Sunday, 10 May 2015

If your child is born, chances are he'll become an axe-murderer

Dear Facebook friend seeking affirmation by sharing posts about how a different parenting method is torture/destructive/producing axe-murderers,YOU ARE NOT BEING HELPFUL. 

By b.gliwa (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5 (], via Wikimedia Commons

I totally get why you are doing this, parenting is terrifying, and we all wish someone would just come and tell us: "here is the fool-proof way to raise happy, well-balanced children, now get on with it". In the absence of such a panacea, we go for the next best thing, reassuring ourselves that we made the right choice with anything we can find. Especially scientific studies. Those are our favourite.

They are, however, completely unhelpful.

Here's why:

1. Science cannot "prove" a parenting method, and waving numbers in our faces is not going to change that.

Even in the case of the most widely accepted parenting advice (put your baby to sleep on his/her back, to reduce the risks of SIDS). The study showed that the number of deaths decreased when this was done, but along with no co-sleeping, the change of the position of the blankets and no cuddly toys in the cot. Simultaneously, advice on how to feed your baby also changed quite dramatically. How do you know that this bit of advice had more impact than that other one?

You don't.

The NHS noted the correlation and now gives all the advice in bulk to play safe, because SIDS is horrible. But we don't actually KNOW.

Which is why they call it "advice" and not law.

Now for the million of studies that claim "if you do this, this and that, your baby will end up doing this, this and that". How do you think they obtained such numbers?

Invasive behavioural experiments on babies or children, of the kind that could actually test the claims of parenting gurus, are not done anymore. It simply would never go through an ethics committee

Just in case you are not sure, that's a good thing. You do not want to condition a baby to be terrified of his teddy bear to prove a scientific point. The results are simply not worth it.

Even in the case of research that does not harm the child in any way, gathering reliable data is next to impossible. If parents believe there is a potential benefit, then they will absolutely refuse to risk having their child put in the control group, and see him/her potentially deprived of said benefit. And even if they did, you shouldn't let them, because that would be unethical. But if there is no control group, no-one can know what would have happened had you done nothing. So claims just go untested. Seriously. Fish oil is a great example.

Concentrate of cleverness

So, in most cases, the numbers you are using are gathered through collection of data after the fact (i.e: ask all the mothers of axe-murderers if they let their baby cry-it-out) or generalisations from a sample, relying on people's memories, opinions and impressions.

The first method can produce impressive numbers: "98% of axe-murderers were left to cry-it-out! Shock! Shock! Fear!" but gives you very little information as to the chances of YOUR baby becoming an axe-murderer. After all, axe-murderers are not exactly common, and in my experience, have more complex issues than can be explained away by parenting methods.

The second method suffers from all the problems of subjectivity to start with. Do people remember correctly? Do they exaggerate certain events or choices because they already believe that they had an impact? 

No they don't, and yes, they do. They can try their hardest, but they do. It's just the way the brain works.

As if that wasn't enough, the "randomized sample" used to obtain such subjective information is almost never random at all.

If you don't believe me, answer me this: how often do you agree to fill in surveys? Especially if they look long and detailed (which good surveys need to be, to diminish bias)?


I used to share a house with a PhD student in psychology, and she was often asked to try her tests on a "sample". This sample invariably was constituted of her housemates, her friends and family, and three unusually kind souls from the street who agreed to answer her questions.
Not that she didn't try, but the realities of life mean that most of your scientific studies are using an extremely narrow research group.

Let's be a sample study!

And last but not least, correlation does not mean causation. The divorce rate going up as the popularity of knitting declined (I am making this up from the top of my head), does not mean that taking up knitting will suddenly secure your marriage. And parenting comes with millions of variables that could all have an impact.

So, parenting methods cannot be proved or backed by science. Some elements can be tentatively put forward, but there are simply too many variables in parenting for science to extricate with certainty what works best.

2. You are dis-empowering women

Parenting used to be something you learnt from your mother and helping raise younger siblings or nieces and nephews. Then, came Truby King (I could go back to Rousseau as well, but he didn't claim to be a scientist). 

You have a lot to answer for.

King did a lot to lower infant mortality through his careful study of the impact of nutrition. But, emboldened by his discoveries, he decided to present mothers with a "scientific" method of raising babies. He wrote a book about it, with all the numbers to back his claims, and millions of women followed his advice, dutifully putting their babies in prams at the back of their gardens when they were crying. Science!
This simple shift had devastating consequences. Because, all of a sudden, science was the solution, not what you had seen your mother do. The solution was in a book, not in your experience and that of mothers before you, transmitted through generations. And mothers were left with no confidence in their own judgement.

And now, you find yourself with thousands of books, millions of options, all battling for your vote by demonising all other methods. Now you have Mommy Wars. Because science.

The thing is, not matter which it is (apart from obviously wacky ones) your children won't be harmed by your chosen method of parenting. The fact that you are reading up, agonising over and trying to follow parenting methods is a pretty good sign that they have a caring mother who is trying her best for her little ones, and that is all that matters for their development. 
You can however, harm mothers.

3. What is your aim?

So you tried this new wonder-method, it worked brilliantly for you and you want to share it with the world. Great. By all means, do share. I don't have any problem with people offering advice on what worked for them, and feeling enthusiastic about their own choices. But if you proceed to explain that every single other method produces twisted psychopaths, you are only weakening your point.

If you have to aggressively shame all the mothers who do not follow the same path as you, you give the impression that your belief in your method is actually so weak that you cannot stand anybody doing anything differently. Your method is so flimsy it requires full approval from the entirety of the world to be sustained.

And if you tell yourself that you shared this article because you want mothers who do things differently to change, newsflash: it is not going to work.

You do not shame and blame someone into following your lead. You inspire them by your confident example, and how you can gracefully take criticism.

All you will have done, by sharing this article, is make another woman feel a little more alone, a little less supported, and the climate in which we are raising our children that little bit more unfriendly. 

Mommy Wars are real. They are the reason why I avoided talking to other mums that were not my immediate family for months after Jude was born. That was very isolating, but as a new mum, unsure of anything, I simply could not face a barrage of criticism because I was doing things in a slightly French way. So I hid. And that was partly YOUR fault, article-sharing Facebook-friend mum.


  1. Clearly you've been taking your fish oil. :-) And I'm curious to know what sort of experience you have with axe-murderers, exactly. :-) But my favorite line was this one: "All you will have done, by sharing this article, is make another woman feel a little more alone, a little less supported, and the climate in which we are raising our children that little bit more unfriendly. " Truth, succinctly put.

    There's a book called My Heart Lies South by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino, in one chapter of which she discusses the clash between scientific parenting and doing things the way one's mother did. You might enjoy it; it's a really good book.

    1. Doesn't every one have experience of axe-murderers??? ;-) Ok, maybe I should have put "understanding" there... Thank you, I'm glad you enjoyed it, and I'll check that book out!

  2. I love this SO MUCH!!!!! I think different parenting methods resonate with different people, because-gasp!-we're all different! And that is okay!!! I grew up surrounded by one particular parenting method and as I prepared to birth my firstborn, continued to hear mostly voices who only believe in that parenting method. And you know what? I'm sure it worked great for them, but it just didn't jive well with me, and honestly, I think one of the things that made postpartum challenging was because I had always been told certain things (including, but not limited to, "always soothe your baby at the breast" and "feed on demand") as if those things were absolutely the ONLY proper way to parent (and thus avoid raising ax murderers). And really, postpartum was so exhausting for many reasons, but partially because I was touched-out and burned-out and just was not convicted that this method was a good one for me.

    So as I prepare to birth #2 in a few months, I actually picked up a parenting book that has been condemned by a lot of "good Catholic mothers" and what this book presents seems much more natural, healthy, and practical FOR ME than what I so often find myself surrounded by. I no longer am dreading the idea of breastfeeding and postpartum life, but I feel rather excited and empowered to try out new things (like schedules! Routines! Stuff that I so desperately need to stay sane!) as I welcome this little baby :)

    1. That's so true! I'd love to be a go-with-the-flow, laid-back mum of spontaneous creative fun, but erm, that's not me! at all! :-D