Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 2004)
The United States at the end of the nineteenth century seemed to many people to be a world spinning out of control. New technologies like doorbells, telephones, and mechanical toys were making people nervous. People were moving from the farms to the cities, women were going to college and to jobs outside the home, neighbors were strangers to each other. Children were isolated, overstimulated, growing up too fast. Without extended families to help them raise their children, parents became anxious. They found advice, much of it conflicting, in the books of a new branch of social science, the study of child development. In Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children, Ann Hulbert traces the history of the new experts and their manuals from the end of the nineteenth century to the turn of the twenty-first.
Raising America is divided into four sections, each covering about one-quarter of the century. In each period, Hulbert finds that the experts divide neatly into two schools. The “hard” theorists advocate a parent-centered approach, with schedules, regimens, and firm discipline. The “soft” advocates of child-centered parenting believe in flexibility, feeding on demand, and treating children as equals.
The first section, “The Birth of a Science,” introduces pediatrician Luther Emmett Holt and psychologist G. Stanley Hall. Holt’s The Care and Feeding of Children turned mothers into technicians, raising children according to strict schedules. The book advised that children should eat precise amounts of precisely measured formulas (rather than breast milk) at precise times; they should be put into bed according to schedule and left there until the schedule called for them to get up; they should be toilet trained by three months. Mothers should not play with their babies, or pick them up when they cried.
Hall took a “softer” view, encouraging mothers to be flexible and affectionate with their children and to turn a fond but blind eye to the youthful “immoderation, irregularity, irresponsibility” of adolescence. Masturbation should be ignored, if not encouraged, and children’s questions about sex should be answered thoroughly. Holt and Hall were both confident, both scientific, and both concerned about children being forced to grow up too quickly. They began a pattern that would continue through the century: raising new reasons for anxiety in mothers and offering conflicting ways to relieve it.
The paired experts in Hulbert’s second section, “Psychological Leaps,” are Arnold Gesell and John B. Watson. For some twenty years, psychologist Gesell and his staff at Yale University filmed children at play in a gentle, softly lit environment and gathered data from their observations. The “soft” Gesell believed that children should be treated as equals and as individuals. He introduced the term “personality” and the theory of children developing through predictable stages, which mothers kept track of with daily color-coded charts. As Hulbert records in humorous detail, Gesell’s daughter-in-law tried to keep up with the charts, and repeatedly complained to Gesell about the daunting nature of the task.
During the same period, behaviorist John B. Watson was making his famous claim that he could raise any twelve healthy infants and turn them into doctors, lawyers, butchers—anything he wanted—“regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors.” His idea was that personality was purely a product of one’s reactions to various stimuli. Watson’s research was based far more frequently on laboratory mice than on children, but Hulbert describes one unfortunate infant named Little Albert, who was exposed to loud noises, barking dogs, even rats, and who emerged from his “conditioning” fearing loud noises, barking dogs, and rats. In Psychological Care of Infant and Child, Watson ordered mothers not to cuddle their babies, and he even surpassed Holt, suggesting that toilet training could begin as early as three weeks.
(The entire section is 1675 words.)
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