MINDING THE CHILDREN by Geraldine Youcha


Child Care in America from Colonial Times to the Present
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 An intriguing but weakly argued introduction to an underexplored subject. Youcha (coauthor, Drugs, Alcohol, and Your Children, 1989) contends that today's conflicts over day care are nothing new- -indeed, that children have always been looked after by complex and various combinations including relatives, older siblings, employers, paid strangers, intimately known slaves, servants, and settlement-house workers. She convincingly uses historical example to challenge the amnesiac contemporary notion that biological mothers have always been full-time care-givers. She also wrestles with some psychologically complicated historical situations: the colonial apprentice/master relationship (children as young as six could be hired out); Southern black ``mammies'' and white mistresses raising, often wet-nursing, each other's children; child factory labor; 19th-century utopian communities like the Shakers, in which children were the responsibility of the whole community and individual parent/child attachments were frowned on. She also examines 20th-century upper-class solutions like boarding schools and nannies, foster care, and postWW II comprehensive day care institutions. Her examples do add nuance to received wisdom about what constitutes traditional motherhood. But Youcha's narrative is inconsistent: Sometimes she tries to describe situations objectively; sometimes she adopts a decisively opinionated slant; her interpretations often falter and backpedal. Writing about the antebellum South, she cites evidence that children could become more attached to their mammies than to their mothers, yet in comparing the mammy to today's nannies, she discounts that possibility. She changes her tone abruptly, too, in characterizing the utopians as by turns unfeeling and progressive. There is ample evidence that their child-care practices were both of these things, but Youcha doesn't weave contradictory elements together. A solid use of provocative historical cases to raise new questions in the contemporary child-care debates, but with its rough style and chaotically veering judgments, it doesn't provide answers.

Pub Date: Jan. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 0-684-19336-1
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Scribner
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1994