Professionals and professional organizations are constantly updating guidance on child-rearing practices to align with the latest research. This leads to more parenting musts and must-not than I could list here. Suffice it to say; there are a lot. Combine that with the level of pressure parenting puts on us, and it is no surprise many of us feel overwhelmed or inadequate. Parenting comes with much judgment and criticism, including from ourselves.
How do the professionals keep up with everything? Dirty secret from one of those professionals…we don’t.
I’m a cognitive psychologist working on the neuroscience side of the field. In overly simplified terms, I study the brain and higher-level thinking skills. Researchers in my laboratory look at brain patterns and thinking strategies underlying skills such as reading and math and neurodivergence such as autism (the latter is my primary area of expertise, though I work on most studies conducted in the lab I work for).
Professionals in my field research the effects of screen time, early education, and enriching and supportive environments on the brain (among other things). So when you read about the benefits of limiting TV, the importance of reading to young children, and why you should be telling your child what to do (instead of what not to do), chances are those recommendations are based at least in part on work done by people in my field.
You might assume we don’t do much (or any) TV in my home, that we read dozens of books a day, and that I never say no. Or that my house is run like a well-oiled machine.
Yeah, not even close. The other day my TV was on from the time my oldest got up until he went to bed. Whoops. I worked all day on high-priority, time-sensitive projects, and his father was at work. While we try not to let this be a habit, we exceed screen time recommendations more regularly than I’d like to admit.
We read every day and have a huge collection of books, but I still wish we did a bit more of it. We also haven’t been to the library in too long. Can you ever read too many books? (Aside, my parents would answer that question “yes” since my love of reading frequently interfered with everything from bedtime to chores to social engagements; the joke’s on them, however, since I’m now getting a Ph.D.). And the word ‘no’ is a staple of my vocabulary, even though I try not to use it so often. Also, my kids sometimes have too much sugar, sometimes I yell, and I have even bribed my oldest to behave on occasion.
Here is the thing about some of the guidance out there; it is based on ideal circumstances. This is what you should be doing to optimize your child’s development. Not ‘your child will be irreparably broken if you don’t do this all perfectly, 100% of the time’.
Are there recommendations you should follow exactly? Absolutely. Anything about health and safety, where the consequences of getting it wrong are dire (e.g., death, severe illness, or injury), probably falls into that category [Learn more about current evidence-based guidelines in health and safety here].
I’ll spare you the soapbox today, but I’m sure it is coming eventually. Just saying replicable data from well-designed studies don’t lie, and science doesn’t care what your opinions are, folks (and by the way, don’t is the correct word because data is plural). But when it comes to things like screen time? There are what we call ‘moderating variables‘ that make a huge difference in outcomes. My kid might get too much screen time one day. Still, I also read to him, did lots of educational activities with him, gave him lots of opportunities for physical activity, and talked with him about things constantly.
I might say ‘no’ more than I intend after a long day, but I also hug my son when he is frustrated and let him know his feelings are valid. And I might only read one book to him before bed some nights, but chances are high that we read five books in a row together with his baby sister the day before.