|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.22(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.96(d)|
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The Century of the Child
Blizzards are famously conducive to conceiving babies. During a huge snowstorm that blanketed the East Coast in mid-February of 1899, a particular group of American women and a few men certainly had babies on the brain. But they were not at home in their beds. The sturdiest among an anticipated gathering of two hundred or so were fighting their way to the third annual convention of the National Congress of Mothers, in Washington, D.C. Headed to the capital for four days of speeches and discussion about the latest enlightened principles of child nurture, the women delegates and the experts who had signed up for the event found the traveling rough. "Nearly all trolley lines had abandoned their trips . . . and livery men refused to send carriages out," it was reported later in the proceedings of the congress. "Hundreds of travelers were compelled to remain from twelve to twenty-four hours in ordinary passenger coaches without food or sleep."
The progressive-spirited mothers, educators, reformers, doctors, and others were the vigorous type, "young enough in years and mind to be affected by new movements," as one attendee put it. Still, some turned back. Those who finally arrived in Washington, full of "strange and wonderful stories . . . of their adventures," encountered a virtual state of nature. The city was threatened by a coal famine, because trains hadn't been running. Gas had given out, leaving many parts of the capital in darkness. "Food was also scarce, and the streets impassable," transformed into mere paths flanked by walls of snow ten to twelve feet high.
The primitive gloom made an ironic setting for a self-consciously modern gathering that aimed "to educate public opinion" about the opportunities that awaited in what was soon to be known as "the century of the child." In the vista of human improvement ahead, as a speaker at an earlier convention had described it, there was no hint of darkness: "It is childhood's teachableness that has enabled man to overcome heredity with history, to lift himself out of the shadowy regions of instinct into the bright realms of insight, to merge the struggle for existence into mutual coordination in the control of the environment. . . . The very meaning and mission of childhood is the continuous progress of humanity." The February storm mocked that faith in control of the environment. Rude nature had dramatically assumed the upper hand.
Yet for that very reason, snowbound Washington also made an ideal backdrop for the conference. Among the participants there was clearly an exhilarated sense that the elements had supplied them with an occasion to display their missionary mettle. In an up-to-date capital that had overnight become a frontier outpost, these respectable pioneers had a chance to prove themselves just the rugged apostles of improvement they aspired to be. The city at a standstill was a vivid reminder of all that they aimed to overcome: the pre-industrial hardships that had made the lives of wives, mothers, and children brutish and, all too often, short, and the efforts of doctors so unavailing. The snowstorm was also a stirring summons to the kind of old-fashioned hardiness that was threatened by the modern age of the city and the machine-a vigor the Congress of Mothers hoped to preserve or revive.
The conferees had strayed from "the fireside" where women belonged, as the upper-class urban leaders of the movement- Mrs. Adlai Stevenson was a vice president and the wealthy Phoebe Hearst, wife of the California senator George Hearst, was the major benefactress-were forever telling their middle-class following of mothers' club members and others. But their mission was domestic, even if they were not at home with their spouses helping to avert the prospect of "race suicide," as females of their sort were urged to do in fin-de-siècle America, when alarm about declining fertility ran high. They prided themselves on not being seduced by the effete "illusion of self-culture" that they worried was tempting women out of the house and into careers. They had set their sights on "the sunlight of service" to homes throughout the nation, service that required them to be rational and systematic as their Victorian mothers had not been.
They were models for the many nervous women and "precocious" children whose lack of moral and muscular fiber was lamented from the pulpit and in the press as the century ended. And in journeying to the capital, they aimed to speak beyond their club circle to address the needs of struggling immigrants and poor Americans growing up in crowded tenements and laboring in grim factories. The woes of all were to be prevented in the cradle. "In a common cause, the highest welfare of childhood," as their president put it, "we can meet upon a universal platform, regardless of creed, color or condition." Not least, the delegates could look forward to communing at the conference with men who took them and their cause very seriously-perhaps more seriously than did the husbands they had left at home. In Washington, they would confer with the scientists whose "study of the little child" promised to provide the "key to many problems which confront and daunt the race."
"Notwithstanding the difficulties experienced in reaching their destination," the congress secretary reported, "not a single speaker failed to appear." On a program that included addresses by mothers' club leaders, teachers, members of the League for Social Service, and assorted ministers, two scientific and medical authorities on children stood out. Dr. Luther Emmett Holt, known as one of America's first and finest pediatricians, and Dr. G. Stanley Hall, who had earned the first psychology doctorate in the country and held the first chair in the discipline, represented contrasting approaches in the turn-of-the-century mission to "[concentrate] national attention on the education and possibilities of parents in the home," as the congress president put it.
Dr. Holt, whose manual, The Care and Feeding of Children, had been selling remarkably well since its publication five years before, made his way from New York City to deliver a talk on his specialty, "The Physical Care of Children." (If Holt's name lives on, it is because Dr. Spock was known to invoke, not fondly, his mother's mentor; Mrs. Spock swore by the small book.) With the sober punctiliousness that was his trademark, he informed modern mothers of their duty to become scientific professionals on nutritional matters. They were also to guard their growing children vigilantly against germs and undue stimulation. Dr. Holt prescribed systematic study-of children and of expert wisdom-as the necessary antidote to sentimentality, an old-fashioned impulse all too likely to cloud insight.
Dr. Hall, the president of Clark University and an early supporter of the Congress of Mothers-he sat on its Committee on Education-came all the way from Worcester, Massachusetts. (He has been remembered ever since as the man who invited Sigmund Freud to America in 1909, when he delivered his "Five Lectures upon Psychoanalysis" at Clark and won an academic hearing for the first time.) Hall was scheduled to speak twice. His first topic was to be "child study," the popular cause he had helped to spearhead in the 1890s, urging scientists, mothers' clubs, and teachers alike to collect data on every facet of childhood life. Adolescence, about which he was then busy writing a very big book, was his second theme. If his listeners remembered his stirring proclamations at an earlier congress about how "the study of children . . . enriches parenthood, brings the adult and child nearer together," they were perhaps disappointed when he had time to deliver only "Initiations into Adolescence," which didn't begin to live up to its titillating title. This romantic guru was often given to effusions about young people's need for excitement, but that day he spoke in his encyclopedic vein. As Dr. Hall droned on, summarizing mountains of data on puberty rites the world over, even the most attentive in his audience might have been tempted to nap.
But such an urge was to be resisted. For it was a point of pride with the self-consciously modern mothers gathered at the congress, as it was with the self-consciously "expert" men who addressed them, to expect an exhaustive treatment of the many child-related topics that concerned their cause, which was a burgeoning one. Dr. Holt opened his talk by marveling that "at no previous time has there been such a wide general interest in all that concerns childhood, as shown by the numerous books constantly issuing from the press upon these subjects, the periodicals devoted to the different phases of the child problem, and finally, but by no means least, by the organization of such societies as this." His list notably omitted to mention the thriving nineteenth-
century genre of women's magazines, where pious portraits of tender youth and devoted maternity had been a staple for decades already. For Holt intended to mark a turning point in a new and demanding direction. The current upsurge of attention was no Victorian crusade on behalf of children, led by soft feminine hearts near the hearth, or by the gentle ministers from the pulpit who by midcentury had joined in promoting the cult of motherhood. The "child problem" now required studious thought for its solution, and scientists fresh from their laboratories proposed to train those maternal minds. To put it differently, the "child problem," which as the congress president noted was inseparable from the "woman question," had grown up-or at least it was ready to.
The turn-of-the century "discovery" of childhood was not the first time adults in the Western world had subjected the family, especially the treatment of its younger members, to reappraisal. Pick any post-medieval century as it turns, and you can find historians proclaiming a notable shift in, and rising concern about, parent-child relations. The classic starting point is the work of the French historian Philippe Ariès. In Centuries of Childhood, he located the seeds of a new "child-centered" conception of family life in the late sixteenth century, as education began to acquire new social importance. Over the next century, under the influence of Reformation doctrines, among other things, "the family ceased to be simply an institution for the transmission of a name and an estate-it assumed a moral and spiritual function, it moulded bodies and souls." The "affectionate" family was in the process of being born (the first of many times). "The care expended on children inspired new feelings, a new emotional attitude, to which the iconography of the seventeenth century gave brilliant and insistent expression," Ariès observed. ". . . Parents were no longer content with setting up only a few of their children and neglecting the others."
The turn of the eighteenth century, when Locke published his influential Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), marked another birth of the child, this time a tabula rasa whose nurture required yet more studious care. "Locke's educational theory redefined the nature of parental authority in very much the way that the Revolution of 1688, which replaced an absolute monarchy with a constitutional one, redefined
the rights and duties of the crown," is the way one literary historian has framed the shift. Noncoercive, rational instruction became the parent's newly responsible, rewarding duty. Nurturing "filial reason" rather than breaking fierce infant wills became the goal. Soon after the middle of the eighteenth century, Rousseau's Emile (1762) issued the call for more freedom for children's "natural inclinations." The guidance of children must be subtly tailored to their growth, Rousseau urged, which entailed equally more intensive (but more unobtrusive) tutorial efforts. Worshipful attentiveness on the part of adults, the Romantic poets concurred, was the least the imaginative child of nature deserved.
The newly self-conscious and solicitous nurturing doctrines found an especially fertile seedbed-to use the gardening imagery the pedagogues loved-in Colonial America during the Revolutionary era, when an upstart generation that had settled down far from home was fiercely debating its relations with the "mother country" and the "father-king," as another historian has put it. The "American revolution against patriarchal authority" was about freeing sons as well as about deposing kings-about preparing ignorant children for independence, rather than exacting slavish obedience from recalcitrant beings. The child-rearing advice that began to appear, much of it aimed at fathers during the eighteenth century, warned against parental tyranny and set store by the taming power of love instead of fear. The message was also conveyed by the best-sellers of that newborn genre, the novel. The family dramas most popular in America-by Defoe, Sterne, Richardson-often turned on children's new claims to freedom and self-control, and parents' new obligations to educate without dominating. (The American abridgment of Richardson's extremely popular novel Clarissa altered the rambling subtitle-The Distresses that may attend the Misconduct Both of Parents and Children, in Relation to Marriage-omitting any mention of "misconduct of children," emphasizing instead the role of the Rigours of Parental Authority in the heroine's downfall.)
The demographic, economic, social, moral, spiritual, literary, and intellectual influences at work creating an increasingly child-preoccupied culture in industrializing America defy neat historical summary. But a familiar refrain brackets the nineteenth century's beginning and its Victorian close: a more "affectionate" (suffocating, according to some analyses) ideal of family life had arrived, again, this time in newly feminized form. Liberal theologians revised harsh Calvinist tenets, granting children redeemable, docile wills and their parents-increasingly their mothers-more power over the shaping of them.
A religious analogy between God and parent worked in much the same way as the political analogy between king and father did. The Puritans' vengeful and punitive God, appalled at his depraved creation, was replaced by a loving Father, proof of whose goodness lay in his willingness to sacrifice his son to save mankind. In a similar spirit, parents were gently and patiently to guide their well-meaning children to righteousness, and find proof of their own salvation in the process. As Ann Douglas has shown, such domestic counsel became a central message of liberal ministers, most prominently the Hartford clergyman Horace Bushnell, who cultivated a softer image themselves as they sermonized in the new vein. No longer did commanding men in the pulpit aim to project a "stern exterior" or to instill "painful . . . awe," as a popular mid-nineteenth-century Unitarian novelist put it. A more insecure pastorate, its prestige in decline in "money-making" America, now projected a "most tender and gentle heart" in forging a sentimental alliance with a mostly female congregation.
Philosophers had reasoned with fathers in the preceding century, urging the wisdom of reasoning with children and of inculcating, and modeling, restraint. Now ministers, relying less on the "theology of the intellect" and more on the "theology of the feelings," appealed to mothers to rely on their "feminine instinct and sensitivity" in the shaping of innocent, not impulsive or wildly imaginative, souls.
Table of Contents
|Part I||The Birth of a Science|
|1||The Century of the Child||19|
|2||Two Experts Grow Up||41|
|3||Infant Regimens, Adolescent Passions||63|
|Part II||Psychological Leaps|
|4||The Era (and Errors) of the Parent||97|
|6||The Anatomist of Normalcy||154|
|Part III||Identity Crisis|
|7||The Awkward Age of the Expert||191|
|Part IV||Psychological Limits|
|10||All in the Family||293|
|11||Ministers, Mentors, and Managers||325|
|Epilogue: What to Expect from the Experts||360|
A Conversation with Ann Hulbert
Q: Your book surveys the history of American child-rearing advice from 1900 to the
present. What was new and different about the wisdom dispensed to parents over the past century in this country?
A: Until the turn of the 20th century, the reigning authorities on child rearing were still grandmothers. To be sure, other sages had offered their views on the young during two preceding centuries of rising interest in children. The pedagogical theories of 18th-century philosophers—mostly notably Rousseau and Locke—had aimed at enlightening fathers and teachers. In 19thcentury America, ministers took over, dispensing counsel to mothers from the pulpit.
But with the dawning of the modern era, a popular proselytizing mission took off, inspired by high secular and social expectations and a zeal for gathering empirical evidence. A new breed of guides emerged: scientific experts—medical and psychological—who promised that their studies of children's natures would help save tender lives and reveal the secrets of systematic nurture. Data, straight from newly founded laboratories, would supplant superstition and dogma—mere grandmotherly lore. Children's fates were no longer to be entrusted to God, but to studiously attentive mothers. With the help of experts, they would follow "unhesitating insight" instead of "uncertain instinct," and thanks to enlightened child care, the nation would progress into a glorious future. Social woes were to be vanquished in the cradle.
Q: You take a biographical approach, exploring the lives of a succession of experts over the decades to shed light ontheir childrearing advice. Why did you decide to take that
approach, and what do you think it shows?
A: The personal stories and quirky careers of each generation's prominent experts help make sense of the advice they packaged for American mothers, which was never purely—or even mostly—the product of their laboratory research, however much they touted their scientific credentials. Part of what made the popular experts so popular was the extent to which they shared the middle-class social and psychological preoccupations of their times. Not that they were blandly representative figures by any means. Instead, the men whose lives I probe (the social outsiders), reared not quite in the mainstream by mothers and fathers out of step with a fast-changing world. Concern about being a "mama's boy" turned out to be an occupational hazard of the experts, I discovered, as did conflicted relations with their fathers. It was precisely such worries that proved a key to the advisers' success: these were men whose advice spoke to their fellow Americans' similar anxieties about fitting into an ever more complicated, conformist society—and about standing out. And their deep ambivalence about women's power inspired efforts to channel it into ever more professionalized conceptions of motherhood. It was a way of flattering mothers, and also—wittingly and unwittingly—of fettering them, too, by raising expectations so high they became ever harder to fulfill.
Q: According to the conventional wisdom about child-rearing vogues, the century has seen a series of pendulum swings, most notably a swerve in a permissive direction with Dr. Spock's emergence as America's mega-expert at mid-century. Did your work bear this out?
A: Actually, it turns out that each of the four generations of experts since the turn of the century has featured proponents of opposing child-rearing views—competing perspectives vying for prominence, rather than simply pendulum sings. Again and again, there has been a sort of Mom and Dad duo: one a softer advocate of bonding warmly with children and allowing their natures to unfold, the other a sterner proponent of discipline and parent-directed nurture.
As for Dr. Spock, he was hardly the Pied Piper of permissiveness he was portrayed as being during the 1960s, when he took to the streets as an antiwar activist. His hugely popular Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care was hailed in 1946 for succeeding "to an amazing degree in striking a middle ground in [its] advice." His interwar predecessors had bequeathed a confusing legacy of conflicting counsel: Americans had been sternly told by behaviorists not to kiss their kids, and gently exhorted by maturationists to respond to children's stage-by-stage needs. Spock aimed to be a voice of moderation, encouraging firm-but-friendly handling as he introduced parents to a very genial brand of Freudianism. He himself was concerned about "overpermissiviseness" long before his 1960s critics got worked up. Already in his second edition, in 1957, he made a point of urging a more "parent-centered" approach to child rearing. He kept on worrying about parental "hesitancy" ever after.
Q: Clearly there was competition not just among the experts in each generation, but
between the generations. Can you explain how that played out?
A: The story unfolds like a curious—and contentious—family saga, with each generation of experts (rather like each generation of parents) struggling to outdo their predecessors as they seized their moment to preside. In each era, the scientific claims of the experts became more grandiose, and their studies of children and prescriptions for parents became more ambitious. Meanwhile, as their audience grew, they worried more and more about what kind of influence they were actually having on mothers.
The pioneers at the turn of the century—an austere pediatric expert on infant nutrition named L. Emmett Holt and a romantic psychological authority on puberty named G. Stanley Hall—had high hopes that their fledgling studies of infant bodies and adolescent passions would point the way toward further discoveries and ever healthier child rearing. Their successors—the harsh behaviorist Dr. John Broadus Watson and Dr. Arnold Gesell, busy at Yale filming children's maturation—each boasted a far more systematic science of "personality" formation. Environment, Watson insisted, was all-determining; heredity, Gesell was convinced, was the key. Each promised his science would endow parents with powers of prediction and control, yet worried that an increasingly "frazzled" audience of mothers was not up to the task. Dr. Spock, the super-expert swept in on the third wave, hoped to encourage a new level of emotional harmony between parents and children—and to restore confidence in parents he felt had been thoroughly bewildered by a surfeit of expertise that had not exactly panned out. America's most popular Freudian, he was frustrated to find that his own success inspired yet more advisory lore—which hardly seemed to assuage parental anxiety. Amid 1960s tumult, he faced off against a far fiercer Freudian, Bruno Bettelheim; by the early 1970s, he confronted angry feminists. In the generation that followed, advice increasingly dealt with children's cognitive growth, and counsel became ever more specialized—yet as polarized as ever, and now politicized, too.
Q: How has the experts' evolving struggle reflected changes in 20th-century America?
A: Every generation of advisors has pursued a very ambivalent agenda, anxious to protect
children—and mothers—from what has seemed an ever more unwieldy world and at the same time eager to prepare them for it. The pioneers Holt and Hall, who focused on children's bodies and characters, were preoccupied with the enervating complexity of newly urbanized life in industrial America. They aimed to preserve children from the dangers of "precocity," and to assure the vitality required to face an unpredictable future; for mothers, the ideal of "educated" maternity promised a newly restless generation of women a demanding career without ever leaving home. Gesell and Watson, who proceeded to tackle children's and mother's emotional "adjustment," confronted an America that emerged from World War I a more organized and institutionalized society. Their advice reflected rising concerns about the dangers and allures of social conformity, and of individuality.
For Spock, part of a mid-century generation unnerved by totalitarianism and caught up in a newly affluent consumerist society, the advisory theme had become anxiety: what children and mothers needed to thrive was a sense of security. With the arrival of the information age and the fracturing of American families, the experts' focus shifted to children's brains and minds; the race was on to fine-tune them to cope in an era of media overload and attenuated ties. Turn-of-the-millennium alarm over cultural drift and health dangers inspired an advisory trend that echoes the Victorian origins of the child-rearing mission: once again experts voiced concern about children's moral characters, about an absence of spiritual values. Meanwhile, a crisis of childhood nutrition revived a focus on feeding.
Q: Are experts to blame for Americans' anxious obsession with child rearing?
A: In child-rearing theory and practice, figuring out causation is notoriously hard: Is the brat the product of the spineless parent, or has an impossible child eroded a mother's sense of
confidence and control? It's a mutually reinforcing cycle. I think the same is true of experts, whose proliferation has been as much a symptom as a cause of widespread parental anxiety in an era of great social mobility and rapid cultural change. In a nation of immigrants eager to assimilate, the claims of family tradition were weak from the start. A burgeoning modern middle class placed its hopes in the younger generation, and the authority of elders was open to challenge—especially from up-to-date scientists. The experts readily answered the insistent popular demand for lab-tested wisdom, peddling advice based on the weakest of evidence. In turn, parents have felt overwhelmed by the confusing supply of conflicting counsel—and unnerved by so many efforts to soothe their anxiety. As Dr. Spock was not the first to discover, there's a paradox built into efforts at reassurance: they have a way of intensifying the sense of inadequacy they aim to dispel. And what parent really aspires to banish worry anyway? It has become the emblem of worthy parenthood in the modern era: hyper-conscientious nurture has become the currency of virtue, proof of self-sacrificial devotion. All along, the function of advisors has been less to cure maternal worry than to provide a forum for airing and sharing it.
Q: The parenting shelves in the bookstores are now crowded with titles. Where does expertise stand today?
A: There are five times more parenting books published now than in 1970, many of them offering ever more specialized advice—down to pointers on dealing with the "sports-averse child." And the commotion has become ever more commercialized: gone are the days of child-rearing gurus conversationally conferring with housebound mothers. Expertise for the two-income generation is increasingly packaged as home-style management "systems," complete with trademarked styles—"attachment parenting," "affirmative parenting"—and web addresses.
Yet it's still possible to discern the familiar two camps of advisers amid the confusion. Dr. T. Berry Brazelton, the "new Spock" for the Spock-marked baby boomers, emerged in the 1980s along with Dr. Penelope Leach at the head of the liberal, "child-centered" contingent. They blended cognitive wisdom with an emphasis on the importance of parent-child attachment. At the opposite end of the spectrum are the socially conservative "disciples of discipline," urging a reassertion of adult authority and of youthful self-control in a hedonistic culture. Led by Dr. James Dobson, founder of the Focus on the Family parenting "ministry," they have been gathering recruits to the "parent-centered" cause over the decades, invoking "the voice of Grandma" and the Bible more often than science.
For all the differences among the experts—which both sides usually like to play up—they're more similar than you might expect, however. "Authoritative parenting" is the rallying cry of experts of every stripe these days, who all lament a corrosive, media-saturated culture that has encroached on childhood and hobbled parents' best efforts to shield youths and guide them. Child-rearing experts have gotten restless in their roles as psychological counselors. They've stepped forth as public advocates who push different social agendas, yet who join in inveighing against a family-unfriendly society.
Q: What drew you to this subject?
A: I've been tempted to fabricate a little, and portray myself as an expert—addled mother who went looking for a book that would help her sort out the welter of advisers, and finding none, set out to write it herself. The truth is, I began writing about children and about family issues as a childless editor and writer at the New Republic. When I did have my own kids, I did what Dr. Spock told me, and made sure not to pile the books too high on the bedside table. My babies were not easy, but I had what really helps: a great husband, and a babysitter who was—of all things—a grandmother herself. She did more than any book to help me muddle, in part by showing me there were lots of ways to handle the home front, and that hers and mine could be quite different and still work. In fact, I came to this book as a Spock-marked baby boomer, part of a generation defined by acute self-consciousness about its own embattled rearing—and obsessed with proving ourselves to be more enlightened mothers and fathers than our own were, against harder odds. Only then, maybe, do we think we will at last feel truly grown up. I wondered when this preoccupation with expert-informed nurturing had started—where Dr. Spock had come from, and how to think about his countless successors. What did the experts really tell us about ourselves and our children, since they were plainly guides to concerns and confusions that went much deeper than issues like toilet training? "Don't be overawed by the experts," Spock told our parents, and us. As my kids emerged from the exhausting nursery stage, I felt bold enough to embark on the kind of scrutiny of the experts that they had long trained on us parents.
Q: You've now immersed yourself in decades of child-rearing expertise. Have you come away with a favorite, or with some advice that no parent can afford to miss? Or, are you ready to tell us, the experts are a pernicious influence we better ignore if we have any hope of remaining calm?
A: There has been plenty of foolish advice, and lots of bad science, as my book shows. But I also think there's probably been undue alarm about the experts' intimidating influence—plenty of the panic, it's worth noting, peddled by the experts themselves as they promise that they alone can rescue mothers and fathers from confusion. The truth, as the experts have again and again been forced to acknowledge, is that parents may peruse their advice, but that's not the same as really using it. It's hard to know what parents actually do with the child-rearing lore they read, but to judge by all the advice on offer, it's safe to say they're fickle at best—hardly models of slavish obedience, or even deference. We may be buy-the-books parents, but how many do you know who truly strive to be by-the-book parents?
I've come away eager to peddle some counter-intuitive advice about advice. The typical counsel that post-modern mothers and fathers get is to shop around for the expert whose child-rearing philosophy "fits" them and their family—which is, by now, what most of us do. But my own wanderings convince me that it may be the guidance that goes against your grain that will prove unexpectedly enlightening—even liberating. After all, the camp of gurus we're naturally inclined to align with—whether it's the softer or the harder school of views and values that jibe with our own—are the ones whose expectations we aspire to live up to, which means we also guiltily fear we fail to. By contrast, advisers in the opposite camp jolt us out of our familiar concerns. They can offer us a fresh perspective, which we can feel far freer to adapt or reject as we see fit; they're not "our" experts.
And the surprising revelation of a century's worth of expertise is that the tough and gentle approaches are rarely quite what they seem. It's the "hard" advisers, busy bossing mothers around and warning about too much bonding, who often end up leaving both mothers and kids more independence and freedom to maneuver. And the "soft" experts who champion maternal engagement in children's unfolding development are not as laid back as they try to sound. They can turn out to be the ones scripting an emotional drama that is more controlling for all concerned: the solicitous mother and the "understood" child have struggled for a sense of independence.
The truth is, each camp's natural constituencies could stand to hear what the other side's experts have to say. It's liberal, dual-career families that generally subscribe to the "child-centered" ethos of "intensive mothering"—all but guaranteed to leave them worrying they'll never measure up. But listen to the no-nonsense disciple of discipline John Rosemond, who's popular with a more traditionalist clientele: he tells mothers to back off, that kids thrive on less attention, not more, and should be expected to pitch in at home. And he insists that
fathers should, too—no more "parenting aide" status for them. The messenger's brash tone and politics may not suit, but the message sounds like one weary working mothers might well welcome.