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Parentology

Today’s parents have more information than ever about parenting; but that might be part of the problem. At least according to Dalton Conley, author of Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know About The Science of Raising Kids But Were Too Exhausted to Ask. Despite the sub-title of his book, and the blurbs on the back cover from Tiger Mom’s Amy Chua, and Bringing Up Bebe author Pamela Druckerman, Conley doesn’t necessarily intend to add to the long shelf of self-help books. (In fact, he points out the “one” place where he agrees with Chua in his book, suggesting he doesn’t, in most cases, and he identifies himself as more of an “Italian papa” than a French mere.) Instead, he promotes and chronicles a “new” approach to parenting: “parentology.” While he is a sociologist by training, and does tap into some of the key, recent texts in that field (see our blog post on one of his cited works, Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods), he suggests his parenting journey is one based more on improvisation. Conley outlines three components of the parentology philosophy of “highly engaged child-rearing”:

  1. Accesses all relevant research
  2. Makes a practice of constantly weighing said research against one’s own experience and common sense
  3. Invents unique methodologies on the fly and fearlessly carries them out in order to test creative hypotheses about best practices for one’s own particular offspring

As antonyms to parentology, Conley lists: “Old-world parenting, traditional parenting, textbook parenting, tiger mothering, and bring up bebe.”   

Conley’s genre-bending book reads more like a memoir than a parenting manual. And as the former Dean of NYU, a sociologist by training, and a New York City dad, his story is hardly representative of those of that imaginary “typical” parent that marketers and researchers so often rely on for “authentic” insight.

So what does a book like this help us know or understand about parents or their kids that they’re raising today?

  1. They seek out research. Sure, most parents aren’t consulting social science journals – and wouldn’t necessarily know where to look if they did – but they do have more and more “research” at their fingertips. Instead of googling a second opinion, Conley seeks out experts in the relevant field.
  2. They recognize research’s limits. Even the most academically-inclined among us must admit that the research doesn’t reveal magic bullets when it comes to parenting or to understanding kids. Conley’s journey manifests a reality that many students come to know: just when you thought one theory held the key to your conundrum, another theorist or study counters it. This doesn’t suggest that there’s no point in consulting studies and experts. But it does suggest that the search for the holy grail of putting an infant to bed with ease, potty training, college applications, etc. just doesn’t exist. And most parents come to the realization, much like Conley does, that at some point your gut really matters.
  3. They know that kids are messy-- I mean unique. We admit it – most kids aren’t reading the same textbooks we are. They don’t often fit into neat developmental models, and while it’s incredibly satisfying when these theories help us predict or explain something we see in the world, the truth is that most kids are messy. There, we said it. They fail to comply with the “rules” that experts purport. Or worse, they play fair for one or two days, or maybe even a year, and then they defy their parents by growing, changing and evolving in directions that are sometimes unpredictable. Parents know this. Marketers reluctantly admit this.
  4. They have to laugh. Conley reminds us that part of parenting resilience must include a sense of humor. It’s not only important to laugh with your kids, but to sometimes take great joy and find the kind of humor that you can’t find on any screen in the ridiculousness that is sometimes childhood (and parenthood). We think Conley’s work works because it doesn’t slip into cynicism or snark (except when it does), but rather maintains the loving, knowing tone of a father who has failed as often as he succeeded and kids who make the world complex more often than they simplify it.

We think these are attributes that many of today’s parents – especially Millennial moms and dads – share. And we wonder if “parentology” might not be an approach to parenting with more longevity than the methods that have made it to the mainstream in the past few years.