Looking down the list of more than 600 books on "child development" now in print, one of the authors asked with nicely ironical innocence: "How is it possible that children grew and developed for millions of years without all of this information?"
"Parenting"! Awful word! Worse idea! It turns the most profound human relationship into a series of strategies and techniques. One book will warn that no child can possibly grow up into a decent adult without hours of daily "eye-contact" during the first three months. Another treatise will caution that crib toys of a proper size, color, and kinetic quality will make all the difference whether your infant matures into a second Einstein or the class dunce.
The childhood-development "industry," as more of its members concede, has become "an information glut" -- "much of it contradictory."
If only the "confusion and misinformation" were restricted to the subject of childhood!
Manuals of professional and pseudo-professional advice make up a substantial portion of the book market.
There are books on how to be married, how to be single, how to be separated.
There are books on how to earn happiness, or a million dollars, or both.
There are books on how to buy a car, how to repair a car, and how to sell a car.
There are books on how to grow African violets and how to care for tropical fish.
One could assemble a big library of books on how to cook almost anything edible -- and a few things that aren't.
And, of course, for every book on how to cook, there's book on how to lose weight.
No department of living is left without its confident rule-makers and advice-mongers.
How did we get into this state of appalling dependency where we don't dare take in a stray cat without consulting a how-to-live-with-your-pet book, breaking the whole business down into a system?
How to lay a brick patio and "How to Win Friends and Influence People" are rather different matters, but somehow, somewhere we have managed to confuse the two, reducing all aspects of life to do-it-yourself project. Thus one learns how to overcome shyness much the same way one learns how to spray-paint -- by a series of specific steps, specifically followed.
Everything gets reduced to methodology -- a right way and wrong way.
No matter what the subject, we are led to believe there is an expert somewhere who was been running tests in his laboratory and researching all the pertinent data, and he, and he alone, can answer our burning question: What's the secret?
He will inform us that the child who is talked to constantly for the first three months will grow up with a 52.8 percent larger vocabulary and stand 29.3 percent less chance of divorce. And the correct way to talk to an infant is this:
1. Put your mouth 12-15 inches from the child's face.
2. Smile when you speak so that you introduce a warm, caring gurgle into your voice.
3. Pronounce your words carefully, especially the polysyllables.
We exaggerate only slightly.
Dr. Michael Lewis, who raised our opening question to a New York Times reporter, went on to observe about the books of the child-development industry: "Much of it is bubba psychology -- from the Russian word for grandmother. What are these people selling that a grandmother couldn't sell?"
But nobody would believe a grandmother unless she had her doctorate and her clinical training and her research papers, all of which conclude: What a child needs most is love.
Once, in grandmother's time, people thought of living as an art. Now we approach it as a problem to be solved, subdivided into specialities like "parenting," which we can't possibly face without the help of the appropriate "social engineer."
Whatever became of collective wisdom? Whatever became of intuition? If only we could regain a little poise as amateurs-of-living, in the full, loving sense of "amateur." Then we wouldn't need that ultimate absurdity in how-to books, "How to Cope With the Stress Caused by All the Other How- to Books."