Taken for a Spin
By Katy Read
The headlines, naturally, gave me pause. Here was yet another way for me to screw up as a parent.
“Warm but Watchful Parents Can Keep Kids from Heavy Drinking,” announced a headline in U.S. News & World Report in June. A new study, the magazine went on to say, suggests that parents “have a lot of influence when it comes to preventing their child from developing a heavy drinking habit.”
Two sociologists at Brigham Young University had surveyed five thousand adolescents and found that the ones who didn’t drink heavily were most likely to describe their parents as warm and nurturing, and also diligent about monitoring and discipline. Teens who drank more than four drinks at a time, the researchers found, considered their parents either less warm, less strict or both.
The results of the BYU study were widely publicized last summer, with news media across the country presenting it as evidence that good parents can prevent their kids from getting drunk—and the reverse, that bad parents were to blame for kids’ partying. “Trying to prevent your teen from binge drinking?” CNN asked. “A new study suggests you might want to consider your parenting style.” “Parenting attitudes and actions can make a big difference in how much and how often a teenager drinks,” explained the Los Angeles Times. As for parents who get it wrong, the title of a New York Times blog post said it all: “Driving Your Children to Drink.”
Now, I have never smelled alcohol on either of my teenage sons’ breath, never noticed them slurring or staggering, never detected any sign that they’ve imbibed. But like many twenty-first-century American parents, I am programmed to respond to this sort of news—yet another scientific study warning of yet another way parents can wreck their kids—with a stab of worry and self-doubt. I try to keep track of my high schoolers’ whereabouts, I really do. I supply them with cell phones, grill them on their way out the door, conduct covert fact-finding missions thinly disguised as pleasant chitchat. My sons, to their credit, are pretty good about checking in—most of the time.
But my powers are limited. I have stopped short of having GPS trackers embedded in their molars or, like the father of one of my own high-school classmates did years ago, tailing them in my car with the headlights off. A cell phone gets left in a jacket pocket, and we’re all rendered incommunicado. Also, not being telepathic, I often have to take them at their word. A kid might claim he’s at Subway getting a sandwich, but how can I know he’s not really knocking back shots in a dive bar using a fake ID? For all I know, my surveillance web has holes through which a drunken elephant could rampage.
And what about this “warmth”—the other factor that reportedly determines whether a child will wind up sprawled in a gutter, guzzling from a paper bag? Sure, I would describe myself as warm with my kids. But the study’s measure of “warmth” was not based on the parents’ evaluations, or even those of objective researchers, but on the teens’ assessments of their elders. How would my sons rate me? Would “warm” be the adjective they’d reach for, even after that argument last week over the computer? Had I not, on numerous occasions, been informed that I am the Worst Mom in the Universe? Should that description alone send me digging under their beds for empty bottles? Should we all just get in the car and head over to rehab right now?
Whoa. I needed to calm down.
I decided I’d better take a closer look at the study. And when I did, I discovered that it followed a familiar pattern, one I’d seen time after time before. As usual, once I realized how the study was conducted, my initial defensive panic—that kneejerk insecure-mom response I reflexively feel—turned to profound annoyance. The BYU study sounded like a lot of other research I had seen publicized over the years, research that supposedly proves that something parents do or don’t do (or do or don’t allow their kids to do) is responsible for some result in their kids. Think of all those reports suggesting that letting children watch TV causes problems ranging from obesity to attention-deficit disorder. Or the ones—including, most recently, a study out of Columbia University this fall—declaring that eating dinner with your kids can prevent them from taking drugs. Or the ones that, just this past November, warned that sending more than one hundred twenty text messages a day puts teens at risk for worrisome behaviors ranging from unsafe sex to drug and alcohol abuse (guilt for which rests, presumably, with whoever pays the cell-phone bill).
These findings sound plausible enough. They come from respected scientists associated with prestigious institutions and are reported in major news media. As a modern parent, you’ve probably heard of plenty of these studies yourself over the years. After all, they not only make the news, they’re also the seemingly reliable basis for recommendations dispensed by parenting manuals, parenting magazines, parenting experts on TV. They’re the foundation, in other words, of a large part of the information churned out by the massive parenting-advice industry (almost sixty-nine thousand products on Amazon alone), that fount of reassuring, empirically substantiated wisdom to which so many of us turn for help navigating the mysterious mine-filled maze that constitutes modern child-rearing.
So what’s the problem?
The problem is that these studies are widely misinterpreted, misrepresented and misunderstood. The news reports, the experts’ advice and even our own grasp of what this parenting research means—a large part of it is undermined by a common logical error. It’s a simple error, an elementary one really, but its presence in these reports not only casts some doubt on what the articles and manuals and experts are telling us but can render their message virtually meaningless and even potentially harmful. The error: They confuse correlation with causation.
“Correlation does not imply causation” is a lesson you might recall from Psych 101 or some other introductory science class. Though it’s a well-known principle, it gets disregarded all the time, especially in stories of this sort. It seems that when one is told that one thing rises and falls in proportion to another, the temptation to conclude that A causes B is nearly irresistible, even though the reality could be that B causes A—or that some other factor, let’s call it C, affects both A and B. This logical fallacy runs rampant throughout media reports about scientific research on human behavior, especially those involving parents and children.
Let’s say a study finds that teenagers who watch a lot of television also tend to score poorly on the verbal sections of their SAT exams, an example that Alan Reifman, a professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University, uses hypothetically to illustrate the logical fallacy. Can you conclude that watching TV causes weak language skills? No. A correlation does not point to a cause, even if—and here’s where it gets tricky—it makes perfect sense that rotting your brain in front of Jersey Shore would erode your ability to get through Moby Dick.
Conforming to intuition, as we also learned back in school, does not ensure accuracy, even when something sounds really, really plausible. In this case, the cause-and-effect could quite possibly go in the other direction—maybe those who struggle with reading, unable to relax with a good book, are more likely to pick up the remote. Or a third variable could affect both sides of the equation. Maybe lack of exposure to books paves the way to both low scores and TV viewing.
The correlation could be the result of any of these factors, some combination of them, a complex back-and-forth interplay between them, or something else altogether. The point is that there’s no way to know from the correlation alone. Still, one can imagine the headlines: “Study: Boob Tube Turns Teens Illiterate.” Or, since the media love to point the finger at parents, “Switch Off TV or Doom Kids to Flipping Burgers.”
In the BYU study, the researchers found a correlation between adolescents with certain kinds of parents (at least, kids who described their parents in certain ways—a potentially significant difference) and heavy drinking. Having spotted what I gathered was this predictable error in the media reports on the study, I asked scientists who are familiar with conducting behavioral research whether I was on the right track.
“Can you clearly conclude causation from those results? No, you cannot,” says Scott O. Lilienfeld a psychologist at Emory University and co-author of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology: Shattering Widespread Misconceptions about Human Behavior (2009). “They definitely fall short of showing that parenting influences kids’ drinking.” This confusion between correlation and causation is everywhere, Lilienfeld confirmed. “In media reports it’s really pervasive. In research, it’s better than it used to be [but] I still see it a lot in journal articles.”
Of course, it makes sense that good parental practices could set kids on course to “just say no,” while bad parenting might lead to a “sure, why not?” On the other hand, the reverse is also plausible—that “the drinking causes the parenting” so to speak, notes Reifman, who co-writes Alan & Bo’s Correlation & Causality Blog (correlation-causality.blogspot.com/). That is, perhaps hard-drinking teenagers don’t tell their parents where they are and what they’re doing, which would hinder the parents’ ability to monitor them. Maybe the kids get drunk and ignore their ringing cell phones.
Or, again, some third variable could account for both the monitoring and the drinking. Suppose the tendency to act responsibly is, like many behaviors, genetically influenced. In a family in which both generations shared this hypothetical “responsibility gene,” the parents would responsibly perform their supervisory duties and the kids would responsibly eschew underage alcohol abuse. In families that lack the gene, well, maybe the kids raid the liquor cabinet while the parents go out bar-hopping. (Alcoholism, thought to be highly heritable, might also explain both neglectful parents and hard-drinking teens.) Or the third variable could be something even less obvious. It could have to do with the family’s computer habits or the size of their community they live in or something in the water. All we know for sure is that, whatever the cause or causes might be, the study did not prove them.
And yet, here were all news outlets claiming that it did, often in large fonts. “Utah Study Says Parents Can Curb Teen Binge Drinking,” proclaimed The Salt Lake Tribune. “Authoritative Parents Better at Preventing Kids’ Binge Drinking, Study Finds,” blared the Toronto Globe and Mail. Even the London Telegraph picked it up: “Strict and Loving Relationship Key to Stopping Teenagers Going Off the Rails.”
At best, the reporters softened the message by sprinkling a “may” here or a “suggests” there. None that I saw explained that there wasn’t enough evidence to support a causal conclusion, or offered other possible interpretations of the data.
It’s not hard to imagine why the media likes spinning cause-and-effect tales out of thin air. First, many journalists are not particularly science literate. Also, although in most good studies the scientists will write caveats (as, in fact, the BYU researchers did) indicating that the data aren’t conclusive and that other explanations are possible, these tend to appear near the end of the research articles, following a lot of technical stuff, and don’t always find their way into the media stories.
Most important, probably, is that a headline proclaiming that “X Causes Y!”—especially if it’s something surprising or alarming to average readers—is going to send a lot more coffee spewing across the nation’s breakfast tables than “X and Y Found to Be Positively Correlated,” which sounds dry and technical and persnickety—even if, inconveniently, it happens to be accurate.
In fairness to the oft-maligned media, though, the error doesn’t always originate with their reports. When I dug a little deeper, I discovered that most of the news accounts of the BYU study were simply rewrites of a press release deceptively titled, “Teens and alcohol study: Parenting style can prevent binge drinking,” put out by the university and almost certainly written by non-scientists. So the misleading stories were not entirely the result of journalists being irresponsible. (Lazy? Possibly.)
But interpreting a correlation as evidence of causation is apparently so tempting that even scientists, adept at statistical analysis and other sophisticated empirical methods, can fall into the trap. One of the researchers, Stephen Bahr, a professor in BYU’s College of Family, Home and Social Sciences, is quoted as saying that parents “can have a significant impact on the more dangerous type of drinking.” Can you blame journalists who see that for concluding that, well, parents can have a significant impact on the more dangerous type of drinking?
In their article about the study, published in the prestigious, peer-reviewed Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, Bahr and co-author John P. Hoffmann don’t come right out and fault parents for teen binging. They are careful to describe their conclusions, most of which matched the hypothesis they set out to test, with careful phrases like “the data suggest” and “appear to be” and “are consistent with our hypothesis.” Near the end of the article the researchers acknowledge, in rather technical terms, that although they believe the parenting causes the drinking, long-term studies would help pin it down.
I called Stephen Bahr to ask if he thought the way his research was publicized was accurate.
“That’s always a problem in scientific research, knowing what’s the cause and what’s the effect,” Bahr said. Scientists “give the best estimate that they can, but they have to be aware of other possible interpretations, and that’s certainly the case here.”
What about his press release quote, the one that says parents have significant impact on dangerous binging? Bahr said he and Hoffmann “felt comfortable in drawing that conclusion,” because other, previous studies have suggested as much.
Actually, though, in their report they describe those other studies as a mixed bag, noting that while some studies show parenting practices can deter teenage alcohol use, others have found that “parenting practices have little impact.” They cite a few examples of both groups. Interestingly, one of those they list in the latter group (studies that show little impact) was a study co-authored twelve years ago by Hoffmann himself. Hoffmann and his fellow researchers wrote an article in 1998 titled “Family, Religiosity and the Risk of Adolescent Drug Use” for the Journal of Marriage and Family. The researchers surveyed 13,250 adolescents about their families and drug habits, looking for correlations. According to their findings, “parental monitoring … had relatively weak effects on adolescent drug use.”
Some correlation-causation leaps are so obvious they’re funny. You can amuse yourself by making up your own. Think of any two situations that tend to go hand in hand, and then invent headlines that ignore the obvious reverse causations or third variables. “Taking Umbrella to Work Causes Heavy Rainfall.” “Mothers Who Buy Nursing Bras Wake Up in the Middle of the Night.” Even the satirical fake-news website The Onion recently got into the game: “A New Medical Report Warns Getting Screened for Cancer is a Leading Cause of Finding Out You Have Cancer.”
Most real-world examples are more subtle, though, and it’s easy to see how people wind up connecting nonexistent dots. In “The Importance of Family Dinners,” a report by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University, the authors describe finding that teenagers who frequently eat with their families are less likely to use tobacco, alcohol or marijuana. (The center has conducted versions of the survey six times over the years.) So far, so good—a simple correlation. But in the report, Joseph A. Califano Jr., the center’s founder and chairman, takes that correlation and runs with it, claiming that “parental engagement fostered around the dinner table is one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children. …Simply put: frequent family dinners make a difference.”
“Nothing in their data support such strong inference,” says H. Harrington (Bo) Cleveland, an associate professor of human development at Pennsylvania State University and co-blogger with Reifman on the correlation and causality blog. While it’s always possible family dinners do help reduce kids’ drug use, “to suggest that these data provide convincing evidence of this proposition is not responsible. In the case of this study, frequency of family dinner may be a proxy for myriad unmeasured family, child, and parent characteristics.”
Heck, maybe rule-abiding teenagers are simply more likely to be home around dinnertime. The family-dinner fallacy is literally a textbook example of confusing correlation with causation, Reifman says, noting that the CASA studies are used in Research Methods in Practice, by Dahlia K. Remler and Gregg G. Van Ryzin, to illustrate the problem. Yet meanwhile, the value of deploying dinners as drug prevention has received widespread popular attention and seeped into the public’s consciousness. Google “family” “dinner” and “drugs” and you’ll get more than 1.2 million results, many of them with blunt titles along the lines of, “Family dinners keep teenagers off drugs.”
Causal interpretations, it seems, are a hard habit to kick. Maybe discussing the differences between correlation and causation around the dinner table would help.
“Scientific thinking does not come very naturally to most people, and people’s beliefs often color and skew their interpretation of data, so they come up with something that seems plausible to them,” Lilienfeld says. “Belief bias really influences the way they see the data. Students will get it right in the exams, but when they see an example where the causal link seems plausible or believable they’ll forget everything they’ve learned.”
Jon Mueller, a psychologist at North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, has noticed that, too. To help students master the distinction, he has collected a long list of links to correlation-causation mixups from newspapers and magazines and posted them on the Internet. “Sexual Lyrics Prompt Teens to Have Sex,” one headline announces, based on a finding that music on kids’ iPods is correlated with their tendency to fool around. (Either that, or teens interested in sex are more enamored of sexy songs. Or something else entirely.) “Study Says Lots of Candy Could Lead to Violence,” based on a finding that children who eat excessive sweets are more likely to commit violent crimes when they grow up. (A third variable—impulse control, anyone?—might explain both.) “Housework Cuts Breast Cancer Risk,” based on a correlation between hours women spend cooking and cleaning and their breast cancer rates (a finding that, if the study weren’t headed by a woman, I might attribute to a conspiracy of lazy husbands).
Of course, it’s important to remember that a given cause isn’t necessarily incorrect. For all we know, sexy songs do lead to steamed-up car windows, candy does breed psycho killers and housework does create an invisible shield that keeps cancer at bay. There just isn’t enough evidence so far to warrant drastic action like confiscating the iPod, hiding the M&Ms or, God forbid, scrubbing the kitchen floor.
Our tendency to jump to causal conclusions “may just be very deeply rooted in the way our minds work,” Lilienfeld says. That makes sense, he notes, from an evolutionary perspective. Say one of our ancient ancestors ate a strange new berry and then got sick. The two events might merge in our ancestor’s mind, even if they were entirely unconnected. Still, if the berry was harmless, avoiding it in the future probably wouldn’t hurt. “A false positive—that is, seeing a causal connection that isn’t there—is not necessarily all that dangerous” in such a case, Lilienfeld says. “Better safe than sorry.”
If, on the other hand, our Pleistocene Era forager were to dutifully remind herself that correlation doesn’t imply causation and continue eating the berries, she might wind up on the floor of the cave with Xs for eyes. Come to think of it, I’ve always suspected that our tendency to gag at the very thought of whatever we ate just before coming down with the flu was the result of some similar protective physical reflex, as if even our bodies confuse correlation and causation—literally, at the gut level.
Given how much ordinary parents rely on parenting manuals written by “experts,” on web and magazine articles quoting “experts,” on TV interviews with “experts,” it’s unsettling to realize how easily experts’ studies are misrepresented, and how much of the scientific research guiding our everyday parenting decisions may be limited by insufficient data or tainted by invalid interpretations.
Studies about parenting and child behavior are particularly vulnerable to this sort of misreading, for a number of reasons. For one thing, most parenting studies suffer from another, somewhat related, flaw: They have no way of distinguishing between nature and nurture, to eliminate the possibility that a correlation between parents’ practices and children’s behavior is influenced by their mutual genes. Does spanking children make them more aggressive, or do the kids inherit aggressive tendencies from their aggressive, spanking parents? Do parents who read to their children encourage them to enjoy reading, or do both generations share a genetic tendency to love books?
“Parents who are biologically related to their children can pass on characteristics to their children through genetic mechanisms, and these associations can appear to be environmental,” Cleveland says. “Researchers are not as concerned about this as they should be.”
Teasing apart nature and nurture in behavioral research can be difficult or even impossible. Scientists have tried to isolate the two by focusing on either identical twins raised separately (who share matching genes but different environments) or adopted kids and their siblings (who share similar environments but different genes), subjects that allow the researchers to more confidently attribute characteristics to either nature or nurture. But the supply of such subjects, especially separated twins, is limited. It’s much easier to study biologically related families, because there are so many more of them.
“And because of that, if you weigh research by volume, there’s going to be more studies that have this flaw than studies that don’t have this flaw,” Cleveland says. The existence of a large body of research pointing toward a similar conclusion—even if hampered by this limitation—sounds awfully persuasive, even to people who are well educated and scientifically sophisticated. “They hear, ‘Most of the research finds this.’ That tends to be a very reassuring sentence.”
Another potential pitfall in child-rearing studies is our tendency to take for granted that, when it comes to parents and children, all the influence goes in one direction. Parents are the adults in charge, so we assume they’re shaping kids’ behavior, not the other way around. Yet, when you stop to think about it, it’s not far-fetched that a child’s nature could affect how the parent responds. For example, an aggressive child could anger her parents more frequently and thus receive more spankings than do her milder-mannered peers. A child who really loves books will probably beg his glassy-eyed parents to read to him more often than a kid who is happier playing with action figures. If adults affect how children “turn out,” kids affect how adults “turn out,” too.
Reporting on the BYU study, for example, disregarded that possibility. The media and even the researchers seemed to assume that parents fully control how they monitor their kids, that all they have to do is pay closer attention. But a study conducted in Sweden in 2000 challenged that assumption. Researchers there found that parents’ knowledge of teenagers’ whereabouts came mostly from the kids themselves, and that the kids most likely to engage in delinquent behavior were least likely to keep parents informed. It’s tempting to interpret this as proving that kids who get in trouble try to hide it from their parents, except that—heh, heh—that would be confusing correlation and causation. (See how sneaky it is?) Suffice it to say that parents don’t necessarily hold all the cards.
“We conclude that tracking and surveillance is not the best prescription for parental behavior and that a new prescription must rest on an understanding of the factors that determine child disclosure,” the Swedish researchers wrote.
Still another possible factor is that audiences want news they can use in their own lives. (This may help explain why health-and-fitness news is another topic highly vulnerable to this problem.) Kids up to no good? You don’t want to hear a bunch of blah blah blah about correlated variables. You want to know what action to take, ASAP, to get the little troublemakers in line. Switch off the TV, play classical music, feed them leafy greens, sign them up for gymnastic lessons, become warmer and more watchful … whatever the scientists say works must be worth a try.
“We like to think that behavior is easily malleable,” Lilienfeld says. “We have a kid who’s misbehaving and think, ‘Oh, if I just do X, Y, and Z, I can turn my kid around.’ “
A lab coat exudes a lot of authority for many of us educated, enlightened, concerned modern parents, says Peter N. Stearns, author of Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America (2003). For about a century, parents have increasingly turned to scientists—or at least, people presenting information they claim is validated by science—to tell us how to raise our children.
Nineteenth-century parenting advice commonly took the form of moral and religious guidance, says Stearns, a historian and provost at George Mason University. The early twentieth century brought the development of pediatric medicine and healthcare improvements that sharply reduced child mortality rates. Once parents came to accept that medical science could improve children’s physical health, Stearns says, it was a short step to extending similar trust to those who promised to improve their young psyches. Parents became increasingly reliant on presumed experts’ recommendations regarding everything from dispensing discipline to assigning chores to boosting self-esteem.
Modern parents’ insecurities have multiplied along with the sales of parenting manuals—one might say they’re correlated, and honestly it’s hard to tell which has caused which. We often live too far away to turn to older relatives for counsel. Our kids grapple with influences—from the Internet to energy drinks—that unnervingly haven’t stood the test of time. In the absence of other guidance, advice that comes stamped with the seal of scientific approval can seem reassuringly infallible (while also sending the disconcerting message that raising children is too tricky to be left to nonexperts).
Children are complicated and scientists are human, Stearns says. Scientific claims may be based on insufficient evidence, inadequate databases, insufficiently considered alternatives.
“It’s not usually fraudulent, it’s usually well-intentioned,” Stearns says. “But it often turns out to be grounded in something other than the most objective science. One of the ways we know this is by the way scientific recommendations have changed so much over time. The fluctuations are fascinating, but they partially undermine the claims.”
If you’re a scientist trying to figure out how a parenting practice affects a child’s behavior, you know that some kinds of studies are better than others, but that all have their drawbacks.
Let’s say you want to conduct a survey and look for correlations. You can narrow the causal focus by designating control variables—other factors that might influence the results but that you aren’t interested in studying—and keeping those constant as you measure the results. The problem is that you can’t control for, or even imagine, every possible variable. In analyzing teen drinking, the BYU researchers controlled for the kids’ age, gender, parental education, and several other characteristics. But they didn’t control for genetic influence—they didn’t eliminate teens who were biologically related to their parents—so they can’t discount the possibility that shared genes help explain the link between watchful parents and abstemious teens.
A longitudinal study, in which you look in on your subjects at intervals over an extended period, can help you draw somewhat more confident conclusions. Finding a correlation between “before” and “after” events—for instance, if you notice that kids monitored closely as children are less likely to binge drink as teens—might indicate a causal relationship. Still, the danger remains that other circumstances, such as genes, can influence both the earlier and later situations. Besides, longitudinal studies are demanding and expensive. Sometimes researchers will mine other people’s massive longitudinal studies for data—but they have to hope that the studies asked the questions they’re interested in researching, or something close.
Your best bet for getting a fix on cause is to do an experimental study. Take a group of people and randomly divide them into two groups. Assign one subgroup, but not the other, to do something (or better yet, to rule out the possibility that doing nothing at all has effects of its own, assign them both to do something, but have one group do a more relevant something—a sort of active pill vs. placebo approach). Then compare the two subgroups to see if the assigned action led to any different results. With the groups randomly composed, the laws of chance theoretically eliminate any skewing by outside variables that would affect one group more than the other.
Interestingly, one such randomized study, conducted in 2009 by the University of San Diego, suggested that parents can exert some control over their kids’ drinking. Parents with children heading off to college were divided into two random groups. One received a simple alcohol fact sheet. The other received A Parent Handbook for Talking with College Students about Alcohol, a guide designed to facilitate discussion of alcohol-related issues, including alternatives to drinking and avoiding high-risk situations. Female students whose parents received the handbook were less likely to become drinkers as freshmen. (Male freshmen were not, for reasons that weren’t entirely clear, though the researchers speculated it might have involved the fact that the participating parents were mostly mothers, and such interventions have been found to work better when the parents and kids are of the same sex.) Although the difference “was modest, it is encouraging,” the researchers wrote in an article that, like the BYU study, was reported in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
The problem with experimental, randomized studies involving real-world parents and children is that they can be ethically prohibitive, especially if the action being researched is potentially damaging. To study the effects of spanking, for example, “it would be totally unethical to have a random subsample of parents spank their child at the behest of the researcher,” Reifman points out.
Why do researchers even bother looking for correlations, if they don’t show cause? Is it pointless to look to them for clues on how human beings behave? Many researchers would say that their value lies in opening a dialogue, in providing fodder for further study. Seth Roberts, a psychologist in Beijing and professor emeritus at the University of California, went so far as to write a blog post in defense of erroneously interpreting correlations. Roberts argues that no research method is capable of proving cause and effect beyond a shadow of doubt. Any given set of data is open to multiple interpretations. A variety of approaches is needed to close in on truths. Despite their inability to prove cause-and-effect, he implies, correlations can get people to start looking in the right direction.
“I shed an invisible tear whenever I hear ‘correlation does not imply causation,'” Roberts writes.
I don’t mean to pick on the BYU study. It’s just one recent example, no worse than hundreds of others, of research being interpreted in a way that vastly oversimplifies intricate interpersonal relationships. Maybe that’s unavoidable. Maybe scientists, facing various practical restrictions, will always be forced to oversimplify. Maybe the media, faced with the need for a 24/7 stream of punchy headlines, will always be forced to oversimplify.
But we, the members of the audience, don’t have to oversimplify.
I’m not saying we should throw the baby research out with the bathwater, turn to dart boards or chicken entrails for parenting advice, instruct scientists to take their clipboards and shove them where the structural equation modeling don’t shine. And I’m certainly, absolutely, positively not saying that we should blow off our parenting responsibilities. Keeping tabs on our kids may or may not be a surefire way to prevent them from binge drinking. (Hint: It’s not. Remember my old classmate whose dad would tail her with the headlights off? Let’s just say she managed to get her cup filled at the keg nonetheless.) It just makes sense, as a parenting practice, to try to keep track of our children’s whereabouts. Not to mention treat them warmly.
But then, how often do studies and media reports steer parents toward any really outrageous child-rearing action? If you were to scrupulously put research suggestions into practice, you’d read to your kids, avoid spanking them, limit their TV and candy, have dinner with them, pay attention to them—and it’s safe to say, even in the absence of proof from a randomized study, that they wouldn’t suffer any irreparable harm. Even dumbed-down conclusions and ill-founded prescriptions usually leave the kids just fine.
If only the same could be said for us parents! Held responsible for the behavior of others who may be openly rebelling against us, badgered to take action that’s not always feasible, blamed for causing whatever flaws our children, like all mortals, will inevitably exhibit … the sense of always falling short probably prompts more than a few of us to seek psychological help ourselves. The guilt and anxiety that all this stuff generates might help explain that spate of recent research showing that people with children report being less happy than people without. (And note that, for a change, those findings weren’t generally presented as having any obvious or simple causal explanation. On the contrary, the media engaged in baffled speculation about why parents would be disheartened by an enterprise that our culture insists should bring nonstop bliss.)
Stearns, the historian of parenting, said he recently saw a Dutch study that found that seventy-seven percent of parents worry, almost on a daily basis, that they’re inadequate. “Parents vary, so I don’t want to oversimplify this myself, but there are a lot of parents who are very vulnerable to statements from the outside world that they’re probably doing something wrong,” Stearns says. If most of us are beating ourselves up all the time, “That, frankly, is not healthy.”
One way to ease up on the self-doubt is to scrutinize stories about new scientific findings, keeping an eye out for interpretations that don’t seem fully supported by the evidence. Recognize that complex human relationships don’t easily lend themselves to tidy little “if X, then Y” summaries. Remember that parent-child interactions can be a two-way street, each side leaving its mark on the other. Look for alternative explanations, keeping in mind that sometimes other variables—option C and possibly D, E, F, and beyond—aren’t immediately obvious.
Bottom line: Question authority. Even authority wearing a lab coat.
Author’s Note: I can’t remember now exactly when or how I became aware that many of what we assume are scientifically verified, immutable child-rearing truths are actually based on research that, though perhaps sound in and of itself, is widely misunderstood and appallingly misrepresented. What I can tell you is that the discovery brought a wave of relief.
Is that because I felt I was off the hook from worrying about my kids? With some of those science-backed assumptions at least partly debunked in my mind, could I stop fretting about my sons’ TV watching, their video-game playing, their high-fructose-corn-syrup eating, their texting and IMing and Facebooking, their downloading of music with inappropriate lyrics, their lusting for expensive shoes and electronic devices, their early ignoring of basic personal hygiene replaced in their teen years by a pursuit of personal hygiene so zealous that it noticeably ran up my water bill? Oh my gosh, if only!
Unfortunately, all the same worries remained. The measure of relief came from my newfound understanding that the parenting experts, however confident and telegenic they might appear in their articles and interviews, really weren’t any more certain than I was about how to deal with this stuff.
And knowing that, admittedly, has led me to relax, just a little. I not only allow my kids to watch TV and eat sweets and skip dinner-table gatherings, but sometimes even all three at once. And if they wind up serial killers with self-esteem issues and poor flossing habits, I’ll know that I am possibly to blame because of my parenting misdeeds—but not necessarily. Remember, the evidence is a mere correlation. Not to mention, in this case, anecdotal.
Brain, Child (Winter, 2011)
About the Author: Katy Read’s essays, articles and reviews have appeared in Salon, Brevity, River Teeth, Chautauqua Literary Journal, Literal Latte, Minnesota Monthly, the Chicago Sun-Times and other publications. She has been awarded a 2013 Artist Initiative grant from the Minnesota State Art Board to work on a collection of essays. She has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize and been honored in literary competitions including theChautauqua Literary Journal Prize for Prose, the Literal Latte Essay Awards, the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition and the Mid-American Review Creative Nonfiction Competition. She is a reporter for the Star Tribune in Minneapolis, where she lives with her two sons.
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