Visible Child Foundations 1: The What

Parenting groups and coaches are a dime a dozen these days. There’s even a plethora of “respectful” parenting philosophies or approaches to follow, all of which have some things in common, and of course, some differences. There are SO many words used to describe these approaches: positive parenting, conscious parenting, respectful parenting, connected parenting, gentle parenting, attachment parenting, non-punitive parenting, developmental parenting, collaborative parenting, mindful parenting…I could go on.

Suffice it to say, there are a lot of folks out here doing good work to help parents and children live more joyful and peaceful lives together. That’s all good. The similarities are more important than the differences, to be sure. And sometimes, it is the differences–even the small ones–that distinguish one model from the next. Those differences can be important or unimportant, depending on your perspective.

As a longstanding professional in this field, I have sometimes struggled with how to identify what makes my work distinct–different from RIEĀ® (whose approach I embrace and admire), different from Hand in Hand Parenting (whose perspective has helped so many people), different (albeit in small ways) from the many many good people and organizations out there. Again, it’s not that important; I hope that parents will draw upon all resources that are helpful to them. And yet, it is important to me, as I want to be clear about what it is that I offer, and help people to understand where I’m coming from. In order to do that, I have to be clear myself.

Although it’s unlike me to arrive at a “final answer”–I mean, this isn’t Who Wants To Be A Millionaire–I think I have at least landed on two features that feel distinct in some way. So I thought I’d offer them to you here, in the interest of helping people understand the way I work, especially in relation to the parts that sometimes confuse readers and followers. So I want to talk about the “what” and the “how.” In this post, I’m going to talk about the “what”, and the “how” will be in a separate blogpost, to be published as soon as possible.

The What

My work, my responses, and my thinking–at all times–is grounded in the science and theories of child development, as an academic field of study. I focus on what we know about how children develop, about how their brains develop, about how children are different at different ages and stages, about how development proceeds across all domains of development (cognitive, fine motor, gross motor, social, emotional, moral, etc) and about the things that can cause variations in or derail development. I don’t imagine that I am unique in this emphasis; this is true of many other people’s work as well, and I eagerly follow and have great admiration for that feature of their work.

This is where it gets a little tricky, because the term “evidence based practice” has become both a buzz word and a poorly defined term in today’s world, where you can pick up “evidence” on any street corner, virtual or otherwise. I’ll offer two quick examples.

  • Our public schools in the U.S. usually proudly proclaim themselves to be “evidence-based” (i.e .making their decisions based on the best research in education and child development.). That’s terrific, and as it should be. We have every right to presume that skilled educators are designing curriculum and schools around the best and latest knowledge. And yet, the body of research consistently and strongly demonstrate that homework produces no benefit before the middle school years–and our schools are still assigning homework to young children. Peer reviewed research in child development and neurobiology also clearly demonstrate that punitive discipline techniques do not help children improve their behavior–and yet most schools still use those models. Research shows that standardized tests predict family income and parental education and socioeconomic and racial privilege more than they demonstrate children’s knowledge or achievement or capability. And yet we still use them in nearly every school system in the country. So are our schools “evidence-based”?
  • One of the cardinal rules and ethical principles of social science research is that findings of a study are limited by the population of the sample; they are not generalizeable to other populations. The research on Sesame Street, for example–a program that was consciously designed and created by experts in child development with the specific goal of reaching children who may experience delays as a result of at-risk environments–shows that it offers children a “leg up” on readiness for school and promotes important learning in the early years. Those findings do not mean “Sesame Street is good for children and they should watch it.” That would be a wildly generalized conclusion that omits the research that explores other impacts of the program and generalizes findings about the benefits to one population and extends it to all populations. That’s not how research works. This happens all the time in my work. An advantaged, well-resourced parent comes to me and says “I heard that Sesame Street really helps my child understand their letters and numbers, so I want to make sure he watches it every day.” My response? “Your child will know their letters and numbers. Children with stimulation and opportunities learn those things organically and easily. They don’t need Sesame Street. If they love it, and you love it, and that works for your family, more power to you, no problem. And still, the research you “heard about” was not about your child.”

Visible Child defers to and relies heavily on robust findings in the scientific literature of child development, via peer-reviewed sources. That means that we not only use or cite research to bolster our recommendations, but that we are constantly reading and evaluating and re-evaluating research. For example, many people outside the world of academic research don’t know that some articles and research are “peer-reviewed” (a higher standard of evaluation by fellow academics to examine whether the research has been conducted well, making their conclusions more reliable) and some are not. And similarly, many people don’t know that after peer-reviewed articles are published, a broader range of academics review them and then write and publish critiques of the research, often pointing out flaws and problems with the claimed findings. That sometimes leads to a rejection or a debunking, in the field, of that study, something that people outside the field might not know by simply encountering that study in an article. One piece of research, or even a larger body of research, cannot be accepted at face value. We have to dig and examine and be able to analyze statistics and be active and rigorous consumers of research. Knowledge is always changing. Sometimes findings are elaborated on or reversed as we know more. In this era of “news bytes” and quick answers and anti-science sentiment, that feature is often overlooked. This is a process that I have been deeply committed to for my entire career, and it imbues all that I do in my work with parents and organizations.

In my work with families, I am always intensely aware and bring to every situation knowledge of what development is like at that age and for that individual child. Development matters and informs our decisions. Your 8-month-old is suddenly terrified of strangers? Yup. That’s called Stranger Anxiety (which is different from Separation Anxiety, which peaks at about 18 months). It’s a developmental stage that appears in most children around that age. It passes. Your 11-year-old has started rolling their eyes at you and speaking to you as if you are a thorn in their side? There’s a good reason for that. Your four-year-old is insistent that there are good guys and bad guys and can’t seem to accept that people aren’t good or bad? Congratulations. You are witnessing expected four-year-old moral reasoning. This is what it’s supposed to look like. It’s not something to change or fix, it doesn’t portend any sort of pattern or limitation in the future. It’s okay, that’s the way they’re supposed to be categorizing things right now. It doesn’t mean they won’t learn or understand the exceptions or nuances later. Later is later. Now is now. These are only two examples, there are many, of course. Development matters.

At heart, I am a devoted developmentalist and enthusiastic scholar of child development and developmental science, with a deep passion for the power of observation. For me, it is not enough to talk about what to do or what to say or how best to parent or how to connect. My goal is to spur others to become insatiably curious about child development and human development, both for the likeminded community it creates, and because it is only when we know as much as there is to know about our children–and ourselves–that we can make informed and intentional decisions about how we want to live with and relate to these small people with whom we are privileged to share our lives.

My work is not about convincing parents to do it a particular way–mine or others’. My work is about blending and translating rigorous child development into ideas about how to have mutually respectful, joyful, and authentic relationships with our children and to promote curiosity and critical thinking. As ever, I invite you to join me.

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