Why the Public Needs Greater Access to Scientific Information about Children

BlogEarly ChildhoodFeb 3 2015

The New York Times recently published an important article that provided a really good synopsis of advances in mental health research over the past 10-20 years.  The January 17th article, by T.M. Luhrmann of Stanford University, describes how scientists’ understanding of mental health problems has evolved substantially.  The article notes that social experiences are important; moreover, nature and nurture are not distinct spheres but influences that interact throughout human development.  The article also highlights that drugs generally are not a cure-all and that combining talk therapy with drug therapy may be of significant value.  In addition, the article reported changing perspectives of diagnosis, noting that there is no clear line that divides mental illness from the life experiences of those who are not defined as mentally ill.

While Luhrmann provides an excellent summary of current understanding, I found it remarkable how long it has taken to get the word out to the public.  Child Trends, in fact, published a report in 2007, noting that “mental health is influenced by a combination of social and genetic factors.” Why does it take so long to get such important knowledge gains out to the public?

What else is not widely known?

The public seems to think that things are bad for children and getting worse, when actually, there are a number of important positive trends.  For example, the teen birth rate has plummeted over the past couple of decades.  In addition, the homicide rate for children and youth has dropped dramatically, and death rates in general have fallen for children and youth, while the high school graduation rate has inched up. In general, most children, even teens, are developing very well or quite well.

My colleague and author of The Worry Clock, Natalia Pane, points out that parents’ #1 worry is that their child will be abducted.  However, child abduction by a stranger is extremely rare.  Abduction by a family member is more common, but it is still rare.  Pane also notes that death rates for children are low, and the most common reasons are motor vehicle accidents and other types of accidents.

Another very important finding from research is that most children, including teens, care what their parents think.  They may not follow their parents’ lead on music and clothes; but they do generally follow their parents’ values and model their parents’ behaviors.

Here is another example: psychologists have been promoting the finding that it is more effective to provide children with positive reinforcement over punishment (negative reinforcement) as a means of shaping desired behavior. Positive reinforcement, warm consistent parenting and positive role modeling represent the preferred set of parenting behaviors.  Yet, many families and social institutions continue to favor the use of punishment as a way to enforce desired behaviors.

While the importance of brain development in early childhood has received considerable attention, the understanding that brain development continues for decades has been slower to be appreciated.  Also, as noted in another recent Child Trends report, Are the Children Well, awareness that trauma and toxic stress can alter pathways in the brain seems to be growing; but another important message from neuroscience is that these alterations need not be permanent as we discussed during a recent webcast.  In fact, the brain’s plasticity is itself a remarkable characteristic.

These examples suggest the need for greater attention to the translation of scientific findings to the public.  Much is being learned that can enhance the development and well-being of children, youth, and families; and it needs to be shared promptly and widely.