Epistemic Spot Check: Unconditional Parenting

Link post

Epistemic spot checks started as a pro­cess in which I in­ves­ti­gate a few of a book’s claims to see if it is trust­wor­thy be­fore con­tin­u­ing to read it. This had a num­ber of prob­lems, such as em­pha­siz­ing a trust/​don’t trust bi­nary over model build­ing, and em­pha­siz­ing prov­abil­ity over im­por­tance. I’m in the mid­dle of re­vamp­ing ESCs to be­come some­thing bet­ter. This post is both a ~ESC of a par­tic­u­lar book and a re­flec­tion on the pro­cess of do­ing ESCs and what I have and should im­prove(d).

As is my new cus­tom, I took my notes in Roam, a work­flowy/​wiki hy­brid. Roam is so magic that my raw notes are bet­ter for­mat­ted there than I could ever hope to make them in a lin­ear doc­u­ment like this, so I’m just go­ing to share my con­clu­sions here, and if you’re in­ter­ested in the pro­cess, fol­low the links to Roam. Notes are for­mat­ted as fol­lows:

  • The tar­get source gets its own page

  • On this page I list some de­tails about the book and claims it makes. If the claim is cit­ing an­other source, I may in­clude a link to the source.

  • If I in­ves­ti­gate a claim or have an opinion so strong it doesn’t seem worth ver­ify­ing (“Par­ent­ing is hard”), I’ll mark it with a cre­dence slider. The mean­ing of each cre­dence will even­tu­ally be ex­plained here, al­though I’m still work­ing out the sys­tem.

    • Then I’ll hand-type a num­ber for the cre­dence in a bul­let point, be­cause sliders are change­able even by peo­ple who oth­er­wise have only read priv­ileges.

  • You can see my notes on the source for a claim by click­ing on the source in the claim

  • You may see a num­ber to the side of a claim. That means it’s been cited by an­other page. It is likely a syn­the­sis page, where I have drawn a con­clu­sion from a va­ri­ety of sources.

This post’s topic is Un­con­di­tional Par­ent­ing (Alfie Kohn) (af­fili­ate link), which has the the­sis that even pos­i­tive re­in­force­ment is treat­ing your kid like a dog and hin­ders their emo­tional and moral de­vel­op­ment.

Un­con­di­tional Par­ent­ing failed its spot check pretty hard. Of three cita­tions I ac­tu­ally re­searched (as op­posed to agreed with with­out in­ves­ti­ga­tion, such as “Par­ent­ing is hard”), two barely men­tioned the thing they were cited for as an ev­i­dence-free aside, and one re­ported ex­actly what UP claimed but was too small and sub­di­vided to prove any­thing.

Nonethe­less, I thought UP might have good ideas kept read­ing it. One of the things Epistemic Spot Checks were de­signed to de­tect was “sci­ence wash­ing”- the pro­cess of tak­ing the thing you already be­lieve and hunt­ing for things to cite that could plau­si­bly sup­port it to make your pro­cess look more rigor­ous. And they do pretty well at that. The prob­lem is that sci­ence wash­ing doesn’t prove an idea is wrong, merely that it hasn’t pre­sented a par­tic­u­lar form of proof. It could still be true or use­ful- in fact when I dug into a se­ries of self-help books, rigor didn’t seem to have any cor­re­la­tion with how use­ful they were. And with some­thing like child-rear­ing, where I dis­miss al­most all stud­ies as “too small, too limited”, say­ing ev­ery­thing needs rigor­ous peer-re­viewed back­ing is the same as re­fus­ing to learn. So I con­tinued with Un­con­di­tional Par­ent­ing to ab­sorb its mod­els, with the un­der­stand­ing that I would be eval­u­at­ing its mod­els for my­self.

Un­con­di­tional Par­ent­ing is a prin­ci­ple based book, and its prin­ci­ples are:

  • It is not enough for you to love your chil­dren; they must feel loved un­con­di­tion­ally.

  • Any pun­ish­ment or con­di­tion­al­ity of re­wards en­dan­gers that feel­ing of be­ing loved un­con­di­tion­ally.

  • Chil­dren should be re­spected as au­tonomous be­ings.

  • Obe­di­ence is of­ten a sign of in­se­cu­rity.

  • The way kids learn to make good de­ci­sions is by mak­ing de­ci­sions, not by fol­low­ing di­rec­tions.

Th­ese seem like plau­si­ble prin­ci­ples to me, es­pe­cially the first and last ones. They are, how­ever, costly prin­ci­ples to im­ple­ment. And I’m not even talk­ing about things where you ab­solutely have to over­ride their au­ton­omy like vac­cines. I’m talk­ing about when your two chil­dren’s au­tonomies lead them in op­po­site di­rec­tions at the beach, or you will lose your job if you don’t keep them on a cer­tain sched­ule in the morn­ing and their in­trin­sic de­sire is to watch the wa­ter drip from the faucet for 10 min­utes.

What I would re­ally have liked is for this book to spend less time on its prin­ci­ples and bul­lshit sci­en­tific cita­tions, and more time go­ing through con­crete real world ex­am­ples where mul­ti­ple prin­ci­ples are com­pet­ing. Kohn ex­plic­itly de­clines to do this, say­ing speci­fics are too hard and scripts em­body the rigid, un­re­spon­sive par­ent­ing he’s railing against, but I think that’s a cop out. Teach­ing prin­ci­ples in iso­la­tion is easy and pointless: the mean­ingful part is what you do when they’re difficult and in con­flict with other things you value.

So over­all, Un­con­di­tional Par­ent­ing:

  • Should be eval­u­ated as one dude’s opinion, not the out­come of a sci­en­tific process

  • Is a use­ful set of opinions that I find plau­si­ble and in­tend to ap­ply with mod­ifi­ca­tions to my po­ten­tial kids.

  • Failed to do the hard work of demon­strat­ing im­ple­men­ta­tion of its prin­ci­ples.

  • Is a very light read once you ig­nore all the sci­ence-wash­ing.

As always, tremen­dous thanks to my Pa­treon pa­trons for their sup­port.

PS. The ev­i­dence-lives-in-Roam for­mat is new, and I’m cu­ri­ous how it’s af­fect­ing read­abil­ity. If you’ve fol­lowed along with this se­ries, please com­ment with how it’s work­ing for you.