header image

Stupid Advice

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 – -This just in. Two masked men grabbed a 4 year old from a playground and threw him in a van. Surprise! It was to make a video about “kidnapping awareness.” Why is this insane?

A – The “perps” could have been shot.

B – It is based on the crazy idea that WITHOUT a video of masked men snatching a child off a playground, no one would be aware that masked men shouldn’t be doing this.

C- It is also based on the crazy idea that this is happening so much, no one should consider the playground a safe place.

D – All of the above and THEN some.

P.S. You KNOW the answer.

Folks, Canadian school bus driver Kendra Lindon was about to pick up kids on a freezing cold day when her bus broke down. Other recent times this had happened, she recalled, no replacement bus arrived. And so, with windchill temperatures dipping to -37 C (-34 F),  she took matters into her own hands and picked up the few students along her route in her own SUV.

From there, Lindon planned to keep the kids, including her own son, warm until another bus arrived — no frostbite, no problems.

Or so she thought.

It turns out another parent had watched Lindon picking up the kids, including two boys who had to sit in the rear cargo hold, where there were no seat belts.

Concerned, the parent contacted First Student — and that afternoon, Lindon was fired.

Parents have since been writing letters on Lindon’s behalf, but so far, it seems, there is no chance of an appeal, because rules are rules. 

This is a Free-Range issue because those rules are most likely in place to keep children safe from ALL adults, on the assumption that many are out to hurt them. Forget the fact that there are more good people in the world than bad, and that we are capable of distinguishing the two. No, all adults are treated the same: they’re suspects.

Moreover, even though I am a HUGE fan of safety belts (ask anyone!), having two kids sit belt-less in a cargo hold for a few minutes, or even get driven a short way, does not mean INSTANT DOOM. Yes, it makes sense to buckle up whenever possible. But once in a while circumstance dictates less than optimal accommodations, and that’s okay. It’s not the best. But it’s okay. We are so attuned to “best practices” that we forget that “not quite the best practice” is not the same as, “hideous danger.”

It’s not.  - L

When a school bus doesn't show, is it WRONG to pick kids up in an SUV?

A school bus driver using her heart and head is punished by those unable to use either. 

UPDATE! I love this comment so much, I have to highlight it here:

“When I was a little girl, an unarmed adult wandering the halls was likely to be questioned, not presumed to be a psychotic mass murderer.”


Readers — This  surprising story ran in yesterday’s New York Times about the news media’s new favorite story, finding “breeches” in school security. As reporter John Eligon begins:

The three news reports followed the same format: Television reporters walked into schools with hidden cameras, under the premise of testing the security measures. Each time, the anchors provided a sobering assessment of the findings.

“One of the more depressing reports I’ve seen in a long time,” said Matt Lauer, the “Today” show host, after a report showed unsettling lapses in security.

“What we uncovered may shock you,” Chuck Scarborough warned viewers of WNBC in New York.

Similarly, an anchor with the NBC affiliate in St. Louis prefaced a story by saying, “Some of it will disturb you.”

What disturbed ME — aside from the schools that went on lockdown, the kids made to cower in the classroom, and the not insignificant possibility of someone shooting the reporter — was summed up by Al Tomkins, senior faculty for broadcasting and online at the Poynter Institute, who told Eligon:

“What happens is you’re spending all this energy and time investigating school safety when that’s already the single safest place for your child anyway… [This] sort of reaffirms the false notion that my kids are really in danger at school when they’re not.”

Exactly. Like all the sweeps week stories where reporters go to playgrounds to film how easily kids can be lured away — as if to suggest strangers are doing this all the time — this new generation of reporters would make us believe our kids are in grave danger anytime any adult steps foot in a school.

That outlook reinforces the notion that all strangers are at least somewhat likely to be madmen, and that therefore all schools MUST be hermetically sealed. (See earlier post, “Strangers in the Schools”) The upshot is letters like the one I got a few weeks ago from a mom in an Iowa town of 1000, where students are no longer allowed to hold the door open for ANY adult, even one they know. (Which, in a town of 1000, is probably everyone.)

The media tells itself it does these reports as a public service. It does them for ratings, and the public be damned. – L

School or prison? Does it matter?

School or prison? Fearmongering reporters push to make them the same!

Hi Readers — This comes to us from a mom in Georgia who says she is all for her son following the rules, “But  A) He didn’t even know this was a rule he needed to follow. And B) The rules should make sense- shouldn’t they?” Our favorite question! – L
Dear Free-Range Kids: I was working today when I received a call from the assistant principal of discipline at my 3rd grader’s school. Ryan is a pretty good child, we’ve never had any issues, so at first I was a little confused. The assistant (she has an Ed.D!!) explained to me that Ryan got a “red slip” at lunch and would miss break.  Upon further inquiry, I discovered that it was because he was playing thumb war with his best friend. No was was injured, no one had their feelings hurt, nobody was talking out of turn, no one actually did anything wrong.  She even went so far as to tell me there was no actual violation of any policy. But she was concerned that someone had the potential to get hurt in the game of thumb war – and she wanted to talk to the kids – and she wanted me to talk to Ryan at home – about the potential for injury in the game of thumb war!
I am not making this up. My kid was actually called to the principal’s office for a discussion and missed his break time because there was a “potential for injury” in the age-old game of 1-2-3-4 – thumb war!!
I honestly had no choice but to thank her for her time, and get off the phone.  If she’s worried he might get hurt playing thumb war with his lunch neighbor, I guess she would be one to call DFACS on me if she knew I let the same 8 yr old use a steak knife to cut his own meat at dinner tonight. And he still has all his fingers!
Thanks again for keeping it real for (most of) us. – Just Thumb Mom in Georgia
It's a slippery slope to atomic warfare.

It’s a slippery slope to atomic warfare.


Readers — Yesterday I asked you to ponder why the government is (or, apparently, MAY be) destroying its brand-new “Just Move!”  stamps that show kids doing things like skateboarding, jumping into the water and doing headstands. The real reason is that when they were shown to President’s Council on Fitness, Sports & Nutrition, as well as the “Let’s Move” team, they worried that the skateboarder wasn’t wearing knee pads, the swimmer was doing a cannonball (patently unsafe!),  and the headstand girl wasn’t wearing a helmet…which is the weirdest worry of all. Have you EVER seen someone doing a headstand wearing a helmet? It’s like wearing mittens to sew.

“This recall epitomizes the culture of legal fear: no risk too small to regulate, legislate, and sue our way out of,” says Ben Miller at Common Good, the non-profit fighting the good fight against ridiculous regulations. When it comes to pernicious influences in our children’s lives, he adds, “Do postage stamps belong on that list?”

To some bureaucrats, apparently they do. So thank you for all your guesses yesterday as to why the government is so worried about them,  including:

None of the kids are carrying water bottles!

Because they lack mouths and noses and eyes and therefore they should all be intubated and in the ICU?

I think I can see the top of the head belonging to a child sexual predator in the Stretch stamp.

The swimmer has no life jacket.

Juggling choking hazards!

.00000000000000001% of the population might get aroused from seeing these images of cartoon kids wearing shorts and bathing suits which would put ALL kids in danger.

That girl is going to hang herself with the jumprope.

The climber needs a full OSHA-approved high work safety harness and three spotters.

And the idea that I found most disturbingly plausible of all:

It is because their parents aren’t in the picture watching their every move?


 Hi Folks! This post comes to us from Emily Oster, an economics professor at the University of Chicago, and the author oExpecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom is Wrong – and What you really Need to Know. She tweets @ProfEmilyOster and she’s a non-alarmist. Woo-hoo! – L.


When you’re pregnant, it can sometimes seem like you should be afraid of everything.  Even some things you may not have thought of.  Last week I saw an article about how you shouldn’t swim (causes asthma in your kid later, I guess).  A few months ago one of my Chinese friends was horrified to learn I hadn’t worn a radiation vest while working at my computer during pregnancy.

I’m an economist – my job is data – and when I was pregnant I spent a lot of time combing through studies and data in the hopes of identifying which risks were real, and which were exaggerated.  The result was my book, Expecting Better, and in it I suggest that a lot of pregnancy risks are exaggerated.  A little bit of coffee?  Fine.  A little bit of deli ham?  Probably also okay.  Sushi?  Yes.

Some of the rules are there for good reason (tobacco is a definite no-no, as are hot tubs) but I make the case that pregnant women should be able to live with a lot less fear.

Since the book has come out I’ve heard from a lot of women who love this message.  But I’ve also heard from some who feel that it’s all well and good to know what the risks are, but they’re still going to avoid everything.  Their reasoning, often, is that if something did go wrong – even if for a reason having nothing to do with their behavior – they would blame themselves unless they did everything perfectly.

A post on the Motherlode blog made this point plainly: the author lost a baby to listeria, and even though she doesn’t know what the source of the infection was, she still blames herself for a few deli sandwiches during the pregnancy.

The possibility that you might feel this way is certainly something women should think about in making these choice, but it is also something I think we should fight against.  Women – mothers – increasingly seem to feel like it is our fault if anything goes wrong with a pregnancy, or with our children.  Forget about going wrong, we blame ourselves if our kid isn’t perfect in every way.

Shortly after my book came out, someone emailed me, distraught, having had a miscarriage.  She wanted to know if she might have caused this by pumping her own gas, or by having a single glass of wine before she knew she was pregnant.  Of course the answer was no, but I felt sad that she even needed to ask.  I am all for the idea of taking appropriate cautions, and of doing what is best for our kids.  But I also think we need to ease up on the guilt.  By doing so, we may dial back the fear, as well. – E.O.

Lenore here: I so agree that we have gone overboard blaming ourselves (or worrying we will be blamed) if anything goes wrong with our kids at any stage of their lives, beginning in the womb. In my lectures I talk about how, for instance, the “What to Expect” book tells readers to consider EACH BITE a chance to give their baby better odds and possibly even a better life. Nine months is a lot of bites to think hard about, and the flip side of trying to be “good” is that any step off that tightrope of perfection feels like YOU are to blame if your child isn’t perfect.

This whole outlook feels less like a new age kind of healthy mama perspective and more like Henry the VIII who blamed Anne Boleyn for having a child with birth defects. I’d really like to move forward, not backward, when it comes to thinking pregnant women can control all outcomes if only they are more strict, vigilant and self-sacrificing. Or, in Anne Boleyn’s case, if they’d only stop consorting with the devil. – L. 


I hope i didn't eat a single bite incorrectly!
I hope she didn’t eat a single less-than-optimal bite!