A century of conflicting advice
After 100 years, experts still can't agree on the best ways to raise children.
Raising children may be the most humbling job in the world.Skip to next paragraph
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Parents awaiting the arrival of their first child dream of sunlit days and peaceful nights, a domestic world in which, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, all the fathers are helpful, all the mothers are patient, and all the children are way above average, and obedient, too.
But with each joyous birth also comes reality. Babies cry. Toddlers say No. Teenagers go silent. No wonder frazzled parents reach out to experts - the pediatricians, psychologists, and therapists who fill bookshelves and magazines with earnest advice on how to raise happy, healthy, successful children.
Modern parents did not invent anxiety, of course, as Ann Hulbert explains in "Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children" (Knopf, $27.50). Even 100 years ago, the predecessors of Dr. Benjamin Spock were dispensing authoritarian do's and don'ts to mothers. (A father's role then was simply to be solicitous of his wife, not to change diapers.) Like their successors today, these advisers specialized in conflicting advice:
Don't play with your baby, warned one expert at the turn of the century.
Be affectionate, countered another.
Don't let your children sit in your lap, and don't kiss them - just shake hands with them in the morning, intoned a third.
Then there were those other enduring debates: Bottle or breast? Schedules or spontaneity? Discipline or leniency? Who could blame millions of confused parents for embracing the avuncular, reassuring Dr. Spock when his book appeared in 1946?
For Ms. Hulbert, a former senior editor at The New Republic, these conflicting child-rearing philosophies raised intriguing questions: Who were these men, anyway? (Yes, almost all were men, a gender imbalance that has improved only slightly today.) And what gave them the power to usurp the role grandmothers had traditionally played as reigning experts on bringing up baby?
As a child of the 1950s, Ms. Hulbert was raised as "a good Spock baby." But when it was her turn to have children - her daughter is now 11 and her son 14 - she did not rush to the parenting shelf at the bookstore.
"I was not an expert-addicted mother," she says. Even so, she wanted "to figure out where the experts' interests came from, what the sources of their advice were, and how it adds up."
As Hulbert studied a century of domestic and social history, she discovered that many early advice-givers were the sons of strong, adoring mothers and distant or difficult fathers. Despite the confidence they projected publicly and in print, they often proved to be less than successful in their private roles as husbands and fathers. Some worried that they might be a "mama's boy" and displayed what Hulbert calls a "deep ambivalence about women's power."
Still, that didn't stop them from "professionalizing" child-rearing. By defining motherhood as a vocation, these turn-of-the-century experts found a ready audience of middle-class women eager to upgrade the status of their maternal role.
"The era of the amateur mother was over," Hulbert says. Rather than relying on "uncertain instinct," mothers could now strive for "unhesitating insight."
"The notion of making child-rearing psychologically, socially, and spiritually a demanding and rewarding enterprise had a real appeal," Hulbert explains. "Plenty of women did not have other careers open to them."
But that professionalization carried a price for women. By raising the bar of parental skills ever higher, Hulbert says, the experts made everyone's expectations harder to fulfill.
Turning parenthood into a vocation also had the odd effect of making fathers more marginal, rather than less. Because breadwinning dads already had a full-time job, this new professionalism subtly excluded them.