Tuesday, January 6, 2015

On "training" your children

tl;dr: Analysis of rhetoric from a parenting column. Why, brain, why?

A recent piece in the Washington Post's parenting advice column got me a bit bothered. The question was about how to get a two-year-old to sleep in her own bed if she doesn't want to, and the advice given, essentially, was don't. The columnist, Meghan Leary (a parenting coach) advocates letting the child get in bed with the parents, which is after all what the child wants in the first place.

Although we sleep trained with M, I don't think that the column's advice is necessarily wrong; co-sleeping is a reasonable solution, if it works for the child and the parents. Co-sleeping is the norm in many cultures, and the research suggesting that co-sleeping is hazardous is typically focused on kids who are much younger and at risk for SIDS for other reasons. Of course, probably the reason the parents are asking is because they don't like being elbowed in the face by a toddler. Regardless, what bothered me in the column wasn't the advice, per se.

Instead, it was the rhetorical discussion of why the parents shouldn't sleep train. Here's the argument:
Children are born to attach to a caregiver. They are reliant on that caregiver for years and years — far longer than the young of almost any species on Earth. (Just ask your neighbors about that basement apartment occupied by their 20-somethings.) Without a responsible caregiver, they wouldn’t last a day, let alone a lifetime. Our children need us, and their brains are wired to make sure they stay close to us. 
So, when a 2-year-old has faced separation all day when she goes to day care and then experiences separation again at bedtime, her young brain goes into panic mode. And that young brain is built to take her to the parent, over and over and over.

And so when the parent places a gate at the door, her brain lights up with fear and panic, and it is experienced as a physical problem. Vomiting, breathing problems: This is a systemwide panic meltdown. It is too much for her to process “Why is Mom leaving me?!” and her body starts to compensate for what her brain cannot handle.
Note that this whole passage doesn't have any evidence in it at all, nor any talk about the behavioral history – what the child has experienced prior to the current situation – or even consequences of the child's actions. It also doesn't include any talk about the parents' quality of life. Instead, what replaces these is a set of explanations and expansions of the questioner's original statement that her child cried and threw up when she was left alone in her room at night.

Most of these explanations aren't necessarily wrong – in current form they're really too vague to be judged on the basis of scientific evidence – but they do a lot of negative rhetorical work by invoking -isms that keep people from thinking sensibly about parenting.

Nativism. Nativism in cognitive development is an interesting and important theoretical position, and it has its place. But all of this talk of being "wired" for X or "born to" Y here is just a way of stopping argument about whether a particular behavior is something we want to encourage. Many people would argue that we are born to discriminate against members of other groups, but we should still teach our children values of tolerance and openness. Maybe kids are "born to sleep next to their caregivers" but if that means the caregivers can't get a good night of rest, then perhaps teaching (even "training") can be a reasonable option to consider.

Dualism. When her "body starts to compensate for what her brain cannot handle" this situation sounds pretty dire. But what does that mean? Brain and body (actually, mind and body) are connected. Psychological stress can lead to health problems, etc. etc. So what do we get from separating mind and body here other than an implication that sleep-training related separation anxiety can lead to bad health outcomes, a claim that is not supported by any evidence?

Brain-o-centrism. Why is it the toddler's brain that goes into overload? And why is it her brain lighting up with fear? Again, this seems more like a rhetorical strategy than any kind of evidence. Empty brain statements like these serve as proxies for explanation without any explanatory content.

Anti-daycare-ism. Finally, why does day care have anything to do with this? This little thrown-off clause ("has faced separation all day when she goes to day care and then") really annoyed me – anti-daycare bias is deeply discriminatory against working parents (e.g. like M's mom and me). I know of no evidence that sleep training or sleep problems more generally interact with whether a child is in daycare. There is an interesting and complex body of research on the behavioral consequences of day care, but that's not what is being referenced here. So I find the offhand implication here that day care separation anxiety can cause sleep disturbance to be deeply problematic.

Why am I picking on this one column, whose advice I don't even necessarily dispute? All throughout parenthood I've been confronted with cases where people have very strong opinions about parenting that seem as though they are grounded in the research that I supposedly pursue for a living (trying to understand children's cognitive development). And yet when I look into them more deeply, they make no sense at all. This column, posted on facebook by an acquaintance, was the last straw.

That's it for now. I'm off to pick up M at daycare.


  1. To me the key problem with the WP article is that they assume that there is an average behavior that is somehow relevant to a particular, individual child's case. Unfortunately, we make this mistake all the time in our research too: we report average behavior with some (uninterpretable) 95% confidence intervals around it. "The average is an abstraction; the reality is variation" (The Norm Chronicles).

    PS Our son stayed in bed with us till he was 6 or 7 (actually, I moved to another room for those 6 or so years due to the elbow-in-face problem), and then one night we just moved him to his room and that was it, he has been fine with that. I can't say that'd work for everyone; probably wouldn't.

    1. Although I must admit that I didn't read the WP article, only your summary :). Maybe they did mention this point.

    2. They didn't mention this critical point. I completely agree with you. Parenting is all about overfitting to your specific, dense longitudinal data. IMO, good parenting advice can be a kind of regularization term on that prediction, but no statistical model performs well when you regularize it to have only the intercept (e.g. the group level mean).