Why bother with child psychology anyway?

It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”                                                                            -Attributed to Mark Twain

Everybody thinks they are an expert on parenting and childcare.  After all, they were children once and often times (but not always) they have been parents.  This is like thinking that you are a doctor, because after all you do have a body and you have been sick before.

Turns out there is a large body of facts about children, raising children, and taking care of children.  This body of facts has been built up over the last 100 years in the field of child psychology and is based on the accumulation of thousands of descriptive and experimental studies.

Are you surprised by this?  If you are, you are not alone. When people hear the term psychology they typically think of clinical psychology, the specialization within psychology devoted to the treatment of mental illness.  Clinical psychology, however, is just one application of the science of psychology.  Child psychology is one of the specialties within the science of psychology, along with such specialties as cognitive psychology (the study of thinking), social psychology (the study of social relationships and groups), and physiological psychology, now called neuroscience, which is the study of the brain and the neurological basis for behavior.

Science is as important in taking care of children as it is in taking care of people with physical illnesses.  When doctors take care of a physical illness, they base much of what they do on what is called Evidence Based Medicine (EBM).  EBM grounds diagnosis and treatment in the best scientific evidence available to us.  EBM leads to a set of best practices in medicine.  Doctors still need to have a great deal of skill and experience to apply these best practices, but the practices themselves are based, to the extent we can base them, on science.

The science of child psychology gives us a kind of Evidence Based Childrearing, from which we can generate a set of best practices for parents, childcare providers, and teachers.  In future blog posts I will talk a lot about these best practices based on the scientific evidence.  Before doing that though, there are three things you need to know about these recommended best practices. First, scientists do not base general conclusions on a single study or even several studies.  Before we can form a firm conclusion, we need lots of research (typically dozens and dozens of studies, sometimes hundreds or thousands of studies) that point to some consistent conclusions.  We call this idea “the weight of evidence.”  Second, some conclusions are much more solid than others, and it is always important to distinguish between what is a pretty solid fact, what is a reasonably solid belief, and what is just our best guess (or tentative conclusion) at the moment. And third, the best practices are guidelines that work in general.  You should never apply them mindlessly to all children at all times.  We always need to think about the particular child and the particular circumstances of their life before automatically applying a best practice.

Many people resist the idea of a science of psychology and of evidence based childrearing because we all have our own ideas about people and children.  We are all, to a large extent, implicit psychologists: we have our own ideas of what people (including children) are like and why they do what they do, and these implicit beliefs guide our behaviors and interactions.  Interestingly, we are also implicit physicists and implicit biologists: we have deep beliefs about the physical and biological world.  Psychologists have spent a lot of time studying implicit psychology, implicit physics, and implicit biology.  The overwhelming conclusion is that we are not very accurate in our beliefs.  Or as Mark Twain was reputed to have said, “it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so” that gets us in trouble.

In future blogs I will be discussing some of the evidence based childrearing best practices. I invite you to send me your questions and the topics that most interest you. In my blogs I will always try to distinguish the rock solid facts from the reasonable conclusions and the tentative beliefs.

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