With Kids, Judgment Still Counts

When deciding how to deal with children at home and school, “evidence-based” and “best practice” advice sometimes doesn’t capture the nuance needed

illustration of parent and child

President Lincoln often received visitors who told him he should do this or that because it was the “will of God.” With characteristic wit and logic, he would respond, “If it is probable that God would reveal his will to others on a point so connected with my duty, it might be supposed he would reveal it directly to me.”

Today, I think of Lincoln when I read so much advice about children, advice presented as “evidence-based” and “best practice” and “grounded in science.” Something about these hallowed terms suggests we should disregard our own judgment—science has revealed to us what we should do.

Like Lincoln, I don’t buy a good many of the revelations supposedly coming from on high. Certainly, when it comes to choosing a method for helping a child, it makes sense to evaluate the evidence behind one or another approach. But in the end we are left to make good judgments—judgments that may run counter to what others claim to be “evidence-based” or “best practice.”

Consider the matter of deciding which parenting or teaching style to adopt. Science has an answer: the “authoritative” style is best. In contrast, authoritarian and permissive styles are not so good, and may even be harmful—at least according to the “evidence” from scientific studies where there are reliable measures yielding data to be analyzed.

Authoritative parents and teachers set rules and limits, but in contrast to the authoritarian style, they explain the rules, sometimes involve the children in making up the rules, help children follow the rules and provide guidance when children occasionally break the rules and suffer the consequences.

Often overlooked by science are the children who respond better to a more powerful, more authoritarian approach. Those children need a “warm demander” (to use the current happy phrase for capturing this style). Warm demanders say “sit down,” “be quiet,” “behave yourself,” with no reasons or guidance given. They assume children know what is right and wrong.

But in their voice, their body language and their facial expression, they convey the message “I’m on your side” (I think of the tough but caring football coach on the recent TV series Friday Night Lights). When all is going fine, warm demanders will laugh along with a child, provide physical comfort and show extraordinary warmth. Unfortunately, the warm demander goes under the radar of the statistical analyses that many child development specialists hold as gospel.

“Evidenced-based practice” doesn’t account for the fact that our interpretations of “good” and “bad” behavior are highly subjective. I worry about an adolescent boy who comes from a particular culture where “stupid” means “funny” and who responds to his teacher’s joke by telling the teacher, “That’s so stupid.” Unless the teacher is aware of this colloquial usage, he or she will likely misinterpret the boy’s remark as disrespectful and then impose some “evidenced-based” punishment.

Often “evidence-based practice” does not account for the value judgments made when we set goals for children. I worry about the first-grade girl in an inclusive classroom who is totally blind; the law requires her teachers to develop an individualized education program (IEP) that sets measurable goals. On the girl’s IEP is the goal “While wearing a dress, will sit at meeting time with legs crossed.” No mention of a less quantifiable goal such as “By the end of the school year, she will have friends.” Rather than have us reach for the stars, “evidence-based practice”—with its fixation on what is easily measurable—can have us reaching for the M&Ms.

Sometimes, it might be our own best practice to respond to those preaching their “evidence-based” child-rearing advice in the same way Lincoln responded to those who purported to know divine will. Brushing aside the flimsy claims, Lincoln would propose: “We must study the plain physical facts of the case, ascertain what is possible and learn what appears to be wise and right.”

This article first appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of Tufts Magazine.

W. George Scarlett is a senior lecturer in and deputy chair of the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development. He is also general editor of the recently published SAGE Encyclopedia of Classroom Management.

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