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Review of "Raising America"

By Ann Hulbert
Vintage, 2003
Review by Lloyd A. Wells, Ph.D., M.D. on Sep 15th 2004
Raising America

Hulbert has written a long book about child-rearing advice in America over the past century.  I found it a fascinating book.  She has read and has referenced a great many books and papers on this topic from the lay press as well as the professional literature, and she has arrived at a gratifying synthesis.   The book restricts itself to child-rearing guides from just before the start of the twentieth century on.  The author focuses on the writers of these guides and the social contexts of their times - especially in regard to the roles of mothers.

She takes as a theme - a simplistic one, but heuristic for this book - that Drs. G. Stanley Hall and L. Emmett Holt, two of the first twentieth-century child-rearing experts, continued (and continue) to be progenitors of trends in child-rearing books and advice.

She pays little attention to the many child-rearing experts who preceded Holt and Hall, and who certainly influenced them, and starts the book with a compelling description of the 1899 meeting of the National Council of Mothers, which convened in Washington, D. C.   The city was snowbound at the time, and the conditions of the conference were extremely difficult.  The general mood, however, was one of optimism about scientific progress and its ultimate effects on child-rearing.

In the early years of advice about child-rearing, there were some wonderful and enduring comments, many of which are included in the book.  One which has a lasting appeal to me comes from the philosopher, John Dewey, and is quoted in the book:   "Mere general theories and mere facts about children are no substitute for insight into children."  (I believe this comment continues to intrude on our research into and understanding of children and should be considered by all child-rearing professionals and consumers!)

Hall, the great theorist of adolescence and the person who introduced Freud to the United States, believed in the innate ability of children to advance themselves, when this was allowed - e.g. "The best definition of genius is intensified and prolonged adolescence, to which excessive or premature systemization is fatal."

Holt, on the other hand, believed in exerting considerable control over children and prescribed rules for toilet training and even play based on age and, for play, even time of day!  He thought that good parenting must rely on "simplicity, brevity and exactness."   In the early years of the twentieth century, many parents resonated to Holt's approach.  One mother (Anna Rogers) wrote:  "The whole present tendency in life is to the over-development of emotion among men, women, and especially children… What is really needed to precipitate both peace and progress is, not the elimination, but the firm control of emotion and instinct, by cool deliberate feminine wisdom…   If a mother would but strive to put less heart into it all, and more mind!"

Holt certainly agreed with such sentiments.  He viewed the well-brought-up child as a "steady little trooper".  In contrast with Holt, Hall viewed necessary components of adolescence as "immoderation, irregularity, irresponsibility", which he thought were necessary for what he called evolutionary momentum in this period:  adolescence is tumultuous and leads to transformation of the parent-induced initial personality.  Hall further introduced the concept of the need for a "pedagogy of sex", realizing that adolescents are sexual beings and likely to be sexually active beings.   Even the liberal press, including The Nation, attacked this notion, and Hall was forced to back-pedal.

Obviously, several people stood on the shoulders of these progenitors of the child-rearing-advice movement.  One was J. B. Watson, the behaviorist.  His goal, in the child-rearing literature, was to predict, control and shape the behavior of children.   He was recruited to the faculty of the Johns Hopkins Medical School by Dr. John Rowland, who also recruited Holt's son, L. E. Holt, to study digestive chemistry.  Watson's tenure at Hopkins was a checkered one, and after he had an affair with an assistant, who later married him, he left academia and had a successful career in advertising.   He wrote an important book, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, which was quite popular and which was viewed by readers as highly "scientific".  Watson was against "coddling" children - indeed, he inveighed against kissing young children and argued that this was a sexual practice.   This advice was in the context of similar advice in 1921 and 1925 by the government's Children's Bureau, which published booklets for parents in favor of "habit training", by-the-clock feedings, and advocacy of letting infants cry indefinitely.  These booklets advocated an occasional few minutes of "gentle play".

Watson recommended that toilet training should start at 3 - 5 weeks and he further argued that parents should not allow the child to be "dependent" at this or any other age.  On the positive side, he did argue against physically punishing children at any age.   He insisted that parents should "never hug and kiss them.  Never let them sit on your lap… Shake hands with them in the morning." The goal was to be "objective and kindly".  He paid lip-service to Holt but obviously felt that his approach was the only scientific one.   His second wife wrote wistfully about her desire for a more "homey" environment for her children.  She died, and their son, Jimmy, was a suicide.

The next great giver of advice was Arnold Gesell.  He was the son of a German immigrant who became a photographer in Wisconsin.  The book does not mention that the father's work is greatly sought after, currently, and that his photographs are greatly desired.   Arnold Gesell did his undergraduate work at Stevens Point, Wisconsin, training as a teacher.  He eventually trained as a physician and psychologist and had an immensely important research career at Yale.  He studied the behavior of children in incredibly intricate detail, describing fifty-eight stages of pellet behavior, fifty-three stages of rattle behavior, and many stages of some forty other behavioral patterns.   He viewed the regulating process of development as "reciprocal interweaving".  In retrospect, the main challenge to his immense work, which is still formative in any understanding of child development, is that the subjects were not randomly chosen, and a great many were the children of Yale faculty.   He wrote many books relevant to parents in their efforts to raise children.  They were useful and perhaps helpful, though perhaps overly detailed, but because of his selection of subjects, the ages given for the acquisition of various tasks were not as accurate as he would have hoped.

Another White House Conference occurred in 1950, with the theme, "How Can We Rear an Emotionally Healthy Generation"?  Benjamin Spock was an important participant at this conference, but Erik Erikson was its lead spokesperson.  In contrast to earlier conferences, scientists were humble: research was in progress, but all the data were not in, in terms of how to raise an emotionally healthy generation.  Erikson's views were certainly available to the well-informed public, but he never attempted to write a child-rearing guide.

Spock did, and his efforts were amazing.  He attempted, through a great many editions, to empower parents.  Basically, he felt that well-intentioned parents could develop reasonable strategies for child-rearing, and his book attempted to help them do this.   For parents who had less capacity, his book had more directions.  Incredibly enough, this wonderful book, which has gone through so many editions, came under political attack by the right wing as somehow causing parents not to hold their children accountable for their actions, and even to cause delinquent behavior.   This is and has been an amazing phenomenon.

There were several other parenting books in this time frame, many of which deserve a greater press than they have had.  Hilde Bruch's 1952 book, Don't Be Afraid of Your Child, should be reprinted and popularized.  It is a wonderful and sage book.

Spock, of course, became politicized during the Vietnam War, and he was arrested in old age for conspiracy to aid draft resistors, an activity of which he was very proud.  He stated, "I say to the American people, Wake Up!  Get out there and do something before it's too late!"   His book continues to be useful.

Bettelheim's book, The Uses of Enchantment, enjoyed a brief popularity in the 'eighties, as did Elkins', The Hurried Child.  The book by Elkins continues to be extremely relevant, though rarely read, in our own time.

By 1980, there was another White House conference on Families, hosted by President Carter.  There were data that eighteen-year-olds had spent more time with television than with parents.  This was decried, but there was little policy initiative.

Brazleton, Greenspan, and several others followed this conference with multiple books on parenting, inspired by incipient research and in some cases proclaiming more research base than existed.  Television shows also became prominent.   While these efforts made many inroads, they did not come close to eclipsing Dr. Spock.  In retrospect, many of the scientific assertions have not been enduring.

The book concludes with several examples of current books including many by right-wing extremists who believe in beating children, etc.  This is unfortunate, and these books do not belong in the mainstream of the books reviewed in this effort, most of which were scientifically informed.   The fact that, after a century of books relying on data-driven approaches to child-rearing, such books are even being written, is a sad commentary on our society.

Five times as many parenting books were published in 1997 as in 1995.  This is a growth industry.  It is a growth industry because parents are cautious and uncertain about what to do, which may correlate with the loss of the extended family in many areas of American life.   This book captures much of it, and does a wonderful job of delineating two major themes in this endeavor.

Some major efforts are left out.  There is no reference, for example, to the efforts of John Holt.  But, over all, this is a wonderful endeavor, which I applaud.  The vast reading of the author is not entirely reflected in the references, which is unfortunate, but a minor defect.

When I was twenty-seven, my wife, Denise, and I were expecting our first child.  We had acquired several of these books.  My psychotherapy supervisor and mentor at that time was Harold Martin, a Sullivanian analyst.  I mentioned the books we had and asked for his advice.   He suggested we throw the books away and rely on our knowledge and common sense.  We did, and it worked out well.

© 2004 Lloyd A. Wells


Lloyd A. Wells, Ph.D., M.D., Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN