There is a holographic quality to Ann Hulbert’s keen, meticulously researched new book, Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children. Looked at dead on, the book tells the story of the men whose ideas and opinions dominated child-rearing throughout the twentieth century, set against their family histories. But when one shifts perspectives, it is something else altogether. It is a civics lesson, a way of understanding the larger role these men played while fussing over America’s youngest citizens. Concerned not simply with raising children, they were engaged in bringing up a nation.
“It is beyond the capacity of the individual parent to train her child to fit into the intricate, interwoven and interdependent social and economic system we have developed,” proclaimed President Hoover’s White House Conference on Child Health and Protection in 1930. For that we needed experts. Ten years later the same gathering was called “The White House Conference on Children in a Democracy.” The message was clear: citizenship issued from the bassinet.
It is apt, then, that Hulbert begins with two political philosophers, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose very different notions of human nature and education form the yin and yang of her analysis. “What unfolds,” she writes, “is a peculiar family saga that features an odd couple in each [generational] period: one expert a stern father figure of the Lockean nurture-is-what-counts school, the other a gentler Rousseauian proponent of letting nature take its course in childhood.”
While it is not a new observation that child-rearing advice has historically flip-flopped from Locke to Rousseau, Rousseau to Locke—Julia Grant, for one, made the same claim a few years ago1—Hulbert uses the distinction both to explain the psychology of each man and to help her organize her material. While this distinction can seem reductive, in fact it serves a crucial purpose: to demonstrate, over and over again, the lack of consensus among the experts and thus to question their authority. Two hundred pages into it and you’re ready to toss your Dr. Spock, your T. Berry Brazelton, your Richard Ferber, into the recycling—where, you now understand, they came from in the first place.
This is not the way it was supposed to be. The twentieth century promised to bring rigor and truth to the emerging science of child development. It is no accident that among the three “odd couples” Hulbert profiles—L. Emmett Holt and G. Stanley Hall, John Watson and Arnold Gesell, Benjamin Spock and, more modestly, Bruno Bettelheim—there is no one without the letters “Dr.” before his name. These were men of science, with all that that promised and all it assumed. Empiricism, which was supposed to be systematic and right, trumped instinct, which was tired and haphazard. “The science of the child offered an opportunity to rise above the dichotomies of abstract ‘masculine’ reason and ‘feminine’ emotion that pervaded Victorian gender lore,” Hulbert writes. “Instead, scientists heralded incessant observation…as the key that would unlock the secrets of growth and guidance.”
Dr. Holt led the way. A physician born to a farming family in upstate New York in 1855, he brought science to bear on what is arguably the most natural aspect of maternal childcare: feeding. Holt’s widely circulated pamphlet, The Care and Feeding of Children, laid out with a chemist’s precision the ingredients, measurements, and schedules for optimal nourishment. The schedules were crucial. They spoke to Holt’s Lockean belief that “a young baby is very easily molded; in fact he is about the most plastic living thing in the world. The disposition to the formation of habit is amazing, and it is just as easy to form good habits as bad ones if one begins aright at the outset and is consistent.” Food was to be offered every two hours at first, and then at lengthening intervals. Toilet training was to commence (and finish) at three months. Crying half an hour a day was the baby’s “exercise.” Playing was not to occur, ideally, until the baby was in his sixth month. Such orderliness, Holt argued, would instill the proper habits of mind in a child who had been born into a world—fast, impersonal, over-stimulating—that bore little relation to the more pastoral world of his parents.
Indeed, it was this disparity at the turn of the last century that led parents to look for guidance outside the family; their own experience and that of their parents’ no longer seemed to apply. As Dr. Holt put it, “The conditions which kept child life simple and natural fifty years ago have largely changed since that time; on every side there is more to stimulate the nervous system and less opportunity for muscular development.” This now-familiar complaint has fueled the child-rearing advice business ever since. The irony is that there are ever more experts offering ever more advice, reflecting ever more parental uncertainty and anxiety. Measured along the bookshelf, that anxiety looks something like this: in 1945, the first year of its publication, Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care sold three quarters of a million copies; in the twentieth century as a whole, a copy of Spock or a copy of Infant Care, the first publication of the Labor Department’s Children’s Bureau, was sold for every first child born in the United States; in the last quarter of the last century, the number of advice books for parents published in this country increased fivefold.
That middle-class, primarily white American, parents should be increasingly unsure of themselves and more protective of their children at a time when the health and welfare of those children had never been more secure is the subject of Peter Stearns’s short account, Anxious Parents. Once children were no longer necessary financial contributors to the family economy, he argues, their place in the family became tenuous and their relationship to their parents perpetually infantile. In the twentieth century, parents began to see the world as a dangerous place for their children and their children prey to its many dangers. “The idea of the vulnerable child, which replaced earlier convictions about children’s sturdiness, reflects an anxious century,” he writes. “More anxious than before? Quite probably. Oddly anxious, all things considered? Without a doubt.”
Stearns points to a number of contemporary phenomena, each of which he considers an expression of parental anxiety, to show just how odd: the decline of chores done by children around the house (one wouldn’t want to overburden one’s children); “the homework wars,” where parents have either pushed schools to assign more homework so that their children will stay competitive or have chastised schools for assigning a taxing amount of it; the kinds of creature comforts students bring with them to college; the fact that 90 percent of the world’s Ritalin is prescribed in this country; and grade inflation, among them.
Stearns, who is the provost at George Mason University, appears to be particularly sensitive to the upward mobility of kids’ grades. (Take, for example, the case of a California high school where forty members of a single graduating class were valedictorian.) It’s not that students are getting smarter—or dumber, for that matter—it’s that schools are now self-esteem factories, and praise, in the form of As and Bs, is good for productivity. Also, Stearns suggests, teachers are not merely afraid of damaging young egos, they’re loath to incur the wrath of parents whose children have not done well. And, of course, both parents and teachers have their own interests in kids getting into good colleges. Once they do get in, the colleges want to hold on to them so the schools’ attrition rates don’t rise and their US News and World Report rankings don’t go down—hence the proliferation of summas and magnas issued from their august halls.
The problem with this tidy explanation of cause and effect is that grade inflation, and the other examples Stearns offers, have complicated social roots; they are products not only of mom and dad’s behavior, but of economics, family history, ethnicity, culture, social change. What, for instance, is making so many young children obese today? Why are they consuming many more calories than they need? Stearns suggests that parents, abnormally worried about triggering eating disorders, as well as by vestigial fears that their offspring will not receive sufficient nutrition, do little to restrict the amount of food their children eat. Parental anxiety, in other words, causes kids to get fat, which in turn causes parental anxiety. It’s a closed loop.
In fact, the causes of childhood obesity are numerous, as Greg Critser argues effectively in Fat Land, citing the introduction of high fructose corn syrup in 1971 and its effect on both human metabolism and food production, for one thing, and, for others, the late-twentieth-century propensity to eat more and more meals out of the house; the marketing of “supersized” restaurant portions; the replacement of the traditional cafeteria in many schools with Pizza Hut and other fast-food outlets; and the financial relationship between soft drink manufacturers and educators, which has led to the proliferation of soda machines in schools. There’s really more to be anxious about than Anxious Parents considers.
Though Stearns is ostensibly writing a history of twentieth-century child-rearing, he casually slips into the role of advocate and counselor, entreating parents to have more “backbone” when dealing with their kids. Still, he is careful not to blame them for their indecisive and coddling natures or, for that matter, for their anxieties. How not to be anxious, he observes, in the face of the scare tactics of the media (“It’s ten o’clock. Do you know where your children are?”) and the “discovery” of new childhood maladies (SIDS, ADD, ODD, etc.) by the medical community? “I do not think that outside expertise has undermined parenting…” he writes, “but I certainly believe it has enhanced parental worrying and reduced their confident pleasure.” In other words, it’s no longer satisfying to be a parent. Certain twentieth-century men—L. Emmett Holt, John Watson, and Benjamin Spock, to name a few—took that away.
The experts, one can be consoled, didn’t find the task of raising children any more pleasing or easy than the average parent. As Emmett Holt wrote to his wife, “I realize very much more when I am here alone and the house is so still, how much of a place my dear wife and little children fill in my life here. I must confess that when they are here, and I know they are, I don’t get nearly as much happiness out of my association with them as I ought and as I might.”
G. Stanley Hall, whom Hulbert poses as Holt’s Rousseauian foil, did not fare much better. An advocate of letting young people “find themselves” through a long, unhurried adolescence, he was, in the words of his son Robert, “a distant, austere, and authoritarian figure,” who had little to do with his son after his wife died. And then there was John Watson, the ultimate champion of Locke’s “tabula rasa,” who proclaimed in his best-selling book Behaviorism—the first advice book for parents to become a commercial best seller:
Raising Baby by the Book: The Education of American Mothers (Yale University Press, 1998), p. 41: "Theories of early childhood have embodied a tension between...the Rousseauian idea of designing education according to a child's 'innate nature' and the Lockean concept...that children need to be trained to fit into adult society...."↩
Raising Baby by the Book: The Education of American Mothers (Yale University Press, 1998), p. 41: “Theories of early childhood have embodied a tension between…the Rousseauian idea of designing education according to a child’s ‘innate nature’ and the Lockean concept…that children need to be trained to fit into adult society….”↩