- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 17, 2003


By Ann Hulbert

Knopf, $27.50, 450 pages, illus.


When I was an infant, my mother swaddled me tightly in a baby blanket with hands and feet tucked inside so that I would feel warm and secure and sleep like a dream. When the pediatrician saw me so wrapped, without being able to move, he gently unfolded the blankets and told my mother to let her baby stretch and kick. As soon as the doctor was gone, my mother wrapped me tightly again.

I was the object of two polarized approaches to child care — the “hard,” more disciplined, confident mother-centered approach that my mother had learned from her mother and the “soft,” more open and flexible child-centered “psychological” approach that alternated with it for the past century. My mother trusted her instincts. The pediatrician trusted the scientific experts of the moment.

In a splendid book, “Raising America: Experts, Parents and a Century of Advice About Children,” Ann Hulbert traces 100 years of the “hard” and “soft,” yin and yang, Locke vs. Rousseau, strict vs. permissive, split-personality and split-philosophical approaches to child care which influenced everything from feeding schedules to toilet training, reactions to crying and playing, approaches to affection and discipline. It shouldn’t surprise anyone who has raised a child or is raising one, however, that in spite of millions of words, common sense is still the best teacher.

What ultimately works depends on the baby’s temperament and the parent’s endurance, and most common sense, emerges during a parent’s on-the-job training. Many experts rely on common sense, too, though they are loathe to admit it because no one would buy their books if they did. Overstatement gets most of the attention, but no matter what parents read, they usually find books with ideas that confirm what they already think. Many mothers may buy the book, but few will do it by the book.

Miss Hulbert opens each of the sections of this social history with major conferences on child rearing methods and research, which highlight shifting social, scientific, psychological and political concerns. The scientific research on any side of an argument is usually slight and rarely conclusive.

She writes engagingly about the personalities behind the theories, casting long shadows on the inconsistencies, contradictions and hypocrisies in both the work and the personal lives of many of the so-called experts. By far the most eccentric and unlikable is the behaviorist John Broadus Watson, who is famous for bringing Pavlovian techniques to Little Albert, a 9-month-old baby. Dr. Watson, identified here as a “misbehaviorist,” wanted to show how he could condition Albert’s emotional reactions to furry animals. In a lab setting he introduces a white rat to Albert at the same time that he creates a loud clanging sound for the baby. He repeats this exercise for several days.

The baby, as who wouldn’t, becomes upset at the rat even when the doctor stops the clanging noise, and Little Albert later transfers his aversion to the rat to a bunny rabbit and a dog. Although Dr. Watson said his sadistic little experiment proved a child could be conditioned — in this case to fear furry animals — it’s much easier to conclude that the baby — and his parents — should have had an aversion to Dr. Watson and other such child-raising experts.

Dr. Watson sounds crazy from today’s perspective, but he was a popular child-rearing authority in the 1920s, even though he told parents they were incompetent and often committed “psychological murder.” He is not the only extremist in Miss Hulbert’s book, but she finds lots of benign advisers, too. A continuous theme of “Raising America” is that nearly every expert reflects trendy ideas packaged to capture an audience and that the ideas are received or dismissed depending on the reader’s predisposition to “hard” or “soft” schools of thought.

We meet Dr. Spock as pediatrician and celebrity demonstrator against the Vietnam War, credited with the spock-marked baby boomer generation. Bruno Bethlehem, his nemesis (who defended the war), wrote a provocative rationale for children’s taking pleasure in fairy tales in his book “The Uses of Enchantment,” and vastly overstated his achievements with autistic children. More recently Dr. T. Berry Brazelton and Dr. Stanley Greenberg suggest a child-centered focus.

Dr. James Dobson and Dr. John Rosemond in this analysis are “parent-centered,” even though the two men have little in common. Dr. Dobson’s popular book is called “Dare to Discipline.” Dr. Rosemond counsels parents to pay more attention to their marriage than to the kids.

Dr. Arnold Gesell and psychologist Erik Erikson bring developmental data to the debate. Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud and contemporary neuroscientists compete in the arguments over nature vs. nurture; traditionalists, modernists, moralists, feminists and fundamentalists drive specific theories.

Political and economic issues shape debates over the pros and cons of day care, working mothers, the proper balance between individual responsibility and government obligation. Steven R. Covey looks at the family as a corporate team and brings his tension-management business techniques inside the home.

“Raising America” should come as a relief for most parents — there’s something for everybody. But the parents nearly always trump the experts for knowing what they’re doing. Conclusion: If offered either a child care manual by Dr. Spock or “Cat in the Hat” by Dr. Seuss, pick up Dr. Seuss and read it to the kids. Then remember what Mr. Gesell’s daughter-in-law said about life with a baby: “Frankly, science is as nothing to me when compared to a few minutes more sleep.”

Suzanne Fields, a columnist for The Washington Times, is nationally syndicated.

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