One of my favorite things to do on my Parenting Translator platform is to debunk common parenting myths. Not only does it provide great conversation starters but it also shows why we need research. Although a lot of research backs up our observations as parents, some research helps us to see our own biases and misconceptions. Below I’ve listed three of the most common parenting myths and what the research actually finds on these topics.
Parenting Myth #1: Birth Order
Everyone has heard the stereotypes about birth order, such as oldest children being more responsible, middle children being more attention-seeking, and youngest children being the most fun-loving (and if you haven’t seen @tj_therrien’s caricatures of birth order on Instagram and TikTok… check them out immediately!). I can’t help but notice when my three children conform to these stereotypes and I consider myself to be the “typical middle child” (don’t you dare leave me out of an important decision).
BUT are these stereotypes actually supported by science? Does birth order really shape personality?
A 2015 study combined data from over 20,000 people to address this question (*Important note: All underlined words link to the research study mentioned in the text*). The researchers found absolutely NO impact of birth order on any measure of personality. The only impact of birth order they found was that first-born children scored higher on measures of intelligence and also reported their intelligence to be higher. In other words, first-born children are smarter and they will tell as much! Seems about right, huh?
Source: Rohrer, Egloff, & Schmulke, 2015
Why are first children smarter? This effect is likely the result of parents spending more time reading to and interacting with their first-born child. Specifically, parents spend an additional 20 to 30 minutes of quality time with their first-born child than parents from a similar family spend with a same-age second-born. In addition, birth order also seems to impact education with children later in birth order achieving lower levels of education, which again likely reflects the fact that parents have more resources to give their first child.
What about being an “easy” vs. “difficult” baby? Everyone promises you that your second baby will “easier” or more “laid back” but is there any truth to this? Surprisingly, research also finds NO impact of birth order on infant temperaments suggesting that this birth order myth may also be false
TRANSLATION: What does this suggest to us as parents? It suggests that we shouldn’t label our children based on their birth older. An oldest child can be laid-back, a middle child can be perfectly well-adjusted, and a youngest child can be a natural leader. In particular, it is important to be careful about believing negative stereotypes about your child’s birth order since what parents believe about their children can be become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Parenting Myth #2: Sugar causes hyperactivity
This one will blow your mind and I’ll be honest… I have trouble believing it myself! A meta-analysis (a study that combines data from multiple studies) found that sugar does not impact the behavior, cognitive, or academic performance of children in any significant way.
Source: Markus Spiske/Unsplash
You might be thinking “okay, okay… so this study finds that sugar does not impact children on average but it definitely impacts my child”. However, research also found that even children who were reported to be more sensitive to sugar show absolutely NO differences in behavior, attention, hyperactivity, mood, executive functioning, or academic performance.
Given all of this evidence, why is there still so much talk about sugar causing hyperactivity, or a “sugar high”? One reason could be parental expectation. Research finds that, even when children are given a placebo (and told it is a high dose of sugar), mothers report their children to be significantly more hyperactive. In addition, it is important to note that the situations in which children typically consume a lot of sugar (such as holidays and birthday parties) may make a child seem more hyperactive due to excitement.
TRANSLATION: It is still not healthy for children to consume too much added sugar as a diet high in sugar is associated with many health complications in children such as diabetes. However, if your child occasionally consumes too much sugar, try adjusting your expectations about their behavior and see if that makes a difference!
Parenting Myth #3: “Sleep begets sleep”
Most parents have heard the old adage that “sleep begets sleep”? This saying basically means that if your child naps better during the day then they will sleep better at night. However, from my own experience, when my children take super long naps, they tend to be a nightmare to put to bed. Can research help us to understand this phenomenon?
A review study published in 2015 examined the impacts of napping on nighttime sleep. Interestingly, the researchers found no impact of napping on cognition (IQ), behavior, or health (so any parents whose children refuse to nap can rest assured that that they will be fine). However, they did find a consistent link between better daytime napping and going to sleep later for the night, as well as decreased sleep duration and sleep quality at night. In other words, children who take better naps tend to go to sleep later and sleep less and more poorly than children who do not nap. This study included children from 0 to 5 years but the association was strongest for children over the age of 2 years.
Another recent study examined napping in 1.5-year-old children and looked at how naps impacted nighttime sleep. The researchers found that the longer toddlers napped, the later they went to bed and the less time they slept at night overall. The timing of the nap also seemed to have a significant impact, with later afternoon naps disturbing nighttime sleep to a greater extent.
TRANSLATION: A shorter nap that happens earlier in the afternoon may help if your child struggles with nighttime sleep. Yet, if your child is napping well and sleeping well at night, then you should thank your lucky stars and hang on to that nap for as long as you can! It is also important to note that the negative impact of long naps on nighttime sleep is particularly found for toddlers, which makes sense given that toddlers have less sleep needs overall than infants. You probably should not cut your infant’s nap short unless they are really struggling with nighttime sleep. You may also want to discuss any sleep issues with your pediatrician.
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Welcome to the Parenting Translator newsletter! I am Dr. Cara Goodwin, a licensed psychologist with a PhD in child psychology and mother to three children (currently an almost-2-year-old, 4-year-old, and 6-year-old). I specialize in taking all of the research that is out there related to parenting and child development and turning it into information that is accurate, relevant, and useful for parents! I recently turned these efforts into a non-profit organization since I believe that all parents deserve access to unbiased and free information. This means that I am only here to help YOU as a parent so please send along any feedback, topic suggestions, or questions that you have! You can also find me on Instagram @parentingtranslator, on TikTok @parentingtranslator, and my website (www.parentingtranslator.com).