Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings, by Jean Mercer

Child Development. Myths and Misunderstandings

Child raising and child psychology are topics that interest me greatly, so it’s quite a feat when a book about them can come across as dull to me as Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings does.

Certainly it’s the style more than the substance of this book that made it hard for me to stay awake while reading it.

I wouldn’t say it’s dumbed down excessively. Granted, it’s not intended for people who already have a Ph.D. in the field, so it’s appropriately non-technical, but that’s not the problem.

It reads like a simplistic textbook, say for a freshman-level or community college-level, or possibly even high school-level, class. It has that dry, earnest, bland style of someone lecturing to beginning students.

There’s no wit, no sarcasm, no irony, no edginess. There’s no author personality, just the anonymity of a textbook that feels like it was written by a machine, complete with the review questions at the end of every (very short) chapter.

It’s not like this style is the only alternative to a super-technical work that only specialists would have any hope of understanding. Think of The Complete Idiot’s Guide… series, and books like that. Or an article in Harper’s, the Atlantic, etc. aimed at the intelligent layperson.

But aside from its coming across like someone lecturing in a condescending monotone, substantively the book is fine. It’s a logically organized defense of evidence-based mainstream positions on topics in child development.

I picked up the book from an interest in the psychology of children, and that’s mostly what it’s about, but it’s also broader than that in that it deals with issues like how a baby’s health can be affected by what happens during pregnancy, and whether vaccines cause autism.

The book is structured—aside from the introduction and conclusion—as 51 popular claims (these are the “myths” of the subtitle) and their refutation.

But really a lot of them aren’t fully refuted. Some are shown to be false if stated in too absolute or extreme a form, while being at least partly true if stated more reasonably. Others are identified as being insufficiently supported by the available evidence rather than refuted by it, so more of a “the jury is still out” thing.

I don’t know that there are any of the author’s positions that I have serious doubts about, in part because she is quite careful to qualify everything she says as just the best tentative conclusion for now based on the—sometimes admittedly slim—scientific evidence available.

But then again, I didn’t start with a strong belief in many, if any, of the “myths” she identifies. Many I already knew were false, and many I didn’t have an opinion on. Some I suppose I assessed as “that sounds plausible” before reading her take on them, but that’s about as far as I went in supporting them. I would imagine someone who is emotionally invested in some quack belief—like the aforementioned vaccine-autism connection—would be a lot more troubled by this book.

Maybe one of the reasons this book didn’t connect with me as well as I’d hoped—in addition to the bland style—is that I tend to think of child raising in terms of a broad paradigm or philosophy, and less in terms of specific claims about this or that drug or behavior or type of punishment.

For example—and this is why the Sudbury educational philosophy appeals to me as much as it does—I am far more likely than most adults to attempt to interact with children as equals. I think a good rule of thumb when deciding how to handle a situation with a child is to ask yourself how you would handle it if it were an adult.

That’s only a rule of thumb, a default position that can be overridden in a given case. The younger the child, the more I’d be willing to deviate from it, but I still wouldn’t deviate nearly as much even with young children as most adults do.

And even when I see deviation from that position as justified, I think my attitude is still importantly different from the conventional one. My impression is that almost all adults—whether they’d state it this crudely or not—think of children as a different, lesser, kind of being, as the sort of folks toward whom the usual ethical rules don’t apply.

That is, most people believe that as long as you are acting from benevolent motives—or at least telling yourself you are—then you can use all sorts of coercion, deception and manipulation with children that you would not use on an adult for whom you had any respect, and would certainly not appreciate being used on you.

“Yeah, but you’re talking about kids. You have to treat kids that way, for their own good.” I agree there can be justification for treating them different from how you treat adults, but not in the sense that all of a sudden on their eighteenth birthday they become a different kind of being, that up until then you can patronize and manipulate them in whatever way seems to “work.”

I liken kids more to adults that happen to lack certain experience, knowledge, or skills. That doesn’t make them inferior, it doesn’t mean you should talk down to them, it doesn’t mean as the “responsible” adult you’re entitled to make all their decisions for them. (And incidentally, as any adult knows who’s been humbled by his eight year old having to show him how to work his newfangled smart phone or other technological doohickey, it’s not all one way. There are plenty of gaps in adults’ experience and knowledge too. Kids have plenty to teach us.)

I wouldn’t be comfortable with a seven year old driving a car, but I also wouldn’t be comfortable with a forty year old driving a car if he’s never driven one before. I wouldn’t disrespect the forty year old who happens not to have the necessary experience and skills to be able to drive, and I wouldn’t think that I’m somehow justified in coercing and manipulating him as if he were not my equal as a person. He just has no business driving a car at this point in his life.

I also think that even in a lot of cases where arguably a child would be better off in the short run having someone else make her decisions for her, we should still refrain from doing so, in much the same way that I think stupid people should be allowed to vote, even though they’ll do so stupidly.

Giving people permission to act coercively has all sorts of deleterious consequences, intended and unintended, not to mention that when a person is instead allowed to exercise autonomy, even before they’re fully ready, they learn from it and are apt to make better decisions later.

I see the conventional paradigm as one of benevolent coercion, of controlling as much of a child’s life as possible, and only very gradually loosening that control as the child approaches and reaches adulthood. I think this is insulting and counterproductive. As I say, I’d treat kids pretty similarly to how I treat adults in most areas of life, and I’d require substantial, clear evidence to justify doing otherwise in specific cases.

There are occasional passages in this book that maybe made me a little uncomfortable in that they seemed to come from the more conventional paradigm of adult-child interaction, but for the most part this book is about specifics that don’t clearly bear on this issue that’s so important to me of respecting children and allowing them considerably more autonomy to run their own lives than is currently the norm.

So in that sense, though I’m very interested in child development, Child Development: Myths and Misunderstandings isn’t as relevant to me as I might have hoped, but not because it’s a bad book or because its claims are false or unimportant. It’s more like if you were looking forward to a discussion with an intelligent person about a subject of great interest to you, but you ended up largely talking past each other because you came at the subject very differently, or were focused on very different aspects of it (not to mention the person droned on and on in an insufferable monotone and addressed you like you were a seventeen year old who could only understand very simple, very straightforward ways of communicating).

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