Public Programs Should Substantiate Claims About Child Development
Last week, I blogged about some advice a Parents as Teachers participant received from a program representative. She says she was told that she “needed” to read to her unborn child every day, and that it was important to read the exact same book each time. I criticized this advice as lacking a scientific basis; in addition, it’s liable to provoke anxiety or unrealistic expectations in parents.
This incident brings to mind a program that was introduced in Georgia back in 1998. The state distributed free classical music tapes and CDs to the parents of newborns, in hopes that listening to the music would stimulate babies’ cognitive development.
In both cases, public programs inappropriately extrapolated from scientific research to prescribe parenting behaviors. Babies can enjoy music — and psychologists have debated the existence of a “Mozart effect” — but that does not mean all babies need to listen to CDs for healthy development. Likewise, research shows that fetuses can detect sounds and that young brains learn from repetition, but that does not imply that reading one book every day will be beneficial. It’s worth noting that despite the research on repetition, repetitive exposure to Baby Einstein language videos has been shown not to help babies’ linguistic abilities. The manner of repetition makes a difference. It’s not sufficient for Parents as Teachers to point to studies about repetition in general; the program would have to show that this specific repetitive activity has a positive effect.
It’s been brought up in our comments section that Parents as Teachers might endorse other ways of interacting with fetuses. This could be true. Similarly, if pressed, Georgia’s governor might have been forced to admit that country music has as much chance of promoting development as classical music. But what matters is the advice that was actually conveyed by the program. When participants honestly come away from a class under the impression that they need to do one particular thing — and I have no reason to believe the blogger I linked to was trying to misrepresent Parents as Teachers or make it look bad — we should evaluate whether that activity is as important as the program claimed. If Parents as Teachers never intended to promote one activity over others, then the program needs to do a better job of communicating with parents so they don’t form erroneous conclusions.