Land of the Lost Parents

Our need for child-rearing advice has sparked an overload of 'experts'

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During the 1960s, it was sometimes suggested that social rebellion among the younger generation could be blamed on Dr. Spock, the pediatrician and psychologist whose best-selling books on raising children had been a bible to tens of millions of postwar parents. But today it would be impossible to point the finger at any one expert. Bookstore and library shelves are jammed with countless guidebooks dispensing knowledge that for most of human history was passed down from generation to generation, not written down in books.

The first child-rearing guides appeared about a century ago, and now there are so many that a new publishing trend has popped up: books investigating why there are so many parenting books. Some attribute it to “push-parenting” and “paranoid parenting”—terms used to describe a parental style based on controlling all aspects of a child's life. In Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children (Knopf), author Ann Hulbert looks at the modern history of child-rearing advice. Peter N. Stearns covers similar territory in Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America (New York University Press). And these are but two of many recent studies that explore why bringing up baby has become a cradle of so much cultural anxiety.

Reviewing these works in the neoconservative journal Commentary (June 2003), Kay S. Hymowitz notes that “parental angst” is not new, but it does seem more pervasive these days. A century ago, when one of every six children died before the age of 5, parents focused on the more immediate task of keeping children alive. But as medical progress and better infant nutrition lowered childhood mortality rates, parental anxiety began to shift to the “right” ways of raising children. A new cult of experts soon arose promising to extend scientific efficiency to all aspects of child development. But these new scientific authorities were often no more accurate than the earlier “folk” beliefs they replaced. In the early decades of the 20th century, for instance, it was widely accepted that touching children too often stunted their development.

Hymowitz, the author of her own recent book on child rearing, Liberation’s Children: Parents and Kids in a Postmodern Age (Ivan Dee), notes that as children's likelihood of surviving to adulthood increased, so did parents’ anxiety about how their kids would turn out. And those fears have continued to grow. As dual-income families became more isolated, neighbors became less likely to look out for each other's children, explains Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn in an article on child raising in The Wilson Quarterly (Spring 2003). Supervision suddenly became all-important. The prevalence of child day care, she argues, has changed our parenting focus from nurturing to supervision because “society has embraced day care as a solution to the disjuncture between full-time work, consumerism, and family life.” But Lasch-Quinn also acknowledges that there are very real dangers facing children: “Until we can make society more conducive to children's freedom and independence, it hardly seems logical to drop our guard.”

Still, it’s ironic that in the wealthiest and one of the best-educated countries on earth, parents are so overwhelmed by the responsibilities of raising children and so quick to turn to experts. This pressure is perhaps understandable in light of the American dream, which demands that children must be more successful than their parents. After all, if childhood is now merely a boot camp preparing the young for future accomplishment, parents can be forgiven for believing they need all the expertise they can get their hands on.

But the most important role of parents may not be ensuring that their kids get into the right schools and then find their way to careers in booming fields. Maybe their real job is to raise kids whose worth is ultimately determined by who they are, not by what they earn or own. In considering this possibility, parents may wish to toss aside the child-rearing guides and expand their reading choices to other works that just might deepen their parental skills and insights in unexpected ways.

Anne Geske is a Minneapolis writer.