Thursday, March 7, 2013

All evidence is good, but not all evidence is created equal

As I mentioned in my initial post Mind Over Motherhood, Deductive Parenting is concerned with gathering evidence and making informed decisions about all aspects of parenthood and family life.  I mentioned also that I have a background in psychology.  Taken together, I'm sure it sounds like I am primarily interested in the academic literature on the subject.  Although I do think published, scientific research is a crucial source of knowledge about a wide variety of topics, it is not the only thing I have in mind when I use the word "evidence".

When it comes to decisions about health, family, and kids, there is a lot more to it than just average results published in a journal.  Even though something may work for the "average" person, there is really no such thing as an average family.  And there is a lot more to these choices than just an academic analysis of what one ought to do.  Having been on the other side of the research process, I know just how much published findings often depend on specific contexts and specific circumstances.  Just because a technique worked for a particular sample doesn't mean it would apply well in a different culture or a different time period.  Plus, a child or a parent's unique temperament is likely to play a significant role in the success or failure of various applications.  It is important not to underestimate the impact of individual differences and normal variance within a group.

At the same time, it is rarely good to reject outright the expert evidence that is available to us.  In many cases, we can learn something valuable and practical from looking through the published findings.  Plus, when studies randomly assign individuals or families to experience different situations, we can be more confident that the results don't depend solely on idiosyncratic differences between some families that behave one way and other families that behave a different way.  Anecdotal stories from other parents, on the other hand, do not offer that same guarantee.  Sure, maybe your sister-in-law's foolproof tantrum solution is really a great strategy, but maybe it just works for reasons that are unique to her family's dynamic.

In my opinion, something useful can be learned from all kinds of sources.  At Deductive Parenting, I intend to cite evidence, when relevant, from family, friends, religious leaders, doctors and pediatricians, blogs and parenting sites, professional organizations, and also academic journals and other quality-controlled publications.  But as I sort through the variety of information available and figure out how to apply it to my life, I will try to consider the following questions:

(1) How likely is the information provided by this source likely to generalize to my situation?  Are the people or families used as evidence similar to myself or my family?  Are there any obvious reasons why this information is not useful for me?

(2) How much expertise does the source have in this topic?  For example, a pediatrician is an excellent source of information about children's physical health and may be up-to-date on all the latest research, but she or he may have less knowledge about effective parenting strategies. 

(3) Is there some way to find out more detail about the specific situations and factors that contribute to the evidence?  Can I read the published article myself or can I ask for clarification about why a family member or friend holds their current opinion on an issue?

(4) How difficult or harmful would it be for me to experiment with the suggestions or solutions that arise from this evidence?  Do I have to make a firm decision in advance, or would it be okay to experiment and see what works best for me?  Do the potential risks of changing my mind or wavering outweigh the possible benefits of discovering a better way? 

As you read through future posts and comments on Deductive Parenting, ask yourself these questions as well.  The better you understand your answers, the more confident you can be about your own decisions and the more prepared you will be to take the leap from thinking to doing.

What do you think?  Post comments below about your own experiences with different sources of information about preconception, pregnancy, and parenting. 

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