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Related Topics
Anxious ParentsReview - Anxious Parents
A History Of Modern Childrearing In America
by Peter N. Stearns
New York University Press, 2004
Review by Kevin Purday
Feb 17th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 7)

This is a thoroughly intriguing and entertaining book. The author is the provost and professor of history at George Mason University. His great passion is social history and indeed he is the editor of the Journal of Social History. He is already well known for books such as his Fat History: Bodies and Beauty in the Modern West. This latest book will surely enhance his reputation yet further.

His theme is the various causes of anxiety for parents during the twentieth century and how they have grown, diminished or altered during the course of the century. He takes five main topics and weaves his book round them. The five are the vulnerable or frail child; the problem of discipline; the American love-hate relationship with schooling; children's work outside and inside the home; and children's boredom and entertainment.

The chapter on the vulnerable child sets the scene by describing the transition from the nineteenth to the twentieth century parenting manual. The former would have been shortish, about 150 pages, written by a clergyman or a member of his family, and concerned with "the importance of piety, obedience, the need for good parental example, the different natures and obligations of boys and girls, and the basic dictates of good health." (page 19) The latter were about double the size or even more, written by experts in or popularizers of the medical and psychological disciplines, and covered "a huge range of topics, now usually phrased as problems." (Ibid.) These 'problems' still included health and hygiene issues but increasingly dealt with psychological pitfalls. The proliferation of these problems, the author argues, marks the change from a period in which children were seen as essentially sturdy to a time when, unless parents were extremely careful, their offspring would grow up physically or psychologically damaged in one way or another. Children might grow up fearful and timid or otherwise emotionally warped if they were not treated correctly. On the physical side, safety became more of an issue as America became more urbanized. Less understandably perhaps, posture became a hot topic. Germs were a huge worry especially as a result of the large polio epidemics. Concerns about Sudden Infant Death Syndrome surfaced surprisingly early in the century. Safety in the home was another problem area. Sleeping practices came under scrutiny and sleep deprivation was seen as a possibility. The list seemed endless and, worst of all, if things did go wrong, parents were held responsible. No wonder that they were anxious.

This vulnerability obviously had knock-on effects in other areas. An obvious one was discipline. The old ways of dad as the punisher were gradually replaced by dad as buddy. Mothers too were warned about being overly harsh in toilet training. Even that good old method called guilt came under review as pundits pointed out the possible terrible consequences of using this method. Humiliation in every color and shape came to be exposed -- the 1970s were the era when it became illegal in some states to publicly post examination and test grades in schools and colleges lest children's self-esteem be damaged. In the home the entire set of sanctions came under review -- grounding, the withholding of pocket money, etc.

As a teacher the reviewer found the chapter on education extremely enlightening. The author makes it clear that throughout the twentieth century Americans have had a love-hate relationship with education. Even in the year 2001 Alexandria, VA still had a law restricting the amount of homework schools could set -- in this case, one and a half hours a night. Parents were (and still are) not at all sure that they even liked schooling very much -- the U.S.A. has the largest proportion of home-schooled children in the developed world. As the Alexandria example shows, homework was a major bone of contention with many parents feeling that either children should be free to be children after school or that homework interfered with the right of the parents to control their children's free time. A major schooling issue has been the massive expansion in the number of hyperactive children. This is not a peculiarly American problem but Ritalin is a particularly American answer since the U.S.A. uses up 90% of the world's Ritalin supply. Furthermore, ADD and ADHD were far from being the only special needs exhibited by America's children. By 2002 a full 25% of all children in Fairfax (VA) County public schools were designated as having special needs of one sort or another. The other side of the coin has been that the self-esteem movement has probably been bigger in the States than anywhere else in the world. One consequence of that movement has been the enormous pressure on schools and colleges to not dent children's self-esteem by giving low grades (even if the children deserve them!). In 1968 fewer than 50% of high school grades were As and Bs. By 1983 that figure had reached 60% and by 1994 the number of As alone reached 32%. Pretty well only teachers of calculus managed to hold the line! The result is that a C grade is no longer respectable or even acceptable because everyone is above average! The author also looks at the effects on colleges and on the College Board with its AP and SAT examinations. All in all, this is a fascinating chapter.

The chapter on work covers the whole gamut from child employment at the beginning of the twentieth century through to the role that helping with chores in the home can play in the formation of character and in contributing to the life of the family. It is a useful reminder when we somewhat condescendingly look at child labour issues in some developing countries that in 1913 children of 13 and less were contracting nicotine poisoning by working in cigar factories in the U.S.A. The topic of help in the home has a very contemporary feel as the author brings the problem bang up to date with the contemporary problems that any parents with teenage children will recognize.

The chapter on boredom and entertainment is also fascinating. The author explores the evolution of boredom from being something that one tried to avoid inflicting on others to being a state of mind. In other words, originally to be polite necessarily involved not being boring. Boredom in its later twentieth century incarnation was not the result of someone being boring but a newly discovered state of mind which was due to a dearth of entertainment. Others (parents and even teachers) had a responsibility, in the eyes of the bored person, to remedy the situation and fill the gap -- preferably with highly commercialized entertainment which big business was only too happy to provide.

The book is full of psychological insights. Its account of the influence of behaviorism is deftly woven into the story. Dr. Spock gets his rightful place. The author has scoured the shelves of libraries and second-hand bookshops to find the old child-rearing manuals and comic books. He uses these sources widely and to great effect.

The book is beautifully proofread. It has an excellent index, extremely detailed endnotes with precise bibliographical references as well as lists of further reading at the end of each chapter. It also has a list of his most widely consulted child-rearing manuals from the 1920s onwards. All of this means that the book is as useful to scholars as it is informative to the general public. It is a beautifully written and thoroughly interesting book.


2006 Kevin M. Purday


Kevin Purday works at The Modern English School, Cairo, Egypt, and has a Master's degree in the Philosophy & Ethics of Mental Health from the Philosophy Dept. at the University of Warwick.



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