Despite the revelation of Doctor Andrew Wakefield’s study not only being flawed but outright fraudulent, there still exist parents who question the vaccinations that have safely and effectively helped protect children for decades. The campaign of disinformation and celebrity supporters has muddied the understanding. Likewise, the increased presence of homeopathy, naturopathy and similar “alternative” medical treatments has started leading parents to pursue these to treat their children’s ailments. Playgroups, parenting boards, and other places where parents get together and talk about their kids are fertile ground for nonsense to spread.
The problem with stopping it by speaking up is that parenting advice, especially unsolicited and counter to what you think works, is one of the top annoyances of parents. From all directions, parents (especially of young children) are bombarded with unsolicited advice and unwanted commentary on their parenting. Adding to this irritating drone is not productive, even if you’re right
When different parenting styles come up in gatherings of parents and kids, people generally default to “We didn’t find that works for us” or “We do _____ instead and it seems to be working fine.” Everyone agrees that “different strokes for different folks” is the way to go—or they tend not to get invited back. This is a great approach for issues like how to get kids to sleep or potty training. There is a huge range of methods that are legitimate and discussing them in a way that lets everyone present their own way as valid means information can be shared without anyone feeling like they’re hearing just another lecture on how to raise their kids.
However, with issues of parents using dangerous pseudoscience for medical treatments or as the basis of decisions about their children’s health, presenting it as a matter of point of view is dangerous. It legitimizes the pseudoscience for the undecided, turns issues of fact in to issues of belief, and makes it harder to push strongly against the really dangerous missteps (for instance not vaccinating or taking children to chiropractors who practice on infants and young children).
To handle these situations without further entrenching those who disagree, as well as getting yourself kicked off the invite list, requires a different approach. Firmly disagreeing without using opinion or point of view hedge words, but also not being insulting, is the first key step—especially important in cases where the person may not be fully aware of what they are advocating, such as when passing on something they’ve heard or sharing a link.
An example from Facebook: A high school friend of mine who is now a lactation consultant posted a link to a web site that was supposed to give advice on vaccination schedules and information on it. However, instead of being a neutral source of information, when looked at in depth it was an anti-vaccine site. A gentle reply of, “That looks a lot like an anti-vaccine site pretending to be neutral information.” No judgment on her for posting it, but a simple statement of what was the case. She removed the link. I trusted that she wasn’t so misled about the core issue and had simply didn’t read the link in question closely enough.
The goal is not to avoid confrontation, so much as to get it started as a discussion instead of an argument. If it becomes a matter of dueling wills, the chance to really persuade those involved has probably been lost. Instead, the goal is to start it as a matter of sharing information. While parents aren’t generally open to unsolicited advice, being time starved they are open to being told where to look for important information on childcare. If a friend mentions they are getting a particular brand of stroller and you tell them where they can find recall notices on that brand and you remember hearing some of their strollers were recalled, they’ll be all over the link and grateful for it.
By mimicking that approach, you can get those on the fence to look at the facts. If someone says they are looking to bring their child to a chiropractor, mentioning that you’ve read that it has no benefits and not insignificant risks (complete with links, such as http://www.centerforinquiry.net/blogs/entry/keep_chiropractors_away_from_children/) can get them looking at the facts. Providing the direct links are key—not only does it remove the time burden, but consider that issues like chiropractors treating children have too many search engine results in favor thanks to the desperate attempts of chiropractors to legitimize their practices.
Firmly presenting actual information as a concerned friend, and pointing other parents directly to where that information can be found, helps keep you out of the nagging know-it all zone by staying within the accepted style of discussion of most diverse groups of parents. It won’t work on everyone, but it will help stop it from being a simple “does to”/”does not” back and forth and will at least get sources of real information in to the hands of people who desperate need it, because they’re making decisions not just for themselves but for those who can’t decide for themselves yet.
Timothy Groth is a freelance writer and market researcher living in Toronto. He and his wife have two sons that they intend to raise as free thinkers.
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