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Stephanie Knaak

Who’s to blame for making parents paranoid?

By Stephanie Knaak
October 1, 2011

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WE ALL know that today’s parents are overly risk-averse. And while we hear a lot about the problems associated with this kind of parenting mindset — and are also more than happy to point our blaming fingers at parents for their “helicoptering’’ ways — what I want to know is how we got here. Where does this collective parenting paranoia come from?

A recent conference in England on parenting culture targeted one major source and conspirator: the medical-scientific community of “parenting science’’ experts. Yes, the very folks we trust and rely upon to teach us about what constitutes meaningful risk in our lives as parents.

Papers presented at the conference by academics throughout the United Kingdom, Europe, North America, and Australia examined how (perhaps well-meaning) health-related parenting policies - from pro-breastfeeding/anti-formula-feeding campaigns to the “no alcohol during pregnancy’’ rule to “early years’’ intervention policies — all share the same dirty little secret: They promote a one-sided, skewed application of scientific evidence.

For example, it’s an accepted belief that our children’s brains will only develop properly if they’re exposed to intense parenting, risk-averse and educational from the outset; this means lots (and lots) of play time, reading time, quality time, interaction time, and affection time. But according to keynote speaker Dr. Stuart Derbyshire, a neuroscientist from the University of Birmingham, research doesn’t support this idea.

Derbyshire points out that most of the research underlying this idea comes from two main sources - observations of Romanian orphans subjected to conditions of severe abuse, neglect, and malnutrition (where it was discovered that such conditions led to learning and behavioral problems, as well as altered brain development), and studies of blind kittens (where it was learned that if a kitten’s eyelid is sewn shut during certain developmental periods, its eyesight will be forever damaged as a result).

What Derbyshire and others argue is that that these two types of sensory situations - both characterized by almost unthinking levels of deprivation - have little to do with the sensory situations of typical North American children growing up in typical North American families. “It is incorrect and dishonest to argue that if severe neglect causes a problem, less severe neglect causes a lesser problem. Yet it is precisely this claim - that children are one synaptic connection away from blinded kittens and Romanian orphans - that forms the basis of the brain science behind early intervention.’’

And that’s not all. How many women have been panic-stricken after learning they’re pregnant only days after drinking wine at a dinner party? We know the message - it’s told repeatedly and with great conviction: “No amount of alcohol during pregnancy has been shown to be safe.’’ What, then, are we supposed to make of the fact that there actually a number of studies showing light drinking during pregnancy to be safe?

The oft-touted “formula feeding is associated with many risks including (insert any number of horrific-sounding health problems)’’ is yet another example of how well-meaning parenting experts misapply science to make parents crazy with worry. Dr. Joan Wolf, assistant professor at Texas A&M and author of “Is Breast Best? Taking on the Breastfeeding Experts and the new High Stakes of Motherhood,’’ says that the story that infant feeding science really tells is surprisingly different than the one we’ve all absorbed; that aside from good evidence showing that breast milk reduces gastrointestinal infections (as compared to formula milk), there is otherwise little to suggest that formula milk is in any way risky to a baby’s health, especially when we look at it in a larger context of nutrition over the lifespan.

In promoting these incorrectly skewed messages about risk, parenting experts are conditioning a mindset trained toward paranoia and worry. And if we want parents to take more responsibility for changing their “helicoptering’’ ways, it’s only fair to demand those who indoctrinate us into this mindset in the first place also take a good look in the mirror.

This doesn’t mean we should suddenly start encouraging women to drink during pregnancy or discouraging parents from providing enriching stimulation for their children. It simply means that it’s time for parenting experts to rethink how they communicate messages about risk. What parents really need is greater clarity about the safety margins. Otherwise, it’s only a matter of time before trust between parents and the parenting experts erodes, and parents simply reclaim reason and common sense as their guidepost for interpreting risk.

Stephanie Knaak is a sociologist in Canada and creator of the Motherhood Cafe website.