Against Sarah Brodsky re: Parents as Teachers/Pre-Natal Care

I originally posted this as a comment on Show-Me Institute blogger Sarah Brodsky’s post today on Parents as Teachers, but for some reason the comment hasn’t been approved yet, and I thought there might be some value to posting an independent response. If you haven’t read it, Brodsky takes the parenting education program Parents as Teachers to task for *gasp* teaching parents how to assist their unborn child’s cognitive development through reading aloud to their baby in the womb. I find Brodsky’s arguments on this point to be aggravatingly bad, as it is clear that she is completely unfamiliar with the entirety of the scientific research on pre-natal cognitive development.

Brodsky writes in part:

This way of doing things might work for many people, but it’s problematic for Parents as Teachers to present it (with state approval and funding) as the correct way to raise a child, when it’s basically somebody’s opinion. The recommendations I’ve seen suggest that parents begin reading to children at six weeks, three months, six months — not every night when the baby is still in the womb. There’s no medical consensus that you have to do that. (There are other ways to interact with unborn babies, like talking to them or singing a song.) And the idea that it has to be the same book every single time is nonsense. Babies learn from repetition in conversations and daily routines; that doesn’t have to come from one book and one book alone.

The assertion that hearing a story repeated will remind the baby of the womb is a nice theory, not a confirmed research result. Babies fuss for many reasons, and hearing a story won’t always calm them. When a story does soothe them, they may be reacting to the parent’s tone of voice or touch. It’s speculation to say that they remember hearing that exact wording from the womb.

There are several problems here. The first is that we have to assume the presenter was an expert on infant development. It’s implausible to believe a program like Parents as Teachers doesn’t have guidelines on who can teach classes or present scientific or medical information. So yes, Sarah, this is basically someone’s opinion; the problem is that you assume without any basis that the person is not an expert.

The second problem here is that Sarah unfairly compares what is probably considered a parenting “best practice” (pre-natal reading with repetition) with what are probably parenting “second best” practices (reading, singing, conversing without repetition in a post-natal stage). We can think of parenting best practices in linear terms; best practices means things like pre-natal reading with repetition and second-best practices involve less focus. So yes, Sarah, you’re right. The bar for what is sufficient to ensure a functional child is probably not that high in terms of what the Parents as Teachers educator advocates. But the Parents as Teacher educator is not advocating simply what is sufficient and rather what is best.

The third problem is that Sarah ascribes an entire position to this educator on the basis of an non-comprehensive blog post. While it appears to be the case that this educator probably says “read the same book as often as possible to your child” it’s not fair to conclude that the educator doesn’t endorse “sing the same song to your child every day, or talk to him/her frequently, and yes these are acceptable substitutes for reading a book”.

The fourth problem is probably the worst. It’s that Brodsky is flat out wrong about the state of medical knowledge. There is a consensus and plenty of research out there that establishes the specific value of repetitive linguistic interaction with fetuses. This article is a good survey of the literature; though specific to prenatal music stimulation this article contains much evidence specifically rebutting Brodsky’s claims of “no research”:

There is of course some debate over specifics. But by and large Brodsky’s claims that these ideas have no scientific or research backing are spurious and might have been corrected with a quick google search.

And finally, might we note this is a voluntary program? No one is being coerced here.

Addendum: Other comment0rs on the original post seem to agree with me.

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2 thoughts on “Against Sarah Brodsky re: Parents as Teachers/Pre-Natal Care

  1. A few minutes ago, I noticed it in our spam folder. It’s up now.

  2. Adam says:

    Great work!

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