Why are we not much, much, much better at parenting?



We’ve come a long way, as a species. And we’re better at many things than we ever were before – not just slightly better, but unimaginably, ridiculously better. We’re better at transporting people and objects, we’re better a killing, we’re better at preventing infectious diseases, we’re better at industrial production, agricultural and economic output, we’re better at communications and sharing of information.

But in some areas, we haven’t made such dramatic improvements. And one of those areas is parenting. We’re certainly better parents than our own great-great-grandparents, if we measure by outcomes, but the difference is of degree, not kind. Why is that?

Down to the market…

Let’s turn first to the system that created the desktop computer and the perfected the mobile phone: the relentless churn of global capitalism. Why aren’t companies selling us products to make us super-parents?

But in parenting capitalism, who is the consumer? You could take the kids themselves as the consumers, as they’re the primary concerned. But they have no purchasing power, which means they don’t count. In practice, the parents are the consumers. So the strongest feature of the free-market – that the purchaser directly experiences the quality of the product – is diluted.

And capitalism has indeed responded to parents’ demand, making available a whole variety of products, from car seats to push chairs to nappies to baby monitors. Problem is, though, parents aren’t very good consumers, in that they have a limited ability to figure out (and demand) what they actually need. In part, this is because they have few children apiece: most parents in rich countries (i.e. the most important consumer-parents) will have one, two, or three children, seldom much more. Bearing in mind that children have different personalities and change as they grow, we can see that the average parent will have very little experience in, well, parenting.

This analogy may not seem fair – we wouldn’t say someone didn’t know about televisions or phones, simply because they’d only owned a handful. If they’d interacted with them, customised them extensively and read up on lots of online advice, we’d say they were very knowledgeable consumers! But a child is a much more complicated being than a television or even a phone. Trying to get a child to do something (or, even more challenging, to become something) is much more difficult that following an instruction manual. Moreover, most of the goals of parenting are long term: they want their child to grow up a certain way. But humans are quite bad at estimating the results of different interventions, if the feedback only comes years later. One needs only to see the plethora of different parenting guides and opposed schools of upbringing thought. Such variety couldn’t maintain itself if it were easy for parents to see which methods worked and which didn’t.

Thus parents are poor at knowing what they need, and hence make ineffective consumers from the economic perspective. Companies will cheerfully sell them lots of colourful tools and nicknacks, but actual improvements will be limited.

The visible hand

If the market can’t provide it, what about the government? If governments can save millions of lives through vaccinations, surely they can improve the lot of children and their parents?

And to some extent, they have. By addressing the excesses of child abuse (though removal of the children, or, more importantly, through the threat of removal) and through the provision of universal education, governments have improved the average outcomes for many families.

But those examples illustrate the limits of governmental ability: governments work best when the rules to be enforced are clear and simple. If you abuse your child in ways that can be easily measured, then you will lose them (emotional abuse, for instance, is a lot harder to prevent). Your children must get these grades at school, and demonstrate this level of attendance, or action will be taken.

And it’s much easier to create rules to avoid very bad situations, than to ensure very good ones. Thus governmental interventions remove the worse case-scenarios, and improve the average in some domains – but can’t be the source of child flourishing or dramatic parenting improvements.

Science, save us!

Finally, why hasn’t science provided us with the knowledge we’d need? If science can study the mating habits of dung beetles in exacting details, and figure out how stars are formed, why haven’t they provided parents with the knowledge they want – why is so much useful parenting advice passed down by word of mouth rather than through textbooks and research papers?

For a start, there are many problems with testing upbringing techniques on humans. Our generations last over 18 years, and it would take even longer to judge the ultimate quality of specific parenting techniques. This is too long for effective experiments on humans. And the target goal changes: each generation has a somewhat different aim for their kids, and the world itself will be different. So even if a proper experiment was carried on for the required length of time, its result would be a list of parenting techniques that… would have worked well three decades before.

Add to that the ethical implications of experimenting on humans, especially over the long term (think of the lack of privacy that would be needed to properly compare the outcomes of different parenting techniques), and it’s no surprise that science has provided many short term answers but few long term ones. So we have many studies on the short term effects of violent video games, for instance, but no consensus at all on the long term effects. And this in a very specific, narrow field of child development.

Furthermore, a lot of parenting techniques are procedural, rather than declarative. Reading a textbook won’t help you, if you’re trying to keep calm as you’re woken by a crying, shit-smelling baby for the fifth time that night – that has to be learnt. It can be learnt through experience, through didactic interactions with previous parents, or maybe through having read the advice and mixing in some practice to get the true understanding. Science has a harder task measuring procedural skill. And if it does find some procedural skills work well, we still have to figure out how to get those skills from an abstract research paper into most parent’s psyche.

Finally, even when the problems and solutions are clear, our technology may not be advanced enough. Some sort of soft, warm robot nanny, that cradled the infant and fed it as needed, would be a boon to most parents, allowing them to focus on more quality interactions with their children. That would be great – but designing such a nanny is a very hard problem in robotics and AI. Sometimes, we know what would help, but we just can’t put it together.