Study: Modern Parenting Is Ruining Your Kid’s Brain

Are we studying parenting too much?

“Life outcomes for American youth are worsening, especially in comparison to 50 years ago.” So claims this new study presented at the University of Notre Dame.

“Ill-advised practices and beliefs have become commonplace in our culture, such as the use of infant formula, the isolation of infants in their own rooms or the belief that responding too quickly to a fussing baby will ‘spoil’ it,” says Darcia Narvaez, a professor who specializes in moral development in children.

I showed the article to a friend who is pregnant with her second child and has a two-year-old daughter. “Sure, send this to me after I’ve just gone through phase two of sleep training my kid,” she said. Sounds like phase two was rough.

But the problem is these studies; there’s this one, and the next and the next and the next. When I was pregnant with my first child, now 21, the “word” was to consume no caffeine. Two years later, pregnant with my second child, caffeine was “approved” again. With parenting and pregnancy issues especially, we seem to stand behind whatever belief system we’re engaged with most adamantly. I stopped drinking coffee with conviction, and two years later, I allowed myself coffee with the same conviction (and relief).

My brother and his wife recently had twins and are using a “crying it out” sleep method. I don’t know what makes this method different than Ferber, the method I used 20 years ago, but I do know that get-togethers over the holidays were centered around the babies’ schedules and that I didn’t dare get in the way of them. (I know it’s safe to write about my brother here. He’ll never have time to read this.)

A friend of mine who believes in “attachment parenting” tells me that many brain studies are coming out that show we are simply not touching our babies enough. And that makes me wonder if we should “blame” chosen parenting methods or contemporary lifestyle choices that have made us a “car-seat culture?” We go, go, go and are proud of it, attempting to prove that our lives haven’t changed after having children. The most popular car seat pops easily in and out of the car and stroller. During after-work hours at my gym, baby after baby is brought in right in its carrier, where it remains until parents are finished with their workouts. I have to admit I wonder where that baby was “kept” all day while Mom and Dad were at work, but I was proud of my car seat babies too: “Look! We can take her anywhere!”

Other elements of modern mothering seem relevant in this study. I saw a study that posited that mothers were talking on their cell phones as they walk their babies in strollers, rather than to their kids. Moms check their Facebook profiles more than any other category of FB user. I guess even reading the latest parenting study is taking up our time online, and taking us away from our kids.

A surprise for me in this new study is that we aren’t breastfeeding. Despite controversy and a public perception that we can’t keep our babies off the boob, Pediatrics reports that 85 percent of mothers wanted to breastfeed exclusively for at least three months, but only 32 actually reached their breastfeeding goals. More than 40 percent of moms breastfeed for less than one month.

So, that’s ok. My mother told me that she didn’t breastfeed because during her child-rearing years, formula was considered more “perfect” since its composition could be specifically controlled. She even went so far as to say that breastfeeding was perceived as being “for poor people who couldn’t afford formula.” Like each generation thinks they’ve invented sex, each generation of parents thinks they’ve invented parenting, or at least are doing it smarter.

My husband’s family thought it was OK to drip popsicles into my infants’ mouths when I believed they should not have white sugar until they were two. I could see for myself that among my in-laws’ children, no one was (too) crazy or had two heads, but still, I snatched my babies away with lame excuses in order to “rescue” them from canisters of whipped cream and doughnut jelly.

So now we’re being told that we’re not engaged enough with our infants, as we’re being chastised for being too involved as they grow older. We have to keep up on the latest information, no matter how much it contradicts the study we read yesterday. Parents are punishing their kids by taking away Facebook, and parents are punishing their kids by public humiliation on Facebook. Proponents of the “family bed” point to study after study that support their views, while others want the family bed to be deemed child abuse.

When Allison, my oldest, was about three, I found a notebook I had kept during her first weeks of life. I was tracking, quite literally, every move she made. An entry said, “9:34 a.m. eyelids fluttered.” Eyelids fluttered! I didn’t know whether I should burn the notebook or keep it—if Allison would love to see it someday and know how much care she received, or if she would think me insane. In my own desperate attempt to do it right, I’m afraid I may have been just desperate.