Review

Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children

by Ann Hulbert



Breast or bottle? Co-sleeping or crib sleeping? Cry-it-out or rock
to sleep? To spank or not to spank? New parents, eager to do what's
best for their children, face endless decisions about the "right
way" to raise their children. A quick glance through the parenting
shelves at the local bookstore reveals that there is no lack of
books weighing in on just about every current controversy, from
pretty much every conceivable point of view. In just over a
century, the study and popularization of child development has
burgeoned from a handful of specialists to a plethora of experts,
each with a particular ax to grind. How this happened is the focus
of RAISING AMERICA, Ann Hulbert's ambitious history of
twentieth-century parenting experts and expertise.

Hulbert structures her history around five key parenting and family
conferences, from 1899's National Congress of Mothers to 1997's
Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning, pausing in
each case to reflect on the state of parenting philosophies and
advice at the time. To further illustrate the evolution of expert
advice on children, she profiles two key experts in each
generation, each of whom falls into a distinct "camp." One
exemplifies "child-centered" or "soft" parenting, a proponent of
letting "nature take its course in childhood" and an advocate of
parent-child bonding. The other, "parent-centered" expert instead
advises strict discipline, believing in the power of parental
nurture to shape child behavior for good or ill.

The first generation of parenting experts, Hulbert contends, came
to prominence when early twentieth-century mothers, who viewed
themselves as raising their children in a new and sometimes
terrifying modern world, no longer trusted the time-honored
"experts" of previous generations --- their own mothers and
grandmothers. Instead, these modern mothers, eager to equip their
children for twentieth-century success, looked to two male experts
--- and parenting experts are overwhelmingly male --- for advice.
G. Stanley Hall, the "soft" expert, was a psychologist who viewed
childhood, especially adolescence, as a fragile, almost spiritual
time --- a "new birth." His counterpart, L. Emmett Holt, was a
pediatrician who advocated strict schedules and developed
complicated feeding regimens for infants.

Hall and Holt's successors, too, provided polarizing advice to
parents. From the strict behaviorist Watson, who famously
conditioned a young child to fear not only rats but all other cute
furry animals, to Gesell, whose timetables of child development
were the precursors of the milestones that today's parents obsess
over, to Spock, whose parenting advice defined the baby boomer
generation but was later derided by the right as being too
permissive and by the left as being too restrictive for women, it's
no wonder that parents most often just ignored the parenting advice
altogether, no matter how pervasive its message. As she profiles
these experts, Hulbert includes not only excerpts from their
popular manuals but also anecdotes from their personal
biographies.

Since many of the experts were long on opinion but short on
scientific research, they often based their theories on the
childhood they knew best --- their own. Equally fascinating are
these men's own experiences as parents. Too often, their advice
failed to translate from the page to the nursery, and their wives
and children suffered accordingly.

Ultimately, Hulbert's story is as much about the parents (mostly
mothers) who digested the experts' advice as it is about the
experts themselves. She concludes that, in the face of so much
contradictory information, parents can't, and shouldn't, attempt to
follow experts' advice to the letter. Instead, she writes, "no
fine-tuned scheme for shaping futures lies in the experts' manuals,
much less in their own homes." Experience, not expertise, is
usually a parent's best teacher, and the readers of RAISING
AMERICA, whether their own parenthood is fresh or seasoned, will be
reassured by that message.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on January 23, 2011

Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children
by Ann Hulbert

  • Publication Date: April 13, 2004
  • Genres: Childcare, Nonfiction, Sociology
  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 0375701222
  • ISBN-13: 9780375701221