I recently finished Baby Meets World: Suck, Smile, Touch, Toddle, by Nicholas Day, and it is my favorite of the scattered group I've read. Day is a clear, funny writer who also blogs entertainingly for Slate. Baby Meets World is a tour of the history and science of parenting, broken down by the four activities in its subtitle.
But unlike many books about developmental science it is also a cry of rage and despair by a new parent who has completely had it with parenting advice. This feels exactly right to me. Rather than urbanely walking through the latest research on sucking along with a Gladwell-esque profile of a scientist, Day shows us the absolute weirdness of its past - from deciding whether to use goats or donkeys as wet nurses to the purported link between thumb sucking and chronic masturbation.
The implication, drawn out very clearly in a recent New York Times blog post, is that our current developmental studies may not have much more to offer parents than Freud's hypotheses about thumb sucking:
... [E]xperiments have the most meaning within [their] discipline, not outside of it: they are mostly relevant to small academic disputes, not large parenting decisions. But when we extract practical advice from these studies, we shear off all their disclaimers and complexities. These are often experiments that show real but very small effects, but in the child-rearing advice genre, a study that showed something is possible comes out showing that something is certain. Meager data, maximum conclusions. (p299)People often ask me how relevant my own work on language development is to my relationship with M. My answer is, essentially not at all. I am a completely fascinated observer; I continually interpret her behavior in terms of my interest in development. Nevertheless, I see very few - if any - easy generalizations from my work (and that of most of my colleagues) to normative recommendations for child rearing beyond "talk to your child."
While this kind of recommendation is without a doubt critical for some families, it's not necessarily the kind of thing that you need to hear if you're already in the market for baby advice books. For example, rather than telling me that M needs to hear 30 million words, you should probably counsel me to talk to her less (let the baby sleep, already!). One size doesn't fit all. There are some interesting applied studies that have near-term upshot for baby-advice consumers (e.g. work on learning from media). But overall this is the exception rather than the rule in much of what I do, which is primarily basic research on children's social language learning.
Parents who have read parenting books often say "you must do X with your child" or "you can't do Y," whether it's serving refined sugar, giving tummy time, or using the word "no" (don't, do, and don't, respectively - according to some authorities). But the effect size of any child-rearing advice, whether reasonable or not, is likely to be small: the people who had parents that followed it aren't immediately distinguishable from those whose parents didn't. Consider the contrast between the range of variation in parenting practices across cultures and the consistency of having reasonable outcomes - nice, well-adjusted people. People grow up lots of different ways and yet they turn out just fine. This is the message of Day's book.
Of course there are real exceptions to this rule. But these are not the small variations in child rearing for your standard-issue helicopter parents - BPA-free tupperware or not? - or even the culturally-variable practices like whether you swaddle. They are huge factors like poverty, stress, and neglect, which have systematic and devastating effects on children's brain, mind, and life outcomes. Remediating them is a major policy objective. We shouldn't confuse the myriad bewildering details of babyrearing with the necessities of providing safety, nutrition, and affection.