Predicting the Future For Your Child: Using Longitudinal Studies

We all certainly parent in the moment with immediate goals in mind. Lots of the information we take from science is used to help us do this. We can learn about different sleep methods and try them out. We can get tips on how to handle temper tantrums and see if they work. We can discover ways to promote reading skills and start to use them. But one of the most important things we can get out of research is how our parenting today impacts our child’s behavior in the future.

The reason for this is that many research projects use a longitudinal design. Simply put, they follow parents and kids over and over again. Sometimes these studies are relatively short (say covering a six-month period). Some last longer (say five years). And some go on for decades, and follow development from infancy to adulthood.

I will focus quite a bit on longitudinal studies in my future posts because they provide a “crystal ball” into children’s futures. Like any enterprise that focuses on prediction, it is “probabilistic” – research can only reveal trends and percentages and statistical weighings on the likelihood of outcomes. Research studies also summarize the patterns that are observed for groups of children, so it’s not the case that we can take the results of one study and apply it with precision to a given child. And let’s face it, chance plays a role in every one’s life.

All that said, however, well-designed longitudinal studies can at least give us a glimpse into what happens over time and predictors of positive (and negative) outcomes across development. If I am selecting a given sleep method, I’d like to have an educated guess about how it will work tonight — but I’d also like to know if it will have an impact on my child’s sleep behavior next month and next year. There are lots of ways of handling temper tantrums. If I decide to go with one school of thought over another, it would be helpful to find out how quickly a given approach will eliminate the tantrums — but also the likelihood of explosive behavior a year later, and even five years later. If I read about ways to promote reading skills in toddlerhood, I would definitely like to know if it really does lead to advances in reading ten years later. This type of information can come from good research, and it’s the type of take-home message I’d like to share with parents on a frequent basis.

Science isn’t all knowing. And it can’t tell us how to parent – we make that choice. But it can give us unique information about the links between how we parent today, and what our children are doing in the future.

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