An Introductory Note on Melinda Moyer's How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes
I started reading Melinda Moyer’s “science-based” parenting book, How to Raise Kids Who Aren’t Assholes, a book whose necessity in today’s environment is self-evident. I’ll have more to say on it when I’m finished. It came highly recommended, so I’m hopeful. But a passage in the introduction gave me pause, so I wanted to make a quick note about the whole idea of something being evidence-based before I got caught up in the details of what she’s actually suggesting. It’s a phrase you hear a lot, especially in medicine but increasingly elsewhere, as a way to convey a sense of unimpeachable authority. Everyone wants to have solid evidence for what they believe. No one wants to be fooled by an unsubstantiated lie. And you’re not an expert, so how can you argue with objective, scientific evidence? Let me tell you how.
My senses originally tingled when Moyer mentioned a book by pediatrician Leonard Sax, The Collapse of Parenting, which covers much of the same ground this book advertises. I’ve read the book and found it quite reasonable. Much of it was common sense, I thought, but I was curious to hear another perspective on it and the places where Sax might be mistaken. She criticized the book as “not evidence-based” and moved on (it was only the introduction, so perhaps there is more robust discussion of it later). Hold up, though, because what does that criticism even mean? Not evidence-based? Is Sax saying things without any evidence for them at all? Sax includes plenty of a statistics and surveys and research in his book. Did he just make it all up? Is it a work of total fiction? Of course not. What she means, as far as I can tell, is that his conclusions aren’t entirely based on studies done in a lab by an officially licensed Scientist™.
That’s a pretty stark redefinition of the word “evidence.” Officially licensed Scientists™ do some great work and provide invaluable data in many areas, including childhood development and parenting, so it is worth paying attention to what they produce. It’s useful, its interesting, it’s thought-provoking, but it’s hardly the only form of evidence. In a field like this, it may not even be all that reliable a form. It’s not as though there’s some mathematical proof for parenting or a biological process for generating well-behaved children that we just need to uncover once for all time. It’s an extremely complicated, always-evolving social process that can never be fully replicated in a lab. I doubt Moyer would claim otherwise, and yet she dismisses anything else as lacking an evidential basis.
Sax makes its clear throughout the book that he bases his assessments and recommendations primarily on his decades of experience treating children as a family doctor, on his interviews with parents around the world, and his seminar discussions with teachers and other youth leaders. He catalogs what he’s found to work in the past and what has changed that might be broken today. That’s a different kind of evidence than a scientific study, but it is evidence. It’s the kind of evidence we all use every day to determine how we should live and act. It’s the only kind of evidence, frankly, that convinces people in the long run. Science might be great for producing a headache medicine, and you might take it on their word, but you don’t keep taking the medicine because the science told you to. You keep taking it because when you took it you experienced relief. If you find it doesn’t help, you stop taking it, damn the science.
Whether in relationships or health or parenting, you will always go with what has worked for you. But your experience (or that of Leonard Sax) is obviously not infallible. That’s why you talk to others, why you consult history, to see what has worked for the most people for the longest time, to try to minimize the errors. And then you use scientific experiments to challenge them further, to determine the exact mechanisms, to find overlooked mistakes, or to highlight areas for improvement and new paths for development. One of the great triumphs of science is its ability to uncover the counterintuitive truths that may have been ignored by ossified thinking and practice. But those truths then need to be confirmed by new experience. If they don’t work for real people in the real world, it doesn’t matter what the science says. If the plane won’t fly, it’s pointless to say that all the math checks out. If the patient isn’t recovering, no one cares that the trial was double-blinded.
The inability to see the functions and limitations of science can lead to all manner of errors, which is why a second passage in the introduction struck me. Moyer’s stated explanation for writing the book is the fact that while some surveys show parents say they want to raise kind kids, other surveys and studies suggest that kids today are more disrespectful, less thoughtful, and more prone to bullying and other antisocial behavior. A noble cause, certainly one that demands explanation and correction, if possible. She immediately blames Donald Trump. That was her first thought? Not the advent of social media? Not the rise of single-parent homes or the loss of shared cultural values? Not American social unrest or economic instability? Not any broader parenting trends or some change in the kids themselves? I don’t know exactly what’s causing this phenomenon, if it truly exists, so I’m open to suggestions. But Trump? Really? Was it his reality show that corrupted America’s youth, do you think, or only his presidency? Trump is undoubtedly an asshole, regardless of how you feel about his policies (and some people liked him for exactly that quality), but is he an asshole of such transcendant assholeishness that his assholery is single-handedly responsible for infecting several generations prior to his political emergence? I’m skeptical.
Well, maybe you could call it a harmless political swipe meant to jazz up the audience, a little red meat for the base of this Salon writer. And to be fair, she qualifies it as one potential factor (she doesn’t suggest any others), so I was prepared to ignore the absurdity as another example of how politic ruins everything. Except then she tries to give you her evidence.
After noting several admittedly unscientific anecdotes, she points to a study where young children who first witness an adult beat and verbally assault a doll are later more likely to do likewise when intentionally angered. That makes perfect sense. I don’t think anyone would argue with the idea that children tend to imitate adults. And then you might consider that kids imitate people of higher status (like a parent or celebrity) more closely. We’ve all seen kids copy the dances or lyrics or looks or attitudes of singers and movie stars. And the President is a pretty big celebrity these days, who is always on the news, and a very important person, so kids might be prone to copying his crude behavior. You can see how this study might in some way be linked to Trump, but notice we have taken a lot of logical leaps to get there. The study in no way “proves” that kids’ behavior is getting worse because of Trump. It doesn’t prove anything about kids interactions with celebrities or people they see on TV. It doesn’t even prove this sort of imitation leads to bullying of other children in different contexts, much less generalized misbehavior and disrespect. It doesn’t even try to. It demonstrates that some children imitate adult misbehavior in this particular circumstance, which may or may not suggest all sorts of possibilities in the broader world. Those might be worthwhile avenues of future investigation, but this study doesn’t do it. There’s nothing wrong with that. The study presumably provides good data on what it was meant to study. The conclusion Moyer draws from it maybe be logical, may even be correct, but it is not based on the evidence given. It is extrapolated several times over from the barest hint of a connection. Is that the standard of “evidence” we are going to get for the recommendations in this book?
You can tell she has gotten her stated process exactly backward. She used her intuition about the world (and political assumptions) to come up with a plausible answer for her question (that Trump or other bad role models are causing the decline in behavior), and then she went looking for a study that might support it. That’s okay. That’s the normal human process. We are rationalizing beings. We have to have some belief about the world, some model of what we are seeing, before we are able to begin applying any reason to it. You have to have some idea what you are searching for before you can begin searching for it. All science starts with a hypothesis. As we get more information, we test our ideas, see if they can account for the new data, and update accordingly. In theory. But it takes much more effort to change our conception than to justify it (rightly so, since it would be untenable to change our entire belief structure every time we learned anything new), so we will accept even the most tangential reason as evidence of what we already believe.
The problem is not with the use of reason or experimental evidence or scientific data. Far from it! It’s that most of what people call “evidence-based” is actually just bias dressed up in a lab coat. What they are selling is not the dispassionate, objective data but their particular interpretation of a particular set of data, which is determined by their assumptions and experience, often decided in advance. I don’t mean that to be cynical. It’s a problem we all face and must account for in searching for the truth. The particular analysis may be correct and the conclusion may be sound, but you can’t get around the fact that it is an analysis by pretending that the data is self-analyzing. It isn’t.
You can have all the information in the world, but you still have to make judgements. You still have to consider what it means in your own context. You still have to decide what to do with it in your own situation. That takes experience. It takes wisdom. You have to gather the best data from the widest possible sources and integrate it into the full understanding of your life, which includes your circumstances, your beliefs and assumptions, your goals, your history, and your experience with what works. You have to be willing to change, because your personal experience and knowledge are limited, but also cautious in doing so, because any bit of data might be wrong or irrelevant or incomplete. This same process in built into the data by the people who produced it, so while their conclusions are worth taking into account, they can never fully substitute for your own. That’s why we read all different sorts of books, and why we shouldn’t always listen to them.
I’m still looking forward to this one, though. As much as my Millennial self wants to be considered cool and rebellious, I tend to fall on the more traditional side of parenting, so I am interested to hear what (this particular branch of) research has to say. After reading the introduction, I doubt I’ll agree with all of Moyer’s inferences—we live in such different worlds—but it will good to think about them regardless.
We share a common goal, after all. My kids aren’t assholes. At least not yet. I’m trying to keep it that way.
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