion – typically a more narrative section in which the researchers interpret their results, and often try to justify extrapolating those results to a broader or more general population. This also is the section in which the limitations of the research, based on the research methods and assumptions, are discussed.
  • Conclusion – the “take away” of this research; what have the researchers really learned from doing it, and what questions need to be addressed next?

If you can familiarize yourself with this outline, you can then direct your attention to the parts that will be easier for you to interpret and understand.

Here are a few tips on how to read a research article:

1 | After you’ve found a title that seems promising to you, take a quick look at the abstract to see if the article is really discussing what you want to learn about and to get an initial sense of what you’ll likely learn by reading the article.

2 | Skim the introduction to see why this research is important.

3 | Skim the literature review (for now) to see how much research has already been done on this topic and whether there are any interesting trends in the research to date; you might want to come back to this section if you decide you want to read other articles on the topic.

4 | Skim the methods section to see how extensive the study was. Look for things like size of the sample (e.g. number of people surveyed), where the study took place, and how much data they collected. This will tell you if this is a small niche study that tells just one part of the story (still important!) or a large-scale study that offers greater “generalizability.”

5 | Skip over the results (you can come back to that section later) and move to the discussion and conclusion. This will help you to see what the authors found in their study that was meaningful and potentially applicable to your situation. It will also give you a sense of the limitations the researchers cite in how their research can or should be applied.

Many people think that scientific research is just for labs and nerdy researchers.

However, research on humans is a fascinating endeavor that can add a lot to our lives (and does every day, whether we know it or not).

Parents should be able to benefit from this research, but it is important to look at research summaries with a thoughtful and critical eye. After all, if we’re going to use research to back up a decision we make or an approach we take with our family, we ought to be sure we’re getting the right information about that research and not someone else’s misleading “click bait.”

Recommended site: the by Alice Calahan, PhD

Carrie Howe


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