Fact-Checking Claims about Kids: Tainted Love 2015

Parents, time to stand up and face the charges. According to New York Times columnist David Brooks you are guilty of committing at least two aggravating assaults against your children and presumable greater society:

There are two great defining features of child-rearing today. First, children are now praised to an unprecedented degree… Children are incessantly told how special they are.

The second defining feature is that children are honed to an unprecedented degree…Parents are more anxious about their kids getting into good colleges and onto good career paths. Parents spend much more time than in past generations investing in their children’s skills and résumés and driving them to practices and rehearsals. Love and Merit, David Brooks, New York Times

Then, the real charge:

Children are bathed in love, but it is often directional love. Parents shower their kids with affection, but it is meritocratic affection.

Parents, you can’t even love right. 
This tainted love you’ve given…take my tears and that’s not nearly all…

Well parents by now are used to the first two claims. We compliment too much. We push, coddle and worry too much. The last one, the bad love accusation, it’s a bold one. Fortunately it’s less common and rarely stated so directly. But is it true? Are any of these charges accurate? If these practices are so prevalent, there should be ample evidence. Brooks, however, provides none.  No statistics, no data, nothing save some study showing Israeli kids who received conditional parental love fared poorly later in life. It’s not proof of widespread merit-based love or even conditional love, either in the U.S.  or abroad. Brooks often cites plentiful social science research but not here. 

Even if any of these above claims are true, if these practices are pervasive then parents are not solely at fault. Parents do not live in a bubble, they absorb and reflect the society and culture around them. These behaviors result from a clash of many socio-cultural factors, including the media trotting out article after article, expert after expert telling parents the latest advice and news. If parents get the impression they can and should shape their children’s lives, and face much pressure to do so, it is in part because everyone, including New York Times columnists who really aren't parenting experts, keeps telling them what they should do or should not do to improve their child’s life. Or more likely, how they're messing up. 

If parents are effusive, coddling, overprotective, anxiety-stricken martyrs bent on molding their children then the media and the experts should take a good look at their roles in perpetuating this current state of affairs. 

Again, if these practices are so common, why don't surveys and studies address these issues? Do experts not care enough to provide some empirical evidence on these matters? Is it because parenting is still, despite gains, largely women's work and thus not worthy of our empirical investigation? Do we not trust science and surveys and wish to keep parenting news and advice in the realm of entertainment and opinion? It would be very easy to get some baseline data on parental anxiety and praise. This is not rocket science. An undergraduate psych major could do it. And yet. Where is the data?

I love a good study but nobody parents solely on the basis of empirical evidence. Much of raising children lies outside the realm of science. However, it would be nice to have some evidence to weigh in on the popular image of parents as stressed out micro-managers. It also would be nice to see the media acknowledge their part in perpetuating the notion parents can and should improve their children’s lives in countless ways. While I don’t expect every column or article to back up claims with a study or two (a girl can dream!) enough is enough with the bad parent accusations uttered without any type of supporting data or recognition of larger forces in play.

Back up your claim. Show me the evidence. 

Or else I won't love you as much. 
Once I ran to you...now I'll run from you....ooh tainted love...

NOTE: Are the above claims accurate? Later this week I'll review these three claims in more detail, including some relevant evidence. I think we've had enough bad love for one day. Update: Here's the post reviewing the claims. 


Susan said...

It is another annoying article about parenting, thank you for trying to put some perspective to it. Love your blog, I should comment more.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Thanks, Susan. So you're not basing your motherly affection on merit?