The Parenting War: Science vs. Instinct

The Parenting War: Science vs. Instinct


In this scientific age, new findings emerge daily on every topic from technology to psychology. Simply signing into Facebook or checking the news, one is met with stories of new cancer research or the results of a behavioral study. As each new finding surfaces, it molds people and society into the shape it deems best. As a result, even child-rearing—once an instinctive, even primal, component of life—has evolved into a calculated process: a pass or fail test.   Heightened amounts of research in the field of child development have greatly impacted parenting in nearly every aspect—in few cases for the better, but in many for the worse.

What exactly is this research that has prompted such a dramatic change? In his chapter on parenting, Robert Putnam outlines the findings that have caused a notable shift in parenting styles since the 1980s. Citing a variety of studies, he explains, “Healthy infant brain development requires connecting with caring, consistent adults… Cognitive stimulation by parents is essential for optimal learning” (Putnam 110). Conversely, children who were denied these things were shown to experience such brain development to a lesser extent. In fact, stress and neglect were shown to reduce said brain development. Furthermore, Putnam examines findings from another series of studies that state that children from less-educated, poor families do not cognitively develop as well as those from wealthy, well-educated families (116). These findings are not only true of young children, but of adolescents as well. Laurence Steinberg, Ph.D. acknowledges “…that the early years…are a time during which children’s experiences make a major, lasting difference in how their brains develop and their lives unfold” (9). Taking into account recent research, he continues by asserting “that adolescence is a second period of heightened malleability” (Steinberg 9). Like Putnam, Steinberg also highlights the disparity between healthy development of rich and poor adolescents, but he continues in noting the growing number of “at risk” kids surfacing in working and middle-class families (16). Clearly, environment and parental involvement statistically play a major role in the child’s development. In spite of this, many contend that parents’ love for their children is all that matters when raising them. Putnam, along with many researchers of the day, rejects this idea, saying, “…as…scientific research make[s] clear, when it comes to parenting, love alone is not enough to guarantee positive outcomes” (117). This statement, this ideal, has launched parents everywhere into a desperate attempt to become the “perfect parent” these studies require. Once a society where love for their children was all that was required of parents, America has become far more demanding as new research continues to emerge.

In the findings outlined above, two distinct styles of parenting are referenced: permissive parenting and intensive parenting. Post-World War II, permissive parenting, which encouraged parents to relax and children to develop at their own pace, was the norm. However, this style became looked down upon in the 1980s due to the research that proved its lack of effectiveness (Putnam 117). In its place rose intensive parenting: highly involved, sacrificial work by the parents, geared to stimulate brain growth. In his book Age of Opportunity Laurence Steinberg provides three categories of parenting, under which several subcategories fall. The first is autocratic, which “describes relatively cold, firm, and psychologically controlling parents” (Steinberg 136). Under this category falls “tiger mothering,” which involves “micromanaging your children’s lives to achieve maximum academic success, while demanding total parental respect” (“Bringing Up Baby”). While possibly less cold and demanding, an equally controlling parenting style is “helicopter parenting,” in which parents closely manage their children’s activities in order to avoid difficulties and challenges (“Bringing Up Baby”). Steinberg’s second parenting category is permissive, which has already been somewhat defined. Within this category are free-range parents, who adopt a “let kids be kids” mentality, and character-forming parents, who focus more on the development of integrity than academic success (“Bringing Up Baby”). Finally, Steinberg explains his ideal method of parenting: authoritative. Taking the best aspects from both autocratic and permissive parenting, authoritative parenting “is high in warmth, firmness, and support” (Steinberg 137). Intensive parenting revolves around providing these very things, meeting the child’s every physical, emotional, and intellectual need. While scientifically and sensibly the best option, authoritative parenting is joined by autocratic and permissive parenting in providing unique benefits for children. While some have their fallbacks, none are overtly harmful. However, research is leading society to doubt more than ever the potency and even legality of more relaxed styles such as free-range parenting.

Because of this shift in parenting norms, families who do not conform to the intensive parenting style are under scrutiny from their peers and even from the law. As David Manno writes, the poorly outlined laws surrounding child abuse and neglect have led parents to face severe discrimination from the government. As an example, he uses the fact that “Lenore Skenazy in New York and Danielle and Alexander Meitiv in Maryland are at risk of having their children removed by the state because they allow their children to remain unsupervised in public as a lesson in independence and self-sufficiency” (Manno 678). While such practices might pose a risk to the child, Manno continues in saying that “…‘free-range’ parents may be guilty of child neglect, even if their parenting philosophy does not expose their children to any risk of harm” (678). As a result, loving families with well-cared-for children risk their children’s removal should they not conform to conventional parenting styles. With lawmakers siding with society in the war on permissive parenting, families are being forced to conform to their standards, whether their better judgement or lifestyles comfortably allow it. As a result, discrimination from the law most heavily falls on “the economically disadvantaged, those with disabilities, and, historically, same-sex couples” (Manno 679): people who are, in many cases, unable to meet the demands of intensive parenting, despite having the same amount of love and devotion to their children as any other family would. With society and government ever favoring intensive parenting, permissive parents are under fire like never before.

Preying on parents’ desperate attempts at intensive parenting, the baby product market thrives from the sales of parenting manuals, learning programs, and other developmental aids. As the author of an article printed in the Sunday Business Post writes:

From parenting books to websites to mummy chatrooms and from travel systems to baby sign language and never-too-early-to-learn-to-read initiatives, today every aspect of parenting has come under intense scrutiny, so that we have come to a point where even ‘instinctual’ child-rearing is a dogma to be learned from Dr. Sears, rather than simply exuded by the mother (“Bringing Up Baby”).

With child-rearing’s evolution from journey to science experiment, mothers and fathers would now rather be told how to parent than engage in the risky business of figuring it out themselves. Thus, they have developed a reliance on manuscripts such as The Baby Book by Dr. William Sears. In response to Sears’ claim that his book contains “natural and instinctual” parenting methods, the article “Bringing Up Baby” quips, “There is some irony in the fact that Sears’ “natural and instinctual” child-rearing method is being propagated as part of a multimillion-pound industry now devoted to telling you how to raise your child.” For fear of receiving the “bad parent” label or, in more extreme cases, losing custody as Manno references, parents are no longer willing to leave the development of their children to chance. Instead, they find security in the wisdom of parenting gurus and scientists, buying into their insights without question. Paradoxically, the messages pushed in these manuals are the very things from which stem the feelings of insufficiency that caused the parents to buy the book in the first place, leading to the purchases of more books and other resources.

These books, expectations, and studies have had dramatic repercussions on the psychological, emotional, and physical health of the family. Parents feel insurmountable pressure to “sacrific[e] themselves on the altar of their child’s happiness” (“Bringing Up Baby”), fulfilling the needs that science has demanded they meet. When their best is still not enough, they are made to feel they have failed as parents by peers and parenting experts alike. Physically, mothers in particular are working themselves to the bone. “According to a US study,” writes the author of “Bringing Up Baby,” “college-educated mothers are spending more time parenting than ever. A University of California study found that working mothers were spending an extra nine hours a week with their children, as opposed to their 1995 counterparts” (qtd. in “Bringing Up Baby”). Historically, women did not work and had the liberty of parenting their children without the demands science has now placed on them. Today, women are expected to both contribute to America’s work force and meet their child’s every need. Failure to do either can lead to others viewing them as weak, negligent, or uncaring. In comfort to parents who are being made to feel this way, author Kate Figes writes, “We are all just muddling through and the most important lessons children will learn—tolerance, forgiveness, understanding of humanity—they will learn from you acknowledging that you can make mistakes as a parent. Your children will accept that” (qtd. in “Bringing Up Baby”). Despite the strong opposing stance much of society has taken, raising a child is a journey that will be riddled with mistakes, uncertainty, and difficulty—and that’s okay. Parents who acknowledge that they do not have all the answers are often the best parents there are. While parenting gurus might not stand for such an attitude, children, as Kate Figes assures, will (qtd. in “Bringing Up Baby”). The criticisms unconventional and even conventional parents face from society are many. However, the true sign of their success as parents is not their conformity to a standard, but the positive development of their children.

This leaves one final question to be asked: how has this research impacted the children themselves? One might think that with the shift to intensive parenting and the precise sciences behind it, the youth of America would be thriving like never before. However, data suggest otherwise. In his book, Steinberg alerts his readers of several statistics that are concerning. The first—and perhaps the most incriminating for intensive parenting supporters—is that “There have been no gains in scores on standardized tests of high school achievement since the 1970s” (Steinberg 11). While scientists have become smarter, it would appear that teenagers have not. With such an emphasis being placed on cognitive development since the 1980s, shouldn’t children be excelling more than ever before? Continuing, Steinberg reports that America is no longer among the top ten countries in college graduation rates as it was in years past (12). In addition to rising substance abuse in teenagers, “the birth rate among unmarried women has increased by 80 percent between 1980 and 2007” (Steinberg 12). Obesity is three times more common in adolescents than it was in the 1970s (Steinberg 13), and the number of suicide attempts in high school students has risen considerably in the past twenty years (Steinberg 14). Additional psychological problems such as aggression, ADHD, and depression plague growing numbers of students (Steinberg 13-14). Obviously, the research that is said to have revolutionized parenting for the better is not doing as good of a job as many might assume. Some may argue that this has occurred because not enough individuals have adopted the intensive style of parenting. While there may be some truth to this observation, there is another factor that must be taken into consideration. In a study conducted by Holly H. Schiffirin, et al, it was found that “[college] students who reported having over-controlling parents reported significantly higher levels of depression and less satisfaction with life” (548). Similarly, although results were mixed, several studies have shown that over-involvement in the lives of young children causes depression, anxiety, inability to cope with stress, and decreased perseverance (Schiffirin et al 548). Such findings provide at least a partial explanation for the failure of the intensive parenting movement to eradicate children’s psychological problems and increase their test scores.

While the overall concept of intensive parenting gives every impression of creating a healthy, structured environment in which a child can grow up, adverse problems for the family have arisen due to scientists and parenting experts who tout intensive parenting as “the only way.” In spite of the research that suggests its superiority, parents should not feel forced to implement intensive parenting (or any one style of parenting for that matter), especially when doing so will be to their detriment. Every family, every parent, every child, and every situation are vastly unique. If parents love, nurture, and protect their child to the best of their ability, that is what makes them good parents—not the approval of a scientist.

Works Cited

“Bringing Up Baby.” Sunday Business Post, Cork, 2013.   Accessed 27 Oct. 2016.

ProQuest. http://search.proquest.com/docview/ 1326593087?accountid=39859.

Manno, David. “How Dramatic Shifts in Perceptions of Parenting Have Exposed

Families, Free-Range or Otherwise, to State Intervention: A Common Law Tort Approach to Redefining Child Neglect.” American University Law Review, 2016, pp. 675-720. Accessed 21 Oct. 2016. ProQuest. http://search.proquest.com/ docview/1789281152?accountid=39859.

Putnam, Robert D. Our Kids. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2015.

Schiffrin, Holly H., et al. “Helping or Hovering? the Effects of Helicopter Parenting

on College Students’ Well-being.” Journal of Child and Family Studies, 2014, pp. 548-557. Accessed 8 Nov. 2016. ProQuest. http://search.proquest.com/docview/1504105566?accountid=39859

Steinberg, Laurence. Age of Opportunity: Lessons from the New Science of

Adolescence. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2014.

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