The science of parenting and its discontents

In an uncommonly thoughtful and thought-provoking essay for Spiked, Nancy McDermott reflects on the challenges of parenting in an age that claims to be ruled by science but has considerable difficulty deciding what is, in fact, scientific.

It’s not simply that parents are spending time deliberating things like whether their baby’s first food should be rice cereal or pears or avocado – once simple decisions that are now apparently terribly complicated. It’s the way we are deliberating. The whole language we use has undergone a transformation. We investigate. We research. We weigh the evidence.

Eavesdrop on a conversation between parents about something like breastfeeding and you might be forgiven for thinking you’d stumbled upon an impromptu gathering of nutritionists, epidemiologists and child psychologists. The highly technical language we use to discuss ordinary aspects of childrearing belies a collective lack of confidence. We no longer feel comfortable justifying our beliefs about bringing up our children on the basis of ‘common sense’ or experience. Instead we now rely on science.

Except we don’t actually rely on science in the way a scientist relies on science to test a hypothesis; rather, parenting, McDermott suggests, has become infected with a scientizing impulse that might be better seen as an an anxiety disorder. Where once common sense or the shared wisdom of a community guided parents in raising children, and for good or ill they just got on with it,  the scientizing impulse requires that everything be interrogated and justified with a certainty that actual science often can’t supply. Even when there is certainty – or as close to certainty as rationality allows – McDermott shows that the scientizing impulse will dress up nonsense to resound with unearned authority.  As anti-vaccination activist Jenny McCarthy put it to Larry King: “Parents’ anecdotal information is science-based information.”

As every scientist and statistician knows, the plural of anecdote isn’t data.

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2 Responses to The science of parenting and its discontents

  1. Excellent points! Add a disability or other special needs to the mix and the anxiety disorder and science-babble increase exponentially.

  2. Kris says:

    Well said.

    You know that we are in trouble when something as natural and simple as “sleep” has been conjured into a moral quagmire far more complex and challenging than high level foreign policy!

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