As a science writer, I'm used to dissecting a medical study in order to figure out if the results are strong enough and reliable enough to use to make decisions about healthcare. I'm no genius; I'm just following the big push in the past decade to test the value of commonly used medical treatments, a trend called "evidence-based medicine." I'm also following the time-honored journalistic practice of obsessively picking at facts, trying to figure out what's most true and what might be useful to people facing life decisions.
I'm a parent, too, so it seemed only natural to start wondering if it would be possible to have "evidence-based parenting," a subject I recently wrote about in an article on eight ways where even the best-intentioned parents go wrong. Why not use the scientific process of randomized clinical trials to test what "treatments" are best when it comes to raising children? I'm short on grandmotherly advice; my grandmothers are long gone, and my mom lives 3,000 miles away. I'd love to know if timeout really works, or if I'm just mucking things up. At the very least, some solid data might help me navigate through the parenting books section on Amazon, which is awash in bestsellers promising to produce a model child by snack time, all with precious little information as to what forms the foundation of that advice. A reality check.
Journalists need reality checks, too. It used to be that a reader's only way to communicate with a writer at U.S. News was to write a letter to the editor or leave a scorching voice mail. (Note to the caller who recently said I'm a "whore of Big Pharma": Trust me, if I were a whore of Big Pharma, I wouldn't still be wearing shoes I bought during the first Clinton administration.) Now, blessedly, not only can readers E-mail us, but they can post comments on the U.S. News website for all to read. My article, along with two sidebars on the pros and cons of spanking for disciplining children, drew passionate debate. Some were expected, yet still fascinating, like the back and forth over the link between childhood spanking and S&M sex in adulthood. A few called me to task, like Timothy of Tennessee, who responded when I wrote that I thought that no one spanked small kids anymore: "Wow. Talk about being out of touch with mainstream America. Typical liberal head-in-the-sand nonsense." Spot on. Actually, I do know that parents in my suburb of Washington are spanking their kids. What I should have said is that parents who admit spanking risk being shunned or reported to social services. Here, at least, spanking has gone underground.
There was even a note from Mary Morgan, widow of the child-rearing guru Dr. Spock, adding a perspective only she could bring: "I remember hearing Dr. Spock say: Most parents hit their kids at some time. I try not to make them feel guilty or tell them not to do it. However, I've seen many children raised well without being hit and I know that it can be done."
Several astute readers noted that although the article was about evidence-based parenting, I often didn't cite the studies behind research on child-rearing strategies. All too true. Usually reporters complain that editors zap out the hard science from articles, leaving behind the feel-good quotes. In this case, my editor was diligent about insisting that I include the evidence. I should have included more. (Health News Review, a two-year-old nonprofit based at the University of Minnesota, offers useful guidelines on how to interpret medical evidence and medical journalism.) But reading endless citations to studies can make a tough slog. I'm hopeful that before too long we journalists will all be routinely hyperlinking to studies, making it easy for readers to check out the evidence themselves.
The enduring message I learned from readers: More science would be good, but common sense is still critical. Just because a technique produced good results in a laboratory setting doesn't mean it's right for your family or your child. Consistency, and parental backbone, are key, too. Children will always test limits, notes one reader. But if we parents match limits with love, our children have a good chance of someday stepping out into the world as calm, capable adults.