An unfailingly interesting study of a peculiarly American fixation: how to raise a child.
All societies nurture their children, of course, and just about everyone worries about whether their offspring are safe, secure, and well cared for. But ever since the advent of the Industrial Age, writes former New Republic editor Hulbert (The Interior Castle: The Art and Life of Jean Stafford, 1992), Americans have been beset by anxiety in nearly every aspect of child-rearing, worrying that they haven’t been doing their best at it, and their angst hasn’t been helped by the flood of conflicting advice by scientists, pseudo-scientists, and, always, religious leaders. Where the avuncular, Cold War–era Benjamin Spock discouraged corporal punishment for childish misdemeanors, for instance, the bestselling behaviorist John Broadus Watson “scoffed at nonsense about how children ‘develop from within’ ” and warned against parents’ being overly affectionate, sure that this would breed “soft citizens ill suited to an impersonal, organized world”; where Spock and his followers blended a kind of dilute Freudianism with dashes of world anthropology and democratic ideology, an authority of the turn of the 20th century named Anna Rogers urged that there was quite too much concern for emotional well-being among her peers, railing, “If only a mother would strive to put less heart into it all, and more mind!” Hulbert takes her readers on a chronological guided tour through the various psychological and sociological schools that have at one time or another held sway over the last century, pointing out the “inconsistent, often quickly obsolescent, counsel peddled to the public” and relating changing mores to other social shifts. The topic of child-raising continues to absorb us, she writes, and can still generate controversy, as when Judith Rich Harris’s The Nurture Assumption stirred up wide debate after its publication in 1998; even so, no one school of thought dominates the matter today, leaving ever-bewildered parents to sort through “programmatic child-rearing creeds” for themselves and hope that Jack and Jill turn out okay.
An engaging and provocative contribution to social history.