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Everything you wanted to know about the science of raising children but were too exhausted to ask
PITY Walter, the father of Tristram Shandy in Laurence Sterne's celebrated comic novel of that name. He only wants the best for his boy, and has spent long hours studying the parenting theories of his day, enumerating all the dos and don'ts. But the world - in all its variety and incident - is out to fox him at every turn.
His wife, noticing a clock has gone unwound, throws his son's humours out of whack at the moment of conception. At birth, Dr Slop's forceps crush Tristram's nose, ruining - so his father fears - an organ vital to a young man's social chances.
Children, as any parent will wearily agree, are great levellers. Few parental pretensions - and even fewer pieces of advice from well-meaning relatives, friends and books – can withstand the blizzard of counterexamples brought to the fore, minute after minute, by a lively infant.
Attempting to raise a child "scientifically" is so manifestly doomed to failure that it is a wonder this notion raises its head, bloody but unbowed, in every generation. Parentology, by the New York sociologist Dalton Conley, is a scientifically and statistically informed memoir about bringing up his two children. Meanwhile It's Complicated, by Danah Boyd, a principal researcher at Microsoft, reassures its readers that, having cared for their children perfectly well for years, they probably aren't going to see all that work unpicked when their darlings join Facebook.
So far, so ordinary. In both cases, however, first impressions are deceptive. Both books champion a rich, complex idea of what youth is about, and view with horror the way adult discussions so often reduce the young to mute metrics.
As early as page 14 of Parentology, a neonatologist explains to Conley that his sure-to-be-premature daughter should stay in her mother's womb as long as possible, since "each week is ten more points of IQ". Conley was furious. "A spark of rage landed on my sleeve. An urge to grab the doctor's head and bash it against the sharp corner of the sonogram machine seized hold... I wanted to smash his head one time for every IQ point," he recalls.
For all its insightful, funny, fully researched, conscientiously cited, Freakonomics approach to science and statistics, what really powers Parentology is a species of loving rage. The numbers teach us a great deal about what parents cannot do, cannot change and cannot help. However, we learn something quite different and very valuable from Conley. Love, care, interest and empathy won't change a child's chances, but they render most of the measures discussed in this book profoundly unimportant.
By all means keep score - it's a tough world out there, and your kids need all the help they can get. But if you measure your worth as a parent by the numbers, you've missed the point of the enterprise.
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