Let me say up front, this is NOT an article bashing the medical professions in general, or pediatricians, in particular. I LOVE physicians. I LOVE pediatricians ESPECIALLY. They do tremendous (and often thankless) work. Contrary to a lot of stupid opinions on the internet, when it comes to treating sick children, there is no one better to turn to than your friendly neighborhood pediatrician. In particular, my kids’ pediatrician is awesome. She has gotten my kids through many illnesses and is a big part of helping my kids lead happy, healthy lives as young adults. So let me say up front, THREE CHEERS FOR PEDIATRICIANS AND THE SCIENCE OF PEDIATRIC MEDICINE!!! Hip Hip, HOORAY!
AN OPEN SECRET
Now, having given pediatricians their proper due, here is something that you need to know. Pediatricians are trained to treat childhood diseases. They’re very, very good at that job. BUT they don’t know any more about parenting than you do, or your mom, or the stranger you bump into on the street, or the internet. They don’t have time in med school–which is focused on teaching pediatricians how to save your kid’s life–to take courses on parenting. The open secret–that any honest pediatrician will be happy to admit–is that nothing about the normal course of training in pediatric medicine qualifies a pediatrician to be a qualified parenting expert.
True, some pediatricians go on to get Master’s Degrees or even Ph.D’s in child development or child psychology, but that is not what most pediatricians do. Most pediatricians take, at most, one or two classes in psychology in the course of their entire medical education. Don’t believe me? Check out the full course of study for med students at the University of Texas (in which first year med students take one, 6 week course in “Human Behavior”) or Georgetown (which may, in fact, require some psychology courses, but, in fact, does not even bother to list psychology at all in the description of its overall pediatric course of study).
TRUST ME, I’M THE DOCTOR
Again, this is not to bash pediatricians. The fact is, they are put in a difficult position. Parents ask them for behavioral advice and they do their best to be as helpful as they can. They want to help. Good on them. That’s what any decent person would try to do. The problem is that most parents think a white coat conveys omniscience and that every word “the doctor” utters is rooted in years of professional training and scientific rigor when, in fact, this is often not the case (unless “the doctor” is talking about treating actual medical illnesses–or perhaps, in very special cases, the Tardis).
UM, WHAT’S THIS ABOUT?
I am writing this because hardly a week goes by where I don’t get a message from some very upset, anxious mom whose missive begins with “my pediatrician says” and then goes on to describe some truly antiquated, generally horrifying, bit of parenting advice that clearly came from the good doctor’s sainted granny but has no bearing on anything related to validated principles in child development or child psychology. One particularly egregious example? Many pediatricians will tell you that babies can “self-soothe” when left to “cry it out.” There is absolutely no scientific grounding for this idea. In fact, what we do know about infant development says exactly the opposite. A baby’s autonomic nervous system is not developed to the point that she can down-regulate her stress responses without the loving presence of an attentive caregiver. No one can explain the mechanism of action for this mysterious, magical power of “self-soothing” that so many people believe in. There is absolutely no scientific, medical, or psychological basis for the idea that babies can “self-soothe.” This is not medical advice. It is unsubstantiated, wishful thinking. It is nonsense.
My point isn’t to fixate on sleep training. It is just to illustrate the larger point. Parents ask pediatricians parenting questions because parents think pediatricians are supposed to know something about parenting. But, as a general rule, they don’t know any more than any other non-expert does. Asking them parenting advice is as useful as asking me how to treat cancer because I happen to have known several people who have had it. My thoughts on the subject might not be entirely useless, but you sure as heck shouldn’t make treatment decisions based upon it. And, as an actual, trained and certified parenting expert, I’d be the first to tell you that.
If you have a discipline question, or a question about your infant or toddler’s eating habits, or a question about your baby or toddler’s sleep habits, or questions about school behavior, or…your child’s behavior in general, you may certainly ask your pediatrician for advice–as long as you put that advice in the same category as the advice you get from your mom, your friends, or the internet.
WHERE TO TURN
If, on the other hand, you are sincerely seeking an expert opinion about addressing childhood behavior issues, including feeding and sleep habits, discipline, and general parenting/family issues, the best source to turn to is a child and family psychologist, family therapist, or child development specialist. All of these professionals have extensive academic, practical training, and supervised experience in child development, child rearing, and empirically-validated approaches to addressing childhood behavior problems.
The takeaway here is that, as well-meaning as they might be, you should never have any confidence in any parenting advice that begins with the statement “my pediatrician says” unless what follows is, “that the best way to treat (insert childhood disease here) is….”
To learn about effective, faithful approaches to discipline and family life, check out Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids and Then Comes Baby: The Catholic Guide to Surviving & Thriving in the First Three Years of Parenthood.