Sun, Jul 06, 2003 - Page 19 News List

Raising America using the carrot and stick

Ann Hulbert looks at the alternating hard and soft approaches to rearing children in the US

By Paul Starr  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Raising America: Experts, Parnets and a Century of Advice About Children
By Ann Hulbert
450 pages. Illustrated
Alfred A. Knopf

The stumbles of authority have always been a great source of pleasure, and not only for children. Although we turn to experts for knowledge and wisdom, it is often encouraging to find out they are just as confused as the rest of us. It is especially delightful to see their pretensions deflated, as when we learn that those who dispense advice about the right way to live are personally miserable or -- even better -- make others around them suffer.

Ann Hulbert's absorbing history of child-advice experts, Raising America, provides many satisfactions of this sort. Carefully researched and gracefully written, the book tells the story of the leading popular child-rearing gurus and their ideas during the last 100 years. Though her method is chiefly biographical -- she devotes much attention to the vexations of the experts' own families -- Hulbert sets her protagonists against the wider intellectual and cultural background of their times.

The virtues of this book are considerable. Covering developments in child psychology and related fields, she handles theory as deftly as personal narrative, all in a cogent, fair-minded, and often subtly nuanced fashion.

This is a book about popular advisers and their ideas, not the actual practices parents have followed; as Hulbert says, she does not concern herself with how expert advice may have influenced parents. And while she delineates the major controversies about child rearing, she does not discuss the achievements of pediatrics and psychology. As a result, without ever dismissing the experts, she leaves the distinct impression that their advice amounts to a confused muddle.

When Hulbert's story begins around 1900, reformers see great hope of social progress if mothers will only rely on science rather than Grandma for guidance in feeding and caring for their babies. The trouble is that the reformers expect more of science than it can give, and much expert advice is no more than prejudice in medical guise.

When her story ends in our own time, it seems science has made no progress in resolving the most fundamental choices about child rearing. Waves of interest in Freud, Piaget and neurological development have risen and fallen, apparently leaving little solid practical counsel in their wake. Rather than achieving consensus based on research, the field of child advice is riddled with ideological divisions, and preachers compete with pediatricians and psychologists in peddling brand-name parenting strategies.

Hulbert's central theme is one of "unexpected continuity": a persistent tension between hard and soft approaches to rearing children. In each period, she finds one leading advocate of a strict, parent-centered philosophy and a competing expert calling for a gentler, child-centered approach. A single pediatric expert presided only in the years just after World War II, when Benjamin Spock published his Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, but the soft Spock took a harder line in a revised edition in 1957 and was eventually countered by the tough-minded psychoanalyst Bruno

Bettelheim.

Although the pairing of hard and soft advisers works nicely as a narrative device, it is difficult to know what to make of it. A historian who pointed to an "unexpected continuity" in ideology during the last century because of the persistence of political thinkers from both left and right would be missing the immense shifts over that time. Because Hulbert sidesteps the question of influence, the mere recurrence of advisers with different approaches does not show that Americans have been equally divided between the two poles. Spock, for example, had a far greater impact than Bettelheim.

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