Not another researcher telling us how to parent and teach!!!

Well no, I wouldn’t presume to…. But yes, I will make a strong case for parenting and educational research and its role for all of us no matter how far removed from said ‘research’ we might feel.

How do we know how to parent in a way that isn’t going to completely ruin the little tacker and allows us to maintain some sense of mental health as parents? Oh the longing for a guide book that covers every child and every parent in every situation. Well that is never going to happen. So what do we do?

Fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants is one option which many of us use on a regular basis I’m sure.  Tit bits of advice and information from family and friends subjected to trial and error until you find something that fits with your family is another way (and actually you are doing parenting research of your own there…. gotcha!) “I go my own way, I know what’s best for my family” is another approach. Yet another one is “by the book”…. but which book? I guess one that speaks to you. These are all incredibly valid ways of learning on The Job.

In fact, undertaken in an environment where your partner, family and friends are waiting in the wings to congratulate you, or pick up the pieces, or offer up the next morsel of advice to be trialled…. these probably work pretty well. Put these together with strong parental mental health, a child who is on a pretty average developmental path, and availability of some sort of group of peers (parent-child group, daycare, kindy or school) where any really troubling developmental concerns will become obvious, and we’re on a winner. Add a parent who is willing and able to seek additional professional advice if things go really astray, or they have concerns for their child and hey….. I’m out of a job. Let’s forget parenting research. Let’s forget the professions assigned to supporting parents and families, we’re doing just fine thank you very much!

The only trouble is, we’re not all doing just fine…..parents and children alike. And certainly no one is doing just fine every hour of every single day… are we?

Many parents do not have any of these things that make taking on The Job and trusting in learning along the way a real possibility. I spent many years working with parents who had not ever experienced a role model of parenting that was effective. They weren’t parented with respect and care themselves, were often socially isolated, lacking in confidence to discuss issues with others, reluctant or unable to access professional advice, and literally flying as blind as you can imagine. It’s hard to imagine actually.

When these families do access services how do the professionals charged with supporting these families share knowledge? Which knowledge? Do we gather up the crumbs and memories of what worked for us as parents and offer them up with a ‘good luck mate’?

Would you have your GP offer up a drug to cure your child that she had cooked up in her kitchen and tried on her nephew to no ill effect so let’s “give it a burl”. No, we expect our medical treatments to have been through rigorous ‘research’ and therefore our doctors deliver them, and we accept them, with due confidence…. even though they don’t work in every instance (more on that later).

Like doctors, parenting support professionals and teachers also deserve this kind of confidence to share knowledge and advice. They need a strong evidence base of what does and doesn’t work for child and parental wellbeing. For this reason, if not for many, many others, this is why we need research. High quality, rigorous and oft-replicated research.

have provided us with the knowledge that having books in the home and reading to children are some of the strongest predictors of positive educational outcomes for children. So here is some advice that we now give and seem to accept without question…. if there’s nothing else you do with your young child, read to them. How wonderful to have earned that faith through years of countless and careful research studies. Let’s keep working hard and funding research that earns us more of that confidence and faith in what we’re all doing to grow happy and healthy children.

Here’s another one for you… look after the mental health of woman as future mothers or current mothers, as it really, really matters to child wellbeing and development. More on that another time.

Now you could argue that many research findings such as these simply reflect ‘common sense’. Sure, perhaps. But some are also surprising. And when was the last time you heard of health, family support or educational policy developed from the basis of ‘common sense’? What about additional funding for reform provided on the basis of ‘common sense’? Unlikely. What speaks is numbers, and that means stats, and that means research.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that research evidence holds all of the answers for every parent, every teacher, and every child. In fact for every research finding that I myself make I can think of at least one child just in my modest circle of family and friends to which this developmental ‘truth’ doesn’t seem to quite fit.

A great statistician once said that statistical models will only ever be an approximation of ‘the truth’ and should never be sold or lauded as ‘the truth’. I couldn’t agree more. But we have to start somewhere right? By starting with advice to parents and teachers that is derived from high quality, large sample research we will be best poised to positively effect the development of most children in many circumstances. But never all children in all circumstances.

So next time you read about child development or parenting research restrain the eye roll and critically consider what it might be contributing to our society even when it does not speak to you personally.  Heck, I don’t even go on holiday these days without researching hotel reviews and checking security warnings. Why would I tackle The Job without at least some research up my sleeve?

We might be doing pretty well with our own parenting using the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants model with a dash of instinct, but do we want teachers working from that place too? Surely not. Do we expect all members of society, even the most disenfranchised and disadvantaged to rely on trial and error? I don’t think so. Sometimes the cost of the error is just too great.


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