Has a century of child-rearing advice taught us anything?
Type "parenting" into the search engine at amazon.com, and you'll get 23,461 entries, books with titles like Parenting With Love and Logic, Parenting With Dignity, and Worried All the Time that promise parents that there is a right way to raise children. Yet so many so-called experts bombard parents with so many right ways it's a testament to parental patience that more parental heads don't spontaneously combust from the parental pressure.
While this frenzy of anxiety and advice has all the markings of a baby-boomer phenomenon, it's over a century old. "The incompetency, the ignorance of parents" was condemned at a conference of the National Congress of Mothers back in 1899. The well-to-do mother of that era turned to such bibles as The Care and Feeding of Children by pediatrician L. Emmett Holt and the two-volume adolescence by G. Stanley Hall. But by the 1920s, one mother was so overwhelmed with child-care instruction that she confessed, "I try to do just what you say, but I am a nervous wreck just trying to be calm." Indeed, the "century introduced a vision of children and of child rearing that entailed a new kind of vigilance," says Ann Hulbert, author of the new book Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children. It also introduced the idea that a good parent is, by definition, an anxious one.
American parents hadn't used to rely heavily on experts, but much in the 20th century was so new that old standbys--grandmothers and religion--seemed to have lost relevance. With more than half of Americans living in cities in 1920 (up from a third in 1890), adults led very different lives from their own parents'. And they were enamored of the idea that science could improve child rearing as it had improved everything else. "It is childhood's teachableness that has enabled man to overcome heredity with history," declared one turn-of-the-century expert.
Women's status was changing, too. The move away from farms freed women from a lot of household labor--and from having to give birth to enough farmhands to keep the crops going. Women were even heading off to college, but since motherhood was still regarded as the only true feminine vocation, experts worried about how to make it palatable to these educated women. The answer, supplied by pioneers in the new fields of pediatrics and psychology, was to professionalize motherhood. Under the guidance of Holt and Hall, and later John Watson and Arnold Gesell, mothers were to put aside instinct and become scientific examiners of their children's behavior. (Fathers, it should be noted, were barely mentioned.) Holt required women to learn the latest research on nutritional matters and adhere to strict feeding schedules, while Hall deputized mothers as his research assistants by issuing lengthy questionnaires on everything from "doll passion" to religious experiences. Gesell issued color-coded charts for tracking urination, playtime, feeding, and weight; anthropologist Margaret Mead's mother (a devout Holtian) filled 13 volumes on little Margaret's development.
According to Hulbert, the experts--from Holt and Hall through Watson and Gesell, Benjamin Spock and Bruno Bettelheim, T. Berry Brazelton and Gary Ezzo--were either "hard" or "soft." The hard expert, she writes, was "a stern father figure of the Lockean nurture-is-what-counts school," the soft a "gentler Rousseauian proponent of letting nature take its course." While Watson advised that hugging and kissing would create weak children, Gesell invented the "it's-just-a-stage" excuse for bad behavior.