A new version of the American Dream

These are the things I try not to do within an hour of going to bed: drink caffeine; eat sugar; use the Internet; fight with Caroline.  To that list of late-evening prohibitions let me add a fifth—no reading articles by Walter Russell Mead.  I made that mistake yesterday.  His three-part series on restoring the American Dream set my mind racing and it wasn’t until nearly 2am that I finally got the horses back in the barn.  What follows is a brief recap of Mead’s argument about how the American Dream is changing and some thoughts about how I see a new version of the American Dream playing out in my own life.

According to Mead the first iteration of the American Dream was the dream of the individual family farm.  This was Thomas Jefferson’s version of the American Dream.  For two centuries the family farm was the organizing unit of American social and economic life; it defined how family members interacted with each other; it provided Americans with food, shelter and the material necessities of life; it was the backdrop against which people lived out the American version of the good life.

But the dream of the family farm began to founder in the late-19th century.  Sweeping geopolitical forces were to blame: the best farm land was already taken meaning new generations of Americans had to settle for marginal tracts in places like Oklahoma that were never meant to sustain agriculture; and improvements in agricultural production led to a glut of corn and wheat, and thus lower prices for farmers when they brought their crops to market.  The world changed, fast, and it left the family farm behind.

It took almost half-a-century for a new version of the American Dream to develop.  There was a lot of political and cultural turmoil in the intervening years, just like there’s a lot of political and cultural turmoil now.  People feared that the end of family farming meant the end of the American way of life.  But then a second version of the American Dream emerged, and it promised even greater prosperity and greater freedom than the family farm had before it.  Mead calls this second version the dream of the “suburban homestead.”

This is a dream that most of us recognize because it was vibrant in our lifetimes and has only recently begun to fade.  It was the dream of Leave it to Beaver: Dad worked, mom stayed home, the kids went to school, and life was awash in inexpensive, mass-produced goods (canned vegetables! washing machines!) that made life freer and easier than it had ever been before.

But now the dream of the suburban homestead has begun to come apart.  The forces unraveling it are as sweeping and unstoppable as the forces that sundered the dream of the family farm a century earlier.  For one, the good land is all taken (the nicest suburbs have become astronomically expensive; Caroline laments that there’s no way we could ever afford to buy a house in the suburban-DC neighborhood where she grew up).  And for two, the jobs that supported the suburban dream on a national scale are disappearing—either outsourced overseas or automated out of existence.  So if the suburban dream is dead, too, the question is—what takes its place?

Caroline and I have thought a lot about this over the last five years, though not on the grand scale that Mead thinks about.  For us the question has been more personal, as we’ve tried to figure out what kind of lives we want for our family and ourselves.  We’ve tried to use two principles to guide the big lifestyle choices we’ve had to make: We want control over our time and we want our lives to feel coherent.  I’ll talk about each of those in turn.

First—control over our own time.  For me, this has meant freelancing instead of working for a company.  In my twenties I had a few traditional jobs though none of them lasted very long.  On a gut level I had a hard time swallowing the idea that someone else would tell me where I needed to be from 9am-6pm five days a week, or would dictate how many days I could take off to spend with my family around Christmas.  I might have been willing to accept these constraints if I’d found work that I was incredibly excited to do, but I never did.  And at the same time I’d been given enough opportunity in life to make it feasible for me to strike out on my own.

As is often the case the price of time has been money.  I make a lot less than most graduates of the Harvard Class of 2003.  The key realization for me, though, was that all the extra dollars I would have made if I’d become a lawyer were not worth the sacrifice in personal freedom I would have had to make to earn those dollars.  And this, I think, is a calculation that rings true for many Americans who feel like they have enough money and enough stuff but not enough freedom in their daily lives to spend their time the way they want to.  (Of course, there are also many Americans on the lower-end of the class scale for whom this doesn’t ring true at all; contra Charles Murray, they’d eagerly trade time for the opportunity to work hard at a job that paid well.)

Second—coherence.  One of the things I like least about the suburban ideal is the way it divides life into discrete roles and identities.  Work and home are separate spheres.  Men and women perform separate roles.  Kids race from school to Cub Scouts to soccer practice.  There is a whole lot of moving parts, but it’s not necessarily the case that they all pull in the same direction or all reflect the same underlying values.

I don’t like the idea of my “work” persona and my “home” persona being distinct.  It feels discordant to me that I’d go off to a job and spend my whole day with one group of people, thinking and acting in one particular kind of way, and then I’d go home and be with a different group of people, thinking and acting in a different kind of way.  I want the cohesiveness of feeling that all the parts of my life are integrated; I want the coherence of feeling like I’m completely and fully myself in every part of my day. (I guess you could say that, in a sense, what I’m after is a 21st-century version of the family farm.)

To some extent this prioritization of time and coherence is idiosyncratic; these values reflect my particular disposition and the particular family culture that Caroline and I have put together, and certainly the lives we’ve crafted for ourselves have only been possible because of the above-average rates of education and opportunity we’ve received.  But at the same time it seems clear to me that our choices have been shaped by broader cultural currents; that they reflect a changing idea of what the American Dream looks like in practice.

It makes sense that each iteration of the American Dream would be shaped in response to the one that came before it.  The suburban ideal was desirable in large part because it was not the family farm.  Blue- and white-collar jobs freed people from having to toil on the land from dawn to dusk.  The consumer products revolution freed people from having to provide every material necessity by their own hands.  Safeguards like union jobs, pensions, Medicaid, Medicare—the whole social safety net extending from employers to the federal government—meant that families were no longer one false step away from calamity.

But progress had its price.  Once you get past the surface warts of the suburban ideal (the McMansions, the SUVs, etc.) it seems clear to me that the real price of the suburban dream was paid in time and coherence.  The coherent life of the family farm was broken into discrete suburban roles and identities that divided work from home and men from women; and the suburban economy instantiated all sorts of restrictions on how people spend their time: the time-clock, the 9-5, two weeks paid vacation, and (most banefully of all) the daily commute, which researchers routinely identify as the feature of modern life most anathema to personal happiness.

Last night I talked with Caroline about these ideas and when I got to the end she said, “So, what is it?  What is the third American Dream?”  I don’t know, of course, and Mead says he doesn’t know either.  The suburban ideal would have been hard to imagine in 1890 and it’s just as hard to picture what the iconic American lifestyle will look like sixty years from now.

But if I had to guess, I’d venture that the Third American Dream will be an urban dream—where physical proximity allows work life, home life, and social life to be more coherently integrated—and it will be an information technology dream that gives people more flexibility about when and where they work and more freedom in general about how they spend their time.

Links to Walter Russell Mead’s essays on the American Dream

Beyond Blue Part I: The Crisis of the American Dream

Beyond Blue Part II: Recasting the Dream

Beyond Blue Part III: The Power of Infostructure 

Coming into focus

On Saturday night Caroline and I resorted to that simplest and most naïve of parent tricks: We tried to bribe Jay with a cookie.

We had tickets to see a play that night—The God of Carnage—and had enlisted the services of the same German exchange-student babysitter whom Jay had spurned a month earlier by fleeing to an early bedtime in his crib.  Hoping for a better result this time around, we told Jay that if he gave Ronja a chance, he could have a chocolate cookie before he went to bed that night.

But Jay’s fear of abandonment overwhelmed his desire for sugar.  When Ronja walked through the door at 6:45pm Jay burst into hysterics.  We calmed him down and tried to ease out of the house by having Ronja read to him as we hovered nearby, but as soon as I put my coat on Jay fell apart again.  We left him sitting in a chair by the window, waving to us as we backed out of the driveway, tears in his eyes, a single chocolate cookie in a paper napkin on his lap.

When I think back to what Jay was like during the months leading up to this third birthday, I imagine I’ll remember how much he hated to be left with a babysitter.  I also think I’ll remember these months as a time when patterns in the “wide wide world” (as the Pokey Little Puppy likes to say) started to come into focus for him.

Last Friday afternoon we were driving to pickup Caroline.  We’d been in the car for a few minutes when Jay asked, “Are we on Packard?”  Packard is a major north-south street in Ann Arbor.  We drive it almost everyday and about two months ago Jay started asking if we were on Packard whenever we’d drive anywhere.

Since then he’s added more streets to his repertoire: He asks about Washtenaw, Lincoln, Eisenhower, and Hill.  He has a hard time identifying landmarks from his vantage in his car seat but there are two streets he recognizes.  He knows Thompson Street, which we turn onto from Packard, and where we meet Caroline each afternoon at 5pm outside the Institute for Social Research.  And he knows Colony Road, where we live.

The geography of Ann Arbor is slowly beginning to resolve for Jay.  The same is true for numbers.  For about a year he’s known how to count from 1-14 in the sense that he can speak, in the correct order, the words that represent the numbers.  But he’s had no clue what the words actually mean.

That’s beginning to change.  The other morning at breakfast he sat in his booster seat and held up three fingers. He looked at Caroline and said, “Is this four?”

She told him it wasn’t so he tried again. Watching him muster the dexterity to raise a specific number of fingers is a fun spectacle in its own right.  He strained to lift his pinky without upsetting the three fingers he’d already raised.  Then, holding four shaky fingers aloft he asked Caroline again: “Now is this four?”

Another counting example.  Last night after dinner Jay and I used his beloved screwdriver to take apart his Fisher Price telephone.  The bottom of the phone was held in place by six screws.  I unscrewed three of them and asked him to count how many screws were left.  Only a month ago he would have begun pointing randomly and spouting numbers willy-nilly (“One, two, four, seven”) but last night he pointed calmly to each remaining screw and counted, “One. Two. Three.” He may not be the next Ramanujan, but he’s making progress.

The most exciting recent development, though, is that Jay has begun to recognize the letters of the alphabet, and to find them in all manner of surprising places.

Predictably, his first love has been “J.”  He knows it’s a personally significant letter but he’s also figuring out that he doesn’t have exclusive rights to it.  Two-thirds of the food in our house comes from Trader Joe’s.  Over the weekend Jay found “J’s” on a jar of peanut butter, a bag of tortilla chips, a box of raisin bran, a gallon of milk, a container of yogurt, and a bottle of olive oil. (You might ask—when does it stop being exciting to find new examples of your favorite letter? The answer: not yet.)

That said, Jay is open to seeing other letters, too.  This weekend he spotted a couple “C’s” on our license plate, nabbed the “M” in “Murakami” on the cover of 1Q84, and called out an “H” on a box containing a DIGITAL THERMOMETER that we’d bought last week when it seemed like the boys might be sick forever (they’re better now).  Of course, Jay doesn’t understand the rules that govern letter placement—I’m not sure it’s even occurred to him that “Jay” and “Joe” share a sound—but you only have to run into the same letter so many times before you begin to ask yourself, “Why do I find it here but not there?”

All of this is pretty exciting to Jay but sometimes I wonder if it’s not a little overwhelming, too.  Maybe Jay had an easier time sleeping at night before he figured out just how long the distance is from our house to where his Mama works.

Still, those concerns seemed far from his mind on Saturday night when we arrived back home from the play.  The house was quiet. Ronja was sitting on the couch with a lamp on.  We asked her how the night had gone.  She said that as soon as we’d left Jay had asked her to put him in his crib.  “And the cookie?” I asked.  She laughed and told us he’d wanted to bring it with him.

Later, Caroline and I tiptoed into his room.  In the glow of his nightlight we saw him lying on his back with one leg bent at the knee.  His bunny lay beside his pillow; his uneaten chocolate cookie sat on a napkin a few inches from his head.

Related Posts from Growing Sideways

Figuring out when (and when not) to say no

A sense of where he is

Odd food combinations, delayed childbearing, and vomit tricks: A roundup of readers’ comments

The last time I posted a comment roundup was in October.  Since then I’ve learned a lot about (and from) the growing number of Growing Sideways readers.  Lis copped to having become an expert at catching vomit since her son was born.  Jessie weighed in with her perspective from the lab on the challenges of translating behavioral science research in the mainstream press.  Anne wrote about what it was like to be, at age 32, the first of her friends to have a kid .  John C. said he can’t sleep at night as long as the Whole Foods bathroom fiasco remains unresolved.  Martha said her son’s piano recitals make her so happy “she could burst.” Jayne made an apt comparison between polygamy and the emotional trauma that visits an oldest kid when a baby sibling is born.

And oh yeah.  It turns out, against odds, that Jay’s not the only one out there who likes butter and peanut butter on his English Muffins

Jessie in response to Balancing science and intuition in how we raise our kids

Hi Kevin! Great post. As someone who does this kind of science, I often think about how it actually applies to (and is interpreted) in the “real world” (I personally think that the application to clinical, or “high risk” populations, and hence to policy and treatment, makes the most sense). But regardless of what scientists intend for their research, I think you’re absolutely right that (particularly middle-class) American parents take these things very seriously. And what’s really interesting is how research gets translated in the media. Half of my time in graduate school classes is spent tearing apart the methodology, interpretation, etc. of just the type of research that gets put out into the world in headlines as simple and true. Research is never simple and true… and culture, SES, genes, you name your 3rd variable, make it very difficult to generalize anything.

On another note, one of the things people often don’t take into account when thinking about comparing something like parenting between two cultures is how you define “positive outcome”. You are going to parent differently depending on how you want your kid to fit into your particular culture/society. For example, there are contexts in which it is very adaptive to teach your kid to respond aggressively to aggression because they are going to have to survive in a violent, aggressive environment (that’s an extreme example, but I think the idea applies in a lot of contexts). I think the more basic point that applies to parenting and intuition is that every individual family values different things and raises their kids accordingly. If you value art and creativity, your child becoming a struggling musician after school is a positive outcome, if you value academic success and stability, this would be terrifying…

Thanks for your blog! It’s amazing how often something you write here about your daily experiences as a parent will relate to a theoretical discussion I had in class that same week.

Maia in response to Balancing science and intuition in how we raise our kids

Neat video, Kevin – thanks for sharing. It seems to me that some of the payoff might be at the level of policy. For instance, language learning among lower-income children could be dramatically affected by early childhood education, subsidized care-giving, etc., as this sort of research suggests: http://www.apprenticeshipofbeinghuman.com/2012/01/20/compelling-early-childhood-numbers/

Lis in response to An entire week boiled down to two disgusting minutes

Love the title. Who could resist reading this? I can relate. Only since becoming a parent have I had the opportunity, on multiple occasions, to catch vomit in my cupped hands. Parenthood is full of lessons, among them how to clean up gross stuff you’ve never had to deal with before!

Chris in response to Figuring out when (and when not) to say “no”

I used to love pb and butter, too, but then for some reason stopped in my childhood. Maybe it was about the same time I took a fancy to pb and blue cheese on saltines. Yum! But I’m still looking for someone who’ll share that pleasure with me.

Allison in response to Figuring out when (and when not) to say “no”

My mom loves toast with peanut butter and butter, so Ryan actually would have been served well if he ordered the same at his in laws’. You never know!

Anne in response to Baby Boom

Thanks for the article, Kevin. That’s one I’ll have to print out to read and digest—there is a lot of interesting information contained in it.

Almost all of our friends went on to have children after we did—I like to think that because our daughter was such a wonderful example, that tipped them in that direction–lol! Seriously, I think the time was finally “ripe” for all of us at that point. For me, the delay in having children was due more to a deferred growing up period than anything else. I had four years between college graduation and my entry into graduate school, and those four years were not marked by a particularly mature approach to life. So, when I finally did marry, I was completely ready to give up the “single” life (and by single, I mean childless.)

One of our friends just had his first child three and a half years ago when he was 58. He’s the last straggler, but another friend had his first child around 6 years ago when he was in his early 50′s.

I do think there’s a trend toward having children a little earlier again, but that is just based on some anecdotal evidence in the nephews on my husband’s side of the family and in some members of my profession who tend to start work a little earlier than most college grads (sign language interpreters).

John C. in response to The longest 12 seconds anyone’s ever spent in the men’s room at Whole Foods

No fair there, Kevin. You had me laughing out loud almost uncontrollably and then BAM! we were looking out the window at the neighbor kid shooting hoops in the cold. You have to go back and finish that pee. You can’t just leave poor Jay emptying his bladder for the rest of eternity. Please, if not for the reader’s sake then for Wally’s.

John B. in response to Rating Jay and Wally’s effect on my well-being

Relationships = -3? Kevin! The little lumps of whine that you are caring for will be just about the deepest relationships and the most long lasting ones in your life. If you miss an evening with an acquaintance or two, it’s still a way plus on this one. And they will lead you to making friends with their friends and their friends families, et cetera.

Anne in response to The Parent Interview #4: The nest is empty

Well, this post resonated very loudly with me! After 25 years of parenting, we, too, sent our younger child off to college this year and our older one is now married. We are empty nesters, well, at least until Michael comes home for summers and school vacations.

The line that Jayne wrote, ” We loved our kids from before they were born”, eloquently expresses how I feel about my children. I would add that besides potty training and drivers’ ed, the college application process can be difficult too. There are other, really frightening things about having children—the thought of losing a child or having a child get hurt can be paralyzing, so I’ve always tried to focus on just how lucky I’ve been to have my two children and to love them and watch them become the adult versions of themselves.

I believe that children are who they are when they are born. We, as parents, can give them love and help them grow, but in the end, it’s totally up to them to be the kind of person they want to be. So, I’m grateful that my daughter and son are true to themselves while finding their way in the world. I hope to always be close to them and have a strong relationship with them—I can’t imagine life any other way.

Lis in response to How a toddler’s tantrum might produce two kinds of happiness

Thank you–very interesting, as always! It’s good to make time for reflectiveness, both in the moment and afterwards. Funny, though, how parents seem to spend so much time thinking about whether or not they are happy. Unlike our jobs, hobbies, eating habits, even our marriages and friendships, the decision to become a parent, once made, cannot be reversed. And so we have to find a way to come to terms with parenting’s lows. The best way I’ve found is to deliberately tap into and focus on those highs.

Martha in response to How a toddler’s tantrum might produce two kinds of happiness

Wow, I am at the opposite end of the spectrum. I rarely find happiness in the in-the-moment bad situations with my kids. I think of every time my son sits down for piano practice and it turns into an argument. Definitely no happiness there. On the other hand, when he gives a recital, I am so happy I could burst. In addition, unlike your ratio, I can’t create one because I find the in-the-moment situations to be many in count, but rarely high in intensity, so I can’t compare them to the happy situations (in the moment or reflective) which I find to be fewer in count, but very intense. So let’s hear it for intense happiness and being able to shrug off the day-to-day bad stuff.

Leslie in response to Regarding Wally, Jay’s still not sure how he feels

Perhaps Jay doesn’t understand that pooping and peeing on people are bad things. With all the potty training, you may have been putting a positive spin on bathroom-related things. Do you praise him when he goes to the bathroom? Kids have to learn that poop and pee are “yucky.” I babysat a child who insisted on pooping on the floor and then stepping in it. He thought poop was cool. My point is that Jay may not mean anything remotely malicious by the spitting and pooping comments. He may just think it would be fun to poop on his brother.

Wendy in response to Regarding Wally, Jay’s still not sure how he feels

The other day my 3 1/2 year old was playing “scissors” (don’t ask) with 2 wooden pieces of train tracks and I heard him walk over to his baby brother and say, gleefully “now I’m scissoring you and then I won’t have any more brother!” His little brother giggled unknowingly at the attention and all I could do was sigh and hope he didn’t really mean it the way it sounded. Boys are so odd.

Jayne in response to Regarding Wally, Jay’s still not sure how he feels

I remember when we were getting ready to bring CJ home, that a friend said to me (regarding how Allison might adapt to a new baby in the house), “Just imagine Mark coming to you one day and saying: ‘I love you so very much that I want another just like you and I am moving them into our house right away.’” It might take me some time to think that was really a fabulous idea.

My dad in response to No sleep to spare

I could be cruel and say, “What goes around, comes around,” but I won’t. Still I remember my first born was a terrible sleeper for at least the first year of life. (And he was not a napper at all, which I still can’t figure.) It was thirty years ago, but I can stilll remember walkiing the floors night after night with him in my arms, hoping that the slow and rocking pace I kept would send him off to sleep. Oh he’d fake it alright, his limp head and body against my fatigued and pacing one. Thinking I had achieved success, I’d stop and wonder when would be the appropriate moment to put him in his crib. As if he could hear my thoughts, the boy would pull his head off my chest, and look up at me with an expression that seemed to ask, “Why did you stop?” You’ll both make it through this, Kevin. Your mom and I did.

John B. in response to Jay: my cognitive inferior for now at least

DO NOT try to compete with kids at the flip-over-the-cards-to-find-a-match game (whatever it’s called). The little buggers will eat you alive at that one. And I eat soup with a fork every day. (Ramen for lunch) and slurp the juice from the bowl. Jay, you and me, pal. (Fist bump)

Balancing science and intuition in how we raise our kids

The French make easy targets in America.  They’re haughty, libertine, ripe, feckless.  And now it turns out they’re terrible mothers, too.  Or maybe actually they’re wonderful mothers.  It depends on whom you talk to.

At the heart of the recent storm about French parenting is an article called “Why French Parents Are Superior” that appeared in The Wall Street Journal last week.  It was written by Pamela Druckerman and served as a preview of her new book Bringing Up Bebe, which argues that French children are better behaved than American children because French parents don’t coddle while American parents let their kids rule the roost.

This approving view of French family life is at odds with a less rosy take on French parenting that appeared in The Telegraph (London) in 2007.  The author of that article, an Italian-American mother named Janine di Giovanni, suggested that maybe French moms take their anti-coddling position too far to the point of being cold, distant, and even emotionally neglectful of their children.

The big obvious objection to this whole line of thinking, of course, is that there’s no such thing as a “French” way of parenting or an “American” way of parenting.

France and America have populations of millions of people from hundreds of different cultural backgrounds yadayadayada.  (This was the thrust of a post, which appeared in “Motherlode” on Monday as a response to Ms. Druckerman’s WSJ piece.)

Fine.  When writers in The Wall Street Journal  and The New York Times talk about “American” parents and “French” parents they typically mean middle and upper-middle class French and American parents. It’s an important point, but not cause to the end the conversation.

Because there certainly are large cultural trends that shape how American parents raise their kids and these trends are almost certainly different than the trends that shape how parents in other countries raise theirs.  You might need to restrict your view to a particular socioeconomic slice of the American population to see these trends clearly, but still, they’re there.

So what are the big cultural factors intrinsic to the (middle/upper-middle class) American way of parenting?  For the last week I’ve been thinking about this and I keep coming back to the same idea: As I’ve lived it and observed it, American parenting culture is more heavily weighted towards science than intuition.

And this is what I have in mind by those terms: Intuition means letting your instincts guide your actions; it asks the question, “What feels right to me?”  Science means gathering data; it leads parents to ask, “What does the evidence say is the best way to raise my child?”

These are very different ways to think about parenting and they both have their places.  When Jay breaks into a rash, my intuition isn’t very helpful but WebMD is.  And on the flip side, when it comes to figuring out how to teach Jay to be kind to Wally (or whether kindness is even valuable in the first place), intuition is king and the insights of randomized control trials aren’t going to get me very far.

Science and intuition both have roles to play.  My feeling, though, is that the scientific advances over the last few decades—particularly in neurobiology and the behavioral sciences—have tipped the balance too far towards science and away from intuition.

Every year we catalogue, analyze, map, and decipher human behavior at an increasingly granular level—from the interactive patterns of a first date to the effects of in utero exposure to classical music to the long-term benefits of being able to wait 15 minutes to eat a marshmallow when you’re five-years-old.  Once this information is out there, it’s impossible for it not to affect the way parents raise their kids.

Take the famed marshmallow test, for example.  In 1972 the psychologist Walter Mischel found that little kids who were able to defer gratification ended up having higher SAT scores later in life.  It’s an insight that hangs over the heads of middle class parents everywhere—once you know about the marshmallow test, how can you not be more self-conscious (and less intuitive) about how you teach self-control to your kids?

Now, overall I like behavioral science.  Or at least I think it’s neat.  Last year I reviewed David Brooks’ book The Social Animal, which is an easy-reading catalogue of all the ways that you can apply scientific insights to improve the way you live your life.  Every other page there was one factoid or another that I wanted to tell Caroline.  Like, did you know that, as Brooks writes, “When asked to describe their day, American six-year-olds make three times more references to themselves than Chinese six-year-olds”?

Behavioral science is interesting, but it’s easy to overstate its usefulness.  The main reason for this is that it’s largely descriptive.  It describes the things we do and how we do them, but it has a lot less to say about how to do those things better and even less to say about the relative value of this or that thing so far as figuring out how to live a good life is concerned.

Here’s a concrete example.  I recently watched a TED talk by an MIT professor named Deb Roy on how kids acquire language.  Roy had a unique vantage on the topic.  Before his first kid was born he wired his house with microphones and video cameras; then he recorded basically his kid’s entire life from infancy on up.

Using that data and some really, really impressive software, Roy mapped his son’s language acquisition against the experiences he was having as he began to say words—where he was in the house, who he was with, what adults around him were saying at the time.  The idea, basically, was to identify the recipe for language acquisition.

You should watch the video.  The setup of the house is novel and it’s pretty cool to hear how Roy’s son learns to say “water.”  He begins with a babble that’s only recognizable in retrospect and slowly rounds into form until he’s pronouncing the word clearly. Also, the graphics that Roy uses to present his data are straight out of the future and completely blew my mind.

That said, when I finished watching the video my primary reaction was: What do we do with this?  Roy’s study is impressive as an act of data gathering and his analysis is interesting.  But what’s the real value in what he’s accomplished?  After all, kids were acquiring language just fine well before we learned how they acquire language.

At the same time you might ask of Roy’s study, “Well what’s the harm in it?”  Nothing, per se.  But I do think it’s worth considering how knowledge of human behavior feeds back into how human beings actually behave.

Because knowledge is never neutral.  When I read the latest insights from behavioral science I feel like I need to run out and start incorporating them into my life immediately.  If there’s a better way to be living my life and raising my kids, I want to be doing it!

The danger here is that it’s easy to be tempted into trying to shape our lives with more precision than we’re capable of.  If Roy’s study showed that certain patterns of parent-child interaction correlated with expedited language acquisition, does that mean I should make sure to buy a house with a floor plan that would maximize the number of times of day Jay and I bump into each other, and that is open enough so that Jay can hear what I’m saying even when he’s in the other room.

Maybe, but it would be a fool’s errand.  Sometimes, maybe even most of the time, it’s better to leave well enough alone.

And this, to me, is maybe the defining quality of American parenting culture (and maybe American culture overall): This idea that we can always do better.  Now, I’m not opposed to ambition and certainly on this blog I’ve written a lot about times when I wished I’d been a better parent to Jay and Wally.  But it strikes me that the best way to be become a better parent might be to remember that I already know how to be one.

Related Posts from Growing Sideways

How a toddler’s tantrum might produce two kinds of happiness

What it might really mean to learn how to be a parent

An entire week boiled down to two unfortunate minutes

If at 5:35 p.m. yesterday afternoon you’d asked Caroline to predict what the next two minutes of her life would be like—if you’d really pushed her to try and imagine the slipperiest, most exasperating chain of events waiting to envelop her—it’s a fair bet she wouldn’t have managed to catch a whiff of the eventual truth.

Isn’t that how it always is with vomit?

I was out running and she was home with the boys.  Both Jay and Wally have continued to suffer pretty bad colds but on this particular late-afternoon they were bearing their afflictions well: Wally was bouncing in her arms on his rubber band legs; Jay was crawling across her lap, having fallen once again into the persona of “Baby Jay,” who babbles and wants to nurse and manages somehow to be even more trifling than his toddler alter-ego.

So there they were, the three of them all tangled together on the floor when Wally started to choke.  He’s been prone to gagging since the day he was born and he’s lost his lunch more than a few times this past week on account of all the mucus in his system.

Caroline knew what was about to happen but she couldn’t move fast enough—Baby Jay had her pinned.  So, like a soldier who falls on a grenade to save his comrades, Caroline pivoted Wally towards her chest to spare the carpet.  He got her good.

The shock of the first projectile was enough to bring Baby Jay back to reality.  He scrambled off of Caroline’s lap and offered a tentative diagnosis: “Wally threw up?”

Caroline would have answered, but there was no time to waste—she knew these things come in waves.  She drew on every ounce of hamstring strength and managed to lift herself off the floor without using her hands.  She cradled Wally in one arm, used the other to try and keep the mess contained to her shirt, and raced towards the bathroom.  No sooner had her feet hit linoleum than Wally went off again.

A few seconds later the episode would have seemed complete.  Wally was face down in Caroline’s arms.  Tears and snot and milk were slick on his face.  Caroline took one giant step to the far side of the mess.  She pulled a hand towel off a rack and applied it gently to Wally’s face.  “There, there,” she might have said.  “It’s all over now.”

“What’s all over now?” asked a voice.  It was Jay, for sure, but where exactly was he standing? Her brain measured the sound of his voice and mapped it against the geography of the bathroom floor and the events of the last twenty seconds.  All signs pointed towards disaster. Caroline spun around and sure enough there was Jay, standing smack in the center of the splash zone.

Caroline locked eyes with Jay.  She spoke slowly and clearly as if giving instructions for how to defuse a bomb.  “Whatever you do,” she said, “don’t move.”

Caroline took a giant step back across the mess.  On the other side she dabbed a few more times at Wally’s face and put him down on the playroom carpet. Then she ran upstairs like the track star she should have been to get two more towels from the linen closet.

At this point you’re probably performing some calculations of your own.  You’re trying to estimate how far it might have been from the bathroom to the linen closet; you’re thinking about how quickly a panicked mother in the prime of her life can climb six stairs and run down a hallway.  And if you’re really, really good you might be asking yourself the most important question of all: Just how fast can Wally crawl these days?

Caroline found the towels and turned around. She reached the top of the playroom stairs, started down, and then froze in her tracks.  She couldn’t see the bathroom from where she stood but she could see the spot on the playroom floor where she’d left Wally.  He quite clearly was not there anymore.

Where he was, of course, was with his beloved big brother.  This might not have been a problem, except that for the first time all week Jay had done exactly what he’d been told to do: He hadn’t moved an inch from his position in the middle of Wally’s puke.  Only now he had company, in the form of an eight-month-old with absolutely no survival instincts sliding around at his feet.

Caroline stood in the doorway to the bathroom.  For the last two minutes she’d been moving as fast as she could but now she sighed and let her arms fall to her side.  Wally looked up at her from his puddle.  Jay looked down at his brother.  Caroline looked at both her precious boys.  “So this is how it ends,” she thought.

The day Jay learned how to cheer

Twice this fall Jay and I spent Sunday afternoons watching football and eating popcorn.  He loved it—especially the popcorn part—so you can imagine his excitement when I told him there was an even BIGGER football game coming up that would feature even MORE snacks.

“Is it Sunday yet,” he asked me this past Saturday morning, just as he had everyday for the past week.

“No, Sunday is tomorrow,” I replied.

The next morning he asked, “Is it tomorrow?”

Despite all the hype, Jay’s Super Bowl ended early.  The most exciting part of the day for him was ninety-minutes before kickoff when we opened the first bag of potato chips and moved the television to the corner of the house where NBC comes in best.  Halfway through the first quarter we packed him and his cold off to bed.  He fell asleep with his vaporizer bubbling, still believing that Tom Brady is a hero.

A year earlier, however, the Super Bowl had yielded what was then, and maybe still is, the single greatest experience of Jay’s life.

There was no Wally yet, and we were still living on Pine Street in Philadelphia. My college roommates Rob and John came over to watch the game—Steelers vs. Packers—bearing a case of Pabst Blue Ribbon, leftover from a party a few months back.  Just before the game started Caroline and John’s wife Brittany went out to get pizza.  After they’d left, the four boys settled in: Rob, John, and I on the couch, each with a fresh PBR, Jay in his booster seat eating raisins.

Rob is a vocal and enthusiastic sports fan—the kind you love sitting next to if you’re rooting for the same team and the kind you might throw peanuts at if you’re not—and he has a particular love for the Steelers and the city of Pittsburgh, so energy was high in our small apartment.  He quickly explained to Jay the difference between the black team (the Steelers) and the green team (the Packers), and taught him two simple cheers: When the black team had the ball we’d yell “Go!” and when the green team had the ball we’d yell “Boooo!”

Five minutes into the game the first cheering opportunity arose.  Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall ran to the right.  He broke one tackle, then another.  “Gooooo!” we yelled.  When he was finally brought down 15-yards later John, Rob, and I clapped and cheered and clinked our cans.  Jay looked at us wide-eyed, ready to cry.

But after that he got the hang of it. On the next play Mendenhall ran for nine more yards.  We yelled “Goooo, goooo!” and Jay joined in, starting just a second behind us and continuing to cheer a second after we’d stopped.  Then two plays later the Steelers were forced to punt.  On the next drive the Packers started moving the ball. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers completed a short pass over the middle.  “Booo,” we yelled lustily.  “Booo,” Jay joined in, his fist in the air, his whole body straining towards the TV.

For the underdog Steelers things went downhill from there, but for Jay and the three of us the game only got better.  Jay stopped waiting for us to initiate the cheers and started breaking into them on his own.  Sometimes he’d boo the Steelers or cheer the Packers.  We tried to help him calibrate his support but after awhile we just went right along with him.  We also taught him how to do “cheers”—raising our beer cans to his sippy cup.  Round and round we went—Booo! Cheers!  Go!—working ourselves into a state of collective euphoria.

When I think back to that night it feels like that experience with Jay went on for hours but in reality it couldn’t have lasted more than twenty-five minutes.  Caroline and Brittany came back with the pizza and soon after that it was time for Jay to go to bed.  The air went out of the room after he was gone.  Minus our initiate sports fan, the PBR cans were just PBR cans again.  The pizza was just pizza.  The Steelers were down 21-10 at the half.

Later Caroline reported that Jay had been almost quivering when she’d laid him down on his changing pad.  She said she’d never seen him so excited.    For my part, I remember thinking afterwards that had Jay been a little older, he probably would have remembered that night for the rest of his life.  I’m almost certain that I will.