Evidence-based parenting: What is it?
© 2009-2014 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved
"You've heard of evidence-based medicine? This is evidence-based parenting."
That's how I explained the purpose of my website, Parenting Science, when I started it back in 2006.
For people familiar with the approach, it got
the point across. Evidence-based medicine has been defined as “the
conscientious, explicit, and judicious use of current best evidence in making
decisions about the care of individual patients" (Sackett et al 1996).
to help interested parents do the same for their children.
But it wasn’t actually a question of my being
inspired by evidence-based medicine. I was simply applying the same standards
to parenting information that I used in my work as a behavioral ecologist and
evolutionary anthropologist. The same standards that my friends, colleagues, and
readers used in their work in the natural and social sciences.
If someone believed my parenting was wrong,
and they expected me to change my ways, they needed to present me with a
rational case, persuade me with logic, data, and, if possible, compelling tests
of competing hypotheses. Likewise, if I had questions, I wanted to do the same.
Many other parents – trained scientists and
logical laypeople alike – felt the same way. But unless they wanted to spend
hundreds of hours reading a new scientific literature, analyzing studies, and
communicating directly with the researchers – there wasn’t a good way to get
answers. So I invested the time, applied my interdisciplinary academic training,
and offered up my own, evidence-based reviews to readers.
Over the years, I’ve heard from a lot
like-minded people. Many were demographic clones of myself, people trained to
do science, who had run their own experiments or research projects and now found
themselves confronted with the wonderful but highly peculiar experiment of
raising a child. Others had different backgrounds but plenty of interest in
what anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, pediatrics, and zoology had to
tell them about child development and parenting.
What everybody had in common was an interest
in testing ideas in a rigorous way. They weren’t going impose a new sleep
practice or change their approach to discipline based on somebody else’s
opinion. They wanted to weigh the evidence and make an informed decision. They
wanted evidence-based parenting information.
But as the evidence-based movement has become more popular,
the original concept has gotten stretched and bent out of shape.
If we want the term to be meaningful, we shouldn't use it to describe someone repeating a few lines from the latest press release. Press releases can be misleading. So can the impressions of an untrained observer who has read a few scientific abstracts, or gotten a few choice quotes from the lead scientist.
To get value from published studies, we need quality, in-depth analysis from people who have been trained to interpret the data and who are familiar with research in the field. We need science writers who can put scientific claims in context.
Unfortunately, a lot of what gets promoted as evidence-based parenting doesn't meet these criteria.
So where can you go to find good
examples of evidence-based parenting information?
Here are some examples.
Resources: Evidence-based parenting
Developmental psychologist Charles Fernyhough, whose work is profiled in my article on
has an excellent
where he analyzes the latest research about child development. If you're interested in how kids think, don't miss it.
The University of Michigan Evidence-Based Pediatrics website
features a database of “critically-appraised topics," i.e., brief,
thumbnail summaries of recent studies on medical topics like peanut
allergy or the influenza vaccine. The summaries provide key
information—like study design and results—at a glance. Full references
Polly Palumbo of Momma Data
is a psychologist and mother who battles irrationality with her
evidence-based blog about health and child development. Check out her
posts about the ways that the media misreports important medical and
pediatric stories in the news.