“Neuroscience Says ________ Will Harm Your Kids!”

Readers, Here’s an infuriating, reassuring piece (first one, then the other) by Laura satdizkddk
Flores Shaw
 in the Huffington Post: “Stop Using Neuroscience to Scare Parents.”

It reminds me of my book‘s chapter, “Relax! Not Every Little Thing You Do Has That Much Impact on Your Child’s Development!” In this essay, Shaw is reacting to a Time piece that blithely stated, “In a brain scan, relational pain — that caused by isolation during punishment — can look the same as physical abuse. Is alone in the corner the best place for your child?”

Whether you use time-outs or not, the idea that you had better read every single bit of brain literature before you decide how to raise your kid is what gets Shaw’s goat and my own. (We share a goat.) Parenting practices are as varied as pancake recipes and, like those recipes, most turn out good enough. But once you read some “expert” telling you that what you thought seemed okay just might be the worst thing since scurvy, you can start going nuts with worry. And so, Shaw writes:

Having worked with anxious parents (and being one myself) in different capacities (first as a therapist and then as a head of school), I could almost hear their questions as I read the Time article: If you’re telling me that putting my child in a time-out hurts her brain, then what happens when I drop her off at school or daycare and she cries? Am I harming her brain then? Is it being permanently altered because she thinks I’m rejecting her? The article states that the brain is adaptable, yet it sounds like time-outs could permanently alter it if done repeatedly. But what does “repeatedly” mean? Is using time-out once a day the same as several times a day? Is it the same as once a week? What if I choose to use time-outs because staying with my child while she kicks and screams only seems to incite her more than it does if she does it alone in her room? What’s happening to her brain then? And what if I’ve been using time-outs for five years? Have I damaged her brain and scarred her for life?

Everything we do “scars” our kids, in that it has a little bit of impact. But the idea that these decisions, made with love and sometimes frustration, shape them into precisely who they are, or prevent them from ever being happy or healthy, is to grossly underestimate human resilience, not to mention genetics and a million other forces shaping our kids.

It sometimes feels like parenting and dieting are the same thing: One day too much fat is bad for you, the next day it’s exactly what you need! Either way, you feel bad about whatever you just ate, and kick yourself that if only you ate kale-frosted cupcakes, you’d look like Jennifer Aniston. (And really, guys — do you WANT that?)

Eating and childrearing don’t require a ton of books.

Except if you get them confused. – L.

This is your brain on a blog.

This is your brain on childrearing studies.

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34 Responses to “Neuroscience Says ________ Will Harm Your Kids!”

  1. Paul October 7, 2014 at 10:04 am #

    There are as many parenting philosophies as there are parents. Do what you think works best for your child, and go from there.

  2. hellen October 7, 2014 at 10:48 am #

    I always wanted a goat. I guess we can share one now.

  3. SKL October 7, 2014 at 11:42 am #

    Right. It’s like I’ve been saying all along. Discipline up close and personal. Direct contact between the hand and the rear. 🙂

    Once again, it’s amazing anyone survives to adulthood.

    But seriously, some of us are much happier being left alone than having someone in our face. We need space and time to think through discipline issues just like everything else. There is no one rule that applies to all kids.

  4. BL October 7, 2014 at 11:42 am #

    “Eating and childrearing don’t require a ton of books.”

    Actually, a ton of books will harm your child, if you stack them on top of the child.

  5. Papilio October 7, 2014 at 12:19 pm #

    I SO want to know what Jo Frost says about this…

    “[…] you’d look like Jennifer Aniston. (And really, guys — do you WANT that?)”
    That’s a pretty funny question if you read ‘guys’ as referring to males 🙂

  6. lollipoplover October 7, 2014 at 12:21 pm #

    “Even when presented in a patient and loving manner, time-outs teach them that when they make a mistake, or when they are having a hard time, they will be forced to be by themselves—a lesson that is often experienced, particularly by young children, as rejection. Further, it communicates to kids, “I’m only interested in being with you and being there for you when you’ve got it all together.”

    Rejection? Isolation?
    For sitting on the step for 3 minutes?!

    The authors of the book suggest “time-ins” and sitting with the child and talking or comforting.

    Why on earth would I need to comfort a misbehaving child who is acting like a complete and utter jerk? The comfort should be for ME! That’s why I put them on the naughty step or isolated in their room, so I won’t beat them and go all Adrian Peterson on them.

    Time apart gives me a chance to regroup so I don’t say or do horrible things to the little sh@t who just beat on her sister or vasolined and baby powdered the bathroom. What I don’t need is psychiatrists trying to sell a book guilting me for choosing to punish a child and teach them consequences for bad behavior. I fear more what would happen to their brains if they grew up with no discipline at all.

  7. Andy October 7, 2014 at 12:28 pm #

    It’s neuroscience that led to an entire generation in the 90s to be medicated. The problem is that there’s too much information. Scientist make a discovery and publish it. Someone in another field (child physiology,or someone in an related field,or someone with an agenda), takes the discovery and runs with it. They don’t take the time to study the discovery to find out what it means. It takes about twenty years to see the results of bad science.

  8. Steve October 7, 2014 at 12:32 pm #

    “In fact, brain imaging studies show that the experience of physical pain and the experience of relational pain, like rejection, look very similar in terms of location of brain activity.”

    ——- Hmmm.

    The problem with research is how the so-called scientists “interpret” what they see or discover. One says this and one says that. They often don’t agree. And if they do, a few years later somebody suggests they had it all wrong and the old research didn’t mean what they thought it meant because now there are new elements added to the overall picture.

    A number of years ago, a proponent of the ADHD diagnosis spoke at a national conference. He claimed brain imaging studies proved conclusively that the brains of ADHD kids were adversely affected by their malady. This expert was challenged by another expert who asked, “Have you done any research on the brains of ADHD individuals who have NOT been given psychiatric drugs?” The answer was a timid “no.”

    If you read biographies of famous people who achieved a lot in life, you often find they had difficult childhoods often containing abuse and neglect. In fact, difficult childhoods often seem to drive people to overcome their past and achieve great things. I find it interesting that we often don’t hear about these successful people in research like this because, of course, it does not help develop their fear-mongering viewpoint. I’ve read quotes by famous achievers who said they were “glad” their upbringing was so difficult because it helped make them who they are today. I am “not” suggesting that anyone should abuse their children, but human beings are overcomers, and we often learn from adversity, and in our society today adversity is often considered harmful. Yet, my guess is that most of us could tell stories of how we learned important, life-changing lessons from adversity.

  9. Andy October 7, 2014 at 12:36 pm #

    funny how it’s parents that make mistakes parenting. A school official can use a “quiet room” or have the police arrest a child, or place a child in foster care, that doesn’t cause lasting harm.

  10. Cate October 7, 2014 at 12:50 pm #

    When my kid goes to timeout it is because she is not acting like a member of society and gets to sit in her corner until she does. Better her sitting in a corner now than a jail cell later.

  11. Andy October 7, 2014 at 12:57 pm #

    Ok, one more comment,then I’ll stop. Exactly how did they get the data? Did they bring a child into the lab punish him and then put him in a brain scanner? Doesn’t that constitute the very abuse their rallying against. Most normal people,adults and children alike, will give off weird readings after having wires attached to their head. Or placed into the confining space of a cat scanner.

  12. Kenny Felder October 7, 2014 at 1:04 pm #

    One of my big heroes, intellectually, is Stephen Pinker. He writes about the brain with a combination of knowledge, common sense, and humor. And at one point he says–not trying to make any political or social point, but just scientific–that he is forever reading articles that announce that “It has been shown that such-and-such an experience makes changes in the human brain” and he laughs. *Every* experience changes your brain. Seeing a flower, drinking a glass of milk, reading a book…they are all experiences. They are recorded in your brain, they strengthen some neural pathways and weaken others, they cause chemical changes. Duh, every time.

  13. EricS October 7, 2014 at 1:05 pm #

    As the article states, the human brain is adaptable. Especially with young children. Disciplining, including time outs, when they misbehave, along with talking to them afterwards, helps them to associate consequence of actions. This is how we learn.

    The first time we burn ourselves because we touched something hot, after we were told not to, tells our brain hot>hurt>should’ve listened. We then explain what happened, which further instills the lesson in children. Of course not every children learn right off the bat, but they do learn eventually. Hence the repetitive aspect of child rearing. Unfortunately, many parents today are repetitively instilling the wrong things in children. So they learn negative things.

    I think too many people over analyze many things when it comes to children. They make themselves see and believe things that aren’t really there, or are very insignificant. But because of their already anxious and fearful personalities, and “experts” telling them don’t do this and don’t do that. They are responding very irrationally. It’s no different than irresponsible media. People are taught negatives, without outlining the broader scope which includes more positives. And makes the negatives that much less significant.

    People are people, parents are parents, whether your a scientist, a doctor, a therapist, a police officer, a teacher, etc… When you fear irrationally…you fear irrationally. And no one can change that except you.

  14. pentamom October 7, 2014 at 1:06 pm #

    “In fact, brain imaging studies show that the experience of physical pain and the experience of relational pain, like rejection, look very similar in terms of location of brain activity.”

    Isn’t that something? Two things that are intended to send a negative message to a child about his behavior, send a similar message?

    Is that a bug, or a feature? I don’t quite understand how a child is to be disciplined (and I mean that word in its broadest sense of taught to self-regulate) if every situation results in a neurologically neutral experience, which seems to be what is being advocated for, if every alternative is considered “scarring.”

  15. no rest for the weary October 7, 2014 at 1:12 pm #

    I am raising four children.

    Two of them are so docile, so “easy,” it’s laughable. Oh yes, occasionally they whine about something, but who doesn’t?

    But they should be totally f*cked up. Their parents split when the one was still in utero, they only saw Dad on weekends for the first few years of their childhoods, their grandparents spoiled them rotten and taught them that love comes in a package with a bow on it… etc etc. They’ve been bounced around to a dozen or more living situations in the last five years. Are they anxious? Dysfunctional? Nope. They’re great kids.

    The other two kids are more of a puzzlement. They had a different situation, but some similarities. The parents split when they were really little, and they have been shuttled back and forth every other week, like the other kids, for years. Yet the homes have been stable, and there was no grandparent spoiling them. They ought to be MORE stable than the other two, right?

    Wrong! One of them is so burdened by anxiety issues, an intervention was required last year, she had to switch schools, she stopped eating for a while. Threatened suicide. And she was 9.

    The other one entered puberty with a bang, being prone to violent rages that damaged things inside our home. I had to tell him at one point that while it’s fine to get mad, now that he outweighs me, if he starts getting destructive inside the house, the police will be called in for support.

    Do I feel personally responsible for the way any of these kids are coping with life? Not really. I feel responsible to help them navigate their lives dealing with the hand they’ve been dealt, but I didn’t deal that hand. We all have stuff we have to work with inside of ourselves. People are wired VERY differently.

    One child can be savagely abuse and never become an abuser. Another child can be raised in a loving home and go on to have rage and abandonment issues.

    While I stopped doing the “time out” thing with the kids when they were still little, and abandoned any form of punishment or reward for quite a while, the kids did not become wild and horrible. There are ways to work with kids that teach respect and consideration of others and don’t involve punishment. Happily, all four of these kids are getting great feedback from the community, with reports that they are a pleasure to be around.

    So I guess our efforts to help them cope with their inherent tendencies is working.

    But those inherent tendencies? I don’t think I put those there!

  16. Mariana October 7, 2014 at 1:15 pm #

    Jennifer Aniston is attractive but she doesn’t have the beauty+brains combo that makes Lenore such a fox.

  17. J- October 7, 2014 at 1:53 pm #

    Here is some neuroscience to throw back at these people:

    There is something called the Hedonic Treadmill. Pretty much every human being has a normal level of “happiness” and regardless of how good or bad things are, post people will return to that normal level fairly quickly. We emotionally adapt to our situation.

    This is how people who suffer spinal cord trauma, amputation, or severe physical disability can return to their normal level of happiness in short order. There is no statistically higher rate of depression among the physically disabled than the normal population.

    On the other hand this explains why the children of the super rich, who are given every toy and luxury, have all the same problems as everybody else. They adjust to the luxury and have the same normal range of happiness as everybody else. Even lottery winners, a year or so after they collect their earnings return to their normal level of happiness. Money can’ buy happiness, it can only rent it for short periods of time.

    The point is, King Solomon was right – “This too shall pass.” Raise the kid with a gentle hand, never discipline him, coddle him like an egg, or occasionally lock him in a cold basement and beat him with a switch (I AM NOT ADVOCATING THAT) and for the most part, the gross level of long term happiness will be about the same.

    The human brain is highly adaptable. it is a evolutionary trait. Otherwise every dry season when food ran scarce, our primordial ancestors would kill themselves.

  18. SKL October 7, 2014 at 2:26 pm #

    I agree, kids tend back toward their cheerful selves pretty quickly after discipline, often faster than their parents. I remember once feeling so irritated at my kid that I was kind of miffed that she got happy again so quick. 😛 Then I thought, wow, that really is awesome. I could probably learn something from her.

    I also agree that every experience changes one’s brain. And not always in the way people might expect. If there are no ups and downs, the brain doesn’t get exercise that might be needed for the really tough hurts that parents can’t fix. Also, a kid who isn’t disciplined when he knows he’s done wrong is going to get stressed out, waiting for the other shoe to drop or wondering what his boundaries really are.

    But, wouldn’t it be fun if we could go tell our boss or the tax man or the traffic cop, “dude, you can’t stress me out, it’s gonna affect my brain!”

  19. OT October 7, 2014 at 3:14 pm #

    Here is a rebuttal to that original article.

    Outrageous claims regarding the appropriateness of Time Out have no basis in science

    We are writing to express strong concern with the article “‘Time-Outs’ Are Hurting Your Child” by Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Byrson (9/23/14) which described time-out as “ineffective” and seemingly equated this practice with “physical abuse”.
    Based on their selective review of recent neuroscientific findings, these authors advocate rejecting the use of time-out in favor of an alternative strategy, “time-in” which they describe a “forging a loving relationship” through sitting or talking with or comforting t he child immediately following the child’s misbehavior. Unfortunately, none of the authors’ conclusions regarding the rejection of time-out or the use of “time-in” are directly supported by research evidence, nor do they reflect a clear understanding of correctly implemented time-out.
    Decades of carefully controlled studies support the efficacy of time-out when used correctly with regard to the child’s developmental and emotional status and in the context of a broader behavioral management program.
    Time out appropriately used involves explaining to the child during a non-crisis time how and why the procedure is being used. At the end of the Time Out the child should be praised and rewarded for following the procedure, a parent hug works well at this point —akin to what Siegel and Payne Bryson refer to as Time In. While it is possible that “time-in” by itself may be a useful tool for some children in some circumstances, no evidence is available to support this.
    Thus, broad recommendation of “time in” only is premature, and potentially harmful, in the absence of controlled and replicated research documenting efficacy and safety.
    It is a disservice to the public to suggest that families try an unproven approach when one with decades of support is available. This isn’t to say that time-out is appropriate for every child or in every circumstance, but it is the place to start. For information on the scientific foundation of Time Out individuals may access a reference list at http://www.effectivechildtherapy.com
    Marc Atkins, Ph.D., Past President
    Anne Marie Albano, Ph.D., Past-President
    Mary Fristad, Ph.D., Past-President
    Bill Pelham, Ph.D., Past-President
    John Piacentini, Ph.D., President-Elect
    Dick Abidin, Ph.D.
    Kristin Hawley, Ph.D.
    Yo Jackson, Ph.D.
    Amanda Jensen-Doss, Ph.D.
    Tara Peris, Ph.D.
    Mitch Prinstein, Ph.D.
    Eric Youngstrom, Ph.D.
    Society for Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology
    Released September 29, 2014 by the Society of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology (SCCAP)

  20. Erica October 7, 2014 at 3:39 pm #

    OMG lollipoplover. I love you. We need to do coffee sometime or hot ciders with cinnamon whisky, whichever. 🙂

  21. Omer Golan-Joel October 7, 2014 at 4:17 pm #

    I’m sick of all this Western (more accurately Western Post-Modern, as, during the Modernist period up to the 1990’s, the West wasn’t like that), consumer-oriented crap of treating children as if they are made of fragile glass. Kids can endure quite a lot without any lasting effect at all. I think that psychology is used right now not as a science but as a pseudoscience aimed at selling psychotherapy (which is very important for treating serious conditions, but unnecessary for emotionally stable people) to the populace and getting parents to buy the latest guidebook or “developmental toy”, or, worse, enriching lawyers and insurance companies.

  22. Lola October 7, 2014 at 4:38 pm #

    Oh, we use these studies the other way round: we first decide what’s best for us, then hunt for an article/study that supports our views, in case we find a know-it-all who critizises our actions.
    You’ll find one for sure; they’re always contradicting themselves.

  23. Molly Wingate October 7, 2014 at 7:18 pm #

    Goats abound!! What about the effect of anxious parents on their kids? I want to give every parent a hug and then tell them to breathe and do their best. Look at their kids, decide what seems best, and go with that. Don’t look at what your neighbor did for her kid; look at your kid.

  24. Gina October 7, 2014 at 8:48 pm #

    @Mariana–Jennifer is actually very bright.
    @Lenore–I agree completely with everything you said about neuroscience…but I wonder why you had to
    A-Imply an insult towards Jennifer Aniston
    B-Imply that women should care what “guys” want instead of how they feel

    OK..off the soapbox… 🙂

  25. Donald October 7, 2014 at 10:18 pm #

    Remember a few years back when everything gave you cancer? These stories sold newspapers. Now the trend is that everything can emotionally scar your children for life.

    I’m not so annoyed at these reporters as I am at all the gullible people. However I am mostly annoyed at the ones that don’t believe but enjoy the entertainment of the bile. These ‘Jerry Springer fans’ and ‘CSI viewers’ are polluting the planet out of sheer entertainment. They don’t feel responsible for all the boggyman stories. However the reporters frantically fabricate as many as they can BECAUSE these people have such a strong appetite for them.

  26. hineata October 7, 2014 at 11:27 pm #

    I’m all for sharing goats. In fact, we should start a rent -a- goat scheme. Because no matter how crappy your life feels now, a goat will make it infinitely worse 🙂

    Borrow one today! You’ll realize how good you’ve got it!

  27. Dirge October 8, 2014 at 9:21 am #

    You know how if you isolate yourself from germ, your immune system gets weaker because it does not know how to fight them? Has anyone tested that the same is true for mental stress. Maybe a child’s brain need to learn to cope with stress, fear, and other harm so it can deal with it in a healthy manner as the child grows.

  28. SKL October 8, 2014 at 9:59 am #

    My only problem with the rebuttal:

    “This isn’t to say that time-out is appropriate for every child or in every circumstance, but it is the place to start.”

    Time Out can be *a* place to start. Give parents all the information and let them decide what is *the* place to start for *their* individual child.

  29. pentamom October 8, 2014 at 10:02 am #

    I took “guys” as the generic “you folks,” not “men.”

  30. Papilio October 8, 2014 at 1:35 pm #

    @Gina: “Jennifer is actually very bright.”
    That doesn’t necessarily contradict what Mariana said…

    “[@Lenore] […] I wonder why you had to […] [i]mply that women should care what “guys” want instead of how they feel

    Pentamom: “I took “guys” as the generic “you folks,” not “men.””
    And I joked that guys (males) certainly wouldn’t want to look like Jennifer Aniston, posing the question: Does the first ‘you’ (in “you’d look like Jennifer Aniston”) refer to the same people as the second ‘you’ (in “(And really guys – do you WANT that?)”)?

    … But who cares about Jennifer Aniston anyway? >:E

  31. Gina October 8, 2014 at 6:39 pm #

    Yeah, I guess that’s true. I just don’t know what Jennifer Aniston has to do with any of this and I don’t like the idea that we (generic) have to say something negative about ANYONE to prove our positive points. It’s just a general pet peeve of mine, I guess.
    No hard feelings. 🙂

  32. Papilio October 9, 2014 at 3:22 pm #

    @Gina: Well, I think you can look at it in two ways:
    either Lenore is bashing JA becauzzzzz… IDK, maybe she prefers brunettes (can’t blame her 😛 ), OR she thinks we ‘guys’ shouldn’t want to look like JA because we should be happy with ourselves regardless of our looks…

    …or she had a soap/romcom overdose.

  33. C. S. P. Schofield October 12, 2014 at 2:11 am #

    I have, for the last thirty years or so, followed a simple guideline as regards scientific and/or medical information;

    If it is in an article in TIME, NEWSWEEK, PEOPLE, or THE NEW YORK TIMES, it is either misinterpreted, or simply utter pigswill.

    I have not been wrong nearly often enough.

  34. Harrow October 14, 2014 at 4:44 pm #

    “In a brain scan, relational pain — that caused by isolation during punishment — can look the same as physical abuse.”

    On the authority of Siegel and Bryson I am now convinced that sending my kid to the corner is just as bad for him as dope-slapping the back of his head. I am relieved to learn this as the time-outs were taking far too much time out of our day. Slapping him around only takes a few seconds, and we can quickly get on to the next lesson.