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 …