The spur to start more formally chronicling my scientific take on parenting came from my agreeing to do a report for the excellent Pod Delusion podcast. The report centred on the unsolicited and unsubstantiated advice my partner and I encountered during her pregnancy.
It was a pretty awesome experience becoming a dad for the first time:
Jerry Coyne – evolutionary geneticist and author of ‘Why Evolution Is True’ – wrote recently on his blog about experiences akin to those attributed to a higher power, in which the sheer awesomeness of an event can bring about a sense of transcendence but separate from anything supernatural or religious, and this was definitely one of those for me.
As someone with a scientific background, I have always been driven to take a rational, critical look at claims. But now with a child to look after, things seem more weighty:
I could trust that millions of years of evolution has provided me with a paternal instinct that will kick in as and when needed, thereby ensuring that the fitness of my offspring will be increased. However, with such responsibility, ‘winging it’ is a little scary [and …] I would like to know the decisions I make as a parent have the backing of more than a ‘gut feeling’ or the instruction of age-old religious doctrine.
I felt as though of lot of the unsolicited advice I had received was supported by mysticism, hearsay or anecdotal evidence. I could also see some biases creeping in:
Many of these intuitions get perpetuated by a massive confirmation bias – all the people who guessed a boy said “I told you so, I just knew it, the way you were carrying that bump it must have been a boy”, whilst the other remaining half, who had predicted a girl, remained strangely silent and seemed to forget their prediction altogether.
I mentioned this because it is apparent when it comes to psychoanalysis:
there’s a wealth of cod psychological theories to explain someone’s personality with proponents retrofitting individuals who conform to these ideas to support their claim, whilst ignoring all other individuals who don’t.
I could also see some beautiful examples of some common logical fallacies: correlation does not mean causation, sample sizes and statistical power, absolute risk vs. relative risk, and reporting and recall biases. Listen to the report for more details.
My science-trained mind would almost always lead me to query claims, as any critical thinker should:
Whenever I tried to enquire about the evidence or statistics behind a particular claim or point to evidence that – say – there is scant evidence that more births occur during a full moon†, that familiar glazed expression would appear and a cursory muttering of “trust the scientist” might be offered.
†[Interestingly, it seems as though progression through the menstrual cycles leads to variations in the sex ratio, but this of course is unconnected to lunar cycles].
But I realise that it gets very difficult when one is actually placed in the situation of caring for child:
People often want a cast-iron guaranteed to-do list of what to do and what not to do, but scientific guidance rarely works like that. One can make a recommendation on the best available evidence, but those recommendations are liable to change and attitudes and practices need to be flexible enough to shift too. My mum, for instance, listening to the pervading advice at the time, slept me on my front to reduce the chances of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome through choking, but evidence since then has accumulated that shows an increased risk of cot death with front-sleeping and now babies overwhelmingly are slept on their backs.
And I do definitely value experiential advice, but I also appreciate that what works for one baby does not necessarily work for another. I guess that that was my motivation to look towards empirically validated advice to guide us during our rollercoaster, and so I concluded a few things I have picked up already:
- Be wary of any sentence that starts, “They say that…”*
- Do as I do, not as I say. There is a wealth of evidence that children who witness their parents carry out a particular behaviour – such as smoking, violence, even academic work – are more likely to behave in that way as adults.
- Open and honest attitude towards sex. Despite what Nadine Dorries may perpetuate, evidence suggests that when parents take a more positive attitude towards sexuality it can be beneficial for a child’s comfort with their own sexuality. And religiosity appears to have little impact on sexual risk-taking – the bigger influence is parental affection.
- Strike a balance. Musical training can be beneficial in attention, cognition, and language development. Early take-up, higher parental support, practice, and friendly rather than technically able music teachers all help, but there is evidence that successful childhood musicians need teachers who are ‘not too relaxed’ but ‘not too pushy’.
- And don’t read Mumsnet.**
*[I didn’t elaborate in the recorded report, but normally “they say that…” is followed by something that one person once said, that was based on a sort of hunch which may or may not be generalisable].
**[a cornucopia of anecdotes, ‘just-so’ stories and madly evangelical parents].
So that was my first formal attempt at verbalising some of the thoughts and ideas that came to me during a fairly tumultuous time. I wrote and recorded it during the first couple of weeks of our child’s life, so any glaring errors I will blame on sleep deprivation. More shall come as I look ahead to rearing this bundle of squidge.
[Note: more links to original studies will be added].