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The new parenting trap

“Science is the father of knowledge, but opinion breeds ignorance.” – Hippocrates

Did you know that we only use ten percent of our brains? That opposites attract? That birth order determines your personality style? That you can tell when someone is lying by looking at their eyes and facial expressions?


Good. Because none of that is true. Not even a bit!

Recently, an opinion piece in the New York Post suggested that by letting kids fail, educators and parents could teach them to overcome obstacles. The author concluded with “I know for a fact that’s true: My own experience proves it.” But – this was an opinion piece! The only fact presented was the author’s own subjective experience, which could easily be argued to be not a fact at all! So, a couple of things:

  • In our current media culture, it can be very difficult to discern reliable, verifiable information/data from opinion.
  • I have an opinion; you may have another; to paraphrase Oprah, “everybody has an opinion!” There are just under eight billion people on the planet right now, and most of them have opinions that differ from mine and yours.
  • Opinions are often given a polish and a coat of paint and presented as advice, these are often based on “something I read online somewhere.”
  • One of the most dangerous sources of advice comes from pop psychology, which is different from the science of psychology. As a psychologist, I endorse the scientist-practitioner-advocate model – I critically review the research, I practice what is empirically valid, and I advocate for my clients and populations on the margins who may need support and allyship.
  • Pop psychology presents ideas that are often oversimplifications, or outright fabrications, as being facts which have been used in highly inappropriate and dangerous ways.

Parents often start to receive advice, based on the opinions of others, almost immediately after finding out that they are going to be parents. Increasingly, people expressing these opinions feel emboldened because there is invariably someone on social media who reinforces their belief in their opinion – this is referred to as the confirmation bias, or the tendency to seek out opinions that reinforce our own beliefs. The confirmation bias is, interestingly, itself a verifiable, scientifically-validated effect, supported by numerous peer-reviewed studies.

Pop psychology is often used as a basis for the development of such opinions. I mentioned the birth-order effect – the phenomenon in which younger siblings have certain characteristic traits that differ from their older siblings (i.e. younger siblings tend to be ambitious but spoiled while older siblings tend to be bossy and rule-followers). And opposites attract. How about being “left- or right-brained?” Or, a personal favorite of mine and one I, to my shame, used to promote back in the day, that students have different learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) that facilitate their academic performance. None of these phenomena have been shown to exist, even a little bit, in the bulk of verifiable research. Yet we read about – and hear about – these as being “fact” very frequently. They are the myths that will not die!

A good way to evaluate the advice of others is to look toward motivation – why are they offering their opinion? What do they have to gain? And, if it sounds “truthy” (described as having characteristics of truth without actually being the truth), perhaps consider investigating. There are a lot of echo chambers and rabbit holes online, so good sources that we can trust to present verifiable information can be tough to find. And the same questions should be asked of these sources – what is their motivation? We have all read various theories and opinions on Facebook and other social media platforms. Our best bet is to caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).

How to spot pop psychology:

  • If it seems too good to be true, it probably is.
  • If it seems ridiculously simple, it is probably ridiculously untrue.
  • If it claims broad impact, it is unlikely to be true – generally, the more specific, the more measurable and as such, the more verifiable. It’s difficult to prove that we only use ten percent of our brains, but it is possible to prove what parts of our brains are active during different activities.

Pop psychology and opinions presented as facts is a very common occurrence, but potentially very dangerous. These ideas prey on the uninformed and the overwhelmed. Many parents, given the hectic nature of raising kids in contemporary society, can be vulnerable to pop psychology ideas which just seem easy – this can be appealing when parenting is hard!


Dr. Brent Macdonald is a frequent guest on CBC, Global Television, Breakfast Television, and CTV. He is currently the lead psychologist with his own practice, Macdonald Psychology Group (, which, in addition to providing counseling and assessment services, also provides consultation services to educators and parents.


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