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Evangelists for Kids

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—a doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even into beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors.

With his own sons Watson was not so successful. One killed himself; the other had a mental breakdown. Even Dr. Spock, the even-tempered expert who calmed parents by urging them to rely on common sense, had a difficult time following his own prescriptions. The nervous son of a judgmental mother, and the husband of an angry, paranoid, alcoholic woman, he neither came from a family that offered the warm, empathetic embrace he championed in Baby and Child Care nor made such a family with his wife, Jane. Their son, John, who was ten at the time of his mother’s first psychiatric hospitalization, found his father, the man who was then revered as “America’s doctor,” to be “undemonstrative” and someone who made him feel “judged, criticized, scared [and] beaten down.”

Of all the experts Hulbert profiles, Spock comes across as being oddly ahistorical. Though a doctor with psychiatric training, he eschewed the science that had so enamored earlier child-rearing professionals, advocating instead a reliance on instinct and experience. “This is the way Nature expects human beings to learn child care—from their own childhood,’” he wrote in 1957. It was a heretical and welcomed point of view, as sales of his book, and subscriptions to Ladies’ Home Journal, which carried his advice column, attest. And it could not have differed more from the approach of his Rousseauian forebear G. Stanley Hall, whose supposedly objective questionnaires on childhood interests and behaviors were so ubiquitous in the early years of the century that William James, among many others, thought they “ranked among the common pests of life,” or from that of Hall’s protégé, Arnold Gesell.

It was Gesell, the author of the popular books The First Five Years of Life and The Child from Five to Ten, the subject of a New Yorker talk piece, a spread in Time, and the star of countless movie newsreels, whose preeminence Spock’s replaced. Gesell’s laboratory, called (unselfconsciously) the Yale Psycho-Clinic, was the model of “modern” child study. Here scores of New Haven children were observed through one-way mirrors, their every gesture recorded on film, in an effort to discover the normative “schedule” of physical and mental growth of the human species. Once that was codified, parents could measure their own children against those norms, to ensure that their youngsters were on the path of optimal growth. It was Gesell who came up with the developmental timetables most of us have internalized: walking at one, tantrums at two, and so on.

Spock, in contrast, did not study children, he treated them. Parents—mothers, especially—listened to him because he set himself up as a different kind of authority, one who cared about them (the adults) and didn’t find them lacking, an expert who, in his role as parents’ helper, became, in Hulbert’s words, an “amateur expert.” Americans, at mid-century, found it comforting. At least for a while.

By the late 1960s, what was now perceived as Spock’s easygoing permissiveness was being blamed by conservatives for producing a generation of undisciplined, selfish, rebellious youth. Meanwhile, certain progressives, feminists especially, took issue with Spock, nearly booing him out of a meeting of the National Women’s Political Caucus in 1972 for being a “major oppressor of women in the same category as Sigmund Freud.” By then he had taken on a new role, as an anti-nuclear advocate and the presidential candidate of the People’s Party, which only confirmed to the likes of Spiro Agnew, who was fond of ranting against “Spockmanship,” the implicit anti-authoritarian political message of the doctor’s child-rearing advice. In any case, the pub-lic had always been fickle when it came to child-rearing advice, and like the experts who came before him, Dr. Spock fell out of favor. New editions of Baby and Child Care continued to be published—the last one came out just after he died in 1998—but the book was just one of many in an increasingly crowded corner of the bookstore.

It is here, as Spock’s influence was waning, that Hulbert’s matrix begins to break down. In part, this is because Bruno Bettelheim, the expert she poses opposite Spock, never enjoyed Spock’s popular success or devotion. More importantly, it is because the number of people offering child-rearing advice grew tremendously. Instead of a single dominant point of view like Spock’s, or a competing dualism like Watson’s and Gesell’s, there were many philosophies and many approaches—parents could take their pick. There were evangelical Christian counselors who cited biblical injunctions to back up their advice, and “progressive” experts who cautioned about self-esteem, and “family-values” experts who called for a return to physical discipline. Later there was a lone woman, Judith Harris,2 who declared that what went on in the home between parent and child (spanking, no spanking, chores, no chores) was of far less significance than what happened when that child was among his peers.

Still, as Spock vacated the national nursery, another doctor took his place. T. Berry Brazelton considered Spock his hero but there was a fundamental difference in their approaches. Where Spock tended to the emotions, Brazelton concentrated on learning. The author of Infants and Mothers: Differences in Development and a collaborator with the Harvard psychologist Jerome Bruner, with whom he regularly went to play with the babies at Children’s Hospital in the 1960s, before establishing his own Child Development Unit there, Dr. Brazelton was, as Ann Hulbert puts it, “the pediatrician on call at the birth of the new field of infant cognition.” What before had been laid to feelings—to the interaction of mother and child, say—was now to be sought in that most mysterious realm, the brain, and in the notion of the mind as an information processor, a living computer. Brazelton and others began to study infant communication, temperament, and behavioral genetics, all with the goal of understanding what babies know and how they learn.

Theirs was not just knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but knowledge for the public interest as well. Helping young brains develop through programs like Head Start or identifying neurological vulnerabilities and protecting children from them could, perhaps, compensate for social inequalities. The political mission of child-rearing welcomed by President Hoover in 1930, and articulated by Arnold Gesell ten years later at the White House Conference on Children in a Democracy, had found a new expression.

In 1997, the Clinton administration, prompted by a call from the actor Rob Reiner, attempted to develop the connection between the lab and the public policy more fully at a White House Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning. A companion volume highlighting advances in neurobiology, also spurred by Reiner and published by Newsweek, sold roughly a million copies, indicating the widespread popular interest in the subject. It was around the same time that parents began playing classical music to their newborns to stimulate their neural pathways. And while the Mozart effect has been discredited, that interest prevails.

A year ago, when Dr. Brazelton’s former colleague Dr. Mel Levine published his own cog-sci manual and manifesto, A Mind at a Time, it became a fixture on best-seller lists, where it remains today. This is particularly remarkable because the book, though gentle in tone, is neither easy to read nor solicitous of parents: “Parents should be responsible for the ongoing automatization of skills and facts,” the doctor declares:

Mothers and fathers can legitimately assume the roles of taskmasters (as opposed to their current oft-assumed positions as child entertainers and recreation coordinators). A powerful work ethic has to permeate a home…. Parents should require a set duration of brain activity at least five evenings per week….

Such clear directives, reminiscent of L. Emmett Holt’s very specific instructions for feeding babies, may have something to do with Levine’s popularity. Parents, like children, want to be told what to do; there is something reassuring about being in the company of someone who knows more than you do, someone who appears to have access to uncommon knowledge and is willing to share it. (Levine, it should be noted, is childless.)

This continues to be the appeal of the “science” of raising children: in this case that it supplies what can be interpreted as systematic, nonjudgmental explanations for the messiness of daily life. Here the science of the brain promises rational explanations for heretofore inexplicable behavior. It says, for example, that it’s not your fault that your child is impulsive or antsy or sullen—she’s just “wired” that way. It promises “scientific” therapies, especially psychotropic medicines and smart drugs, for what can now be understood to be essentially biological, not psychological, problems. Every brain is different, Dr. Levine says in A Mind at a Time and in its sequel, The Myth of Laziness. Some are meant to make music, some to fix cars, some to practice medicine. Everyone is good at something. It is only school—that place where all of us ended up when we were no longer sent out to do real work—that demands we be good at everything.

In a way, Levine’s conceptions of the brain and of learning echo Howard Gardner’s pioneering (in the 1980s) notion of multiple intelligences. This was the idea that intelligence cannot be adequately understood or measured on a traditional two-dimensional—verbal/computational—scale, because the mind is more various than that. According to Gardner there is logical-mathematical intelligence, linguistic intelligence, spatial intelligence, musical intelligence, kinesthetic intelligence, and personal intelligence. People possess all of these, but to varying degrees, hence their different learning “styles.” Levine is interested in the flip side of learning, learning disabilities. If you want to think of the brain as acting, to some extent, as a computer, he seems to suggest, then be aware that hard drives can get fragmented or corrupted and cease to work effectively.

Oddly A Mind at a Time claims no intellectual antecedents, not Gardner or, for that matter, T. Berry Brazelton. Written without footnotes or a bibliography (other than a list of “Helpful Readings and Other Resources”), it cites no research other than what Levine has observed in his many years as the director of the University of North Carolina’s Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning, at his own All Kinds of Minds Institute, and at Children’s Hospital in Boston, where he was chief of ambulatory pediatrics for fourteen years. Levine’s theory of mind appears as wholly his own creation.

A Mind at a Time describes cognition as a series of smaller neurological processes, eight in all, that have to work together for a person to learn. Levine calls these the attention control system, the memory system, the language system, the spatial ordering system, the sequential ordering system, the motor system, the higher thinking system, and the social thinking system. He further divides each of these systems into subsets, and those subsets into smaller subsets, and the result is a detailed catalog of everything that can go wrong with respect to learning in a functioning brain. Diagnostic categories like attention deficit disorder or dyslexia, Levine argues, are useless because they are too broadly drawn to identify how, and then why, there is a problem. It is only by parsing a particular brain, through observation and testing, and determining if, for instance, there is trouble with sequencing or auditory processing or motor function or phonemological awareness or some combination of them, that reading problems or certain emotional difficulties or inattention, can be addressed therapeutically. The challenge, for readers, is to take Levine’s template of cognition and figure out what’s going awry.

This is no simple matter, and it is possible to draw the conclusion, while one is trying to sort out active working memory difficulties from, say, long-term memory difficulties, or problems with receptive language versus problems with expressive language, that this task might be better left up to the people who have the right kind of mind for it—the experts. Levine, though, is often skeptical of what passes for expertise as it relates to children and learning, and this, paradoxically, may contribute to his appeal, as it did to Dr. Spock’s. Next to the hidden truths one expects science to reveal, it is reassuring to be told by an expert that no one, so far, has really addressed your precise situation.

Reading Mel Levine alongside Ann Hulbert suggests that some day, not far off, Levine’s paradigms and prescriptions will seem as quaint as L. Emmett Holt’s. There will be some new guru, some new approach, some other book parents have to read. Experts come and go, Raising America shows, while parents, and their anxieties, remain.

But stroll down the baby-food aisle of any supermarket and you will see, in the containers of premeasured, sterile infant formula, the legacy of Dr. Holt. Sit in on a curriculum meeting at an average middle school and witness the bequest of G. Stanley Hall, who made adolescence a distinct developmental category. Look over the shoulder of some of those adolescents—they may be taking intelligence tests influenced by Arnold Gesell. When they were born, it’s likely that their neurological health was measured along the Brazelton Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale. Some of those students might have begun their education at Head Start. The experts, whose lives Ann Hulbert holds up to her bright and sometimes withering gaze, have had a lasting effect on the way we think about, and what we expect from, our families, our government, our schools, ourselves. In that, they are rather like those other people we like to dismiss—our parents.

  1. 2

    The Nurture Assumption: Why Kids Turn Out the Way They Do (Free Press, 1998).

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