Madeline Levine, Ph.D.

My Letter to The Atlantic

Apparently it's not enough to be excessively concerned with every movement of your child. Now you should be vigilant about every move, blink and fart of your infant. This is crazy, but more importantly damaging to the need of normal infants to simply explore their environments freely. Let me know what you think.

The Atlantic - The Data-Driven Parent

My Response

I read Mya Frazier’s article The Data-Driven Parent with equal measures of incredulity and despair. As a clinical psychologist, a mother of three and a co-founder of Challenge Success, a Stanford birthed project focused on school reform and parent education, I have seen the impact of excessive parental oversight and intrusion into every aspect of children’s lives. The results are not pretty; not in terms of real learning, mental health or preparation for the 21st century job market.

In spite of the articles closing line that constant monitoring of every fleeting flicker in an infant’s life will “debug your baby for problems,” I can assure you that the far more likely outcome is to make parents absolutely buggy with worry. Every child is unique and different and to compare them with other children of the same age is a dangerous and compromised way to think about both parenting and childhood. One child reads at three years and another at seven years. While they may be at opposite ends of the bell curve, they are both normal even if one is in the 10th percentile and the other is in the 90th percentile. More importantly, because child development is so variable, the child who reads at three, ultimately, is no more likely to be a good reader than the child who reads at seven. How much unnecessary anxiety, how many unwarranted calls to the pediatrician are made when a six year old isn’t reading and compares “unfavorably” to his age mates on a smartphone app?

Given parents’ current level of well-intentioned but incessant worry about their children’s performance, it is frightening to push the age of parental hypervigilance down to infancy. Most commercial attempts to alter the development of young children have failed. Hundreds of thousands of Baby Einstein videos were sold to parents eager to give their child “a leg up” in verbal skills. In fact, researchers found that Baby Einstein actually retarded language acquisition (producing children more like the real Einstein who was a notably late talker!). Disney ultimately offered refunds to parents who had essentially been swindled by false advertising.

Babies are extraordinarily individual creatures. The idea that they can or should be reduced to a set of data points diverts parents from their real job of interacting with and learning about their unique child. For goodness sake. Hold your baby. Stare into his eyes. Follow what attracts her. Coo. Please do not try to make “parenthood a more quantifiable, science based endeavor.” Parenting is an art and an act of love. Of course we want to use science that tells us how to protect our children from polio, how to diagnose a significant developmental delay or when a child needs an antibiotic. Luckily, there are pediatricians for this - doctors who have studied the data and know how to interpret it. For the rest of us what our infants need more than anything else is our undivided attention and love not a ticker tape of how much they poop, pee, eat, move or sleep. It’s tough enough to keep computers and smartphones out of the bedroom when kids are older. Short of very special circumstance, there is no reason on earth, why they belong in the bedrooms of infants.

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