When New York University sociologist Dalton Conley's then-wife was poised to give birth to a premature baby, the couple realized that while the doctors were eager to administer drugs that could save the baby's life, there was no telling what the lasting effects on their daughter's development might be. So they rushed to search the Internet for answers, but found no long-term studies to put them at ease.
That experience 16 years ago signaled the beginning of what Conley's new book calls Parentology—an experimental approach to parenting that uses scientific research to form starting hypotheses, and then trial and error on individual kids to test and adjust as needed. Written as an occasionally self-deprecating memoir, the book chronicles Conley's application of scientific literature to his children's upbringing, from naming them E and Yo (based on a study that weird names can lead to greater impulse control), to motivating them academically (testing bribery versus punishment), to treating his son's ADHD (an attempt to avoid the side effects of medication by secretly using a placebo).
Some of the examples are extreme and unique to what Conley calls his family of "freaks," but he says the book is less a parenting manual than a discussion of the benefits of scientific literacy and the limitations of so-called parenting rules. Fast Company spoke with Conley about the principles of parentology, the importance of improvisation, and what parents can do to learn how to not freak out.
It sounds like you've been practicing what you call parentology pretty purposefully for your kids' whole lives. When did this coalesce for you into a cohesive approach for you, and what drove you to finally write this book?
I often don't think I know what books are really about until after they're written.
In this case, this is actually a book kind of like Freakonomics, about how to understand science and a secret primer on social science in particular, but on all science. But in disguise as a zany parenting memoir. Certainly the term did not come to my head until I was writing it. Raising kids is like a whirlwind—a hectic, get through the day kind of experience. I had this instinct to sit down and write this, but only in the act of writing did I realize there was actually a choreography or a method to the madness, that I had unconsciously traced out, that was called parentology.
Other than the instinct, I had a big motivation. First was that my good friend Amy Chua just published the Tiger Mother book. I know [her and her husband] quite well and I thought, she's married to a Jewish man—you know what, I'm going to write the Jewish pussycat dad's guide to parenting, which is exactly the opposite. Basically being a complete pushover and negotiating with your kids—bribing them rather then forcing them to play violin. Bribing them to do math. All the trial and error, the exact opposite of having a strict, ancient tradition passed down. At the same time, I had been briefly up for a position in the Obama administration, and it turned out some of my writings were too controversial, apparently, in an election year. I learned that I was not going to be moving to Washington, and her book came out and I thought to myself you want politically inappropriate, I'll show you politically inappropriate.
You cite a lot of scientific research on a wide range of subjects in the book. Were these studies that you, over the course of time, primarily came across in your own professional life? Or did you seek them out for parenting specifically? Or both at the same time?
Really both. When my ex-wife was in premature labor with our daughter, we really didn't know anything about the science behind whether or not she should take certain medications to try to delay delivering the baby, or prenatal steroids to mature the baby's lungs. We were really scrambling in that decision moment. Other research was very conscious and active. And my days are spent listening to talks, reading papers—that's my job to know about cutting-edge research, some of it not even published yet, which, I have to say, makes you a really neurotic parent.
I can't sit through a talk about impulse control and how important that is to economic success without panicking and thinking, 'Oh my God, my son is doomed.' I don't know when that's going to end. I asked one of my colleagues who's got older kids who already graduated college and are out in the world and seem to be doing fine. I said, 'Can you go to a talk on child development and relax now?' He said no.
What would you say to parents who don't necessarily have the same direct access to the range of scientific research that you do?
I think the important thing for any parent is the critical tools, the facilities that you bring to the research, not how much research you're coming across. Really separating correlation versus causation is so critical. For example, something I read about in early research seemed to suggest that breastfeeding raised the IQ of your kid. I was not breastfed. I yelled at my mother when I read those studies. Our daughter, because she was premature didn't get as much breastfeeding as she might have otherwise. I'm sitting there feeling guilty and angry. Then it turns out I read a little deeper and this wasn't a randomized controlled trial. This was just showing that kids with mothers who breastfeed have higher test scores or IQ. It turns out when future researchers dug a little deeper, it was all a mirage because, of course, breastfeeding is more trendy in the higher educated group. It's actually that the mothers were more educated to begin with. And breastfeeding made no difference. Not to say that I'm against breastfeeding, and there are other reasons to do it, for immunity, for bonding, etc. However, there's a case where knowing how to read the science means that you don't have to feel totally guilty or bash your mother on the head because she went to work and couldn't breastfeed you.
These days, with Google Scholar, at the very least you can get the abstracts to a lot of research, and for many of them you can get actual copies of the papers. What's important is knowing the subject, and more importantly, knowing how to read the news when the research comes out. What questions to ask. Whether or not there was actually a controlled trial or natural experiment that allowed people to make the conclusions they're making.
You describe parentology in a lot of ways, including improvisational, but it feels like it requires a lot of deliberate advance work and ongoing study to do right. How do you reassure parents who are overwhelmed with just getting through each day?
First of all, the book is certainly not do as I do or do as I say. The whole point is to say that anyone who is trying to tell you the seven habits of highly effective parents or the five secrets to child success is selling you snake oil. You just need to be an educated, reasonable, and engaged parent who knows how to filter the stuff that we see in the media. In some ways I hope that the book will have a calming effect in the sense of the next time you see a study like the 10-point IQ difference for breastfeeding, you'll know to not panic and feel like you have to completely revise your entire life. But I think that there's an incredible amount of anxiety out there and it's not irrational. We live in one of the most unequal societies in human history, where the people at the top are so well off and leaving other people behind. It's increasingly based on the technological skill, intellectual capital. I think parents are right to know that schools don't matter, as least in an intuitive sense, that [parents] have an important role to play in educating their kids. That schools, as I discussed in the book, are really marginal at best in terms of their effects on kids. But I guess one of the messages is that kids are so heterogeneous that you really have to adapt to what works for your kid.
I don't think that parents need to know every last study, but I think they'll feel better when they decide whether or not to circumcise their son to know the research. And make an educated decision. I don't think it's that costly in terms of time once you have the skill set to quickly assess the situation.
Your kids were 12 and 14 when you finished writing Parentology, and now they're 14 and 16. Is there anything that's happened to your parenting in the past two crucial adolescent years that you would add if you were doing an update of the book?
I think that dealing with adolescence is a whole new ball of wax. You go from a very difficult shift as a parent from being somebody they're interacting with and involved with and able to experiment on them. You kind of tinker with your kids and they basically need to push you away and develop their individual identities. Then you're almost experimenting on yourself, more than experimenting on them. You have to figure out how much to pull back, what kind of boundaries to set, what kind of tabs to try to keep on them to make sure they're not going astray. Then you try to come to terms with it, especially if you're like me, a neurotic over-invested parent. You all of a sudden have to do a 90-degree turn and give them space to succeed and fail on their own. Which is again, more of a challenge to the parent than I think to the kid.
Is there anything else you would go back and do differently?
There's no parent, I don't think, no reflective parent that doesn't doubt what they're doing. The moment I published this book, I totally regretted it, because my kids are a work in progress. I worry that I'm jinxing them. I worry that they're going to rebel against it and really go off the rails. Who knows? I thought that sharing my anxiety, my neurosis would have some small benefit to other parents.
How aware are your kids of your thinking and your approach? Do you discuss it with them?
Definitely. That's part of step three. I would say step one in parentology is to know how to read scientific literature and filter what you might want to apply to your own kids. Step two is to try it out on them. Whether that's giving a placebo like I did for ADHD medication or bribing them for math or what have you. Then step three, and very important, is to discuss that all as a family. After the placebo didn't work, we discussed it. I revealed to him I was giving him a placebo and we discussed it and discussed the scientific basis of it. It's a moment for their feedback, for them to feel and to learn about the science and to have some understanding of your decision-making. Did I get kids who will always listen to me and be obedient? No, but I got kids who will know how to ask the right questions.