In his recent book, Parentology: Everything You Wanted to Know About the Science of Raising Children but Were Too Exhausted to Ask, sociologist Dalton Conley explains that his parenting style -- the opposite of "traditional" or "textbook" parenting -- is an improvisational method that relies on both modern science and old school intuition. He brings the latest research to bear on the work of raising kids, even when the results are markedly unconventional (for example, naming your kids E and Yo Xing Heyno Augustus Eisner Alexander Weiser Knuckles). Here, his daughter (E) describes five standout situations from her unusual upbringing -- and Dad offers an explanation below each point.
The Kid(s) are OK
by E Jeremijenko-Conley
I am E -- yes, like the letter -- the daughter of Dalton Conley, a dual-Ph.D. sociology and medical professor who spouts politically incorrect proclamations, teaches my brother curse words, and generally likes to provoke (which he is doing with his new book, Parentology, about, well, my brother and me). Meanwhile, my mother, Natalie Jeremijenko, has been referred to in the press as both a “mad scientist” and the grown-up version of Luna Lovegood from the Harry Potter novels. She gets around the streets of New York City riding a tricycle or walking on stilts, often wearing a silver wig and clouded, rose-colored aviator glasses, and sipping from cups with baby eels in them. In other words, if you think your parents are embarrassing, meet mine.
I believe lessons in parenting aren’t out there for the taking; we need to learn the lessons ourselves. If I learned one thing from my parentologist parents, it’s that abstract rules (of thumb) are not very useful. One has to arrive at lessons -- in parenting or in life -- by oneself. Here are the top five most unorthodox parentology moves my parents have ever pulled, and the lessons learned:
1. My parents buried my brother’s placenta in Central Park.
Before burying it, we had collected the fetal cord blood to store his stem cells in case he ever got leukemia or some other disease and would require a bone marrow transplant. The best bone marrow match, we explained as we dug a hole in Sheep’s Meadow, was oneself. We had wanted to bury E’s placenta as well, but she was born two months premature, so not only were we not prepared with a cord blood collection kit handy, they rushed the afterbirth off to the lab to see if they could tell why she was preemie. But to no avail -- after all, most prematurity is idiopathic (i.e. unexplained). We would have preferred it to have nourished a tree than languish in a hospital lab and be treated as medical waste. (Any embarrassing family event provides an opportunity for an educational parental lecture.) -Dad
2. I was sitting in an audience of intellectuals at New York University. Everyone was wearing navy ties and had bare, beige lips. My dad was interviewing a first-time author about her book on social media. I almost dropped my plate of orange cheeses when I heard him say, on the topic of Internet porn and its potential to tinker with desire circuits, “When I was an 18-year-old boy, the problem was cumming too fast, now the problem is cumming at all.”
Part of my Parentology parenting philosophy is that age boundaries about knowledge are artificial and that as long as I explain it in scientific terms, it’s perfectly OK to discuss sex, drugs and anything else with a kid of any age. I let my son use profanities from before he even hit double digits, only scolding him if his grammar was incorrect. Meanwhile, E has never said a curse word, despite the best attempts of her friends to get her to slip up. You gotta rebel somehow, I guess?
3. I was in a fancy museum with my mother. Earlier, we had passed two abandoned pigeon eggs among the dots of black gum on the limestone floor of an NYC subway station. My mother and I decided that we had to save them. In order to incubate them, she placed the cold eggs in her armpits. We continued on our way to the fancy museum. We arrived there safely. However, in the midst of chatting to a stranger, she sneezed, and the eggs broke. The eggs were rotten. She was forced to keep a straight face as I watched. Thereafter, incubating eggs in her armpits and bras became a routine. She often comes to watch my school plays with a couple in her armpits.
Kids raise chicks, tadpoles and other creatures in school. Why not at home as well? And E, of all people, should not complain. We’ve allowed her to have pets ranging from the typical family dog and cat to sugar gliders (an Australian marsupial with a forked penis) to bats and even a monkey. What better way to learn about zoology? Besides, according to the “hygiene hypothesis,” natural immunity is stronger, rates of allergy are lower and inflammation is lessened when we live amid other animals.
4. My father is very frugal, and therefore buys things in bulk. I come home to tall mountains of toilet paper and healthy sodas. One day, he bought 30 pounds of peanut butter. When it was recalled for possible bacterial contamination, he was happy that he got the peanut butter for “free,” saying that if it was really infected he would have been dead already. Another time, my dad was walking me to school when I threw out my breakfast of a black bean burrito left over from dinner. He proceeded to begin scolding me for wasting food, and rummaged in the trashcan, eventually finding the burrito. When I refused to eat it, he finished it himself. If you think that’s bad, my father made me reach my hand (without any gloves) into a human waste pipe to help fix the toilet.
I repeat, germs are good for you. But it is also important to show kids -- especially ones growing up in the privileged and rarefied world of Manhattan -- that money (and peanuts) don’t grow on trees, that there’s plenty of waste in the world and that plenty of other people do eat off the streets and that they are no better than those folks.
5. They named me E. “No not ‘Eve’, E, like the letter,” I have explained countless times: “No dot. It’s not an abbreviation.” My parents wanted me to be able to choose any name that started with the letter E when I became old enough. But now I am older, and I have not ever wanted to change it. Perhaps it is fated, then, being named for the most common tool (i.e. letter) for writers, that I have a desire to become one.
Led by African-Americans, there has been a growth in unique names since the 1960s, coming along with the rising tide of self-expression. The effects of names have been hotly debated, with early research claiming those with unusual names to be disproportionately found in prison and mental hospitals. But more recent research suggests that -- at least among higher status families -- unusual names are associated with outstanding achievement. Most importantly, an unusual name serves as yet another opportunity for discussion around the dinner table: Are unique names harmful or helpful? Why or why not? How has your name affected your life? Discuss...
... given all of this, I think I turned out OK. Whether or not I’ll be able to function in the grown-up world is altogether another question, however.
Adapted from PARENTOLOGY by Dalton Conley. Copyright © 2014 by Dalton Conley. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All Rights Reserved.