Weird Science of Child Rearing Thrives on Hope and Anxiety

Raising America: Experts, Parents and a Century of Advice About Children, by Ann Hulbert. Alfred A. Knopf, 384 pages, $27.50.

Trailing clouds of glory, and still somewhat covered in her mother’s gore, my newborn baby was laid, cafeteria-style, under a heating lamp. There she was administered, at the ripe age of seven seconds, her first standardized test. An attending nurse measured her Appearance, Pulse, Grimace, Activity and Respiration. She pulled near-perfect nines across the board. I turned to my wife and said, “She aced her APGAR’s, dear.” I was only half-joking.

Welcome to the American middle class, my child. Your every grimace will continue to be read like a tea leaf, your abilities seized on like a Soviet-era decathlete’s. (Now just 10 weeks in, I already make out, in her every spit bubble, deep shades of my baby daughter’s emotional intelligence; and I agonize over the waiting list for Baby Yoga.) Parenthood may fill the heart with a small corner of heaven, but it’s mostly psy-ops on the ground. In my many affections, am I creating a gracious nestling, or a tyrannical monster? A Yalie, or a Golden Gopher? Our apartment is littered with books to see us though, but whether they’ll allay or stoke our newfound anxieties is unclear. Were I to recommend one book to a new parent, though, it wouldn’t be a how-to manual, but rather Ann Hulbert’s diverting and thoroughly illuminating study, Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children . It’s filled with the most comforting thought of all: When it comes to kids, no one, not even the Ph.D.’s, has ever known what to do.

The 20th century was the century of the child. “Never,” writes Ms. Hulbert, has the concern over how to raise children “been as intense, as self-conscious, and as publicly debated as during the past hundred years.” Ms. Hulbert’s history is a fine-grained survey of all the major American child-rearing experts, but it’s also something more: a kind of secret history of the times, laying out the symbiosis between the growing culture of expertise and parental anxiety. To arrogate maximum power to himself, the expert makes the newborn seem infinitely susceptible to parental incompetence. “A young baby is easily molded,” cautioned one of the country’s first child-care gurus. “In fact, he is about the most plastic living thing in the whole world.” In the wake of World War I, as the prestige of scientific experts boomed, formative influence assumed a near-absolute primacy in the fate of a child. “Give me a dozen healthy infants,” boasted John Watson, the Dr. Spock of his day, “and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select-a doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief … regardless of his talents … [or the] race of his ancestors.”

Upon the idea of the child as radically malleable rests much-perhaps too much-of our American optimism. Faced with such awesome responsibility, parents get lost in a welter of contradictory impulses. Do children need, as Ms. Hulbert lays it out, a “new stability or new flexibility; more order or more room for spontaneity …. Should adults be striving for more intimacy or for more authority…?” (The expert’s typical answer: Yes!) We think of scientific expertise in an age of managerial rationality as a very masculine pursuit; but in its early days, as Ms. Hulbert argues, it was an almost maternal vocation. The new crop of experts, she writes, “would be as intently observant of mothers as mothers were to be of their children.” And like mothers, they were not yet confident that their (professional-managerial) work was real work. G. Stanley Hall, America’s first true psychologist and perhaps its first perpetual grad student, moaned: “I am twenty-five and I have done nothing for myself.” Only at the age of 43 were his parents finally convinced he could “earn a living without working on a farm.”

In fact, both men who inaugurated the era of professional advice-giving, G. Stanley Hall and Luther Emmett Holt, were born into an austere farm life dominated by a stern New England materfamilias; and both lived to see the rise of that feminine icon of big-city dissipation, the flapper. (Flapperdom had “shattered old conventions,” lamented Holt in the early 20’s; he was no less dismayed by the rocketing sales figures for ice cream.) As a result, both turned to studying child-rearing, the better to rein in the runaway world. Holt was obsessed with portion control, concocting endlessly recondite substitutes for breast milk. (To which Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. chuffed, “A pair of substantial mammary glands has the advantage over two hemispheres of the most learned professor’s brain in the art of compounding a nutritious fluid for infants.” The birth of pragmatism?)

By choosing to structure her book around biography-showing how each generation’s principle gurus were themselves parented, and how they parented their own children in turn-Ms. Hulbert seems to concede some correlation between inputs (good parenting, lousy parenting) and outputs (good kids, rotten kids). But she is a deliciously supple thinker. Perhaps her most revealing sketch is of John Broadus Watson. Watson was a staunch behaviorist, whose hilariously chaotic life-filled with mistresses, botched academic appointments and an unyielding belief that there is no such thing as conscious introspection-led him, naturally, into advertising. But not before he addled America’s parents with some preposterous notions regarding the domestic affections. “Mothers just don’t know, ” he asserted, “when they kiss their children and pick them up … that they are slowly building up a human being totally unable to cope with the world it must later live in.”

Not surprisingly, Watson was a rather odd parent himself. (“Go a hundred strokes before climax,” he once counseled his pubescent boys.) One of his sons committed suicide; the other, James, suffered a debilitating nervous breakdown, but not before bestowing on his children the warmth that had been so sorely lacking in his father. To no avail: James’ daughter killed herself in middle age. When it comes to the fate of one’s children, it pays to remain the most humble agnostic. “How much was temperament? How much was felicitous accident? How much could be attributed to upbringing?” wondered the anthropologist Margaret Mead at her daughter’s healthy adult temperament. “We may never know. Certainly all a mother and father can claim credit for is that they have not marred a child in any recognizable way.”

The lesson in humility extends even to the greatest guru of them all. To both his relief and his dismay, Dr. Spock discovered that mothers would dutifully listen to his advice, only to revert back to their old muddle of instinct, common sense and folk remedy. Even when everyone falls on the same page, language fails to attach itself securely to lived reality. Given a questionnaire, Ms. Hulbert tells us, virtually every parent will reject both “permissive” and “authoritarian” parenting in favor of “authoritative” parenting, which strikes the balance between “love and control.” (This reminds one of the old Monty Python sketch, “How to Play the Flute”: “You blow there, and you move your fingers up and down here!”) What parent doesn’t seek some magic equilibrium between “love” and “control,” words that carry roughly the same semantic freight as “baseball” and “apple pie”? And so virtually every expert spins out equally vacuous bromides. Meanwhile, between “love” and “control” the entire range of actual practices continues to fall, from gruesomely tough love to spineless mollycoddling.

And so the great hope of the 20th century, the science of human nurture, turns out to be a hopeless oxymoron. Everything about a child’s life is a “soft variable,” and none of it submits to facile cause-and-effect storytelling. Forget calibrating to what degree, precisely, the child is father to the man-might as well use a sheep’s bladder to prevent earthquakes. Oh, but how much of life’s poetic density would be lost if we gave up the idea that we exert a powerful influence on our own children. I look at my daughter, and hope against hope she will prefer the thoughtful nerd to the shallow busybody, and rank the Beatles above the Stones. Alas, there’s only one iron mandate when it comes to parenting, and it won’t be found in my proprietary hovering. “Brace yourselves, gentlemen,” says the hapless Professor Frink from The Simpsons , revealing the contents of one of Homer’s strange elixirs. “According to the gas chromatograph, the secret ingredient is … love !? Who’s been screwing with this thing?”

Stephen Metcalf reviews books regularly for The Observer.