The Art and Science of Parenting

By Ariana Klotz

Ah, parenting! No matter what job title we claim in our nine-to-five lives, no matter what letters we did or didn’t earn after our name at some university somewhere, we all share the same true primary occupation—we are parents. It is something we do every hour of every day as we strive toward raising happy, healthy, self-aware children who are considerate of others. Once you become a parent, the act of raising your child becomes part of your living and breathing. Surely you know what it is that you’re doing, inside and out. Yet, if I stopped you right now and asked whether you thought parenting was more of an art or a science, what would you answer?

Every time I teach a course in Child Development, I have the opportunity to ask this question anew.  Most of my students are not yet parents, but they do have a great deal of experience in being parented. When I ask them to explore the question of whether the way they were raised felt more like an art or a science, I am invariably met with chuckles. Is she serious?  I’m not sure I’d call it art, but it sure as heck wasn’t a science! 

My job is to show my students that there is, indeed, a science behind parenting. Over a century of good, solid research in developmental psychology has gone into studying the ways in which children’s social and emotional needs are met most effectively by parents. Unfortunately, not many people actually read the research. It is academic. It is inaccessible. It is held on university library shelves instead of at your local bookstore. This science has, however, brought us such gems as “it is impossible to ‘spoil’ a newborn by holding her when she cries” and “rather than curbing unwanted behavior, physical punishment of children (e.g., spanking) actually increases childhood aggression.” There are many more of these gems, but they don’t often make it to the attention of real parents.

At this point, you may be asking yourself—what about all those books about parenting that were so graciously given to me by well-meaning family and friends when my first child was born? Weren’t they based on the scientific truths uncovered by research in developmental psychology? Unfortunately, the answer is—not usually. Perusing the shelves in your local bookstore’s “parenting” section, you may find books by mothers and nannies-turned-authors based on their own experiences, family therapists who may have wisdom in dealing with child behavior problems (but no background in normal child development), pediatricians who offer fabulous information on physical development (but were never trained in social or emotional development—although they are happy to offer advice), even business administration specialists who claim that raising children requires nothing more than an extension of management skills. Few, if any, utilize the rich resource offered by developmental research in presenting the ideas for their parenting books. Perhaps most insidious are those who assure their audience that they do indeed hold a degree in some area of psychology, yet mysteriously do not use the research to inform their thinking or writing.

Thankfully, there are resources out there that do not fall into one of the above categories. One such shiny needle in the haystack of parenting books is Alfie Kohn’s Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. Although Kohn has no degree in child psychology, pediatrics, or even business administration, he presents a clear, coherent argument for a radical rethinking of the way we parent that is based on solid scientific research. Although you may not agree entirely with Kohn’s conclusions, he offers a refreshing interpretation of the developmental literature that is guaranteed to move you toward more conscious parenting. If you prefer a more traditional approach, try Laurence Steinberg’s The Ten Basic Principles of Good Parenting—an easy read that presents practical applications from a group of research studies that could be described as developmental psychology’s “greatest hits.” Steinberg himself is a well-respected academic psychologist who has contributed to some of the research he summarizes. If you have younger children at home, you might want to consider Alicia Lieberman’s The Emotional Life of the Toddler. Like Steinberg, Lieberman is a developmental psychologist who has contributed an enormous amount to understanding attachment and emotional development in infancy and early childhood. A final recommendation is Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish’s How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. Although neither are psychologists and they do not explicitly reference scientific research, their ideas are entirely in sync with basic findings regarding the developmental importance of offering children respect and power in making decisions about their own lives and behavior.

Lest you fear that reading these books will turn you into an automaton, responding in a constricted and scientifically-appropriate manner to whatever challenges your child should present, I can assure you from my own experience that knowing the science and applying it in the exact moment as a parent will still feel as unscripted as ever. When I began my training as a developmental psychologist 20 years ago, I was young, single, and childless. I was certain that science held all of the answers to parenting problems. Why not? The research was fascinating and the findings were so clear. As age and parenthood have seasoned me, however, I recognize that the answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this article isn’t as simple as I implied. There is, indeed, an art to parenting. It is the piece that we will spend our lives perfecting. But the good news is that there is also a science—the piece that someone in some laboratory somewhere has spent his or her life perfecting. The key is to access that science—don’t settle for less.

Ariana Klotz (a.k.a. Ariana Shahinfar, Ph.D.) is a full-time mom to Mase and Meredith, and a part-time developmental psychologist. She serves as an adjunct faculty member in the department of psychology at UNC-Charlotte and recognizes (thank goodness!) that there is no such thing as perfect parenting. 

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