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My Blue Heaven

Baby and Child Care

Seventh edition, by Benjamin Spock, by Steven Parker
Dutton/Pocket Books, 939 pp., $7.95 (paper)

Family Man

by Calvin Trillin
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 184 pp., $20.00

1.

Raising Baby by the Book is a history of bringing up American parents. In it, the author, Julia Grant, describes a discussion in one of the many child-study groups organized by the federal government, universities, and local institutions in the 1930s and 1940s, about what to do with a child who is jealous of the new baby. The mothers suggest putting the child “in a barrel every time he hits the baby,” or maybe packing his things and sending him to a relative: “Make him think you didn’t want him around if he didn’t want the baby.” These remedies, today rather startling, may serve to remind us that commonplace psychological assumptions—for instance that an older child will be jealous of a new baby—were by no means widespread before the Second World War. In a country of such great cultural diversity, child-rearing practices were also wildly divergent, and this posed problems in education and in law. How to transmit American social values to such disparate folks? And what are they?

Almost from the start, a customary American optimism and confidence in science led experts to believe that the sound practices can be determined by research and promulgated by education. Only later did it become apparent that education did not lead to mastery: the more parents heard of scientific and psychological theories, the more they became insecure and self-questioning, and more rather than less dependent on advice from gurus and authorities. The problem remains that over the decades of the twentieth century, the views of experts have varied widely.

Before the most prominent advice-giver, Benjamin Spock, came onto the scene in 1946, many others had done their share to undermine the wavering self-confidence of conscientious American parents. In the nineteenth century, people had believed that a delinquent might have “bad blood” or that you got your musical talent from your musical ancestor. A widespread eugenics movement, supported by such people as G.B. Shaw, Beatrice and Sidney Webb, and Harvard president Charles W. Eliot, presumed that society would benefit if carriers of bad blood were encouraged not to reproduce—or were actively prevented from doing so. But when arguments about inherited characteristics were misused to justify programs of sterilization—just as the social Darwinists had used the analogy of biological evolution to justify social inequities—they were deemed politically offensive and were supplanted by various “environmental” theories, which held that aspects of your environment were more influential than your genes in shaping the person you would become.

Cultural anthropologists like Franz Boas and Margaret Mead found variations in cultures sufficient to explain how differently individuals developed in different societies. During the 1930s and 1940s, behaviorism became fashionable under the influence of the psychologists B.F. Skinner and John Broadus Watson, who advised parents never to kiss their babies or take them on their laps for fear of encouraging dependency and bad habits. Implicit in their views were both the Rousseauian assumption that a child was an untamed force of nature whose will was opposed to socialization and still earlier Lockean ideas of the tabula rasa: with discipline and reward you could “train” a child to the kind of behavior you deemed correct. To help a child adjust to society, he would have to be “broken” and written on. It was Watson who famously said, “Give me a dozen healthy infants…and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select…regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocation, and race of his ancestors.”

Though such a possibility seems in hindsight to have promise for baffled modern educators, these behaviorist theories were gradually displaced by psychological theories of development that held that a child is a distinct person with rights and tendencies, and that a parent’s duty is not so much to break his will as to prevent early traumas and bring out his unique qualities. From the serene assurance inspired by the theories of inherited traits, which meant there was not a lot you could do about your kid’s basic nature, thought turned to the possibility that his environment and first years of life were all up to you.

According to Grant, a professor of public affairs at Michigan State University, such organizations as the American Association of University Women and the PTA arose from the felt need to inform parents, especially mothers, about correct methods of child-rearing, whatever the going theory, as well as to convince the growing number of educated and career women that motherhood was an interesting and demanding profession, one their sex uniquely qualified or destined them for—their nature whether they liked it or not. Women were for the most part trustful of this point of view, cooperative and involved, throwing themselves into motherhood in the spirit of whatever theory prevailed, picking baby up when he cried, or letting him cry until the moment his schedule permitted him to be picked up; letting him suck his thumb, or tying it behind his back; toilet training early, toilet training late. They thronged to clubs and discussion groups, wrote letters, and read—though pragmatism and community practices were sometimes apt to prevail over books. Grant found that women have often grown restive under the strictures of (largely male) gurus; she gives as an example a pacifier revolt, when mothers adopted these soothing gadgets wholesale despite the disapproval of Spock and others, who did not have to deal with a fussy baby.

Following expert advice or defying it, relying on common sense or friends, mothers were never destined to get it right. At various periods they have been criticized for overprotectiveness (most famously by Philip Wylie, but even by Betty Friedan, who argued that women who lived only through their husbands and children ended by damaging them and limiting themselves), just as now if they go out to work they are often criticized for neglect.

The felt need to educate mothers implies that they are unfit and unknowing. Their children reproach them, the media presents unrealistic models of sprightly perfection for them to emulate, society offers nothing by way of admiration or support. Theories regarding the father’s role have come and gone, but mothers remain—insecure, daunted, and blamed, their children’s behavior problems laid entirely at their door. A quick check of the new-book shelf at my library gives Mothers Who Drive Their Daughters Crazy; Laughter and Tears: The Emotional Life of New Mothers; and Child of Mine,1 which is testimony by well-known women writers, for instance Susan Cheever and Naomi Wolf, about their babies, abounding in sentences like “I was filled with panic. Something was wrong,” “I don’t know if I worry more than the average mother but I know the toll it takes on me,” “I felt horribly guilty,” “Beth… informed me that I was ‘clinically depressed,”’ “The truth is, I was terrified….”

But: The Book of Fathers’ Wisdom. There’s a persona for father’s writing—a goofy, slightly hapless object of affectionate scorn, rather like the television fathers wearing their two left shoes who are nonetheless genial, wise, and in charge. It is interesting that women rarely write about the experience of motherhood, but when they do, it is likely to be a testimony of woe. Two fathers who in their wisdom have given us attractive little books are Calvin Trillin (Family Man), whose main advice is “Try to get one that doesn’t spit up,” and Bill McKibben (Maybe One), who argues in favor of the only child, for environmental reasons, and spells out the advantages for the child, the parents, and the world of the one-child family, so widely criticized if Chinese.

Trillin’s charming essays present a loving, idealized, funny view of parenthood, a hindsight look which transforms with humor the most anxious occasions, for instance, when you hear too late that you should have talked to your infant during those vital first few months:

The White House and a number of experts on child development launched a program to impress upon parents…that for developmental purposes it is vital to talk to infants who are only weeks old and who at first glance don’t strike you as the sort of folks you’d fall into a conversation with….

This business about synapses struck me as the sort of finding that could have been designed to add to the concerns of those older parents who already spend some uncomfortable time, while trying to fall asleep at night, thinking of ways that they may have shortchanged their children,…pushing aside old chestnuts like whether that really was the right summer camp or whether the purchase of the guitar might have been to blame for everything that followed.

The ultimate father was Benjamin Spock, not to his family, of course, where he was apparently as fallible as any parent, but to the nation in the Forties. After the cultural anthropologists and the behaviorists came the psychologists, especially Freud, whose influence was stronger in America than elsewhere; and Spock was of a generation to have come under Freud’s influence in medical school and in his own training analysis. As a pediatrician, Spock introduced a more psychological approach to a child’s development, and a more humane one—or so it still seems to Spock parents. They could now use their common sense, and they could pick baby up if he cried. Though his famous manual downplays hard-core discussion of Oedipus and penis envy, Spock does convey, in reassuring, supportive tones, Freud’s emphasis on the importance of childhood experience in forming the adult.

His was to become the most widely consulted baby manual in our history, and has been in print since 1946, to be sure with modifications over the years. The baby, “he” in 1946, is now “she” half the time. The pacifier, now thought “helpful” and “efficient,” was not even mentioned in 1946. Now, in the drawings, it’s the same baby being bathed, but mom in her apron has been replaced by a dad. Is it significant that the black dad feeding the baby on page 347 of recent editions is gone in 1998? The car seat and bicycle helmet have been introduced. But the work of a Dr. Clara Davis, whose 1940s studies of babies choosing their food for themselves apparently fascinated Spock, is still referred to; the definition of meconium is unchanged2 ; and babies still learn to drop things on purpose at about a year of age, though how Spock put it originally—that mom shouldn’t think baby was trying to “make a monkey” of her—has been changed, presumably for PC reasons about animal feelings.

A few weeks before Spock’s recent death at the age of ninety-four, it was reported, not without a note of triumphalism, that his younger, second wife had appealed to friends for money in order to avoid putting him in a nursing home. To the extent that his was taken to be an exemplary life, as is implied by the subtitle of the new biography (“An American Life”), this development invited reflection. Several conclusions were possible: maybe just sic transit gloria mundi; but maybe “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth”—for his own children had apparently not backed her effort to spare the old man indignity, implying that his famous methods, especially his vaunted permissiveness, had produced self-involved baby-boomers of the kind that failed to help their old parents; and many might have felt that all political radicals and war protesters must come to a sorry end. His life thus retained its paradigmatic form, embodying certain issues that remain important in American life.

  1. 1

    Susan Cohen and Edward M. Cohen, Mothers Who Drive Their Daughters Crazy (Prima Press, 1997); E. Bing and L. Colman, Laughter and Tears: The Emotional Life of New Mothers (Holt, 1997); Christina Baker Kline, Child of Mine (Hyperion, 1997); Edward Hoffman, editor, The Book of Fathers’ Wisdom (Carol, 1997).

  2. 2

    For the first day or so after birth, the baby’s movements are composed of material called meconium, which is greenish-black in color and of a smooth, sticky consistency.”

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