‘The Plural of Anecdote is Not Evidence’

I used to be a member of a parenting forum and I currently frequent one or two social media parenting groups. I think anyone who has been a member of a parenting forum, or anyone who uses social media parenting groups, can tell you that there are certain debates that spring up over and over again where inevitably things get out of hand. Breastfeeding vs formula feeding is an obvious one. Cloth nappies vs disposable is another. Early weaning vs waiting until 6 months can really get out of hand. Holidays in term-time gets people’s blood boiling too. I vividly remember some more unlikely debates: the horrors of Ketchupgate, the Fruit Shoot Wars and the discussion about babies having their ears pierced.

‘In the 1980s the guidelines were 4 months for weaning and my kids are fine…’

There are certain phrases that one sees time and again as a forum member, particularly when it comes to someone defying ‘guidelines’ to do their own thing with their children. These phrases tend to take the form of someone either defending their own parenting decisions or judging someone else’s or sometimes both. Now, personally, I’m the kind of person who likes to understand all the guidelines and the reasons for them being there, do some of my own research, discuss it all with my husband and then find a common ground between following the guidelines and suiting our family. Hopefully this path reduces the inevitable future motherhood guilt trip slightly. You know the one, where you’re wracked with guilt ten years down the line, because they decide that weaning at ten months instead of six reduces the risk of several cancers, heart disease, IBS and God knows what else.

‘I started all mine on fish and chips at 2 months old and all mine have no problems. Are you saying I’m a bad mum?’

One prolific forum member had a great saying to counteract the usual flurry of defensive forum phrases: ‘The plural of anecdote is not evidence.’

It has stayed with me and always runs through my mind when anyone uses anecdote as a basis for scientific fact. It’s such a great reminder that just because something worked for one person it may not necessarily work for you and your family. Just because one person went against guidelines for weaning, reducing the risk of SIDs or any other aspect of parenting without consequence, it doesn’t mean that there won’t be any consequences for you. And also that the world of science and medicine advances all the time, guidelines change as new research is carried out.

‘I think giving your children gluten before six months should be classed as child abuse…’

Take weaning onto solid food for example. There was little research on the effects of early weaning until the end of the 20th and start of the 21st century. To my mind this has the following impact in a forum situation:

  • People who weaned their children onto solids early before the emergence of new research should not feel guilty and therefore defensive about their choices (See the above defensive fish and chips quote).
  • People who have weaned their children later following the emergence of new research should not pass judgement on parents who chose to wean early pre-research (See the above judgemental gluten quote).
  • People who continue to wean early in full knowledge of the new guidelines should do so with the understanding that guidelines and research are there for a reason and they can’t rely on the many anecdotes of children being fine following early weaning as evidence that it will be fine for their child(ren) (See the above quote on anecdote and evidence).

You can follow similar reasoning for most parenting debates.

What I’d like to see on parenting forums and social media parenting groups is:

  • People being able to celebrate their own parenting successes without it being perceived as an attack or judgement on anyone else’s parenting decisions.
  • People being able to accept another’s celebrations without feeling attacked or judged.
  • People being able to accept facts and information that are offered in good will without getting offended.
  • People making the effort to find research and evidence to help them make parenting decisions rather than blindly doing what someone else has, which should lead to people being able to stand up for their own parenting decisions safe in the knowledge that they made the best decision for their family based on all the current research at the time.
  • Health professionals with up to date research at their finger tips to advise mums.
  • I’d most like to see recognition from everyone that we’re all just mums, trying to muddle through and make the best decisions for our own children and our own family.

Of course I’m not taking into account that, when it comes to our children and our parenting, feelings always run high. Parenting debates are some of the most emotionally-charged debates you can get involved in. This is because parenting is one of the hardest jobs you can do and, rather than being quick to shoot each other down, we should be quick to pull each other up, supporting each other to be the best parents we can be.

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