When our first child was born, we were naturally nervous about what to do. Most new parents will recognize the feeling that we had, of facing an enormous responsibility for which we were totally unprepared. Since this was in Sri Lanka and we had plenty of extended family and relatives and friends close by, you would think that we had a wealth of advice that we could draw upon. Actually this did not help because, as is the custom there, every one of them gave us plenty of unsolicited advice, with all manner of rules about what we should do in every situation that was often conflicting, confusing, and overwhelming.
Fortunately someone had given us a copy of Benjamin Spock’s book Baby and Child Care that gave what seemed like knowledgeable and down-to-Earth guidance on how to deal with specific situations and we read it diligently. The only thing I still remember from the book is that somewhere in it he had reassuring words to parents to trust their instincts. He said that even first-time parents have a lot of sound intuitive ideas about how to look after their babies and that they should pay attention to those inner voices.
This came as a great relief. We decided that Spock was the way to go and rather than being buffeted this way and that by conflicting advice, we trusted our instincts. For example, from almost the first week after she was born, our infant daughter cried through the day and could only be calmed by being carried and walked. Spock told us that this incessant crying was likely a symptom that the baby had colic, a digestive disorder that causes great discomfort in a small fraction of newborns but that goes away by itself at about three months. Facing three months of crying seemed like an eternity to us.
Our relatives warned us not to carry the baby because folklore had it that the baby would get ‘spoiled’ and would be well on the path to becoming a self-centered adult who would want all her wishes immediately satisfied. The consensus advice we got was that we should ignore the crying and leave the baby alone in her crib and she would learn the hard way that crying was bad behavior that would not be rewarded. (It is quite remarkable how much extreme Skinnerian psychology has permeated our way of thinking.)
But how can one ignore a crying baby? We simply couldn’t. Every bone in our bodies told us to pick her up and console her. So to general disapproval we took Spock’s advice, ignoring everyone and carried and walked the baby until at the end of the day both the baby and we fell into an exhausted sleep. And sure enough, at about ten weeks the crying abruptly stopped. She no longer needed nor wanted to be carried all the time and was not ‘spoiled’ in the least.
In the US where families are often widely dispersed, one usually has fewer busybody relatives to deal with but one does have news items, like this one, bombarding parents from all directions telling them what they must do to raise ‘successful children’, and one can well imagine that new parents here being as overwhelmed as we were.
It is not that the advice is bad and I am not saying that one should ignore all advice. After all, we depended on Spock. But I wonder if the proliferation of conflicting advice makes parents feel confused and inadequate, and not give their own parental instincts sufficient credit. It can also have them lurching from one pattern of parenting to another, depending on the latest trend, whereas if they followed their own instincts, they might achieve greater consistency over time.
Another potential problem in the US may be too much information and not enough understanding of how to interpret the information. All kinds of benchmarks are published that tell parents at what age their child should be able to sit, crawl, stand, walk, say their first words, and so on. But these benchmarks are merely averages and can also cause considerable worry for parents when their child does not do what they are supposed to be able to do at any given time. Some parents may not realize that there can be considerable variance in all these measures and that over time many of these ‘problems’ go away by themselves. Any parent with more than one child notices the variability in development even among siblings in the same family. Without knowledge of those variances, it is hard to distinguish between real problems in child development and those that are transient and will disappear with time.
If people were also given the standard deviations of measures and a better understanding of how to interpret these data, they might be better prepared to identify real problems and not get too anxious about transient ones.
The odd thing is that we treat probability and statistics as ‘advanced’ mathematics topics and many people never get to learn them as part of their school curriculum or learn them well, even though it is so valuable in everyday life. In actuality, there are many ways to teach statistics ideas using games and puzzles that are a lot of fun and can give even young children in elementary school an intuitive sense of how to interpret numbers.