Jewish World Review May 15, 2003 / 13 Iyar, 5763
Parents should be alert to child 'experts'
This used to be called "going to grandma" for child-rearing wisdom. But in the last 100 years, it seems something has largely replaced it: the distinctively American tendency to "go to the experts" when it comes to raising our little ones. It's those experts who are the subject of an illuminating and lively new book by Ann Hulbert, "Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children."
Hulbert writes not as a partisan in what might be dubbed the "child-rearing wars," but simply as a chronicler of the phenomenon of the child-rearing expert.
She suggests that the turn toward the "professionalization" of child-rearing arose out of the notion that, with the dawning of the 20th century, science could help us make everything better - even children.
The history of the experts, Hulbert writes in a way both provocative and yet dispassionate, is largely one of conflicting, polarized advice often based on the scantiest of research. It's been dispensed by men, for the most part, who made careers, for the most part, out of telling women how to be better mothers. It's a great story.
There's the famous, strict behaviorist John Watson, who told mothers of the 1920s and 1930s only to kiss their children on the foreheads - if they must kiss at all - and anyway it was better to shake hands. Of his two sons, one committed suicide and the other had a breakdown and battled suicidal impulses for years. There's the "permissive" Dr. Benjamin Spock (actually not nearly as permissive as he's been labeled, Hulbert notes ) deeply involved in antiwar radicalism in the 1960s. Later there was Dr. James Dobson, who made a ministry out of daring parents to discipline their kids, and Dr. T. Berry Brazelton who seems to think that children are born into this world better people than their parents ever were. There are many others.
Such experts started arriving on the scene as mothers started going to nifty sounding conferences, like The Conference on Modern Parenthood in New York City in 1925, and an area of study labeled "child development" was discovered.
Hulbert says that through it all, what has remained constant is the polarization between "hard" or parent-centered, and "soft" or child-centered, parenting advice.
But, Hulbert writes, such advice may overlap more than we think. Sort of the "going full circle round to the other side" view.
But where she's perhaps more likely to see some synthesis, I see a typically futile attempt to hold two opposing views - whatever they may be labeled - at the same time.
So, for instance, today's elite parenting culture - the books, magazines and Web sites - will often, but certainly not always, talk about the need for parents to have some authority in their children's lives. Yet in the same breath, they will maintain that you should regularly give your child as many choices as possible in every conceivable area of his life. They might argue that a child needs limits and discipline, but will then make the case that one should never spank a child because a little one can't understand what's happening, but an 18-month old can effectively be put in a "time out." They talk about helping a child to develop a sense of empathy and right and wrong, but are adamant that one never criticize the child, "only his behavior."
Yes, the experts conflict, often with themselves. And Americans, 100 years after the "century of the child" and the "expert era" was inaugurated, seem to have more child-rearing angst than ever. Nor have I heard anyone suggest we're now raising "better" kids, however that's defined.
So, is that child-rearing angst a cause of, or caused by, the experts? Hulbert says it may be a bit of both.
But she ultimately steps back, and leaves final conclusions up to her
readers. In the end, it seems to me, if those readers at the very
least walk away from "Raising America" feeling less intimidated by
the experts and more confident in their own common sense as
parents and in going to grandma for child raising advice, Hulbert will
have done them a favor.
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