Dalton Conley’s Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children but Were Too Exhausted to Ask does not fulfill the promise of its subtitle; instead, the tongue-in-cheek tone continues from cover to cover, imbued with Conley’s distinctive voice that meshes the scientific method with the strange. The author knows that no parenting book is all-inclusive, in spite of his title, and spends his memoir demonstrating how exhausting, exhilarating, and impossible it is to avoid a trial-and-error approach to rearing our young. As the book jacket attests, “All parenting is about experimenting (whether you know it or not).”
Conley, a sociologist, acknowledges that his academic research informs his parenting, and his familial values are clear: “I wanted what most middle-class parents desire for their offspring but are loath to admit these days—academic, career, and family success.” Though his descriptions of globe-trotting vacations and private schools in New York City stretch the bounds of what most readers might recognize as “middle class,” I appreciate Conley’s forthright avowal of his philosophical position. What made this read particularly interesting for me is that my husband and I are academics too, with distinct worldviews influenced by our fields, but much of our perspectives clash resoundingly with Conley’s viewpoints.
Layer in the Christian faith that serves as the foundation for my family, and it’s no surprise that I found myself cringing at some of Conley’s descriptions. After a chapter describing an elaborate system of bribing his children with gummy bears and video games to improve their math skills, Conley deems the experiment a flop. He writes, “When they have jumped through enough hoops as to not have closed off any major career choices, I can remove the extrinsic motivation, and if their intrinsic math motivation vanishes—then starving poets they may be!” I cannot imagine bribing my children to do extra academic work with the end goal of essentially maintaining class position, but then again, I’m awfully close to being a starving poet myself, and I regard myself as working for God more than for a paycheck. However, I’m privileged enough to say such because I also get a paycheck.
In another chapter, Conley proclaims his support for “the real purpose of education in modern capitalism: to get us ready to play our respective socioeconomimc roles in society.” The other day I offered my older daughter a stirring Marxist critique of capitalism and consumerism; when I finally finished talking, she turned to me and said “Mommy, why is black kitty so soft?” I didn’t know if I should interpret her non sequitur as disinterest or lack of understanding or dismissal because I stated the “obvious.” It seemed clear to me either way that all parents, like Conley expresses, experiment on our children with muddled results, no matter how clear our methodology or philosophy.
I could further illustrate the ways that this text, chapter by chapter, lays out parenting practices that I would not do. I say that now, but I’ve eaten my share of humble pie before too. It might be hard for me to find someone more different from my family in values and approach than Conley, yet there’s an undeniable underlying message throughout Parentology—a loving parent trying his best to do right by his kids. Near the end, Conley comforts himself with the realization that his “kids’ chances in life are largely determined by the DNA” passed on to them, and that, too, is not so philosophically different from my own recognition that with each of my children, I’m doing the best I can with the people I’ve been loaned.
For all the bluster and banter that infuse the tone of Conley’s story—and it is a story, albeit a non-traditional one filled with the scientific research that informs the author’s life/work—it is ultimately a humbling read. Where Conley uses cutting-edge research, I rely on the traditional values I see in my spiritual community; where the author invokes brashness and bribery, I strive for soft words and gentle ways; where he cites genetics, I see grace. And somewhere, in the depth of my Spirit-filled, feminist, Marxist heart, I imagine that God sees more than either one of us, beyond the limitations of our respective worldviews, and sees love covering over a multitude of (parental) sins. But then again, that’s only my perspective.