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By Casey De Farria
Casey De Farria
09 Jun, 2022

‘Survivorship bias’ and parenting

Hands up if you have heard any of the below:

“We didn’t have proper car seats when you were a kid and you survived.”

“I ate soft cheeses and sushi when I was pregnant with you and you’re fine.”

“Oh we never chopped your grapes when you were a toddler, did you choke?”

“We never had all of these rules for sleep when you were a baby and you survived.”

“You were smacked and you turned out fine.”

These are examples of “survivorship bias” or “survivor’s bias” many of you probably heard during pregnancy and parenting. We wanted to talk about this as it is a comment we sometimes see on our posts.

But why is it important to start this conversation? Here are some facts to back up why evidence-based research is so important, using safe sleep as an example:

RED NOSE – Since 1989 10,329 babies saved and an 85% reduction in SIDS deaths.
ABS – The rate of SIDS deaths per 100,000 live births has declined in Australia since the beginning of national public education campaigns about risk factors associated with SIDS in 1991

This is just one example of the many topics that are often met with comments that fall into “survivorship bias”, but it really demonstrates why evidence-based research encouraging change in how we do things, is so important. We also want to note here – parents do their best with the information they have at the time. This isn’t to shame – it’s to show why change is sometimes necessary when it comes to safer practices.

Here is an exerpt from an interview with Dr Justin Coulson’s Happy Families, that has a great explanation of the dangers of “survivor’s bias” in parenting:

“The “I turned out just fine” argument is popular. It means that based on our personal experience we know what works and what doesn’t.
But the argument has fatal flaws. It’s what’s known as an anecdotal fallacy. This fallacy, in simple terms, states that “I’m not negatively affected (as far as I can tell), so it must be O.K. for everyone.”
As an example: “I wasn’t vaccinated, and I turned out fine. Therefore, vaccination is unnecessary.” We are relying on a sample size of one. Ourselves, or someone we know. And we are applying that result to everyone. It relies on a decision-making shortcut known as the availability heuristic. Related to the anecdotal fallacy, it’s where we draw on information that is immediately available to us when we make a judgment call. In this case, autobiographical information is easily accessible — it’s already in your head. We were smacked as kids and turned out fine, so smacking doesn’t hurt anyone. But studies show that the availability heuristic is a cognitive bias that can cloud us from making accurate decisions utilizing all the information available. It blinds us to our own prejudices. It dismisses well-substantiated, scientific evidence.
To say “I turned out fine” is an arrogant dismissal of an alternative evidence-based view. It requires no perspective and no engagement with an alternative perspective. The statement closes off discourse and promotes a single perspective that is oblivious to alternatives that may be more enlightened. Anecdotal evidence often undermines scientific results, to our detriment. It leads to entrenched attitudes. When views inconsistent with our own are shared we make an assumption that whoever holds those views is not fine, refusing to engage, explore or grow.

Perhaps an inability to engage with views that run counter to our own suggests that we did not turn out quite so “fine.””

Further to what Justin details above, it can be devastating for a parent or carer to hear… especially when it is in regards to something that has led to serious injuries or even the death of their child or someone they know. It’s a tricky conversation to have but we hope talking about this not only helps people who are on the receiving end of these comments, but also to those who make them to potentially help in understanding the impact that they can have.

So, how do we better understand “survivor’s bias”?

Firstly we want to say – we get how frustrating being on the receiving end of this, is. Sometimes it can feel like, as a parent, you aren’t being listened to or respected. Perhaps even questioned on how you are choosing to do things. We want to start by saying that even though we too have felt this before, we understand that when people say these things it often doesn’t come from a bad place – and understanding this can help you to process it. It can stem from the fear of being wrong or (when it comes to older relatives) having done things once upon a time, in a way that is deemed unsafe now – and we can imagine how hard that would be!

Picture this – in x amount of years from now, you are a grandparent. Your child mentions the more modern rule for something and it is different from what you did. They mention what you did with them as a child is now deemed unsafe. It would be kind of confronting, wouldn’t it? Maybe even upsetting or frustrating? Sure, you may be grateful that there are new and safer ways to do things, but not everyone would necessarily feel this way, they may feel attacked or confused.

When it comes to older relatives, take the time to explain why you are doing things this particular way (like rear-facing the car seat, avoiding certain foods in pregnancy) – education may change their views. If it doesn’t, at least you are being clear on your choices as a parent and the boundaries you set.

Similar to the above, if you have a friend or even someone commenting on Facebook in a way that comes across as “survivor’s bias”, the best you can do is try to empathise and educate. Of course, we don’t tolerate judgment and we try our best to combat the spreading of misinformation so when we see these sorts of comments on our posts, we will address them too!

And lastly – know that you aren’t alone. ♥

Resources

Article with Dr. Justin Coulson

Red nose and safe sleep

ABS and safe sleep stats

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