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Evangelists for Kids

A Mind at a Time

by Mel Levine, M.D.
Simon and Schuster, 352 pp., $14.00 (paper)

1.

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.

2.

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:

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. 1

    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….”

  2. 2

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

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