Balancing science and intuition in how we raise our kids

The French make easy targets in America.  They’re haughty, libertine, ripe, feckless.  And now it turns out they’re terrible mothers, too.  Or maybe actually they’re wonderful mothers.  It depends on whom you talk to.

At the heart of the recent storm about French parenting is an article called “Why French Parents Are Superior” that appeared in The Wall Street Journal last week.  It was written by Pamela Druckerman and served as a preview of her new book Bringing Up Bebe, which argues that French children are better behaved than American children because French parents don’t coddle while American parents let their kids rule the roost.

This approving view of French family life is at odds with a less rosy take on French parenting that appeared in The Telegraph (London) in 2007.  The author of that article, an Italian-American mother named Janine di Giovanni, suggested that maybe French moms take their anti-coddling position too far to the point of being cold, distant, and even emotionally neglectful of their children.

The big obvious objection to this whole line of thinking, of course, is that there’s no such thing as a “French” way of parenting or an “American” way of parenting.

France and America have populations of millions of people from hundreds of different cultural backgrounds yadayadayada.  (This was the thrust of a post, which appeared in “Motherlode” on Monday as a response to Ms. Druckerman’s WSJ piece.)

Fine.  When writers in The Wall Street Journal  and The New York Times talk about “American” parents and “French” parents they typically mean middle and upper-middle class French and American parents. It’s an important point, but not cause to the end the conversation.

Because there certainly are large cultural trends that shape how American parents raise their kids and these trends are almost certainly different than the trends that shape how parents in other countries raise theirs.  You might need to restrict your view to a particular socioeconomic slice of the American population to see these trends clearly, but still, they’re there.

So what are the big cultural factors intrinsic to the (middle/upper-middle class) American way of parenting?  For the last week I’ve been thinking about this and I keep coming back to the same idea: As I’ve lived it and observed it, American parenting culture is more heavily weighted towards science than intuition.

And this is what I have in mind by those terms: Intuition means letting your instincts guide your actions; it asks the question, “What feels right to me?”  Science means gathering data; it leads parents to ask, “What does the evidence say is the best way to raise my child?”

These are very different ways to think about parenting and they both have their places.  When Jay breaks into a rash, my intuition isn’t very helpful but WebMD is.  And on the flip side, when it comes to figuring out how to teach Jay to be kind to Wally (or whether kindness is even valuable in the first place), intuition is king and the insights of randomized control trials aren’t going to get me very far.

Science and intuition both have roles to play.  My feeling, though, is that the scientific advances over the last few decades—particularly in neurobiology and the behavioral sciences—have tipped the balance too far towards science and away from intuition.

Every year we catalogue, analyze, map, and decipher human behavior at an increasingly granular level—from the interactive patterns of a first date to the effects of in utero exposure to classical music to the long-term benefits of being able to wait 15 minutes to eat a marshmallow when you’re five-years-old.  Once this information is out there, it’s impossible for it not to affect the way parents raise their kids.

Take the famed marshmallow test, for example.  In 1972 the psychologist Walter Mischel found that little kids who were able to defer gratification ended up having higher SAT scores later in life.  It’s an insight that hangs over the heads of middle class parents everywhere—once you know about the marshmallow test, how can you not be more self-conscious (and less intuitive) about how you teach self-control to your kids?

Now, overall I like behavioral science.  Or at least I think it’s neat.  Last year I reviewed David Brooks’ book The Social Animal, which is an easy-reading catalogue of all the ways that you can apply scientific insights to improve the way you live your life.  Every other page there was one factoid or another that I wanted to tell Caroline.  Like, did you know that, as Brooks writes, “When asked to describe their day, American six-year-olds make three times more references to themselves than Chinese six-year-olds”?

Behavioral science is interesting, but it’s easy to overstate its usefulness.  The main reason for this is that it’s largely descriptive.  It describes the things we do and how we do them, but it has a lot less to say about how to do those things better and even less to say about the relative value of this or that thing so far as figuring out how to live a good life is concerned.

Here’s a concrete example.  I recently watched a TED talk by an MIT professor named Deb Roy on how kids acquire language.  Roy had a unique vantage on the topic.  Before his first kid was born he wired his house with microphones and video cameras; then he recorded basically his kid’s entire life from infancy on up.

Using that data and some really, really impressive software, Roy mapped his son’s language acquisition against the experiences he was having as he began to say words—where he was in the house, who he was with, what adults around him were saying at the time.  The idea, basically, was to identify the recipe for language acquisition.

You should watch the video.  The setup of the house is novel and it’s pretty cool to hear how Roy’s son learns to say “water.”  He begins with a babble that’s only recognizable in retrospect and slowly rounds into form until he’s pronouncing the word clearly. Also, the graphics that Roy uses to present his data are straight out of the future and completely blew my mind.

That said, when I finished watching the video my primary reaction was: What do we do with this?  Roy’s study is impressive as an act of data gathering and his analysis is interesting.  But what’s the real value in what he’s accomplished?  After all, kids were acquiring language just fine well before we learned how they acquire language.

At the same time you might ask of Roy’s study, “Well what’s the harm in it?”  Nothing, per se.  But I do think it’s worth considering how knowledge of human behavior feeds back into how human beings actually behave.

Because knowledge is never neutral.  When I read the latest insights from behavioral science I feel like I need to run out and start incorporating them into my life immediately.  If there’s a better way to be living my life and raising my kids, I want to be doing it!

The danger here is that it’s easy to be tempted into trying to shape our lives with more precision than we’re capable of.  If Roy’s study showed that certain patterns of parent-child interaction correlated with expedited language acquisition, does that mean I should make sure to buy a house with a floor plan that would maximize the number of times of day Jay and I bump into each other, and that is open enough so that Jay can hear what I’m saying even when he’s in the other room.

Maybe, but it would be a fool’s errand.  Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, it’s better to leave well enough alone.

And this, to me, is maybe the defining quality of American parenting culture (and maybe American culture overall): This idea that we can always do better.  Now, I’m not opposed to ambition and certainly on this blog I’ve written a lot about times when I wished I’d been a better parent to Jay and Wally.  But it strikes me that the best way to be become a better parent might be to remember that I already know how to be one.

Related Posts from Growing Sideways

How a toddler’s tantrum might produce two kinds of happiness

What it might really mean to learn how to be a parent


5 thoughts on “Balancing science and intuition in how we raise our kids

    • Hi Maia 🙂

      Thanks for that link. Statistics around language acquisition inequality are pretty stunning. One study I saw referenced in Annette Lareau’s book “Unequal Childhoods” said something like “Middle class three-year-olds speak more words per hour on average than the average poor adult.” Wow.

      And I agree that Roy would probably say that his research has greater implications at the policy level than the individual level. There was definitely a utopian glow to his graphs and maybe that’s what I found most disconcerting of all.

      • YES to the weirdly alienating futurism. But the water sequence did make me cry. I wonder if he was specifically referencing Helen Keller, or if it derives some power from that echo?

  1. Hi Kevin! Great post. As someone who does this kind of science, I often think about how it actually applies to (and is interpreted) in the “real world” (I personally think that the application to clinical, or “high risk” populations, and hence to policy and treatment, makes the most sense). But regardless of what scientists intend for their research, I think you’re absolutely right that (particularly middle-class) American parents take these things very seriously. And what’s really interesting is how research gets translated in the media. Half of my time in graduate school classes is spent tearing apart the methodology, interpretation, etc. of just the type of research that gets put out into the world in headlines as simple and true. Research is never simple and true… and culture, SES, genes, you name your 3rd variable, make it very difficult to generalize anything.

    On another note, one of the things people often don’t take into account when thinking about comparing something like parenting between two cultures is how you define “positive outcome”. You are going to parent differently depending on how you want your kid to fit into your particular culture/society. For example, there are contexts in which it is very adaptive to teach your kid to respond aggressively to aggression because they are going to have to survive in a violent, aggressive environment (that’s an extreme example, but I think the idea applies in a lot of contexts). I think the more basic point that applies to parenting and intuition is that every individual family values different things and raises their kids accordingly. If you value art and creativity, your child becoming a struggling musician after school is a positive outcome, if you value academic success and stability, this would be terrifying…

    Thanks for your blog! It’s amazing how often something you write here about your daily experiences as a parent will relate to a theoretical discussion I had in class that same week.

    • Jessie, thank you so much for that response! And I agree entirely with both the points you made.

      Regarding the first, about methods and how research gets translated into the media…Whenever I talk with Caroline about her research I’m always left astounded about just how hard it is to tease out causal relationships. And I think that basic condition is not very well-conveyed when the popular press writes about science.

      And the second point, about adaptive behavior puts a nice point on a conversation Caroline and I had the other weekend with a couple we’ve become friendly with in Ann Arbor. We were talking about the expectations we’d set for our kids’ behavior when they’re in high school. I said that I thought it’s important to have some absolute standards but also to recognize the particular characteristics of the environment in which our kids grow up, and to make sure they’re not totally out of sync with the norms of behavior around them.

      So, thank you again for taking the time to write! It was a real delight to get your perspective on these issues. I hope it happens again!

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