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Evidence-Based Parenting - From Toddler to Pre-Teen

Evidence-Based Parenting - From Toddler to Pre-Teen

Matilda Gosling

 

Verlag Swift Press, 2024

ISBN 9781800752375 , 336 Seiten

Format ePUB

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Evidence-Based Parenting - From Toddler to Pre-Teen


 

Introduction


The concept


This book aims to answer one question: what actually works when it comes to parenting? It draws on thousands of pieces of research on subjects such as child development, family systems, relationships, mental health and genetics. The evidence has been distilled into simple, practical suggestions to support children’s relationships, physical health, learning and play, behaviour, and happiness and well-being. All families are different – what works for one may be ineffectual or impractical to another – and this book recognises this by offering a variety of evidence-based alternatives. Parents can select ideas using their expert knowledge of what’s most likely to work for their own children.

The need for an evidence base


Given the fundamental importance of parenting to almost every human on this planet – if not as a parent, then as a child of one – an overview of the parenting evidence base is remarkably absent.

As a parent and professional social researcher, I spent years trying to find something that condensed high-quality research and evidence on how to bring up a child to be a happy, healthy adult in a way that preserves parents’ sanity. I found lots of books that took a particular philosophy and used it as a cornerstone for recommendations. I read in-depth descriptions of the different stages of a child’s development and how these relate to parenting. I found excellent work using the principles of economics to create decision-making frameworks for families. I discovered a huge range of writing by psychologists and parenting experts who used lessons from their own practice to construct advice for parents.

What I couldn’t find was a concrete summary of what works according to the vast academic and expert evidence base, much less a version of this distilled into a selection of ideas from which parents can choose according to their knowledge of what’s likely to work best. Parents are, after all, authorities on their own children. I also couldn’t find anything that attempted to paint the whole picture, drawing not only on parenting research but also on the full range of social sciences research, and even on other academic disciplines such as biology and history. If I’m writing about how to reduce arguments within a family, I need to understand the research on conflict. An overview of genetics research helps me to fathom out where a child’s environment can make a positive difference to their health. Knowing how to support children’s behaviour means I need an understanding of research on psychology and child development.

This book emerged from these gaps. The variety of research findings also informs the idea that what works for one child or family may be completely inappropriate for another. Parents need a range of evidence-based options. The most successful approach might work for sixty out of a hundred children, but what about the other forty?

The various ideas offered in this book help answer this question. What works in parenting can cut across different philosophies and concepts. Taking high-quality research as a starting point equips parents with the knowledge of what’s likely to work for them and their children, according to their particular circumstances. And my children have benefited from this approach, even if they roll their eyes every time I try something new on the back of the latest research paper.

What this book covers and what it leaves out


This book draws directly on well over a thousand studies and indirectly on thousands more to create an evidence-based reference manual for busy parents. It focuses on children between the ages of two and ten. There’s already a vast literature on babies, including reasonable evidence summaries, and teenagers are sufficiently different from younger children to deserve their own dedicated follow-up. I occasionally draw from research on teenagers and adults when I look at long-term outcomes of individual parenting decisions.

The geographic focus of the research reviewed for this book is mainly Anglophone countries – the UK, Ireland, the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – because culture has a strong bearing on which parenting practices work best.

I talk about and in the interests of simplicity of language, but of course the ideas in here apply just as much to other caregivers. If you’re a step-parent or other guardian, please know that I include you when I talk about parents.

Finally, and importantly, this book focuses on positive strategies and things that can be changed. Those that can’t, such as how much money a family has or where they live, are irrelevant to what parents can do to make life at home easier or to support their children better.

How to use this book


Practical suggestions drawn from evidence are presented according to three levels of research quality:

  • High-quality research evidence: meta-analyses, systematic reviews, randomised controlled trials or longitudinal studies of more than 1,000 people.
  • Moderate-quality research evidence: studies showing links but not causality.
  • Anecdotal research or expert advice: suggestions based on clinical practice or similar.

Presenting the research in this way enables parents to make up their own minds about how to interpret the information. Most study findings apply to children in general, but no child is an average. In each section of the book, a number of approaches are covered. If one suggestion doesn’t work for you and your family, you can experiment with other ideas.

This book illustrates the evidence in a particular way, although there are many ways it could have been presented. Under any way of structuring the evidence, though, there’s inevitable overlap. There’s also debate within the research about precisely what it is that makes a positive difference to child outcomes. In some cases, particularly for lower-quality evidence, links between parenting decisions and outcomes for children may be due to some other, underlying factor. A link between children playing in nature and having higher levels of resilience might be explained by adventurousness. It’s not absurd to suggest that when parents model adventurousness, their children are more likely to be resilient, and adventurous parents are more likely to encourage their children to play in nature.

Nothing has been suggested in this book that’s likely to harm your child. While you may want to prioritise suggestions based on the highest-quality evidence, it’s still worth looking at the other options in here. Sometimes the most interesting ideas come from lower-quality studies. These may contain evidence of things too specific to be tested in a big research trial, or perhaps it wouldn’t be ethical to test the findings in this way.

The book is organised into two main parts. The first covers universal approaches: these can be helpful for many children across multiple aspects of their lives. Avoiding harsh discipline, for example, is linked to better outcomes for children across a range of areas, including physical health, mental well-being and behaviour. When using this section of the book, it’s important to think about whether and how any recommendations apply to your own situation. Even some of these more universal approaches may not work for every family and every child. For instance, some children find making decisions difficult and stressful. Giving these children autonomy and room to make choices, unless done carefully and gradually, may not be helpful for them. That said, the diversity of ideas should mean you find plenty you can use. This part of the book is arranged into things you can do as an individual, within the structure of your home and family, and as a parent. There are concrete suggestions for each area, and thoughts on how you can put these into practice, such as looking at how you can dial down tempers when family members keep arguing. I’d have had no idea where to start with calming family conflict without having pored over the research. I’ve also seen how sorely clarity is needed in the research literature about what the findings mean, practically, for individual families. When the research says that household chaos is bad for children, what does that mean in terms of the day-to-day changes parents can make to make things a little less chaotic? In every case, the book draws out practical implications and examples. Theory is as good as useless if it’s not clear how to apply it.

The second part contains focused approaches for supporting your child with specific outcomes, namely:

  • Relationships: how to build your relationship with your child, bolster sibling relationships and support your child’s friendships.
  • Behaviour: what you can do to minimise children acting up and to promote socially minded behaviour.
  • Physical health: how to improve your child’s sleep, ensure they willingly get enough exercise, and help them to develop a healthy relationship with food and with their body.
  • Learning and play: how to support your child in the areas of screens, outdoor play, learning and life skills.
  • Happiness and well-being: how to promote your child’s mental health, resilience and self-esteem.

This second part presents the research in each of these areas and translates it into evidence-based suggestions. These offer a variety of avenues you can try based on your knowledge of what’s likely to work for your child, your family and your life. Part Two also presents...