Friday, September 23, 2016

Do Parents Matter? Doesn't matter, either way, they're messing up!

Get ready, here’s another new parenting book – and another round of Do Parents Matter? Mom, dad, you know how the drill usually goes. The latest parenting expert tells how parents do too much, too little, both, not in the right way or otherwise mess up the health and well being of their children. Parents smother, micro-manage and coddle their emotionally-stunted, over-indulged, outspoken progeny. In the global version, American parents learn how mums and dads around the world do it better. 

The Book

DO PARENTS MATTER? Why Japanese Babies Sleep Well, Mexican Siblings Don’t Fight, and American Parents Should Just Relax
By Robert A. LeVine and Sarah LeVine

The Headlines

How Much Do Parents Matter? The Atlantic

Sorry, Mom and Dad: You’re Not So Important After All NEW YORK TIMES 

Mom and Dad: Chill Out WallStreet Journal

Why Americans May Have a Lot to Learn about Parenting NPR

And yet none got it quite right. A parent could be pretty confused after reading those headlines alone. Relax, chill out, you don't matter but you have a lot to learn anyhow? I’m not sure the actual book title is spot on either, but then again I haven’t read the durn book yet. Anyone? 

The Message

In an interview at The Atlantic, when Robert LeVine was asked about the parenting advice industry, he said it “freaks” parents out.* I understand the sentiment. After traveling and observing families across the world, LeVine and his wife, both anthropologists, wrote the book to help reassure parents, to let them know they only matter to a point: 

We hope that by emphasizing the resilience of kids and demonstrating it, however anecdotally, in different cultures, we can get American parents to see that resilience is a powerful force in child development, and that kids might well turn out alright even if you don’t micromanage every aspect of their development.

Great. I appreciate the global perspective and the message that children are resilient. But then there’s that pesky “micromanage.” Is that a charge? I hope it’s just a misunderstanding due to the brevity of media content. 

The Sub-Text: American parents micro-manage too much.

I read a sub-text here (intended or not) that parents here in the United States are micromanaging too much. I didn’t read the book. I will eventually. It might not be fair to tag this discussion onto these authors, but it’s high time I get it out there. My apologies to the authors if they did cover the following in the book. Even if they don't critique parents for hovering too much, the archetypal helicopter parent is very much alive in the public and expert imagination right now. 

Whenever I see references to over-involved, hyper, helicopter or hovering parents this is what I’d like to read from the experts or authors weighing in on the matter:

We assume the sheer amount of collected news, studies and advice might have the unintended effect of making parents feel like they must micro-manage their children in all realms or put them at risk for any number of unpleasant outcomes.

Whether parents do micro-manage is not entirely clear. We don’t really know. Evidence is largely anecdotal. Scant empirical evidence exists. We have not studied this much nor have many others but this is our assumption. We assume parents are worrying and coddling.  They do too much of their kids’ homework and laundry and don’t take their smart phones or iTunes passwords away enough. (Although we can’t help but mention you aren’t monitoring those phones enough either. Do you know your kid has been sexting? sexting!)

We should also add that even if parents are focusing a lot on their kids (even if it's on the wrong things), it might not be their fault. Not totally. It’s not clear if or to what extent parents should be held responsible. Other factors or aspect of modern life might also be blamed for the current parenting atmosphere. Also in a very very minimal manner we experts might have inadvertently and we stress this is only hypothetical at this point, we might have some very minimal responsibility here.

We have not assessed forces outside parents’ control that might impact how much time, money or emotional fortitude parents spend on their children today (with the possible exception of cyber bullying and here we know all the dangers lurking online that you can’t control totally but have you checked your daughter’s Instagram today?) No, instead of studying or even discussing these other developments in the world, it is much easier to scold parents for being too involved and micromanaging their children’s lives – and at the same time, providing too much leniency in a number of critical areas (too much sugar, video games, not enough exercise or time outs), the world is a dangerous place!

To our great disappointment,  we have not been as focused on the larger, socio-cultural aspects of modern life, such as the economy, the educational environment, the workplace, upheavals in marriage, family life, entertainment, neighborhood, mobile society, new media, social media, advances in science and pediatric medicine, what we know about epigenetics, namely that you are also responsible for your great-grandchildren’s health – yes, these type of factors - that might make parents spend more time, money or anxiety on their children.

Whenever I encounter a hint that parents micromanage or hover, then I would like some evidence, and also a broader view of forces, many of them outside of parental control, that set them up to be over-vigilant, lenient in some areas (too much tv, too much sugar, etc.). That discussion is woefully absent from parenting books today. Heck, articles about parenting books. Any parenting articles for that matter. So let’s start having it.

True, there are things parents can do to ease up, to let their kids become more independent, responsible, possibly even kinder and more curious and creative. I could regale you with examples of hovering from my own life, including my own behavior but that is too easy and doesn't get us any closer to figuring out why this is happening. Instead, let’s have a larger discussion, placing hyper parenting in context of widespread societal and cultural changes.

What kind of external, non-parental forces might be at play? I’m not entirely sure. Life is a big, complicated, information-rich, inter-connected place. As a social psychologist, I’m certain there are forces outside a mother’s control that require her to spend a significant amount of  time and attention attending to childcare matters. 

For instance, paperwork. 

Say forms that a parent needs to complete for school. 

Medical/health/immunization forms
Field trip permission forms
Tell-me-something about-your kid forms
My-child-can-go-home-with-somebody-else forms
I-swear-my-child-has-completed-all-the-day’s-homework forms
My-child-has-all-her-school-supplies forms
I-don’t-want-my-child’s photo-on-the-website-forms
I-read- the-importance-of-community service/diversity/ecology-forms
I-release-the-school from-all-liability-don’t-sue-us-forms
I’ve-read-the-course-requirements-and-classroom behavior-forms
I’ve-signed-off-on-next-year’s courses-forms

Not to mention the forms you don’t have to sign and return. Not to imply these are not important. But they take time. 

Granted, it’s a small piece of the puzzle but part of a parent’s daily life. Every parent whose child goes to school knows how forms can turn a reasonable mom or dad into a hyper parent (i.e. spending too much attention on a child). These small necessities add up, requiring chunks of a mother's waking hours.

I'll give you another example.

Here’s another parenting experience strongly recommended by experts that necessitates a mother spend considerable time, attention and logistical planning on her child. About a year’s worth per child. Yep. Breastfeeding for a year. That’s a commitment, even under the best workplace, lactation-friendly, compliant baby environment. I welcome other examples. I’m sure you all have some.

So tell me, who is to blame for parents spending lots of time and attention on children?

*Nor is it known how parents feel about the parenting advice industry. I've never been able to find any surveys on the matter. Nobody has bothered asking parents what they think.

UPDATE: Thanks, everyone for emailing me examples of hyper parenting! I should write another post. Especially considering WebMD just compiled a seminal slideshow, 7 Signs You Might Be a Helicopter Parent. Enjoy. 

Monday, September 12, 2016

Flawed Brain Science? What I Learned on Summer Vacation

Parents, the summer has not been so kind to the brain. This is not news to you. Nor teachers. You do not need a study to tell you this. But I digress. The past few months have not been kind to brain imaging studies. A recent paper questions the validity of research relying on the fMRI or functional magnetic resonance imagining. You know the brain scan studies – the ones reporting how parts of the brain "light up" when people are happy, sad, winning, losing, voting, not voting, gambling, eating chocolate, thinking or trying not to think about God, money, sex, cocaine, probably cute babies, puppies and anything else someone had the means and motivation to subject to scientific inquiry.

For over two decades the fMRI has starred in some 40,000 studies and shed much light on the brain and the complicated interplay between thought, emotion and behavior. There is no doubt the fMRI has produced a wealth of data. Some of it high quality, some not so high and some really really not so high, the latter famously illuminated by The Dead Salmon Study. The one where the Dartmouth neuroscientist shoved a dead salmon into an fMRI scanner. Then surprise, surprise, found the fish showed neural activity when “looking” at photos of people. Yes, even neuroscientists have fun.

Now comes word that the statistical software most researchers use to analyze fMRI raw data produces a troubling number of false positives – significant results that are not significant. I don’t need to remind anyone here how research journals as well as the media love positive results. And not just when it comes to brain scans.

How often do false positives happen? It's a bit complicated, about 5%. 

Generally results are deemed significant only if they occur less than 5% of the time by chance. Meaning, the results are SO rare, so precious, so earth-shatteringly amazing that they aren’t occurring merely by chance but because the treatment, intervention, counseling, after-school program, breastfeeding or drug actually made a difference. Basically findings are significant only if they seldomly happen by chance. As a consequence of this set up, roughly 5% of results accepted as significant are not truly significant (but due to chance). In other words, 5% of findings are false postives. 

GEEK ALERT: Some will recall the jargon p =.05  from statistics class. Results or p values that fall below this level are considered significant. This means you can reject the null. 

How common are the fMRI false positives? The new paper suggests fMRI studies could have a considerably higher false positive rate than 5%, a small share as high as 60 to 90%. Some commentators have suggested the latter is a bit too high of an estimate and unfairly implicates all the studies. In any event it is fair to say concerns over false positive have plagued not just fMRI studies but the entire scientific literature.

The fMRI study is no stranger to debate or doubt. Namely, these discussions revolve around the question of how to interpret the brain scans. Does a second of increased oxygen in some brain region really mean a person is lusting, jonesing for some coke or mourning lost loved ones? Is electrical brain activity the same as thought? As feeling? As complex human behavior?

So the next time you find yourself eye to eye with the latest fMRI finding, try not to be too impressed (or anxiety-ridden, disdainful, guilty or ebullient). Now that I’ve rattled your faith in the fMRI, don’t toss it out completely. Not like some dead salmon. When the next fMRI study lands in the news, put it into perspective.


The media did not fall over this neuroscience news. Nor did anyone save some neuroscience wonks. It's not like most of thought, hhhhmmm. What to throw in the beach bag? Hhhmmm. Girl On the Train?  Or Cluster failure: Why fMRI inferences for spatial extent have inflated false-positive rates.  It lacks a certain appeal. Not hard to believe Cluster Failure failed to get major media attention save an article in the weekend New York Times. For their part the Times tried to to do what it could to entice readers and dressed it with a dramatic headline - Do You Believe in God, Or Is That a Software Glitch? Terrible. Not about God. At all. 

Further reading. For another take on the issue and the study, try Science-Based Medicine. Steven Novella’s article covers it there with some moderate scientific jargon. It also got picked up by the Neuroskeptic at Discover. The Guardian and Forbes weighed in too.