On click-bait academic studies… Yes, it’s a thing.

Has anyone else noticed how a lot of headlines that defy logic have popped up lately? It doesn’t matter how much time you spend with your kids is one that actually made me click when I first saw it in the Washington Post, and then repeatedly tweeted and subsequently written about by numerous journalists.

Indeed, a couple of weeks later, David Leonhardt, editor of The Upshot at the Times, wrote about the study quoted in the articles I’d been seeing and he confirmed, all over again, what common sense had immediately flagged for me: the study is flawed.

“This week brought a particularly stark example.

A new study by three sociologists found that the amount of time mothers spent with children and adolescents “did not matter” with regard to their behavior, emotions or academics. The study, as Justin Wolfers wrote for us this week, was based on scant data — just one weekday and one weekend day for each of the mothers being studied.

More rigorous research on parenting tends to be based on a month or more of behavior. By looking at only two days, the new study had a heavy dose of randomness. And randomness tends to lead to findings of no correlation. “It’s essentially a nonfinding,” as Justin wrote, “in that they failed to find correlations that could be reliably discerned from chance.””

There are thousands of studies about specific benefits of parenting, never mind merely “spending time,” that were conducted over years. But has the damage been done? Has a smidgen of a doubt already begun seeping in where it shouldn’t have?

In a world where nurture is an increasingly difficult thing to achieve, fraudulent studies such as these play on the emotions of men and women who are already torn between work and heart. If the so-called sociologists who conducted this sham didn’t know better, then it is up to journalists to compare the data they report on against previous large-scale studies that might confirm or refute new findings. It has been studied that the new economic climate arising from the Great Recession has caused a steep decline in live births all around the US. That said, while our world isn’t static and fewer people have the luxury not to work, human nature, nurture, in those who do have children, hasn’t gone away. What children need, in the way of nurturing, in order to thrive, hasn’t changed, either. Raising a child, just like growing a plant or getting dough to rise, involves a certain number of steps that cannot be skipped at any point in the process.

One has to wonder about the credentials of three people who set out to measure the effects of three distinct aspects of parenting that, each, is usually observed over years. How could they have thought they could successfully and accurately render such an ambitious study over a weekday and a weekend day? Furthermore, one has to question the motives of such academics who, surely, had to have some idea how many among us are torn between working or nurturing, or by feeling as if we don’t have adequate resources to invest in our children as we pursue careers that take us away from them.

Leonhardt cites a book and a study that point to the opposite claims, but then somewhat contradicts himself in his conclusion by stating that there is much we don’t know about how much parenting matters. I take issue with that statement. While we may not know all there is to know, we actually do know quite a bit about many facets of parenting.

One of my favorite studies from Rice University is the “Thirty Million Words Gap” study. Its main finding is that the difference between academic success and mediocrity is the number of words a child hears in the first three years of life.  There is a direct correlation between the quality and amount of time spent with one’s child.

So, the next time you see a bunch of newspapers blindly quote a study that runs counter to everything you’ve always known to be good and true, doubt it. Trust your common sense more. Research it. Don’t take it at face value.


Click here to read The Upshot newsletter quoted in this article.

Some of my favorite resources on this topic are associated with a book and website by New York Times journalist, Paul Tough, whose book on Geoffrey Canada, Whatever It Takes, remains one of my favorites.

Paul Tough website

This American Life: Episode 364: Going Big

The Power of Talking To Your Baby, New York Times

New York Times:  Language-Gap Study Bolsters a Push for Pre-K


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