Wrong Question

We are constantly reminded that research is only as good as the questions we ask and as imperfect as any other human endeavor.  Research design is prone to misleading reductionism as well.  The research highlighted in this blog post by Polly Toynbee in The Guardian is a great example.  The punchline: “With the publication of new research stating that the children of working mothers do not suffer, mothers’ burden of guilt is lifted.”

What was the central question?  is the children’s average performance in school correlated in any measurable way with whether their mothers, on average, worked outside of the home in their first year?

What did they measure?  literacy, math skills, and behavior, on average, for cohorts of children.

To what end?  relief of maternal guilt (or piling on, or specific recommendations for what moms should do differently perhaps)

Where should I begin?

  • The question feels like something out of the 1950’s rather than today.  It is a blunt instrument which provides no insight about underlying drivers (e.g., the nature of the work; how parents – not just moms – work together and with caregivers to stay connected to their young children at home; family leave policies which allow parent/child bonding with infants).
  • The data are averaged and not correlated with long-term success and fulfillment nowadays, particularly in this rapidly changing world which demands empathy, teamwork, and creativity.  Reading, math, and controlling one’s behavior are necessary but woefully insufficient.
  • Guilt is “an emotion that occurs when a person believes that they have violated a moral standard that they themselves believe in”  Data or no data.  Parents feel guilt when their situation makes it impossible to fulfill their professional responsibilities while staying connected to their children.  The feeling is a valid bell weather, for parents and children.  Telling mothers (and fathers and children) to stuff the feeling because the data say you should, doesn’t serve them; it only serves the short-term goals of the corporations for which they work….and until they opt out emotionally if not physically.  Our collective gut tells us that family relationships are indispensable, especially parents and children.  Why?  We are built to do big things in collaboration with each other, and that relational template starts and gets nurtured at home (for children as well as adults).  We need better answers which align with our moral blueprint and show us new ways of working.

The question we really need to answer:  How can children and parents be supported in building the empathy and other skills they need to become changemakers (intrapraneurs and entrepreneurs who build a better future)?

What we really need to measure:  the capacity for empathy in children and adults, teamwork, creativity…and their correlation to innovation statistics commonly followed but rarely achieved.  We need macroeconomics that attract the attention of CEO’s.  We need stories which show us the underlying drivers of outcomes and how to affect them, a la the solutions journalism championed by David Bornstein.

To what end?  An abundant world in which everyone has the ability and desire to be a changemaker.  The kind of future Bill Drayton dreams about.

And so do I.

Picture designed by Sophie Acho Lemay, age 10
Thanks to Jennifer Lehner and Eva Basilion for sharing the research and inspiring this post. 

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An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder


An Antidote to Our Empathy Deficit Disorder

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