The Parenting Trap

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

By Ann Hulbert, Alfred A. Knopf, 384 pages, $27.50

We live in an age of experts. Our newspapers and magazines are filled with advice columns, our best-seller lists with diet manuals and self-help books. We rely on experts to manage our births, plan our vacations, pay our taxes and conduct our burials. Most of all, we depend on experts to manage ourselves. We willingly submit to the advice of clinical psychologists, guidance counselors, social workers, career counselors, probation officers, sex therapists, marriage counselors, personal trainers, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, ethicists and life coaches. All this would not be quite so puzzling if we did not inhabit a country whose chief source of pride is its independence and self-reliance and whose founding myths are all about liberty and rebellion. We may resist the iron fist of authority, but we thrill to the velvet touch of the expert.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the care of children. Any new parent is likely to be bewildered by the sheer array of expert advice on offer today; the number of child-rearing (or "parenting") books published in 1997 was five times the number published in 1975. But as Ann Hulbert shows in her graceful, engaging history of child-care expertise, Raising America, this hunger for child-rearing advice has been with us for at least a hundred years. In each era of the 20th century, writes Hulbert, we have seen the same ideological battles that we see today -- "one expert a stern father figure of the Lockean nurture-is-what-counts school, the other a gentler Rousseauian proponent of letting nature take its course in childhood." Her book is organized largely as a series of mini-biographies of these oppositional figures -- the soft Stanley Hall versus the hard Emmett Holt in the early years of the century, the soft Arnold Gesell versus the hard John B. Watson in the 1920s and '30s, and the soft Benjamin Spock versus the hard Bruno Bettelheim in the postwar period and afterward. Hulbert takes us right up to more contemporary battles (T. Berry Brazelton and Penelope Leach versus James C. Dobson and John Rosemond) and includes perhaps the creepiest child-rearing trend so far, the effort to bring "management principles" to family life, found in, for instance, Stephen R. Covey's Seven Habits of Highly Effective Families, which encourages parents to open "emotional bank accounts" and give their children encouragement with prepackaged "nurturing notes and stickers," or Gary Ezzo's "infant-management strategy" for those "who desire to achieve excellence in parenting."

The most arresting biography in the book is that of the behaviorist John B. Watson, whose experiments with the hapless Little Albert have made Watson a stock character in introductory psychology classes. Every Psychology 101 student knows how Watson conditioned the 11-month-old Albert to fear everything from rabbits to fur coats by subjecting the infant to loud clanging noises accompanied by a rat on his chest, a rabbit in his lap and a barking dog in his face. What they probably do not know is that Watson was also the author of Psychological Care of Infant and Child and a popular expert on child rearing. Watson's child-care philosophy was stern: He was anti-rocking, anti-kissing and anti-cuddling. He announced that "parents today are incompetent. Most of them should be indicted for psychological murder." A native South Carolinian, Watson was the son of Pickens Butler Watson, who had run away from home at age 16 to join the Confederate army and who as an adult had abandoned his wife and children to live in the woods with Cherokees. John Watson's life was dramatically different but no less colorful. After an education at Furman University and the University of Chicago, Watson married one of his students, Mary Ickes (sister of future Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes), then divorced her and was dismissed from his post at Johns Hopkins University after an affair with a woman 20 years his junior. (Watson's love letters to the woman included impassioned behaviorist declarations such as, "My total reactions are positive and towards you.") Watson went on to a second career as an ad man with the J. Walter Thompson Agency.

Unfortunately, most of the upright New Englanders and solid midwesterners who dominate the field of child-care expertise are not half as engrossing as Watson. Perhaps the most sympathetic figure in the book is one of the least outrageous: Benjamin Spock, the child-care icon who enjoyed unrivaled popularity in the 1950s. Dr. Spock was a pediatrician with psychoanalytic training whose fame, in contrast with many of the other figures in the book, seems less sought out than thrust upon him. Spock comes off as the best sort of American expert -- the "amateur expert," an anti-expert expert whose greatest appeal was his advice to pay less attention to experts and to trust your own instincts.

The only expert who approaches Watson for entertainment value is the authoritarian Bruno Bettelheim (or "Dr. Brutalheim," as he was sometimes called) -- a Holocaust survivor, the acclaimed director of the Orthogenic School for emotionally disturbed children at the University of Chicago, a prize-winning author of The Uses of Enchantment and A Good Enough Parent and, for a period during the Vietnam War, the arch-nemesis of Dr. Spock. While Spock opposed the war, Bettelheim backed Richard Nixon, announced that the anti-war protesters reminded him of Hitler Youth and testified to a House subcommittee that the protesters "inwardly feel like little boys, and hence they need to play big by sitting in papa's big chair." Bettelheim also exaggerated his success in curing autistic children at the Orthogenic School, and claimed (falsely) to have known Sigmund Freud and to have earned a degree from the University of Vienna.

To be made familiar with the sheer array of child-rearing advice on display in this book -- much of it contradictory, based on little or no empirical evidence and, more often than not these days, concocted by self-promoting entrepreneurs -- is to become deeply suspicious of any child-care manual that ventures beyond basic physiology. Yet virtually everyone I know owns one, even pediatricians and psychiatrists. What exactly is it about American life that makes us so eager to listen to experts, and why are we so eager to hear advice about child rearing in particular? Do parents actually follow the advice on offer, or are we actually looking for something else?

Raising America may be a welcome antidote to the cult of child-care expertise, yet Hulbert is anything but a polemicist. Her tone is wry and gently skeptical. It might even be described as professorial, if only professors could write with such clarity and elegance. I hope that Raising America becomes as popular as the child-care books it describes -- but given our history, this seems highly unlikely.

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