Trust Your Judgment

“SpongeBob Square Pants” has become controversial – again. New research reports that 4-year-olds who had just watched the show, did worse on tests of attention and problem-solving than young children who watched a slower paced educational program or spent time drawing.

This study is not just about “SpongeBob”, but is part of an effort to determine the impact of different types of television shows on children rather than the amount of television watched. Setting aside conflicting expert opinions about the validity of this particular study, it has served to provoke renewed – or ongoing – concern about the effect of television viewing on children’s development. These days, the hot button question has to do with the impact of television – and the computer, and video games, and smart phones – on the developing brain.

This question, too, is as yet unanswerable since not enough of a time span has elapsed to permit definitive conclusions about changes in the brain due to the newest media. One point of view is that the rapid-fire imagery and fast pacing to which children are exposed is leading to decreased ability to focus and to pay attention. The opposite viewpoint is that the nature of the new media and their content are preparing children’s brains to function in the high-tech world in which they will be living.

What I think is as important – or maybe even more important – about this controversy and others, is their impact on parents. Parents increasingly search for “scientific” answers to child-rearing questions. It is not just that parents, of course, want to do the best for their children. It is, rather, the idea that “the best” will be found in the latest theories and scientific research. But is child-rearing a science?

Ever since child development research began to play a major role in our thinking about children, new and changing theories have been promoted. These theories always find their way into popular media translated into prescriptions for parents about how they should raise their children.

If you were a new mother in the 1950’s you surely would have been reading Dr. Spock, who, like others, was influenced by psychoanalytic theories. The methods prescribed were supposed to lead to emotionally well-adjusted children.

Next came an emphasis on teaching letters and numbers. The fear was that we were falling behind in science and mothers were supposed to fix that with methods that would make children smart.

In the 1960’s, pre-school programs like Headstart and TV programs like Sesame Street were meant to help children who were “culturally deprived.” Then in the “70’s you might have been sold on the importance of “bonding” in order to insure secure “attachment” between mother and child. And in the “80’s came the idea that we could fix sexism by raising our children with politically correct toys and clothes.

All of which brings us most recently, with the advent of research into the developing brain, to instructions we are getting about avoiding harmful effects and promoting that development. It is striking that whatever the problems of the day, the solution always seems to lie in child-rearing. Mothers can fix everything if only they will use the “right” methods in raising their children.

Mothers are bombarded with child-rearing advice and much of it is filled with scary messages: there is a “right” way to do things; you can damage your child if you do things the “wrong” way. What gives all this advice weight is that it is supposedly based on scientific research. Popular magazine covers show babies with electrodes attached to their heads. What could be more scientific!

Modern technology has helped us learn a great deal about the development of the human brain. It is exciting to find out how much more is going on in the first years of life than we ever imagined. The problem is that research that has helped us learn more about how children develop, is then used to make prescriptions for bringing about that development. But knowing how something happens doesn’t tell us how to make it happen – or how to avoid having it happen.

Many new mothers have told me that the hardest part of new motherhood for them is the feeling of having a new job, with no training, and not knowing what they were doing. Women today, who have had experience in the workplace believe there must be a “right” way of doing things, and if they master the “right” skills for this job of child-rearing they will be successful.

But children and mothers are all individuals who don’t fit the prescriptions. Besides, the prescriptions themselves are not science – no matter how it might reassure us to believe they are. So, whether it is a matter of letting your child watch “SpongeBob” or making many other decisions, it comes down to knowing your own child.

The answer does not lie in science. It lies in your own judgment. Use it and trust it!