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‘Science should empower us as parents’: Introducing Spinoff Parents contributor Dr Jess Berentson-Shaw

This weekend we’re launching The Spinoff Parents, our new parenting blog edited by the brilliant Emily Writes and made possible by Flick Electric Co. All this week we’ll be introducing you to some Spinoff Parents contributors – like writer, scientist and mother of two, Dr Jessica Berentson-Shaw.

As soon as The Spinoff Parents came into being I knew I wanted Dr Jessica Berentson-Shaw involved in some way. I have admired her work from afar for a long time now. I wanted someone who cares – but someone who is no bullshit. This is Dr Jess. And I’m so glad she’s come on board to be our resident This-is-what-that-study- really-means expert. Our ignore-that-spin-it’s-garbage expert. In her own words, here she explains the vision we share for her columns. Please join me in welcoming Dr Jess! – Emily

Who am I? And more importantly who am I to be the resident research expert on the (awesome) Spinoff’s new parenting project The Spinoff Parents, edited by the super magictastical Emily Writes?

I am two things to you right now:

I am a scientist.

I am a parent.

When Emily asked me to be part of this kaupapa there may or may not have been alcohol involved (there wasn’t – but given it was my day with both children and I was trying to ‘work’, I wish there had been). What Emily and I (and The Spinoff Parents) don’t need wine to get excited about is creating a place where parenting is finally a treated like a grownup topic.

While it might feel like it at times, parents are not lobotomised at some point during the arrival of our first child. We can have reasonable and nuanced conversations about parenting issues, research, and experiences which involve all types of parents, parenting in many different ways.

This is me drinking and relaxing in the sun as one of my children happily entertains herself and articulates intelligent thoughts to me. As a parent my life always (ahem, NEVER) looks like this. See the perfect parenting claim is just so unbelievable. Shortly before this photo was taken I fought my oldest child off who refused to let me get on MY brand new chair and just after I was slapped by the younger one who insisted I could move over and share it with her. It all went to shit after that and I sank the martini in one go and had a conversation with the oldest about why exactly we had children. #parentingisace. Still the chair is awesome and that one minute was bliss.

This is me drinking and relaxing in the sun as one of my children happily entertains herself and articulates intelligent thoughts to me. As a parent my life always (ahem, NEVER) looks like this. See the perfect parenting claim is just so unbelievable. Shortly before this photo was taken I fought my oldest child off who refused to let me get on MY brand new chair and just after I was slapped by the younger one who insisted I could move over and share it with her. It all went to shit after that and I sank the martini in one go and had a conversation with the oldest about why exactly we had children. #parentingisace. Still the chair is awesome and that one minute was bliss.

Figuring out ‘what works’ as a parent is a total nightmare

I have spent a good part of my career since my PhD investigating ‘what works’. My PhD was on the science of the childbirth pain experience. I found out that it hurts. A lot. (Who knew huh? Another win there for the “just stop researching common sense” brigade).

It’s an empowering idea that science is able to provide us with some pretty good guidance on what we can do and what will happen when faced with everyday parenting quandaries, big and small.

But let’s face it, these days every second person seems to have ‘research expertise’ and can cite a study to support their parenting approach or ideology. So the ‘what works’ question starts getting pretty damn complicated pretty quick in the age of information overload and short attention spans. A little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing and cherry picking research is rife when it comes to parenting advice.

But “Aha!’ I say, we have a solution to that! I am part of a strange breed of researchers who have spent time working out what good and bad science looks like and how we can get the ‘big scheme of things’ picture from the information out there.

We are here to help with interpreting the parenting science (we provide no chocolate however)

Being an evidence scientist (fancy name, don’t take it too seriously because I don’t – I kind of prefer Science BS Detector) is like being able to tell the difference between that crappy chocolate you get in those bulk bags at Easter and Christmas and the 70% Fairtrade organic stuff by looking at the colour of the foil wrapping and giving it a sniff.

I mean, you can eat them to find out right? And, let’s face it, late at night after someone got the kids wet and they turn from cute little Gizmo into literal gremlins, any old shit will do. But in the cold light of day you are going to want to eat the good stuff because the outcomes are way better.

So that is kind of what I am: a purveyor of the good stuff.

I can tell you how to tell a good study from a bad one.

I can tell you why one study can be interesting but a whole ‘body of evidence’ is what you really need.

The Spinoff Parents will be way ahead of that other click bait we have been subject to.

Being a parent gives you no credibility whatsoever

As I said, I am also a parent myself. This in many ways has no bearing whatsoever on my expertise for this job.

In fact, given that I was the best parent ever before I had kids, and my performance slumped significantly after their arrival, you should view with great suspicion any actual parenting advice I might accidentally give.

Never trust another parent who tells you they their parenting style is a better one for all children. There simply is not a definitive ‘body of evidence’ (see how I slipped that in) supporting any argument such as that.

There may be useful and less useful techniques depending on what outcomes you want, but no parent has the golden ticket.

In fact no parent knows anything at all really, we are just all experimenting and floundering a bit and anyone who claims otherwise has probably been eating too much of that shitty chocolate at 3am.

What being a parent does give me is some insight into the “what the f***k?” aspect of parenting: “Oh my god! This person has used this study to say I should totally do this, and this other person has used another study to say I should do the opposite, and the experts say something totally different and not all in the same way!

“What should I do not to totally break the merchandise?”

The gentle art of parent empowerment

And this is it really, the crux of the matter: Science should empower us as parents.

It should give us the guts of the matter, the risks, the benefits and the sage advice and then leave us, as empowered individual, families and communities, to make the best decision we can for our families based on that science.

It should be communicated well by those in a position of trust, in a way that we get and understand. In a way that implies trust in our abilities.

We should feel like active agents of our own and our children’s lives. It should not be left to us to leapfrog between so-called parenting experts in order to find one we like (but frankly probably has their own agenda) to help us make the big decisions.

There are massive communication problems from all sides, frankly, so much so that we end up feeling utterly disempowered and often just like shitty parents who made the wrong decisions. And if something bad happens to the kids, well then everyone is pretty happy to pile on in and tell us exactly how we went wrong.

What can you expect from my columns?

I’ll be writing about the science on the big (and not so big) issues that affect children and families – all types of children and families. Co-sleeping, breastfeeding, testosterone surges, parenting styles, sleep methods, toddler behaviour, food in pregnancy, doing well for children in society, work, family and stress, and more.  I will be honest about what we know and what we don’t know – because there is a lot we don’t. A lack of research can be hard as a parent and paves the way for the so called ‘experts’ (not experts) to fill the gaps. But we can feel empowered by the not knowing too.

I don’t want to write about ‘what works’ just from an individual perspective either, because research on children and families goes beyond what we as individuals can do, to what we as a group of parents or as a society can do together.

I often think when we join the cult of parenting we can forget that there is more that makes us alike than makes us different. Our love for our children, our desperation for our sanity, our desire to do the right thing. With good information we may just be able to support other parents a bit better to make their own parenting decisions (which are likely to look different from ours) without the judgements and guilt. Well, I live in hope.

Dr Jess works at the Morgan Foundation public policy think tank. She agitates on evidence and good social policy and believes in the power of honest storytelling. See her full bio and work here.


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