Welcome to our first edition of the Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting!
What is a blog carnival? It’s a collection of blog posts, all focused on one theme, submitted by various bloggers. We plan to hold our carnival every month or two, rotating hosts to different blogs and choosing a new theme for each carnival. Bora Zivkovic of A Blog Around The Clock wrote about blog carnivals in his post on the history of science blogs. Carnivals aren’t as common now as they once were. Instead, bloggers are sharing their work through social media outlets. But as Bora wrote, carnivals do something that social media can’t: “Each edition of a carnival is a magazine, a snapshot of the moment, and a repository of pieces that both their authors (by submitting) and hosts (by accepting) thought were good and important.” This is what we’re hoping to capture in our collections of posts on parenting and science.
If you had asked me what evidence-based parenting meant when I first became a mom, I probably would have said something along the lines of, “doing everything right.” Now I know better.
I know that parenting is complex. I know that there are countless factors that enter into our parenting decisions, and even the best science can’t describe all of those variables. I’m a scientist by training, and I like to see data when I’m faced with a tough decision. But if I’m wondering if preschool is right for my kid, then I know that looking at the data will give me some ideas about important considerations and average outcomes, but it still isn’t going to tell what is the right choice for my child.
Why, then, do we care about the science? There’s something about parenting that invites judgment and controversy. Maybe it’s because we care so much about getting it right, but deep down, we’re afraid we’re doing everything wrong. Pick a parenting controversy, do an online search, and you’ll find strong voices supporting opposing sides. They’ll also both be citing science to back their opinions. My only solution to cutting through the spin in these cases is to get to know the field and broadly understand the evidence base for it. Or perhaps better still, since we’re busy parents and all, find someone you trust who can do this for you. That’s what this carnival is all about: science-minded bloggers compiling some of our best resources on a given topic to bring you a summary of the important science. It’s helpful (and more fun!) to work together on this, because we know that a true base of evidence requires multiple viewpoints, all committed to looking through the lens of science.
Evidence-based parenting means recognizing what we don’t know as well as what we do. It is an attempt to understand the questions as well as the answers. It isn’t a search for the One Right Way so much as it is a quest to understand the variation, complexity, and bias inherent to real life. After all, no scientist will tell you that their research has answered all the questions; instead, they know that every new experiment uncovers both new knowledge and new questions. To me, it is this spirit of curiosity that defines evidence-based parenting.
Let’s get to the posts for our first Carnival. Preschool: Do you need it? What kind is best? How can we even measure that?
Melinda Wenner Moyer’s piece on Slate, The Early Education Racket, stimulated a lot of conversation in my parenting circle. “Research suggests that if you have the time and money to argue over the merits of a Waldorf preschool versus a Montessori one, little Emma isn’t going to suffer either way. In fact, she probably doesn’t need to go to preschool at all,” Moyer writes. Start your Carnival reading here and breathe a sigh of relief. Your kid will probably be OK, whatever choices you make for preschool.
I know you’re still curious, though, so keep reading.
Over at Momma Data, Polly Palumbo lays out the evidence for why play is so important for preschoolers. Children learn naturally through play, and research shows that direct instruction like that found in academically focused preschools might actually get in the way of children’s curiosity, creativity, and natural development of problem-solving skills.
Jessica Smock of School of Smock writes about families that are opting out of formal preschool altogether and instead choosing to home school their preschoolers. Jessica explores some of the reasons behind this choice and what exactly a home-based preschool “curriculum” looks like. There are companies out there that will happily sell you a curriculum package with promises of giving your kid a jump-start in math and reading, but Jessica cautions against this approach. What preschoolers really need is – you guessed it – play! That’s true whether your child is learning at home or in a classroom.
Here on Science of Mom, I tackled another question that might play into your choice of preschool: Which is a better preschool environment, mixed-age or single-age classrooms? I wanted to learn more about this question because Cee is currently in a mixed-age, at-home daycare (not technically a preschool, but close enough for me). I found lots of interesting studies on the effects of age composition on children’s learning, but I also had fun critiquing those studies.
In her post, Momma, PhD gives her own account of the factors that went into choosing a preschool for her daughter. As a working scientist herself, Momma, PhD knows that kids are natural scientists, and the way they experiment is through play. That was a major factor in their preschool decision. She and her husband ended up choosing a modified Montessori program, so you’ll definitely want to read this post if you’re interested in this teaching philosophy.
Speaking of scientists, Jeanne Garbarino, Biology Editor at Double X Science, submitted a piece she wrote for Agora. Jeanne writes about her daughter’s natural curiosity about science and ponders how to answer her questions. She comes back to recent research about how kids learn best. It isn’t through direct instruction, even when your mom knows the answers. It’s about letting kids discover answers on their own and acknowledging that the process is just as important.
Jennifer Doverspike of Six Forty Nine sorted through a tremendous amount of research in search of answers to an important question: How do we define quality in preschool? And in a word, it’s complicated. And difficult. (OK, two words.) That’s actually not a big deal to many of us, because chances are good that we’re choosing between several high quality preschools. But it matters a lot to families who don’t have much choice, like those sending their kids to local Head Start programs. How do we give those kids the best preschool experience possible, and do it on a mass scale? These questions are really important to education policy. (This post is actually Jennifer’s third in her series on preschool. She’s also written recently about if preschool is necessary and if Head Start works.)
Suzanne Barston of Fearless Formula Feeder wondered if she should be concerned about the teaching style at her kids’ “down-home” preschool, but she quickly learned that the research is confusing and hard to interpret if you’re looking for answers to your personal preschool questions. “But through the panic, the uber-rational devil on my shoulder kept whispering “does it really matter? It’s preschool.” Sometimes recognizing the limitations of the science provides just enough reassurance to trust your gut, and that’s a good thing.
Finally, Tara Haelle at Red Wine and Apple Sauce walks us through a recently published study on the success of one preschool program. It’s helpful to look closely at one study in this way, because then you can start to see the limitations inherent to any single study. That’s something that you might not learn from media accounts of hot new research. Real outcomes from preschool are hard to study, so it takes a lot of work to understand what is effective and what isn’t. Like all of science, it isn’t a single study but rather a body of evidence that matters.
I loved reading all of these posts, and I encourage you to click through and check them out. Even though we tackled different questions, there was a clear theme that emerged. We all recognized the importance of play and discovery in preschool, and we were cautious about pushing kids to an academic curriculum too soon. That’s interesting coming from a group of highly educated women. I can’t help thinking, if Cee is going to follow in the footsteps of her parents, she may have a few decades of school ahead of her. Why not play a little longer?
We’d love to hear your comments – here or on our individual posts. How did you choose preschool – or not – for your children? How much was science and how much was gut?
You can also follow our discussion on Twitter with the hashtag #parentscience.
A quick list of our contributors for this First Edition of the Carnival of Evidence-Based Parenting:
The Early Education Racket (Melinda Wenner Moyer)
Preschool Should Be Less School and More Play? (Momma Data)
Preschool at Home? Let the Children Play! (School of Smock)
Mixed-Age Preschool: Benefits and Challenges (Science of Mom)
Picking a Preschool (Momma, PhD)
On parenting (and teaching) in the name of science (Jeanne Garbarino)
Universal Prekindergarten: Evidence from the Field (Six Forty Nine)
Preschool Schmeeschool (Fearless Formula Feeder)
What Can We Learn from a Single Preschool Study? (Red Wine and Apple Sauce)