Our grandmas and Jenny McCarthy are guilty of the same crime.
They’ve pushed some bit of parenting advice – unfounded in science but still a deeply held belief, rooted in intuition and circulated by word-of-mouth.
This is not to malign Granny, nor her intentions. There’s wisdom that comes with experience, and it is valuable in its own right.
McCarthy, however, took parenting myth-making to towering, destructive heights when she claimed years ago that a vaccine caused her son’s autism. (Any link between autism and vaccines has been widely discredited.)
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From the minor and inconsequential to the monumental, there are hundreds of myths about raising children, and we are all likely to buy into at least a few of them.
Professors Stephen Hupp and Jeremy Jewell set out to debunk common parenting lore with the best available science. They are co-authors of the newly published “Great Myths of Child Development,” and teach psychology at Southern Illinois University - Edwardsville.
“I grew up in Missouri. It’s the Show-Me State,” Hupp said. “I was raised to be skeptical about claims.” He is the father of two children, and was surprised by some of the things he discovered while researching the book. He learned about scientific rarities, such as women who are able to get pregnant again early in their pregnancies. It’s very rare, but a woman can carry two babies conceived on different dates.
The 50 myths they deconstruct in their book range from conception to adolescence. I was most interested in the ideas we buy into that feed our own collective guilt or sense of superiority.
For example, there’s a widespread belief that attachment parenting creates a stronger bond between a parent and child. The authors evaluated this claim by looking at research that sought to answer three questions: Are there lasting impacts from a mother and child immediately bonding after birth? Are there benefits to breastfeeding beyond two years? Does nightly co-sleeping promote attachment?
In each of these cases, they found no evidence of a lasting benefit from these behaviors.
“It’s not like we criticize every aspect (of attachment parenting),” Hupp said. “We just want parents to be cautious. Not everything tied to attachment parenting is a research-supported idea.”
They also found that research supports the “cry-it-out” method for sleep-training babies as effective without long-term negative effects. Also under the umbrella of things parents feel guilty about but shouldn’t: Children who have spent time in day care do just as well later as children who haven’t. Day care does not hurt parent-child attachment, Hupp said.
I fall on the attachment side of the early childhood parenting divide, but I can accept that I may not have chosen that path because of long-term benefits to my child, but rather because of short-term benefits to myself. It felt like I was fighting evolutionary instincts to let a baby cry it out at night, even if I knew intellectually that it would not permanently scar a child to learn how to sleep alone.
This is how it goes with many of the myths we choose to believe. They are repeated often enough. They make intuitive sense. They appeal to our fears, anxieties or offer an explanation for an unknown.
Plus, science evolves. Data are imperfect. Even the experts change their minds over time.
But there is a lot to be learned by challenging conventional wisdom and looking at which scientifically tested ideas can make us better parents. Hupp and Jewell’s book offers these evidence-backed tips: Brief time-outs are an effective tool in decreasing challenging behaviors in toddlers. But “scared straight” programs designed to prevent delinquency actually lead to a greater likelihood to commit future crimes.
On the other hand, parents who give children commands with praise are likely to see greater compliance. Rewards used to increase desirable behavior in children actually work. Hupp said parents can use a reward to start a new behavior, then gradually phase out the reward over time. This may be one of those places where science confirms age-old wisdom.
Turns out, bribes work.
Grandma could have told us that.
Aisha Sultan is a St. Louis-based journalist who studies parenting in the digital age. On Twitter: @AishaS.