science says just calm down and pay attention to your child

Stephen Camarata did the world a favor by writing The Intuitive Parent. It’s the antidote to all the parenting problems I’ve been fixated on for the last few weeks. Camarata is a professor at Vanderbilt, specialist in late-talking children, and father of seven (!) children. The book is from 2015, so it’s even presumably up-to-date. He doesn’t name names, but his description of how to do things right is essentially the anti-ABA. He advocates “intuitive parenting,” which he introduces like this:

But what the information glut and relentless marketing obscures is this: Focusing on–and unleashing–your natural personal parental intuition is exactly what it takes to raise intelligent, confident, curious, and talented children who will develop into equally talented adults. A surprisingly large body of scientific literature supports this conclusion; and I can vouch for it personally, having raised seven children–three daughters and four sons–in light of its principles. But too many parents these days have lost confidence in themselves and in the genius of Mother Nature…

What is intuitive parenting? Simply stated, intuitive parenting emphasizes focusing on your child, enjoying the moment, and reacting naturally to whatever the baby is doing. It’s a style of parenting that allows you to concentrate on being a learning partner rather than a taskmaster or uber-teacher, and helps you resist the panic that comes with thinking that there are other things or more things you should be teaching your child at a given moment. It is a way of parenting that supports clearing your mind of all the noise, worry, guilt, and anxiety that are part and parcel of parenting in the modern world and living in the moment with your baby and , later, with your toddler and young child. It even works great with teenagers!

By reacting–and acting–intuitively, you will actually become the very best teacher (and parent) your child could possibly have. As your child grows from baby to toddler and then preschooler, he or she will be naturally and continually signaling you as to what they currently know, what they need to learn next, and precisely the right input needed from you for them to learn and to wire their brain. An intuitive parent’s main job is to pay attention to your child and then respond normally. And fortunately, this intuitive parenting is seamlessly integrated into the daily caregiving that babies and young children require. Feeding, diaper changing, bedtimes, wake-up routines, bath time, and quiet moments together all yield extremely powerful learning opportunities for your child’s developing–and plastic–brain. Whenever you are engaging in any of these everyday tasks and following your baby’s developmental lead, you’re doing the right thing for your baby’s brain.

He wrote the book as an antidote to the phenomenon described below. The context is a study of vocabulary-building DVDs for babies:

Dr. DeLoache reported: “Another important result was that parents who liked the DVD tended to overestimate how much their children had learned from it.” Parents believed that their children were learning more from the vocabulary program than they actually were. One can imagine that these parents were also letting other families know how much their toddlers were learning from the DVD, even though the truth was that they were learning less than children who were learning in the natural, intuitive way. One can further speculate that some parents who heard about the word-learning DVDs felt peer pressure to provide them for their own children, or at least felt some guilt that they were not providing this special training. But it turns out that parents’ belief not match the actual outcome for their children…

Dr. Troseth has also reported that children learning from DVDs rather than everyday interactions tend to be less social. If toddlers are spending their time watching DVDs or looking at computer screens, they are not spending as much time interacting with people. So it is not surprising that these toddlers do not develop socially at the same rate as children who have less exposure to video, computers, or DVDs and more interaction time with their parents, siblings, and peers…

Might it then also be possible that in our efforts to artificially accelerate development in our society in general, we are potentially producing unintended negative consequences in any number of other domains as well–while thinking that our methods lead to better outcomes than they are actually producing?

He gives the example of hyperlexia (search that led to the book).

But what about children who do not have autism? What would happen if letters were drilled before children showed an interest in them? What would happen if the letters were presented before the children knew the meanings of the words that the collection of letters represent? Might this induce hyperlexia in these children? There are some intriguing data that suggest that drilling letters early, and taking them out of a meaningful context, could interfere with reading comprehension in a process that is eerily similar to the hyperlexia seen in autism. The children can say their letters and read words but may not know the meaning of what is being read.

Something similar goes for ADHD.

Many parents I work with report that teachers and other school personnel often push ADHD as the diagnosis and medication as the solution; but modern schools may be structured in a way that actually induces ADHD-like symptoms both in terms of movement and in terms of inattention. Let’s see how schools may inadvertently push children–especially boys–into looking like they have ADHD when they may not have it.

Imagine you are learning a new language, let’s say German. What would happen if you were put in a classroom where the teacher spoke only fluent German in long sentences and many of the other students could also speak German, but you had only limited comprehension of German? It is easy to understand that a student in this context might be “wiggly” and inattentive. On the other hand, if the teacher started off with simple German vocabulary and short phrases you could understand and tailored the lessons to your speed of learning, your attention would be focused and you would tend to move a lot less–and pay attention a lot more…If the teacher tried to present information that was far above your skill level, you would tend to wiggle more and pay less attention. You might really want to learn, and try hard to pay attention for a while, but if as the minutes passed you understood less and less, rather than more and more, you might at some point give up trying. You would then start watching the clock, looking outside, wiggling, and paying less attention.

One cannot help wonder whether many of our children are experiencing the same thing when they go to school.

But ABA is a standard best practice! Well, it’s still bad. The problem is that it’s a cargo cult. It’s not that Camarata doesn’t appeal to learning theory and talk about conditioning. He does, but it’s to encourage parents to be sensitive to environmental contingencies so they understand what the child is really learning. For example, a child might start misbehaving because the “punishment” is to be sent to a quiet room where they can de-stress. It’s not a punishment if it’s increasing the frequency of the behavior…

Schools don’t necessarily understand the scientific method, let alone how to translate animal findings into something suitable for people:

We consciously made sure that their natural curiosity was always rewarded with parental attention and encouragement. And, as previously discussed, we also ran interference with teachers who insisted on rote learning or adhered to “canned” answers. I recall a sixth-grade science experiment for one of my daughters that did not come out as the textbook suggested it should. When the teacher instructed her to go ahead and change her data to conform to the textbook expectations for the experiment, you will by now not be surprised to hear that I firmly told my daughter not to do this but to report accurately what happened in the experiment. Afterward, I talked with the teacher at length about why she should not penalize my daughter for being a good scientist and turning in the results of the experiment even though they were unexpected.

Shadiness with data and problems with replication are a hot topic in the social sciences right now. For the record, when an experiment “fails,” you come up with a hypothetical explanation, then test that explanation.

Presumption of competence for the school system is definitely unwarranted.

The problem with ABA, explained:

Parents’ ability to interact verbally with and provide emotional support for their children is unique to humans and is a powerful influence on development. It is important to bear in mind that the strict conditioning scientists use to train and experiment on animals should never be used with children. Animal training and conditioning techniques were developed without reference to the complexities of human emotions and relational interconnectedness. Using such techniques to derail a brain circuitry primed to learn normal emotional responses as a child develops into a well-functioning, mentally healthy adult is definitely not a recommended parenting practice! Humans are both social and emotional, and to dispassionately separate the learning process from the supportive social and emotional context of parental nurturing can have devastating consequences–as happened in the Little Albert study. I certainly did not raise my own children as if they were animals in Pavlov’s, Watson’s, or Skinner’s labs–even though, as a scientist, I knew how and could have done so if I wished.

The book discusses all sorts of specific things that are wrong with ABA, all without ever naming ABA. The intention is clear, though.