• Frank Furedi
  • Frank Furedi
  • Sociologist, commentator and author

Common sense, not research, nurtures our kids

Anyone involved in the business of rearing children will know there is always the potential for failing to understand the actions of the younger generations. No doubt, inter-generational miscommunication is a fact of life. However, today, matters are further complicated by the displacement of good old reliable common sense by the rhetoric of formulaic parenting advice and so-called research.

These days virtually every discussion on childhood begins with the ritualistic recitation of the words “research shows”. Public figures and experts rarely feel able to say: “I believe children need a stable family environment”; or “Children need boundaries if they are to develop good social skills.” Instead they are likely to state: “Research shows that children flourish in a stable family environment.”

And since research can be converted to promote any agenda, some will argue the opposite: “Research shows that a stable family environment is over-rated.”

It is deeply annoying to hear perfectly obvious points about children’s lives communicated as if it were the amazing discovery of scientific research. Earlier this month research commissioned by environmental group Planet Ark revealed that fewer Australian children were climbing trees or playing outdoors. This report noted that children engaged far less in traditional outdoor activities, such as hopscotch, tag and street games, than previous generations. No doubt this was a well-intentioned attempt to warn the Australian public about the growing estrangement of children from the outdoors. But why package this widely known and all-too-obvious fact of life through the incantation of “research shows”?

Is it because participants in discussions about childhood believe they will not be taken seriously unless they can draw on the authority of research?

Nothing is held to be self-evident in childhood research. So instead of stating the obvious, which is that children benefit from a father’s involvement in their upbringing, we rediscover this fact through academic research. It requires the Fathering Project at the University of Western Australia to remind us that dads are not entirely irrelevant to their children’s needs.

Similarly, instead of noting that when children devour a lot of junk food they are unlikely to turn into elite athletes, the web page of Taste.com.au informs its readers that “our kids are getting larger” because “research shows” they are eating the wrong foods.

One would think it is not necessary to mobilise the resources of science to substantiate the point that getting children to perform household chores is good for them and for their mums. But instead of simply reminding us of this home truth, the Australian Parenting Centre believes this extraordinary discovery needs to be communicated as the wisdom of expert opinion. So, last December, Warren Cann from the Parenting Research Centre provided the public with the startling revelation that getting everyone to do their share was good for kids and relationships.

A clear illustration of this depressing tendency for scientific research to discover the obvious is a six-year study involving 10,000 children published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies. This study discovered that it was the “simple” things in life that made families happy. One of the institute’s researchers, Jennifer Baxter, said the study showed that family bonds were consolidated through daily routine activities, such as getting youngsters to help with cooking meals. After pointing out the importance of simple family routine in the kitchen, Baxter added: “We know that’s where families bond.” But, if we already know this, why was it necessary to mount a six-year study to find out what we know?

Most parenting research is not only unnecessary but also serves to confuse the life of mothers and fathers. Such research is based on the premise that most things to do with child-rearing are so complicated that it requires the resources of science to reveal the secret of good parenting. That is why even the best-intentioned research projects that promote the obvious inadvertently complicate the lives of parents. Experts communicate the idea that by themselves parents are unlikely to know what’s in the best interest of their offspring.

But parenting is not a complex science. It is not a science at all. In fact, it is a normal and natural undertaking. Child-rearing involves a unique and special relationship that can rarely be illuminated by a general formula. No one is likely to understand the situation of your child better than you do, so you may as well do what you think is best.

Parenting researchers and experts are seldom asked to account for themselves. Sadly, many parents don’t ask the obvious question: “Why should this person presume to know more than I do about the needs of my child?”

Of course hiding behind the language of “research shows” is not confined to discussions of parenting. Clear statements about belief and values have given in to a reliance on a technocratic language. That is why officials promote policies on the grounds that they are evidence based rather than because they are right or good.

But research is not a substitute for moral clarity and values. Yet in any grown-up discussion about children such clarity is what is called for.

Changes in relations between men and women and the structure of family life have created a situation where important questions about everyday life are continually contested. We live in an era of moral confusion, where the absence of consensus encourages competition between moral values. Debates about family values, lone parenting, the roles of mothers and fathers, homosexuality and parental responsibility are often embedded in competing moralities. Such confusion can serve as a prelude to clarity. But not if the tendency to avoid such a process of clarification through opting for the language of “research shows” continues to dominate public life. What’s required is not more research but confidence in our ability to spell out just what kind of a childhood is worthy for our children.

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