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Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children by Ann Hulbert
464 pages Vintage April 2004 Paperback rated 3 out of 5 stars   

Ann Hulbert is the Harvard-educated, Eastern-based author of The Interior Castle: The Art and Life of Jean Stafford, and mother of two children. In Raising America she describes, criticizes, and tries to capture the essence of late 19th- and 20th-century child-care philosophies and parenting practices popularized in America. She attributes different familial shifts back and forth between the absolute poles of "parent-centered," authoritative, conservative, moral approaches and "child-centered," permissive, developmental, liberal, social-emotional orientations.

The author's unstated premises for this book appear to be "look at how these experts got their foot in the door and their message out to the public. Look how the public accepted them hook, line, and sinker, then became frustrated, angry, and disillusioned by the lack of practical child-raising effectiveness. Look how these same experts had serious conflicts and problems with their parents, marriages, and parent-child relationships and look how they all, at times, contradicted themselves. And look at how these 'experts' were eager to sell millions of books, learned from each other how to sell popular books, and how they, like their predecessors, exaggerated claims and, at times, used unethical means or hypocritical methods to appease and keep up with cross-pressures impacting themselves, their home life, and their paternalistic, educational roles towards an always needy, dependent public attempting to understand and apply these lofty experts' biased, scientifically weak, and often unfounded conclusions."

Hulbert suggests that L. Emmett Holt, one of the nation's first and finest pediatricians, and his book, The Care and Feeding of Children (1894) generated a great deal of early focus on nursing mother's milk, strictly measured baby formulas, and rigidly timed feeding schedules prescribed without mother's cuddling and playing with babies. Babies were to be toilet-trained in three months. Babies' crying should be accepted as merely physical exercise allowed up to thirty minutes before a caretaker would be expected to investigate. Little playing was to be allowed and never before bedtime. Holt's goal for mothers was to always stay calm, consistent, and reduce any stimulation around the baby on a consistent basis. The illusionary promise being that precise feeding and regulated infant care would result in healthy, happy mothers and children. Holt's model was a popular early example of an authoritarian, parent-driven focus on what mothers (but rarely fathers) should do when raising a child by the clock.

Conversely, G. Stanley Hall, America's first Ph.D. psychologist, ushered in a competing proto-Freudian view of development including an original stage called "adolescence". This stage was a physical/psychological interlude wherein youth explores emergent, exciting sexual and rebellious desires and, conflicted, conscience versus behavioral choices. Hall's child-centered perspective suggested natural forces and biological rhythms underlying the awareness and unfolding of behavior which he proposed could be studied more scientifically by watchful, trained, sensitive, and permissive eyes.

The author presents biographical snapshots of popular experts whose books and lectures followed either a quasi-Holtian or Hallian line, like the radical behaviorist, mother-centered John B. Watson, (Behaviorism), the child-centered maturationist Dr. Arnold Gesell (The Mental Growth of the PreSchool Child), the child-centered psychoanalyst Erik Erickson (Childhood and Society), the ambivalent neo-Freudian pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Spock (Baby and Child Care), the mother-centered psychiatrist Dr. Bruno Bettelheim (Dialogues with Mothers), the child-centered pediatrician Dr. T. Berry Brazelton (Infants and Mothers: Differences in Development) and others. None of these experts had the benefit of rigorous scientific studies beyond close, at times photographic observations, nominal rating scales, personal/family/patient experiences, and anecdotal case records acquired along the way.

By implication, if they had only been able to do sophisticated social-psychological and developmental research, they may have been better able to manage and temper their (and the reading public's) zeal and tendency to generate sweeping generalizations and unfounded, Victorian-like parental applications. These practices were talked about and maybe accepted by many, otherwise educated, professional, upper-class women, mothers, enlightened feminists, and "flower children."

This reviewer found Raising America an unnecessarily long, tedious read because of the fragmentation of details and mental jumping back and forth across decades, people, and quotes from newspapers, magazines, and supplemental materials (c.f., sixty-three pages of over one thousand page notes organized by chapter at the back of the book). I will leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions regarding the author's organization, methods, and purpose(s). Hulbert concludes her sample of experts "aim to hide their wisdom, but that it can be found in reading between, and across, the experts' lines." Hopefully, you will find more of what you what you need by reading and exploring this book in a more focused, goal-oriented manner.
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