Parenting Expert Overload: A Brief History

Parenting theories come and go … and come and go… and come and go…

One of my favorite parenting books is actually a book about parenting books.

It’s Ann Hulbert’s Raising America: Experts, Parents, And A Century of Advice about Children. This book provided incredibly useful context for me as a new mother navigating the world of parenting expertise. The gist of the book is that over the last century American ideas about parenting have been consistently swinging back and forth between strict and more laissez-faire approaches.

Trends come and go and yet there’s been this consistent action/reaction paradigm: one expert pushes for more parental control, another fights back with love and kisses. I think it’s massively helpful to expectant and brand new parents to get this perspective: some of these battles (schedule a baby’s sleep, don’t schedule a baby’s sleep) have been going on for over a hundred years! No one seems to have come out on top. And meanwhile more and more we’re relying on “experts” and their “data,”  rather than our own instincts.

Reading this book you get the sense that some middle-ground between “parent-led” and “child-led” approaches probably makes the most sense. One also wonders whether people espousing serious extremes on one end or the other aren’t bringing some traumatic personal history to the parenting party. Dr. Spock, for example, was raised by parents who, like their peers, were very strict with their children, encouraging stoic and independent behavior from a very early age. Of course he went on to become the most famous parenting expert in modern history for emphasizing the exact opposite approach: he pushed for responsiveness and nurturing. Eventually, after decades of ruling the charts, he was accused of being too “permissive” and thus the pendulum swung.

For fun, I put together a quick time-line of parenting advice in America, based on Hulbert’s history. Try not to get too dizzy:

1900: Mortality rate high. Enlightened moms want more “scientific” attention focused on childcare. The parenting expert is born.

1920s: First round of parent-led vs. child-led warfare ignited with original parenting gurus Dr. L. Emmett Holt (strict feeding schedules) and Dr. G. Stanley Hall (nurture the child’s spirit). President Franklin D. Roosevelt is a hands-on dad.

1930s: Round Two: Dr. John B. Watson takes the “get tough”  approach and tells moms to stop kissing their babies, while softie Dr. Arnold Gessell ventures into the world of cue-reading and tells moms, “Don’t watch the clock , watch the child.”

1950s: Dueling gurus temporarily shut down by mid-century monarchy of Dr. Spock who tells women to rely on their “instincts.” Instead they rely on his bestselling paperback.

1960s-1970s: “Spocklash” hits hard: Gloria Steinem says Spock is a “major oppressor” of women. Squares like Spiro Agnew blame Spock’s “permissive parenting” for generation of hippies. Monarchy gives way to exponentially growing advice biz.

1970s: Progressive child-led experts, like Brits Penelope Leach and Sheila Kitzinger (women! finally!), are part of a larger back-to-nature approach. Dr. T. Berry Brazelton takes over role of latest, greatest male pediatrician: says babies need “loveys.”

1980s: Ultra right-wing parenting gurus Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo and Dr. James Dobson push for mom to get back in the house and revive Feeding Schedules!

Now: Information Age anxiety = Piaget-style development mania. Babies wired-up, tested, shown flash cards. Dr. William Sears promotes “Attachment Parenting,”  a more “natural” approach as a spate of “super nannies” including Gina Ford promote schedules.



This is the second in my series on parenting *advice.* Read “The 7 Best Birth Books” here.

Article Posted 5 years Ago

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