Monday, April 28, 2014

What I should have learned about parenting from English lit class

Valuable insights into modern parenting pop up in the least expected places. An essay on Virginia Woolf in The New Yorker highlighted an issue that plagues much of our formal knowledge about children and the parenting media, namely a bias towards the more easily identified and counted or as author Rebecca Solnit calls it "the tyranny of the quantifiable." At the end of her essay comes this gem of a paragraph:
The tyranny of the quantifiable is partly the failure of language and discourse to describe more complex, subtle, and fluid phenomena, as well as the failure of those who shape opinions and make decisions to understand and value these slipperier things. It is difficult, sometimes even impossible, to value what cannot be named or described... 
...or posted on Facebook or Instagram.

If I'd presented that paragraph without any references, would you have guessed it came from a science section? It could have been describing one of the inherent challenges of both doing and reporting on scientific research. I know Woolf was a genius and all but still it's somewhat unexpected to find that a writer of fiction recognized and worried that deeply human phenomenon couldn't be easily reduced to words and one suspects numbers. I should have taken more English lit classes.

It's not unusual to encounter a discussion of this sort in science venues  but I've not often seen or heard it in the mainstream media and certainly not in the parenting media.

How does the problem of the un- or less easily quantifiable play out in research? For one, a researcher can only measure what he or she can name or identify or what others have name before - and let's face it, what the journals find hot enough to publish and NIH valuable enough to fund. So if the topic is breastfeeding, say the benefits of breastfeeding the investigator  has a rather general idea of an outcome variable, say health but then it must be reduced to a few outcome variables, say middle ear infections or upper respiratory tract infections. It's rather obvious there how the large matter of health has been reduced to a couple measures, physical illness ones - all the complexities of wellness ignored.

Likewise the complexities of caring and nurturing an infant get reduced to a few variables - say maternal education, socio-economic status, depression- including the differences between mothers who breastfeed for a year and those who don't- get lost. Then the researchers finds a significant "benefit" and what the media or other health officials talk about and promote as if that one factor is the only thing preventing children from a lifetime of chronic illness and misfortune.

It's easier to keep replicating the same sort of easily quantifiable benefits of breastfeeding (i.e. differences between children who were breastfeed and those who weren't) than trying to enumerate and study the murkier aspects of parenting that contribute to a child's overall health and well-being. It's harder to study and assess for instance subtle psychological, cognitive or behavioral factors than breastfeeding duration and exclusivity.

Rationally even breastfeeding researchers and public health officials know there is much more more to parenting than lactating but it's just so darn easy to ask women if they breastfed and how many colds or ear infections their babies got. Parents know this. We recognize breast-is-best misses so much of what we as parents do and what makes a difference. We recognize it's difficult to pinpoint let alone operationalize the daily work mothers and fathers do to instill compassion, confidence, curiosity and the ability to one day move out and pay for one's own Wifi and Netflix. We recognize the many uncertainties and mysteries of nurturing children and perhaps in part because of the numerous unknowns (and ubiquitous stringent official recommendations) we sometimes cling to the well-established though reductionistic paradigms that litter the parenting literature.

As for the media's role in promoting the easily seen and understood, well, I don't think I need convince anyone. Now if you'll excuse me I need to squeeze this into 140 characters or less.

NOTE: Thanks to Andrea Riley for sending me the New Yorker article. Though the magazine has some great science articles from time to time, even ones of interest to parents, I can't claim to have been reading it this past week.









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