Child Development isn’t Rocket Science: It is Much More Complex

As my own personal horizons got smaller over the last year of the pandemic I found myself spending more time on-line checking the news and the weather. I realised it was getting a bit excessive when I counted the number of apps I was using. Unsurprisingly, in times of anxiety and uncertainty what I and most other people want, is more certainty and in these days of information-dense new technology it is the most natural thing in the world to think that the more so-called ‘facts’ we can access, the better.

Current affairs on-line tend to give broadly similar information and if they don’t, generally we can rationalise the discrepancies. Certain sensationalist news outlets are largely recognised as more inaccurate than the recognisably ‘serious’ broadsheets and/or websites. The weather apps are perhaps more difficult to compare and evaluate. The Met Office app is rated by most as one of the most credible sources of information upon which to base expectations of the weather but there have been many occasions where things have turned out differently to that which I was expecting, based on my reading of it. Even if I read several and make a broad estimate it can often be a long way off the reality.

When it comes to child development the current trend for parents**, of young children particularly, to read the apps and other available, usually commercial information and to form their expectations about what their particular child should be doing at any specific age, seems to be quite prevalent. This concerns me because anything that claims accuracy and any degree of certainty when it comes to complex, multi-faceted, comparative and dynamic data should be treated with caution. Also, if parents then think their own unique child is not fitting into the range of norms presented they can become even more anxious. 

In my work as an applied psychologist I have found that one of the most anxious groups of people has been that of new parents. This is nothing new and makes sense because there is a lot riding on ‘getting things right’ and in ensuring that precious new life is kept safe and has everything necessary for her or his optimal development. On the back of this it is hardly surprising that the child development industry is doing so well. A large number of new parents with whom I have had contact are very enthusiastic about a couple of apps; ‘Baby Sparks’. and ‘Wonder Weeks.’ I downloaded these and was relieved to find some generally very good advice about age ranges for various developmental milestones and related suggestions for how to interact with one’s child at different times in order to help them cope with and meet these challenges.

‘Baby Sparks’ is a glossy and highly marketed and technologically innovative compendium of advice for parents put together by American business management and administration, banking and IT professionals and developers. Their approach harvests research and the professional expertise and knowledge of a ‘technical advisory board’ composed of “experts in multiple fields related to early development.” Not only does it produce the eponymous app but it also offers on-line “live expert classes” on topics ranging from sleep, feeding and nutrition, potty training, emotions and behaviour and parenting and child safety but it can also arrange private coaching.

‘Wonder Weeks’ is the European equivalent whose Dutch creators, Psychologists Frans X. Plooij and Hetty van de Rijt have drawn upon decades of their own research. It has produced a new language for describing the mysteries and challenges of infant development or as they put it: “the three C’s: crying, clinging and crankiness.” It has gone directly to the nub of parents’ own difficult emotions* and offered practical advice, rational explanation and above all, reassurance. Like ‘Baby Sparks’ its offerings don’t just stop at an App but it can send email alerts and there are guides, diaries, books and even “the best scientifically proven white noise and music” to help baby sleep and to stimulate baby’s development. A glance at the front page of the Wonder Weeks’ web site claims that it is a “sanity saving, all explaining app” ” to help parents stimulate “mental development and learn more about the magical leaps!” and to plan and engage in “daily activities without losing sight of your baby.”

But this is where my free and positive publicity ends because whilst I am fairly confident that the content is sound there is a lot that concerns me about the processes of interpretation and application in which new parents are being encouraged, by default, to engage. The necessarily normative (based upon norms or averages), information is based upon research and clinical practice with large numbers of babies, children and parents. The nuanced detail of individual babies, children and parents cannot ever be truly and comprehensively captured in an app and neither can the contexts in which they are living and developing. Also, very importantly, the sampling, i.e. the populations from which participants are drawn are not necessarily representative of the whole population. The time-hungry and fully occupied parents who are juggling too often underpaid, low-status work plus large families and far from ideal living situations are much less likely to volunteer for this research than the usually middle-class and relatively well-of parents who do and are therefore over-represented.

This is the reason that no amount of static and non-interactive information can substitute for the understanding and knowledge that is created between individuals in living and dynamic situations over time. So why should commercial apps be a problem? In my experience they can give individual parents an unreal and unhelpful perception that they and these high-tech information sources are enough and that they don’t need to actually be with other parents and babies and to draw upon the support of other trusted adults such as those within their extended families. It is these relational resources that allow parents to observe, talk about and make sense of the wonder and challenge of being a new parent in their particular situations and at the pace that suits them. What they learn in this way is not easily captured and made cohesive, logical, numerical and predictable but as they realise that all parents, past, present and future, have gone through, are, or will, be going through, this process of finding out it can be encouraging and empowering and may quite possibly address the almost inevitable anxiety that is part of taking on the challenge of caring for new life. 

In my book written for parents and carers, ‘A Practical Guide to Child Psychology’ (Icon Books, 2011), I give brief descriptions of some of the many theories of learning and development. One theme that runs through all of these is the importance of context, geographical, social and cultural factors and also of time in combination with the individual child’s innate characteristics. The learning opportunities and challenges and the many, many interacting factors that combine with what the child brings is complex and ever-changing. Professionals who work with children, families and others involved in children’s development and learning spend years reading, studying and working with these complexities and whilst a relatively small number of these have contributed to the apps their knowledge and clinical practice base is not and cannot ever be completely comprehensive and/or specific enough to individuals.

Perhaps it is useful at this point to bring in some philosophy; after all, this is a post about thinking as well as psychology. As I write I keep thinking about one of the first recognised philosophers, often referred to as ‘the father of philosophy’; Socrates. One of his most important ideas was that of questioning the notions of knowledge and wisdom. When he was put on trial in ancient Athens for inciting unrest and civil disobedience through his conversations with the young he refuted the comment by the oracle of Delphi that he was wiser than any other living man. He believed in the primary importance of questioning and examination and, being genuinely convinced of his own ignorance, set about questioning the so-called most knowledgeable people in his society, for example, poets, politicians, artists and craftsmen. It seemed that what he found out was that these individuals only had knowledge about their own specific fields and could only think in these field-specific ways and therefore lacked general and higher wisdom. Socrates found that: “I am wiser than this man, for neither of us appears to know anything great and good; but he fancies he knows something although he knows nothing; whereas I, as I do not know anything, so I do not fancy I do.” In other words, he proposed the importance of a ‘life examined’ over knowledge claims or fact production.

Parents need to be wise with respect to their own children so using a range and combination of resources, be they commercial apps, books or other people, is a good idea. The important thing is that they question and consider what is available to them and their time and situation, discarding that which is not relevant or useful to them specifically and using and blending that which is. I think that the parent who is open to learning in this way is likely to help their children’s development and learning the most with the proviso that if they encounter problems or issues that impinge upon the child’s wellbeing, health and usual function, they should seek support from professional clinicians educated and employed to help individual parents and their children.

I noticed that the makers of both of the apps I write about above, add to the many attributions and claims about the products, that they are actually parents as well. This is interesting and leads me to wonder if in the event that their own children become parents, what they will share with them about how to best be parents themselves? Will they tell them to purchase the latest state of the art app or will they tell them to talk to other, real parents? I actually think a blend of both is ideal and Is usually the case but if I had to choose between the two options I’d go for the latter every day. Of course the apps can provide material for conversation between parents and this is to be welcomed as long as parents really take on board the fact that the apps offer expected age-related ranges and that every child and their rate of development is unique.

**Throughout this post I use the term Parents as shorthand for parents and/or carers 

*Parents’ difficult emotions in my experience include fear, insecurity, frustration, confusion, loneliness, disempowerment. This list is not comprehensive,

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