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The dismal science of parenting


The dismal science of parenting

Lucy Delap, University of Cambridge;

Dalton Conley: Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children But Were Too Exhausted to Ask (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).

Amy Chua: Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother (New York: Penguin, 2011).

How should we raise our children? How can we make them the most successful, happiest, best adjusted citizens possible? In 1948, two children of American time-and-motion experts Lilian and Frank Gilbreth wrote an account of their extraordinary childhood, raised in a family of 12 children.  The Gilbreth’s parenting was rationalised to maximise outputs and minimise effort. The memoir, Cheaper by the Dozen, captures something of the spirit of American society in the 1920s, celebrating efficiency, entrepreneurialism, and maximisation. 

The Gilbreth experiments in using process and work charts to track the personal hygiene of their children now seems perversely Fordist and regimented. But how much has changed? The parenting guides of the twenty-first century seem eerily similar. In Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children But Were Too Exhausted to Ask, Dalton Conley attempts to refine and maximise his parenting.  His methods vary from the quirky, progressive and child-centred to the faux-scientific and highly manipulative. 

The author of Parentology, Dean and University Professor of the Social Sciences at New York University, eclectically cites studies in sociology, economics and psychology in explaining how best to raise children.  Though sometimes tongue in cheek, Conley nonetheless genuinely aims to mould his children to achieve at the highest levels. Desired achievements include both the obvious external successes of school grades, entry into the best universities and mastering social etiquette, as well as less tangible achievements – to self-motivate and to postpone pleasure seem to be the Protestant work ethic values Conley most desires in his offspring.  Their bizarre names – daughter E and son Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles Jeremijenko-Conley – were chosen after reading the latest psychology studies on the effects of naming.  Unusual names hopefully enhance their bearers’ impulse control, as they have to endure being made fun of by other children. 

Not unlike the 12 children of the Gilbreths, E and Yo inhabit a production line of intensive training. Every pleasure is offset by work or renunciation, in a complex economy of sweets, treats and dollar bribes.  The results are often hilarious.  Every minute of television or computer time is earned by completing mathematics problems. And if the screen time is postponed, the minutes are increased, in order to expunge all childish tendencies to live for the moment.  Yet despite being coached into adult vocabulary and precocious literary or mathematical achievements, Conley’s children are subversive, creative and, in very different ways, resistant to his strategies to mould them.  

Dalton Conley is perfectly aware that each of his children has different needs and preferences.

Ultimately, Conley relies on being physically affectionate and available to his children – hardly parenting rocket science. But set against other parenting bestsellers, these simple assertions might be still worth making. The ‘tiger mother'  Amy Chua, John M. Duff Jr. Professor of Law at Yale Law School, in her best-selling 2011 book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, which reached international success, ultimately being translated into 30 languages, reveals herself to be just as obsessed with external social approval as Conley – her two daughters are obliged to achieve the top rank place in highly conventional areas – academic (Ivy League), musical (violin and piano only) and sporting (tennis) success is achieved by the strictest of regimes. When her children are to perform in a music recital, she drills them into the small hours.  Anything short of first place in any status hierarchy brings withdrawal of loving affirmation and substitution of shame.  Like Conley, Chua has mixed success in attaining her goals – but she is even less willing than Conley to allow her children to define their own life course.

To his credit, Dalton remains clear that his children are individuals with different needs and preferences, and ultimately, concludes that whatever his efforts, their lives are as much or more a result of their genetic inheritance as of nurture.  There are few lessons here that any parent could usefully take away, even if they had the resources to do so.  These are the memoirs of the uber-privileged.  They are parents who have high paying, flexible jobs that allow them to pay for the best tutors, private schools, and world travel.  They can interrupt their working days to meet their children after school, supervise their music practices and help ensure professional success.  Those with fewer resources to lavish on their offspring must look elsewhere. 

Each chapter in Dalton's book offers a similar structure – cite research on a parenting theme, parade his own attempts to gain the best outcomes, and then, in the face of the radical complexity of our social world, withdraw the research claims already made. Do the social sciences offer answers that parents can put into practice? Not too many, it seems.

Raising children in the 21st century

What has changed between the 1920s childhoods of the Gilbreths and twenty first century hyper-cultivated childhoods? All depict an environment of competitive self-improvement premised on entrepreneurial values. Conley’s children, like those of the Galbreths, are saving their money, cutting deals, playing the market, and learning to spend judiciously.  The market has become the subtext of our intimate lives, and parenting is no exception.  But what has perhaps altered over the twentieth century is the intensity of pressure on children. Conley notes that his son, diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, needs medication in order to be able to get through his intense schedule.

Tiger mothering and ‘parentology’ seem quintessentially American modes of child raising.  Yet both reject America as a land intrinsically bereft of the cultural traditions that should underpin parenting.  For Conley, Americans ‘have no common culture or history’; this explains his turn to the social sciences for his children’s ‘concerted cultivation’. Yet he is apparently more proud of what he terms an Italian-American style of physical rough-housing, backtalk and affection. Conley also identifies a French mode (‘natural growth’), which lets children grow up ‘free range’ (or more judgementally, ‘feral’), as recently celebrated in Pamela Druckerman’s Bringing up Bébé (2012).  Amy Chua, in contrast, embraces ‘Chinese parenting’, which she sees as more disciplined and respectful than American versions. Clearly, parenting norms do diverge in different cultural settings – yet both American and East Asian societies seem to lean towards competitive, status-driven visions of childhood.

Amy Chua views the Chinese parenting model as more disciplined and respectful than its American counterpart.

Cheaper by the Dozen, written from a child’s perspective, does not portray the parent as the chief influence in family life.  What sociologist Leonore Davidoff described as the ‘lattice’ of complex families – siblings, aunts, uncles - diluted parental pressure.  The 12 children of the Gilbreths were as much raised by the other children as by their parents. In contrast, sibling relationships are barely discussed by Conley and Chua. 

Contemporary families – smaller and more mobile - have lost the richness of the lattice.  This allows for intense vertical pressures from parent to child, intended to help them navigate the social and educational hoops they must jump through. Conley argues in Parentology that no child will ever complain that they got too much attention. Yet this may be the conceit of our age. Do children benefit from constant, intrusive, goal oriented parental attention? As Bringing up Bébé argued, they are likely to be better off discovering the world and themselves on their own.

Lucy Delap

Lecturer in modern British History

University of Cambridge, Murray Edwards College



Subject areas

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