Whose advice do you trust when it comes to raising children? For many, the answer is to ask health professionals who can draw on years of experience, and who have access to, and can make sense of, research.
But our new study found the research basis of much of our parenting advice from health professionals is biased.
The advice is based mostly on studies conducted on children growing up in the US, with a large chunk of the rest carried out in other English-speaking countries. All up, these studies mainly represent research conducted in Western, educated, industrialised, rich and democratic countries.
This could mean the research, and the parenting advice based on it, might not apply to everyone who receives it.
What we did and what we found
We surveyed every study (in more than 1,500 papers) appearing in three top-ranking developmental psychology journals from 2006 to 2010.
These journals publish studies about how children make sense of and interact with their world — how children feel, behave and develop psychologically as they grow.
It’s the type of research that becomes entrenched in textbooks and is translated into the knowledge used to advise parents on a wide range of topics. These range from how children acquire language, how they recognise the perspectives of others and develop friendships, through to understanding moral concepts.
More than half of the papers (57.65 per cent) relied on research conducted with children growing up in the US, and another 18 per cent only included children from other English-speaking backgrounds.
Fewer than 3 per cent of study participants contributing to our contemporary knowledge of children’s psychological development came from all of Central and South America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Israel combined. These areas contain roughly 85 per cent of the world’s population.
Though we didn’t report it in the paper, we also collated the participants’ reported socio-economic status. Most (80 per cent) of papers reporting socio-economic detail said their participants came from middle- to high-socio-economic backgrounds.
Why might this be a problem?
This might not be a problem if you and your children are from the same background as the research participants. But what if you aren’t? Does it really matter?
Let’s take the example of understanding children of divorced parents. There is research suggesting adolescents have fewer psychological problems if their parents have joint custody rather than if they are solely in the care of one parent.
– Mark Nielson