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According to the best guesses of those who’ve made it their business to guess, the Age of Parental Anxiety kicked off sometime between the 1901 final edition of Felix Adler’s The Moral Instruction of Children and the 1909 conferral of best-seller status on the English translation of The Century of the Child, a work by the Swedish feminist Ellen Key.
A list of the differences between Adler’s and Key’s views of child rearing would run about the length of both books combined. Adler, a rabbi who taught ethics at Columbia University, wrote a book that hearkened back to early-19th-century manuals by American clerics and divines, telling his readers, for example, that “the moral value of the study of literature is as great as it is obvious. Literature is the medium through which all that part of our inner life finds expression which defies scientific formulation.” Key, on the other hand, her gaze turned toward a bright utopia fueled by principles of social Darwinism and eugenics, professed a “new ethic,” by which the only possible “immorality” in family life would be “that which gives occasion to a weak offspring, and produces bad conditions for development.” She continued, “The Ten Commandments on this subject will not be prescribed by the founders of religion, but by scientists.”
It was the faith in science that made Key’s tendentious and oh-so-continental book an American best-seller. Science was by the 1910s generally regarded by middle-class Americans (our most eager devourers of child-rearing counsel) as the means by which the new century would generate solutions to many problems that had perturbed human beings through the ages. As regarded child-raising, it was understood that insights into nutrition (mother’s milk or cow’s?), psychology (punishment vs. reward?), physiology (toilet training at three months or six?), and hygiene (one bath a week or three?) would free mothers (and fathers to a lesser degree) from having to intuit responses to children’s needs on the basis of feeling or lean on the primitive practices that their own benighted ancestors had honored. Instead, responsible women, working from written instructions, would now develop healthy, bright, and well-adjusted children as easily as they crocheted fancy lace doilies.
Among the first men (and it’s invariably been men for more than 100 years) to assert responsibility for turning American women into professional mothers was Dr. L.E. Holt. A pioneer pediatrician, Holt produced, among other works, The Care and Feeding of Children: A Catechism for the Use of Mothers and Children’s Nurses, which was first published in 1894 and for succeeding decades held the distinction of being the best-selling medical text in American history. Holt’s articles of scientific faith relied heavily on the virtues of regularity, sharp record keeping, and maternal detachment. They ran the gamut from grandma-esque counsel, such as don’t play with baby just before bedtime, to instructions not to pick up a crying baby unless it was clear that the child was in physical pain, and even more harmful nonsense, as in this creedal statement:
What things in the mother are most likely to cause colic and indigestion in a nursing infant?
Extreme nervousness, fright, fatigue, grief, or passion are the root common causes; sometimes menstruation.
By the mid 1930s, authority in these matters had passed to John Watson, a pioneer behaviorist who had gone into advertising after being run out of Johns Hopkins for having an affair with a graduate student.
Watson’s best-selling Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928) was a manifesto by a man who boasted that if handed an infant and time, he could return “a doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant [or] beggar and thief”—whatever was required. His book included a chapter titled “The Dangers of Too Much Mother Love”—it apparently caused “invalidism”—in which appeared these now notorious instructions: “Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning.” And while science did offer contrary views, as from Yale’s Dr. Arnold Gesell, who founded the field of child development and assured mothers that children were inherently good at growing up, Watson’s ideas, boosted by his skills at promotion, pretty much held sway until Dr. Benjamin Spock came along in 1946 with The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. Spock told mothers that feeding didn’t have to take place on the hour, that kissing was in fact a constructive act, and that maternal intuitions were likely sound (though there were a few things mothers still needed to learn). According to some records, his book ranked second only to the Bible in sales through the remainder of the 20th century.
Our story on parents trying to understand how to do the best for their children begins here.