Friday, 3 June 2011

Is poor parenting really to blame for children's school problems?

It’s tough being a parent of a child with developmental problems. You coo over your baby, anticipating how they’ll grow into a cheerful and contented individual, only to find that the older they get, the more the problems become apparent. Your child may be late starting to talk, and then communicate with difficulty, may struggle with reading, be clumsy, hopeless at maths, or poor at making friends. In many cases, several of these problems occur together. Gradually, as life throws more challenges at him or her, your charming toddler turns into an anxious and unhappy child, reluctant to go to school, fearing failure at every turn, and attracting ridicule from other children.

What you really don’t need at this point is to be told that it’s all your fault. Yet there is a band of self-appointed ‘experts’ who seem determined to keep this message alive, and to add guilt to the other emotions that parents experience. I know of mothers who think that their child’s problems are due to their having an occasional drink during pregnancy, going out to work when their child was young, or allowing them to eat food with e-numbers. And the media absolutely lap it up. Berating feckless and inadequate parents is a popular sport that attracts readers who can wallow in a sense of complacency that their child isn’t like that.

The latest in this line of commentators is Sally Goddard Blythe, who is described as Director of the Institute for Neuro-Physiological Psychology and child development expert. In her new book ‘The Genius of Natural Childhood’ she claims that many children are failing to develop vital physical and communication skills needed to start school, because of a lack of interaction between parents and children during the early years.
According to the Daily Telegraph “growing numbers of parents are turning to electronic toys and automatic baby walkers or rocking chairs to keep toddlers occupied. But this often impairs children’s natural development, meaning many are wrongly labelled as suffering behavioural problems when they start compulsory education”. The book notes that singing lullabies and using music gets a baby ready for language at a young age, while reading fairy tales can teach children moral behaviour and empathy.  Finally, “many early developmental problems could be overcome with old fashioned one-on-one interaction between parents and children.” The account in the Daily Mail was even more stark: Poor parenting means half of five-year-olds are unfit to start school shouted the headline, with the text continuing, “Children are failing to develop vital physical and communication skills after being robbed of interaction with mothers and fathers during the early years.” Interestingly, in an interview yesterday on BBC Radio 5 Live, Blythe seemed to change tack and back off from blaming parental communication, focusing more on apparently alarming rates of motor skill deficits in primary school children. Nevertheless, links to the Mail and Telegraph articles feature prominently on her blog.
So what’s the basis of Blythe’s claims? Let’s look first of all at her credentials, as given on her website. Director of an Institute sounds impressive, but less so when it turns out to be a private self-funding institution. She has letters after her name, including MSc and FRSA. I couldn’t readily find what subject the MSc is in, but FRSA is Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. It’s not a particular mark of distinction: you can apply to become a fellow on their website,  provided you are willing to pay £150 per year and can give evidence that you “share or demonstrate a commitment to positive social change in professional, civic or personal life”. She also describes herself as a “freelance consultant in neuro-developmental education”. That fancy-sounding language gives no validation - anyone can set themselves up as a consultant. It only carries force if it is a title awarded by an organisation with some credentials, such as a university or a hospital.
Never mind. Maybe she has good data to back up the statements about parenting. Well, I've not yet had a chance to look at the book, so perhaps I will be pleasantly surprised, but I doubt it. I read widely on this topic and I know of no credible scientific support for the claims. I searched Harzing’s Publish or Perish for articles by Sally Goddard Blythe. Since 1998 she has had three papers in peer-reviewed journals, with a total of 41 citations between them. None of the papers involves research on effects of parenting. Two books were also listed, but since these aren’t peer reviewed, they wouldn’t normally be regarded as evidence of scholarly contribution, unless supported by significant peer-reviewed work. There was also a piece in an journal with the bold title Medical Veritas (The Journal of Medical Truth). I’d not come across this one before, and it’s not featured on Web of Knowledge, but suffice it to say that a high proportion of articles are concerned with vaccination, and Dr Andrew Wakefield is an editor. This paper also had no data on parenting.
One reason why this story hit such a nerve with me is that I’ve researched causes of children's language and communication difficulties for many years, and, contrary to popular opinion, parental behaviour does not seem to play an important role. There are converging lines of evidence that can be considered. The weakest kind is correlational: if you find that aspects of parenting correlate with the child’s language development, you can’t be sure of a causal link; there could be a third variable that simultaneously influences both the parenting and the child’s language. Nevertheless, this approach does allow you to assess the plausibility of potential causal routes. A recent epidemiological study looked at factors associated with late language emergence (LLE) in toddlers in Australia, and concluded “Risk for LLE at 24 months was not associated with particular strata of parental educational levels, socioeconomic resources, parental mental health, parenting practices, or family functioning. Significant predictors included familial history of LLE, male gender, and early neurobiological growth.” This study concluded that neurobiological factors and genes were important in determining which children had language difficulties. A more powerful design is the twin study, because it allows some dissociation of genetic and environmental influences. If environmental factors are important, then you’d expect two twins growing up together to resemble one another. However, twins share genes as well as environments. More specifically, we can distinguish identical twins, who are genetically the same, and non-identical twins, who are as similar as regular brothers or sisters. One of the first things to strike me when studying twin pairs where at least one twin had language difficulties was how different two twins from the same family could be - provided they were genetically non-identical. This impression was borne out by statistical analyses of twin data, which repeatedly find that the similarity of language abilities between two twins growing up together is strongly influenced by their genetic relationship (see Bishop, 2006). A further piece of evidence is obtained by turning the question on its head: if children require a certain amount of talking and singing to develop normal language, what happens to children raised in unusual environments where they have little exposure to such stimulation? Some hearing children of deaf parents grow up in circumstances where they are exposed to little intelligible speech except from a TV. When such children were first studied, everyone predicted they’d have serious language difficulties. Instead, the studies demonstrated just how robust language development usually is: most hearing children of congenitally deaf parents learn to talk quite normally (Schiff-Myers, 1998). I would not want to claim that parental behaviour is unimportant. Interactions between genes and environments make their effects difficult to disentangle (see earlier blogpost). I'd cheerfully go along with encouraging parents to sing to their children and read books. But it's simply not realistic to attribute children's school difficulties to lack of interaction with parents.
Mrs Goddard Blythe is entitled to her views. My concern is with the blurring of the distinction between opinion and evidence. When a view about effects of parenting is widely promulgated on national media, and is expressed by someone who is described as a consultant in neuro-developmental education and Director of an Institute, the natural assumption is made that (a) they are speaking from a position of authority, and (b) they have some hard evidence. In this case, neither appears to be true. 

Bishop, D. V. M. (2006). What causes specific language impairment in children? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 15, 217-221.

Schiff-Myers, N. (1988). Hearing children of deaf parents. In D. Bishop & K. Mogford (Eds.), Language development in exceptional circumstances (pp. 47-61). Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.

Zubrick, Stephen R., Taylor, Catherine L., Rice, Mabel L., & Slegers, David W. (2007). Late language emergence at 24 months: An epidemiological study of prevalence, predictors, and covariates Journal of Speech, Language and Hearing Research DOI: 10.1044/1092-4388(2007/106)


  1. Hello @deevybee. I'm a writer, parent to a kid with "developmental hiccups," and tired as you are of so-called experts riding the LD gravy train by throwing out new and moronic theories.

    However, in the six years I have spent in this line of work (shepherding a not-easy child through developmental challenges, including social skills, fine motor, reading, writing, concentration, etc. etc.), and in the four years I've spend heads-down doing neurodevelopmental research, I have to say that Sally Goddard Blythe is one of my favorite all-time information sources.

    In today's environment, many experts are guilty of trying to figure out why learning disability numbers are growing. Often, these experts lack a firm grounding in PR training. Sometimes, as in the case of the "tiger mom," of last year, they are blatant and shameless attention-mongers. So I won't even try to address why Blythe made her statement about parents. I'm sure you'll agree, however, that the press has quick process for turning almost any statement into a decisive, attention-catching headline.

    But let's move to Goddard. When I started researching the role of movement in brain development, I did so because here in the Silicon Valley, there is a waiting period of a year for occupational therapists. Also, because our occupational therapists are technicians, skilled in giving tests and following directions, but they cannot tell us WHY our son or daughter scores 85 in some things and 12 in another. Nor, bizarrely enough, can most doctors. I finally found a doctor who could explain to me what was happening in my son's brain that caused him to not be able to stand on one foot at 7.5 -- and what the implications were for his behavior in the schoolroom as a result.

    I will continue this in another comment.

  2. To the best of my knowledge, the top research establishments and/or thought leaders for movement (as it helps childhood brain development) in the world are Dr. Svetlana Masgutova, a very well-respected, well-published doctor

    Peter Blythe (and Sally Goddard Blythe) of the INPP

    Dr. Harald Blomberg's Rhythmic Movement Method

    and the Feldenkrais Method
    (In the USA, Anat Baniel has extended this method, particularly with children.)

    Each of these movement therapies have had great success with many different types of children. And what's more: a parent can be taught this method, and can perform it at home with their child for 15 minutes a night. Imagine that: simple exercises that can help brain development.

    In reading your post, I can understand wanting to delve into the background of someone who tosses out poorly-formed criticism of parents. And pillorying is always fun. But in this case, I wanted to offer a meaty rebuttal to the work that she and Mr. Blythe have done for parents everywhere. Ms. Goddard-Blythes books are quite technical (e.g. "Reflexes, Learning, and Behavior, A Window into the Child's Mind,") but they are seriously the MOST helpful books that I have found in describing how movement can help a child's brain.

    By the way, after realizing that my child had the problems that he did, I stopped cutting his meat for him (asymmetric bilateral coordination was hard for him and it was faster for me to do it.); I bought a pair of shoes with laces and made him tie them instead of using velcro (this took him until he was 9, by the way); I made him bicycle, put him into karate, and bought him a backyard trampoline. Please realize that sometimes our parenting choices really *do* affect our kids, and that sometimes (horror upon horror!) our parents were right after all!


  3. Yikes. So sorry. Here's the link to the post that I wrote about how therapy is a gray area between medicine and education --

  4. There are no true experts except the children who grow up to amazingly succeed every parameter set down by "experts". It's pretty dry, and unhelpful to look to experts, from my point of view.

    Simon Baron-Cohen is "going there" (ala refrigerator mothers)with this new "zero-empathy" thang...which couldn't be farther from the truth. My son will hold you up, make you laugh till your gut is about to split, and empower you in ways that you don't typically see from a child so young.

    SBC is so looking for the splinter in another's eye that he can't see the log in his own.

    I don't know how else to say it.

    I don't think he sees the evil coming from his stance. I'm not saying he's a bad person.


    Sometimes I think you must look at my posts and think, "my God, what an idiot."

    Somehow, it doesn't stop me. Too simple to figure it out...

  5. PS--profound comparison to deaf parents of hearing children. It's just common sense. Sometimes you can be so in love with your "scientific" thoughts that one can fail to use common sense.

    Love this post. Thanks!!

  6. Third, you imply that your child learned to do these things because you made him do them. How do you know that? How do you know that, left to his own devices he wouldn’t have begun to tie shoelaces or learn to balance on two wheels in the space of a week at the age of ten, rather than over a longer period from the age of, say, five onwards? This is one of the criticisms aimed at early attempts to treat autism through movement. The treatments took so long that any improvements could easily have been due to developmental processes taking their natural course.

    Fourth, you say “occupational therapists are technicians, skilled in giving tests and following directions, but they cannot tell us WHY our son or daughter scores 85 in some things and 12 in another”. I agree and have failed to find sound evidence to support some of the theories popular with OTs, such as sensory integration dysfunction, for example. But then I couldn’t see much evidence to support the theories of the “top research establishments and/or thought leaders for movement” that you mention. Three of them appear to be based on the idea that primitive reflexes provide the foundation for motor development and that for various (in my view often rather speculative) reasons some children don’t ‘complete’ the reflex pattern and so don’t integrate the reflex into fully developed movements. I can see why this explanation is plausible, but is there actually any evidence to support it, as compared to any other plausible explanation?

    The therapies are reported as having ‘great success with many different types of children’. That is quite likely, but we don’t always know that the success is due to the therapy. For a year, my son followed a proprietary movement therapy course, doing ten minutes of exercises each day. At the end of it, his ability to throw and catch a bean bag and to bounce and catch a ball had improved considerably, and I’m glad I found the course, because he had been impossible, before it, to persuade him to join in throwing and catching games and so to acquire those skills. However, the course appeared to have had no impact whatsoever on his reading, spelling or handwriting, which it claimed it would. A year on, after stopping the therapy - to see what happened - his reading, spelling and handwriting have improved considerably, but we will never know if that’s because of the earlier movement therapy, or because of the work we’ve been doing on reading, spelling and handwriting or because of his natural development.

    In my son’s case, some skills have been so challenging for him that the number of rehearsals required to learn them resulted in aversion, rather than improvement. So we have had to break down the skills into their component parts and work on them one by one - which is where the occupational therapists have been very helpful.

    Deevybee’s post is, in essence, about attribution error. Since we rarely have full information about other people’s circumstances, it’s very tempting to take credit for our own successes and blame others for their failure.

  7. Ok, my first post was published and then vanished, so here is is again:

    @cat mikkelsen

    I think you are right to point out that parents can implement movement therapies at home. What you appear to be implying though, is that if parents made their children use a knife and fork, wear shoes with laces and ride bikes, there would be no need for expensive occupational therapists. And many developmental hiccups (and ‘disorders’) would disappear.

    A few comments:

    First, parents certainly can implement movement therapies at home. That often happens here in the UK; an occupational therapist assesses the child, advises parents on a therapeutic programme and the parent implements it. Except that often the programme isn’t actually a programme, it’s information about therapeutic interventions that have been found useful with other children, not necessarily with your own child’s specific profile of difficulties.

    Second, eating implements, footwear and modes of transport are cultural artifacts. It’s important for children to learn to use both hands simultaneously, to protect their feet and be able get from A to B, but in many societies people don’t use both hands to eat, wear shoes with laces or ride bicycles, so you wouldn’t notice if children couldn’t do those things. In addition, some children are never going to be able to do those things. At what age ‘should’ a child be able to use both hands simultaneously and balance on two wheels? At what point do you stop trying to develop the skill and adopt an alternative method of getting the job done (fork or spoon, velcro fastening, scooter). Clearly, there must be reasons why some children pass developmental milestones later than other children, but we don’t know how many developmental hiccups would spontaneously resolve given time.

  8. Hmmm... I've posted the first part of my response twice and twice it has vanished. Apologies to anyone who can't make sense of what I said. I will wait and see what happens.

  9. I find this to be a fascinating topic. I agree wholeheartedly with the author.

  10. Interesting discussion. When I read the article in the Telegraph I read it from a very different perspective.

    As a Children's Pastor I have seen a wide range of parenting. I believe Children's Pastors probably have the best view of families and parenting due to the amount of time and the availability to the families. You don't just see them in an office - you see them in a variety of situations including in their own home.

    So I totally agreed, in regard to some parents, with what was shared in the telegraph. Then came to this thread. I can see that there is often a jump to judgment of parenting watching behavior before one has all the facts. It is a good reminder for we who serve children to take time and get all the information before making a judgment.

  11. Thanks for all comments. Impressed by your open-mindedness, Wanda.
    My concern is that we tend to forget that correlation does not necessarily mean causation.
    So if you see parents who are not very articulate you assume that their children would do better if the parents spoke more to them. But if you saw a child who was very short, and noticed that the mother was also very short, you'd not make that kind of inference: rather you'd probably draw the conclusion that height runs in families: i.e. that genes were involved. I am most emphatically NOT saying "it is all genetic", or that you can't do anything about children's problems. But I do think it's too easy to leap to causal conclusions, when the evidence is usually ambiguous because parents and their children share genes and environments. And I do feel articles such as the one in the Telegraph just pander to a sense of smug superiority in some people who have little understanding of the complexities of the issues.

  12. A woman and her passive, submissive husband take their young children into a buffet restaurant with a bag to place under the table where all participated in filling with bacon for their breakfast the following day.
    Then they wonder why they have to pick the kid up for shoplifting.

  13. wow, talk about a "self proclaimed expert"...
    and from someone who hasn't even read the book!

    Have you read any of her books or research?

    Or, do you just not like anything that you would require you to change bad behavior?

  14. To Anonymous
    Like most scientists I don't take any notice of research that isn't peer-reviewed.

  15. Do you mean like her peer reviewed article published in the The British Journal of Learning Support in 2003?

    Early learning in the balance: priming the first ABC
    DOI: 10.1111/1467-9604.00168

  16. Anonymous: No, I mean research studies that have data.
    I had read the article you described; it's focus is not on parent-child interaction and it does not provide the hard evidence I have argued is essential if we are to take Goddard Blythe's claims seriously.
    I haven't been able to find any data-based studies relating to parent-child interaction by this author.
    I did find mention of a controlled trial of a movement therapy devised by Goddard Blythe -described in the Guardian in 2002;
    This implied that results of this trial were very promising and would soon be published. I can't find anything in any peer-reviewed journal. If you can help me track this down, I'd be very grateful.

  17. Not sure why you prefer Telegraph and Daily Mail to SGB's own work, peer reviewed or not...come on, you know it's all spin and catchy headlines, right?

  18. Publications in peer reviewed journals:

    Screening for neurological dysfunction in the specific learning difficulty child. The British Journal of Occupational Therapy. October 1998.

    Neurological dysfunction as a significant factor in children diagnosed with dyslexia. Proceedings of The 5th International British Dyslexia Association Conference. University of York. April 2001.

    Releasing educational potential through movement. A summary of individual studies carried out using the INPP test battery and developmental exercise programme for use in schools with children with special needs. Child Care in Practice. 2005. 11/4:415-432.

    Neuromotor immaturity as an indicator of developmental readiness for education. Report on the use of a neuromotor test battery and developmental movement programme in schools in Northumberland and Berkshire. In: Movement, Vision, Hearing the Basis of Learning. Kulesza EM (Ed). Wydawnictwo Akademii Pedagogiki Specjalnej im. Marii Grzegorzewskej. Warsaw.

    Correcting the facts Abnormal primitive reflexes in behavioral optometry and vision therapy. Journal of Behavioral Optometry. 23/5:138-142. October 2012.