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Studies and reports

Readers — I am honored to present this brilliant piece by Jan Macvarish, a research fellow at the University of Kent and co-author of the book Parenting Culture Studies, which asks how come the way we feed, talk to, and play with our kids has become the stuff of public debate and government policy? (Boldface is mine.) – L

Babies’ Brains and Intensive Parenting by Jan Macvarish

Last week, a Free Range Kids’ post, We Cannot Mold Kids Into Exactly Who We Want Them to Be, kindly drew attention to our latest report. Now I’d like to say a little more about our analysis of the adoption of ‘brain claims’ by British politicians in recent years.

UK parents have become accustomed to hearing that they need to be more involved in their children’s homework, to monitor screen time more closely, to second-guess the school’s latest rules for what constitutes a healthy lunchbox, to ensure that little girls don’t dress in ways which might be construed as ‘sexualised’, not to mention the overwhelming admonition, from conception onwards, that  ‘breast is best’.

From the late 1990s, British politicians of all shades have talked of parenting as a problem.

Amongst other social problems, parents have been blamed for poverty and lack of social mobility, physical and mental health problems, obesity, crime and violence. And so the everyday choices of family life are said to be significant not only for individual children and their families, but to be the very stuff which determines society’s future. A growing feature of policy directed at improving parenting has been the incorporation of ‘brain claims’: citations of neuroscientific studies, dramatic statements from child neuro-psychologists and images of brains, apparently atrophied by parental neglect:

This is your brain on imperfect parenting.

This is your brain on imperfect parenting.

US parents will already be familiar with brain-based parenting expertise, advising parents to maximise their babies’ cognitive development from gestation onwards, to fully exploit the 0-3-year-old window of the ‘amazing’ infant brain. Many UK parents, too, will have bought into the brain-stimulation trend, playing Mozart CDs to their bumps, sitting their babies in front of Baby Einstein DVDs and hanging black and white toys above the crib.

But what is noticeable in policy’s use of neuroscience is that it never speaks of maximising chlidren’s intelligence but rather employs the authority of scientific ‘evidence’ to make doom-laden ‘now or never’ pronouncements on the need for ever earlier state intervention into the lives of families. If parents are not trained to attune to their baby’s neurological development, it is argued, their offspring will not develop emotionally and socially, this will, in turn, impede their intellectual development when it is time for formal school. Ultimately this will impede social mobility and reproduce current social inequalities.

Although brain advocates argue that novel insights from neuroscience mean that ‘we now know’ what babies require and what kind of training parents need, in fact, brain claims entered a culture in which there is already a strong presumption that ‘something must be done’ about parenting.

The images and vocabulary of the brain are used to strengthen an imperative for particular interventions with parents assumed to lack the skills or emotional sophistication, to relate to their babies in ways that will secure their development.

As readers of this blog will be well aware, the idea that the early years have lifelong consequences because of their significance to brain development places incredible pressures on parents to get it right. This applies to the twenty-something with a surprise pregnancy, who worries how her partying might have affected the fetal brain, to the thirty-something professional mother worried about achieving a sufficiently strong attachment before the end of her maternity leave, and to the poorer young mother, assigned a specialist nurse practitioner as part of the Nurse Family Partnership, to school her in ways of singing, reading, touching and talking to the baby that will ‘fire up the neurons’.

Concerns are also being raised by scholars of social work that ‘neurotrash’ [shoddy or mis-interpreted brain research] is being used to argue for increasing numbers of forced adoptions, with birth parents prejudged as inadequate, having their babies removed by social services and placed in adoptive families, before irreparable harm can be done to their neurological development.

As respondents to Lenore’s post about our study clearly illustrate, thinking through the prism of the infant brain unhelpfully reinforces parental determinism — the idea that parents are the ultimate ‘architects’ of the grown child’s life — and reinterprets family practices of love and care as socially significant, therefore meriting external evaluation and improvement from experts, whether commercial or state-led.

Further information about the project and its findings can be found here.

Project findings are also discussed in more detail in the book Parenting Culture Studies. – JM

Readers — I find this little report, “Neuroscience Used and Abused in Child Rearing Policy” so interesting, for two reasons.

First, by questioning the common wisdom that kids’ brains”irreversibly ‘sculpted’ by parental care” the first three years , it alleviates some of the incredible pressure put on parents to make sure that every single second they spend with their babies (even prenatally) is optimal: stimulating, educational, enriched. That’s a lot to demand of us.

Second, it echoes a point I make in my book and lectures: That while experts purport to “help” parents by telling us exactly how to interact with our kids, actually that avalanche of advice undermines the idea that maybe, just maybe, we could be decent parents without intensive tutoring. As the authors note:

…Mothers, in particular, are told that if they are stressed while pregnant or suffer postnatal depression, they will harm their baby’s brain.

‘This dubious information is highly unlikely to alleviate stress or depression but rather more likely to increase parental anxiety,’ said Dr Macvarish. ‘Parents are also told they must cuddle, talk and sing to their babies to build better brains. But these are all things parents do, and have always done, because they love their babies.

‘Telling parents these acts of love are important because they are ‘brain-building’ inevitably raises the question of how much cuddling, talking and singing is enough? Such claims also put power in the hands of ‘parenting experts’ and ultimately risk making parenting a biologically important but emotionally joyless experience.’

The way we’re approaching parenting these days is sort of the way we approach so many other worthwhile projects. Instead of saying, “It sure would be nice to set aside some land as a park,” we are forced to do a cost-benefit analysis that shows things like, “Parkland increases the ambient oxygen level by X percent, which in turn increases worker productivity, resulting in a net gain of…blah blah blah.” Not everything needs to be quantified, justified or even examined this way. And that’s not even getting into the whole issue of how many “scientific” studies turn out to be impossible to replicate (and quite possibly wrong). – L.

Hi brain! I'm your mommy! Can I please program you exactly the way I'd like?

Hi brain, I’m your mommy! If I do everything the experts say, will you do everything that Mommy says


Readers — This comes to us from one of my favorite thinker/writer/lawyers: David Pimentel. In 2012 he wrote the wonderful piece, “Child Neglect and the Free-Range Parent: Is Overprotective Parenting the New Standard of Care? Alas, in some legal ways, it is.

Now he’visiting the issue of what happens when Child Protective Services believes Free-Range Parenting is negligence. It’s not and we have to let the people in power KNOW!  (Boldface is mine.)  - L.

M'am, was that YOUR child who was walking to school today?

M’am, did you deliberately allow your child to frolic unsupervised? 

Pimentel writes to us:

As many of your posts acknowledge, Free-Range parents are resisting a powerful cultural trend.  They may be subjected not only to the head-wagging of neighbors, but also to interventions, or at least investigations, by Child Protective Services (CPS).  CPS is, of course, just doing its job, trying to keep kids safe, responding to calls from ill-informed, but nonetheless alarmed observers. But CPS is applying legal standards that are hopelessly vague, and erring on the side of “safety,” by removing many children each year from families who have not mistreated them, and who have not come to harm, but who are nonetheless deemed to be “at risk.” My new article highlights the problem of inadequate legal standards CPS applies, and of the incentive structure (including financial incentives) faced by CPS offices, which results in this type of excessive response

It is time for legislatures to examine the mandate of CPS in their respective states, and to ensure that CPS interventions are scaled back, so they respond to genuine—as opposed to imagined—threats to child safety, and so they abandon the fool’s errand eradicating risk altogether.  Parenting is an exercise in risk management, and the legal standards need to be revised to protect parental discretion to make the necessary judgment calls as to what is best for their children.  Such determinations should not be made in the abstract by CPS; rather they should be entrusted to the parents themselves, who know their kids best and, by virtually all accounts, love them best as well.

Check out the article here:  Fearing the Bogeyman: How the Legal System’s Overreaction to Perceived Danger Threatens Families and Children (2014)publication pending. –  Prof. David Pimentel, Ohio Northern University

Lenore here: Yes! Click on the article! It shows the legal world that there’s interest in this issue!

Readers — I was looking up “rat experiments” (don’t ask!) and came upon this incredible comic by Stuart McMillen, tracing the lure of drugs on two sets of rats: One group held in isolated pens, the other in “Rat Park” — a fragrant, outdoorsy pen filled with things to explore and a bunch of fellow rats.

If you read the comic, I think you’ll see the rat/kid analogy as plain as the whiskers on your face.


While we can’t precisely extrapolate from rats to humans, it does seem significant that when the rats are cooped up, isolated (but safe from cats!), they are desperate for any kind of escape. In this case — drugs. But when rats are free to explore and play with each other, they not only do not seek out drugs, they seem willing to endure withdrawal rather than have drugs cloud their lives.

Something to think about when we keep kids isolated, at home, to make sure they’re “safe.” – L.

Readers — As much as parents worry about predators behind the petunias, they worry about predators behind the pixels, too. danah boyd has researched the validity of those  online fears. Not only does her book, “It’s Complicated,” seem totally spot-on, but she is reviewed by the equally remarkable and culture-changing Peter Gray in this post on his Psychology Today blog. I have a section from Peter’s book, Free to Learn, that is mindblowing, too — stay tuned for that post!  Meantime, enjoy Gray’s take on Boyd’s book (with even a shout-out to Free-Range Kids!):

Myth #4: Social media put teens at great risk from sexual predators.

In a nationwide survey, boyd and her colleagues found that 93 percent of parents were concerned that their child might meet a stranger online who would hurt them, while only one percent of them indicated that any of their own children had ever had such an experience. By far the biggest fear expressed by parents was of “sexual predators,” “child molesters,” “pedophiles,” and “sex offenders” who might contact their child through their online participation. This mirrors the fears, revealed in other national and international surveys, that underlie many parents’ decisions to restrict their children from venturing away from home, outdoors, without adult protection. Surprisingly, the respondents to boyd’s survey expressed as much fear for their sons as for their daughters.

As I and others (e.g. Lenore Skenazy in her book Free Range Kids) have reported elsewhere, the “stranger danger” fears that afflict so many parents are greatly overblown. In fact, harm of any kind to children or teens from adult strangers is very rare, and there is little or no evidence that technology or social media has increased such danger. As boyd (p 110) puts it: “Internet-initiated sexual assaults are rare—and the overall number of sex crimes against minors has been steadily declining since 1992—which suggests that the internet has not created a new plague.” Of course, teens and children should all be cautioned about such possibilities, and we should discuss common-sense ways of preventing it with them, but the danger is so small that it is irrational to ban our children from social media because of it.

The fact is, child molestation is far more likely to be perpetrated by people who are well known to the child, such as relatives, trusted family friends, priests, and teachers, than by strangers. Again, in boyd’s (p 110) words: “Although lawmakers are happy to propose interventions that limit youth’s rights to access online spaces, they have not proposed laws to outlaw children’s access to religious institutions, schools, or homes, even though these are statistically more common sites of victimization.”

Read the rest of the review here!

Beware of online predator (statistics).

Beware of online predator (statistics).

Readers, This blog, Math With Bad Drawings, says something I’m always trying to say — but adds bad drawings! Here are a few gems from the post, “Headlines from a Mathematically Literate World.”

Our WorldOne Dead in Shark Attack; See Tips for Shark Safety Inside
Mathematically Literate WorldOne Dead in Tragic, Highly Unlikely Event; See Tips for Something Useful Inside


Our WorldRates of Cancer Approach Historic High
Mathematically Literate WorldRates of Surviving Long Enough to Develop Cancer Approach Historic High

So when, for instance, you read this (real) headline, that ran in the New York Post a few months back:

Oasis of fear: Crime spiking in Central Park

And the story begins: 

Staying safe in this part of town is no walk in the park.

And goes on to say that:

Six rapes have been reported in the park so far this year. This time last year, that number was zero.

Burglaries also are up, with six this year versus one for the same period last year.

You can TRY to put that in perspective by doing the REAL math: Central Park gets 38,000,000 visitors/year. So one’s chances of being burglarized, for instance, appear to be 1 in 6,000,000+. Same with rape. So while this is truly awful for those involved, it is also — thank God — unbelievably rare. And yet, of course, the reporter quotes a woman saying:

“It is very concerning,” Cotto said.

Which it is. For anyone trying to stay sane in a mathematically illiterate, fear-drenched, headline-hollering world. – L.

Don't these poor people know they are DOOMED here in crime-escalating Central Park?

Don’t these poor people know they are DOOMED here in crime-escalating Central Park?


Hi Folks! This missive comes to us from Del Shannon, a civil engineer who designs and constructs (and sometimes even deconstucts) dams around the world. When not damming, he has written award-winning essays and children’s stories. His first children’s book was the serialized novella The Map, published in several newspapers. Captain Disaster  is his second, a novel. Del lives with his family in Colorado and always seems to be daydreaming of Captain Disaster (which you can order here!). – L


In my biased and yet still humble opinion, I, along with my trusty sidekick Marty, saved the world no less than 472 times. From the first signs of trouble when we were eight, until I moved with my family to Oregon three years later, it was obvious to me and Marty that our home of Ellensburg, WA had somehow attracted the highest density of nefarious villains and paranormal beings in the world.

In our first week as a team, Marty and I broke up a Russian spy ring on Spokane Avenue, vanquished a coven of vampires that lived behind the screen at the drive-in movie, and, through special and ultra-top secret permission from the Justice League of America, used the amalgamated superpowers of Superman, Batman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Hawkman, and the Atom to kill a gelatinous blob that lived in the irrigation ditch culvert that crossed Manitoba Avenue just north of the hospital.

While our antics exasperated our parents, not to mention the “Russian spies” that lived a few houses down the street, our heroics were never questioned because in everyone’s eyes we were doing exactly what two boys should be doing when faced with the deliciousness of three completely unencumbered summer months. We fell into our imaginary lives as easily as breathing.

Marty and I had no idea that our adventures were actually making us smarter. It may be a surprise to you as well, and yet recent research is pointing to just this as a natural outcome of daydreaming and possessing a wandering imagination.

Boosting Your Kid’s RAM 

A March 2012 study by Daniel Levinson and Richard Davidson published in the online journal Psychological Science, found a direct correlation between the amount of daydreaming a person does and their working memory capacity. In general terms, the higher an individual’s working memory capacity, the higher their reading comprehension, IQ score and other measures of intelligence. A simple analogy is the amount of random access memory (RAM) a computer has available, with the more RAM inside a computer translating to its increased efficiency and speed.

But it’s not all about intelligence, at least as defined above. Daydreaming also allows for different regions of the mind to subconsciously collaborate when looking at a problem. In a 2009 Psychology Today article about the benefits of daydreaming, Columbia University cognitive psychologist Malia Fox Mason reinforced this idea. “By allowing your mind the freedom to roam, the chances that you’re going to have an insight are much higher. It’s likely that you are going to recombine pieces of information in a novel way.”

Over-cram a Kid’s Day &  Stifle the Brain

What does all this research suggest? As a semi-retired superhero my own thoughts point in one simple direction. Collectively we’d best help our children by reopening the freedoms we have taken from them in the last 30 years because we are, quite literally, constraining their intelligence. From over-scheduling in the name of cramming as much knowledge as possible into their heads, to stifling their daydreaming and imagination by labeling it unproductive, our children aren’t being allowed the freedom to fully develop their intellectual abilities.

Providing our kids the time and freedom to daydream, explore and imagine on their own has been unnecessarily, and some would argue tragically, constrained. Instead of scolding children for staring off into the distance, seemingly in a daze, we actually should be encouraging them to do more of this…preferably while wearing a cape! – Del

The Captain himself!