Author and sociologist Dalton Conley: You can't recreate the feral childhood

by ParentCo. March 24, 2015

Dalton Conley is a professor and sociologist at New York University and author of several books, including his most recent, “Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Science of Raising Kids But Were too Exhausted to Ask.” Freakonomics also posted a great Q&A between parents and Dalton, which you can read here.

Parent: Dalton Conley

Kids: daughter, E, 17; son, Yo, 15

Parent Co: How do you describe the notion of “parentology?”

Dalton Conley: I guess I would say that it’s this idea of improvisational yet scientifically informed decisions in terms of parenting strategies. In other words, not relying on a single formula or tradition, like an ethnic or cultural or family tradition, and it’s not Doctor Spock “go with your gut,” necessarily. It’s the idea of being flexible and being adaptive to each kid and the specific issues that come up, but to do that by going to the science or literature and figuring out what it says that you should do.

Who was the first generation of parents to do it this way?

That’s a good question. Noone’s asked me that. So, let’s see, I don’t know. I think that always parents are just trying to figure out what to do, and what they’re told by parenting books has changed dramatically over the last hundred years. I think it reflects the time - I think there’s a reason why the 1960s produced Dr. Spock’s guide to parenting, which was trust your gut, everything will be okay, kids naturally develop just fine and you’re not going to screw them up forever. That’s the 60s ‘everything’s cool, let’s just be’ kind of ethos.

So maybe it’s that now we’re in the information age, and the age of Google Scholar, and science at anyone’s fingertips, the democratization of information, that a book like mine should come along and say, ‘no, that’s just too hippy-dippy to trust your gut on everything. There’s information and there are, for our particular time and place, better and worse answers and you should try to uncover those.’

I think I say in the book, I’m advocating this for particular outcomes, for a group of people who are very anxious about the future of their kids in a knowledge economy, where they see inequality rising and the competition increasing and the need for high-tech and intellectual skills really ratcheting up. It’s all meant to be a little bit humorous and laughing at myself, kind of thing, but I think that there’s a real, rational parental anxiety under all that given the way the economy is evolving and has been evolving.

Absolutely. So this is a method that you’re putting forth that parents can learn and follow in order to help produce children who will be competitive in the knowledge economy?

I wouldn’t say ‘learn and follow,’ maybe ‘learn from.’ At least to feel like they’re not alone in their anxieties and they’re not crazy when they don’t agree with 1970s-style parenting. That there’s this new backlash to, say, ‘oh, just give your kids Kool-Aid and send them out for the whole summer and let them do whatever they want.’ Whenever I hear (the argument) ‘we were feral kids, we turned out okay,’ I say, well, it’s not the 70s anymore.

We turned out okay in a much less globally competitive environment. We turned out okay in (a different) social environment of childhood. If you left your kids in the 1970s, maybe they’d play with matches, maybe they’d get into some trouble, there were definitely perils. It was more crime ridden, they were probably more likely to be killed or abducted or hit by a car, but the actual activities they would be doing - there was one TV in the house. My mom used to sometimes literally take the knob off the TV, so I had no choice. If I didn’t have TV, I had to read a book or make a fort or get into some other trouble.

But today, literally the landscape of technology is that kids’ default would be, if you let them do whatever they want, they would be on their computer all the time consuming video images and playing games. I think that most parents probably think that is not ideal for their kids, I certainly don’t. So you can’t recreate the feral childhood.

Maybe if you move to Vermont, like you did, and you cut off internet access and all that kind of stuff and send your kids out without a phone, but most parents aren’t doing that. And it’s pretty hard to do that. So I think that parents should go easy on themselves given the state of the technological landscape and the economy and so forth and say, ‘look, my desire for an academically gifted kid is totally rational, and more parental involvement is not crazy or irrational, it’s actually a very rational response.’

But I read somewhere that you also advise against the idea of the helicopter parent?

Well, I’m definitely more of a helicopter parent. There are certain things I’m totally intense about and all over and in their business, and certain things that I’m pretty relaxed about.

I’m way too focused on academic achievement and not enough involved in things like developing good non-academic work habits, like enforcing rules about chores and stuff like that. I really focused more on the academics at the expense of other things.

I’m really curious about that because, being a sociologist, you understand people and how they work. So if you’re not teaching them, do you expect that your kids will learn those skills elsewhere or that they’ll just be okay without them?

No, I’m at this point praying that they’re learning them elsewhere because I regret that I was so anxious about academics; that I was happier to be like their personal slave and do all the dishes and chores and everything so that I’d free up more time for them to do their homework or extra math or whatever. I think I went overboard.

The book is not meant to be a prescription, it’s meant to be more of a fun read, so I hope people see that - that I’m a little bit aware of how extreme or crazy my approach is. But that they still can see some things that they can take away from it.

Do you believe in family rituals of any kind - just normal practices that keep you close? I think that would be particularly tricky with two teenagers who probably have full lives outside of your family.

Close to my kids you mean? Well, I think Jennifer Senior’s book, “All Joy and No Fun,” really tackles this issue. She basically makes the argument that adolescence is difficult for the kids, sure, but it’s actually more difficult for the parents - especially this generation of parents.

Because we go from being totally involved in helicopter-y type ways to being pushed away. And that’s normal, but it feels like late adolescence is like going through a break-up or something.

So we’re experiencing the empty nest feeling way earlier than our parents did?

I don’t know how much they experienced it because they weren’t as focused on their kids; it wasn’t as central a social bond. Back then parents talked about how ‘I love my kids, but I have to devote time to my marriage or to my friends or to my cousins - whoever.’

But now kids have so become the number one, two, and three priorities in parents’ lives that when the kids actually do, inevitably, need to carve out some freedom and push their parents away, which is, as we know, completely developmentally normal, it’s a really difficult experience for the parents.

The book kind of ends in early adolescence, so I’d have to write a whole separate book about teenagers. but I’m not sure if I could write it. I need to read one rather than write it.

I usually ask parents if they have any wisdom they’d like to share with other parents, but I think you already did that in your book. Maybe I could just ask if there’s an overriding theme to parenthood that’s presented itself to you in your own experience?

I guess I would say maybe it’s “trust but verify,” in the famous words of Ronald Reagan… Which is part Doctor Spock and part Mr. Spock. Trust your gut and know each kid is different - even two different siblings in the same family are going to have very different reactions and needs to different things you do. But you should also verify with observation and reading about the science of childhood development and so forth, and then be not afraid to revise your hypothesis and do a 180.

…There are answers out there in science, but there’s not a single answer. Part of the work is sifting through the various answers and coming together with a nuanced approach.



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