Author Interviews
4:23 am
Sun March 23, 2014

'Parentology': Bribes, Behavior And The Science Of Raising Kids

Originally published on Sun March 23, 2014 10:36 am

Raising kids is hard. It just is. And there's a whole industry out there trying to help parents figure out how to do it. There are all kinds of books on the very basics — sleeping, eating and talking — to those that deal with more complicated stuff, like how to teach self esteem and resiliency.

Adding to that aspirational reading list is Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children but Were Too Exhausted to Ask, a new book by sociologist Dalton Conley.

Conley, the father of two kids, tells NPR's Rachel Martin that he felt that the "seven bullet-points to successful kids" style of many parenting books is the wrong approach and the sheer number of them is overwhelming.

"What we needed was the proverbial 'fishing pole' book," Conley says, "which just taught parents how to make sense of the literature, make sense of the research, and then how to apply it to their own kids."

What's In A Name

One area Conley talks about is the naming of children and how it can affect them while growing up. For his own kids, he took a rather unorthodox approach.

"Our daughter is named E," he says. The "E" didn't stand for anything, but the idea was to let his daughter pick her name when she was older. Instead, she chose to stick with E and he says she clings to it. His son's name is even more conceptually bold.

"We went with Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles, and two of those he picked himself at age 3," he says.

The reasoning behind the unique names, Conley says, is that research shows that people with unusual names were disproportionately represented in Who's Who and had more socioeconomic success. He also says that people with unique names demonstrated better impulse control, which is an important skill to develop.

"You learn to bite your tongue," he says. "You learn to ... unfurl your fists and not react when people are taken aback a little bit by your name or might tease you."

Front Stage And Back Stage Behavior

Another concept Conley talks about is "front stage and back stage" behavior, a term invented by mid-century sociologist Erving Goffman that describes how we behave when we're with different social groups. Front stage being how we act in public, and backstage being our more "authentic self" and how we act when we're with our more intimate social groups.

Conley says he allows his kids to vent and curse at him in private as long as they're doing their homework, for instance. But in public, of course, they need to be totally respectful. He says the idea is to give them an outlet.

"Kids, especially as they hit adolescence, need certain outlets," he says. "If you are an authoritarian parent that demands total respect and don't have that connection to allow your kids, not necessarily to curse you, but to vent their frustration, and to talk intimately with you, then it's going to come out in the public sphere where you really don't want it to come out."

Conley says that he is not advocating that kids all over America should be cursing at their parents, but simply means to show that, through a bit of an extreme example, there are "many ways to skin a cat."

The Trap Of Bribes

One experiment that didn't work quite so well for Conley was when he tried to get his kids to focus on their math work, a subject he knew to be very important in the various gauntlets of an academic career. He did this by bribing them.

"I knew going in that there was some research — and it was mixed — that bribing kids to do things, or bribing anybody to do things, providing what's called extrinsic motivation, can undermine their intrinsic motivation once you remove that extrinsic motivation," he says. "So once you stop paying kids to do math, their internal motivation to do math is actually less than it was before, or would have been otherwise."

The bribing worked, to an extent. His kids passed their tests they needed to pass, but it didn't end there.

"Now everything in our household, at least for my son again, is a market economy. So if I ask him to do anything extra, it's like 'OK well, how much is that?'" he says. "I basically just embrace that at this point ... but I would say that I would have preferred that my household not turn into a Turkish Bazaar."

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Transcript

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Raising kids is hard. It just is. And there's a whole industry out there trying to help parents figure out how to do it. All kinds of books on the very basics - sleeping, eating and talking - to those that deal with more complicated stuff, like how to teach self-esteem and resiliency. Add another one to your aspirational reading list. It's called "Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know about the Science of Raising Children but Were Too Exhausted to Ask." Dalton Conley wrote the book. He joins me from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

DALTON CONLEY: Thanks, Rachel.

MARTIN: So, you're a sociologist by training, father of two kids, a girl and a boy. What void did you see in all the current parenting literature out there that made you think, yeah, there's a hole I could fill?

CONLEY: Well, I guess there's not much of a void with that pile of books on most parents' bedside table. But I thought that the problem with them was mostly that they were selling snake oil, the idea that there is, you know, one thing you can do that will work - the seven bullet points to successful kids. That's the wrong approach, I think. I thought that really, as a social scientist who's engaged every day with new studies, I was overwhelmed myself with a lot of contradictory evidence and really realized that what we needed was the proverbial fishing pole book, which just taught parents how to make sense of the literature, make sense of the research and then how to apply it to their own kids.

MARTIN: OK. So, let's start at the beginning, which for most of us is the naming of the child. You and your now-former wife made a pretty bold decision to name your kids in a rather unorthodox way. Can you walk us through your thinking on this?

CONLEY: OK. Well, first, I should say their names, which our daughter is named E - that's just a letter. It doesn't stand for anything, there's no period, although the whole idea was that she could choose when she was older and thought her parents were total freaks. She could name herself after my mother, Ellen, or Elizabeth or some other relatively normal name. But instead actually today she's still E and clings to it. My son, once you name your first kid E, you kind of have to...

MARTIN: It's a high bar, yeah.

CONLEY: Yeah. So, we went to Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles. And two of those he picked himself at age 3.

MARTIN: And why did you do this, Dalton?

(LAUGHTER)

CONLEY: Well, despite what some people have said about being a child abuser, I do want to say that both kids love their names and totally identify with them. There's been a long debate about unique names. Early in the 20th century, researchers thought that unique names were overrepresented in mental institutions and jails. And that was really debunked later on in the century. And in fact, later research found that folks with unusual names were disproportionately represented in Who's Who and had more socioeconomic success. Other research showed that people with unique names demonstrated better impulse control. You learn to bite your tongue. You learn to, you know, unfurl your fists and not react when people are taken aback a little bit by your name or might tease you.

MARTIN: You also talk about something about front stage and back stage behavior. What does that mean? How do you teach it?

CONLEY: That's a term that was invented by the famous midcentury sociologist named Erving Goffman to describe some aspects of social life, where when we go out in the street or we're in the office, hopefully, when we're at a party, we're on front stage. We're aware that everyone else is looking at us, that we're part of civic society and we behave a certain way. And when you're backstage, you're with your intimates, your close friends and you let your hair down and supposedly you show your more authentic self, if there's such a thing. And so I thought it was important to teach them front stage and back stage. And I allow them to curse me as long as they're doing their homework. But in public, they have to be totally respectful, of course, of other people but even of me because that's - front stage, we don't yell at each other or curse at each other. So...

MARTIN: But, you know, you realize, Dalton, that's controversial and people out there will say, well, that's not teaching discipline. And if the back stage behavior is the authentic self then what does that mean with your relationship with your kid?

CONLEY: That's a good point. I would argue back that kids, especially as they hit adolescence, need certain outlets, right? If you are an authoritarian parent that demands total respect and don't have that connection to allow your kids, not necessarily to curse you but to vent their frustration and to talk intimately with you, then it's going to come out in the public sphere where you really don't want it to come out. However, I allow them to vent at me, and they could curse if they want, but the issue I teach them about cursing is that it's an ineffective way of expressing your emotional frustration. That, you know, if you're going to drop the F-bomb or something like that, it's less effective, even if you're trying to hurt me or as an insult. So, I'd say he went through a phase of where he liked the freedom of being able to curse and he's pretty much out of it now, knock on wood. And, again, I throw myself out there as an extreme example. I'm not advocating that kids all over America should be cursing out their parents. I'm just showing kind of an extreme case to show that there's many ways to skin a cat.

MARTIN: Which experiments that you have conducted, with the help of your kids, which one pretty much failed?

CONLEY: OK. math. I bribed them to do extra math because I know that math is such an important weeder subject in getting through the various gauntlets of an academic career. So, I wanted them to at last be functional at a high level in math. So, I bribed them. And, you know, I knew going in that there was some research and it was mixed that bribing kids to do things or bribing anybody to do things, providing what's called extrinsic motivation, can undermine their intrinsic motivation. So, once you stop paying kids to do math, their internal motivation to do math is actually less than it was before, or would have been otherwise. And it worked, to a certain extent, in the fact that, you know, they passed all the big tests they needed to, to get into high school and so forth. And I don't think I eroded their intrinsic motivation. I don't think that was the problem. But now everything in our household - at least for my son - again is a market economy.

(LAUGHTER)

CONLEY: So, if I ask him to do anything extra, it's like, OK, well, how much is that? So, I basically just embrace that at this point, but I would say that I would have preferred that my household not turn into a Turkish bazaar.

MARTIN: The book is called "Parentology." Dalton Conley is the author. He joined us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for talking with us, Dalton.

CONLEY: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.