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Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children [Hardcover]

Ann Hulbert
3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)

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Book Description

April 29 2003
In this probing inquiry into America’s preoccupation with raising children, Ann Hulbert blends biography and critical analysis to probe the personal dramas, the scientific claims, and the social visions of a succession of experts who during the twentieth century aimed to make a science of child rearing. She describes how these pediatricians and psychologists came to be popular advisers, and explores the origins and outcome of their ambitious quest to predict and perfect children’s futures, and to solve the dilemmas of modern mothers and of families in flux.

The story unfolds like a curious—and often contentious—family saga, featuring an odd couple of presiding experts in each generation: one a stern father figure espousing a nurture-counts-most, “parent-centered” emphasis on discipline; the other a “child-centered” proponent of gentler bonding as a child’s nature develops. They include turn-of-the-century pioneers L. Emmett Holt, whose precise infant-care regimens promised calm, healthy mothers as well as babies, and his counterpart, G. Stanley Hall, who “invented” adolescence as a special time of freedom and experimentation. Between the wars, the harsh behaviorist John Broadus Watson and the maturationist Arnold Gesell faced off with grander theories about children’s personalities and maternal responsibilities. In the postwar era, Benjamin Spock, a genial Freudian intent on finessing debates between bonders and disciplinarians, soared to prominence—only to be confronted on the antiwar barricades by a fiercer Freudian, Bruno Bettelheim, and then attacked by feminists in the early 1970s.

As the millennium approached, a new host of advisers contended for primacy—from cognitive experts anxious to fine-tune children’s intellectual growth to parenting-specialists-turned-public-advocates from the right and the left issuing manuals and social manifestos to combat what they saw as the erosion of morality and harmony in a family-unfriendly America.

Raising America is a provocative account of how a hundred years of expert advice clearly failed to ease modern child-raising anxieties. It makes clear that the advisers, with their shifting formulas and dogmas, in fact proved to be unnerving. Yet as their stories reveal, they have also been enlightening, holding up an intimate mirror to the rising social and psychological expectations and tensions of an unsettled century.

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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Rather than a social history of how Americans have raised their children, Hulbert (The Interior Castle: The Art and Life of Jean Stafford) offers an intellectual history of how children and parents have been studied in modern America. Here is the story of how Drs. Hall and Holt begat Drs. Gesell and Watson, who begat Dr. Spock and even Dr. Seuss, and how they in turn spawned an entire mini-industry of parenting experts. In spite of changes in terms or variations in thematic concerns, each generation of "experts" has been consistently bipolar, Hulbert finds: the "hard," parent-centered theorists fond of authority and discipline versus the "soft," child-centered theorists preaching love, bonding and liberty. With a flair for wordplay (paraphrasing Gesell's advice to parents to "walk-and speak-ever so softly, and carry a big chart") and a taste for irony (almost all the experts suffered from "mother's boy syndrome"), Hulbert documents the upbringings of the experts themselves, the fluctuations in their advice and the details of their downfalls. While few of these experts were as scientific as they claimed, they probably have managed to further parents' understanding of child development somewhat, admits Hulbert. The irony here-or perhaps it's a saving grace-is that parents, while eager for advice, rarely seem to have used it. This provocative and informative study is a model of lay scholarship. 15 photos.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Library Journal

Why a century of advice has failed.
Copyright 2002 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
Perhaps my very mixed feelings about this book came from unmet expectations. I thought it would be a book about the history of the actual advise given American parents---how advise about such issues as toilet training, sleep and eating have changed over the years, and how this affected parents. However, the book was actually much more about the experts themselves---THEIR childhoods, education, marital problems, academic careers, etc. This might be interesting to some, but it wasn't to me for the most part. The book had a feel of an insider sort of expose---written for those in the academic world. Children were mentioned very little, except if they happened to be the children of the experts themselves. There was much delving into the psychological history of each expert, but I found that at times I had a very vague idea what the experts actually advised! For example, Hall, an early expert, had his life opened for scrutiny, but I would be hard pressed to explain what his child care views were. The writing was scholary and confident, but in no way personal---the author's children or her own views are not mentioned. So I guess I would just advice that you know what you want to read about before buying this book---It might be just what you are looking for, but it might be far from what you are looking for.
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1.0 out of 5 stars ambitous and flawed Oct. 27 2003
By A Customer
Well, first of all, if I were reading a book about kids, wanting to know about the society of children, I would want to know the author has done the work of raising kids, instead of studying documents of others who studied kids on a makeshift and very temporary basis. There's a great deal of difference between this "pop" psychology writer Hulbert and people who study children, like children, and look for what is good and workable. As I read this book, I kept thinking, how simple it is to write a book about what is wrong, and this is something Hulbert specializes in- according to her, lots of bad ideas exist in the world. This becomes tiresome throughout this book. In a world of cheap pundits everywhere, claiming that everything about everything is wrong, it is refreshing to read instead people like Derrida "the Work of Mourning" which speaks clearly about relationships and how they are made in individual psyches. I think overall, there is so much to be said about kids and relationships between them and with adults that is useful, that this book is unfortunately just is a rehash of each decades "look how bad and stupid people are after all" genre.
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After about 3 minutes of hearing Hulbert talk about the history of parenting advice this century on NPR, I knew I needed this book. I am in a peculiar position as a Parent Coach/Instructor and as a skeptic. Among other things I teach a very specific approach to parenting based on Love and Logic (See my review of Love and Logic Magic for Early Childhood). Yet while I teach a specific approach to helping parents make their lives a bit easier, I am also a skeptic at heart and therefore strive to examine all approaches to parenting with a critical eye, allowing the evidence to point where it may.
With painstaking detail and with considerable wit, Hulbert takes us through the century and helps us to see that parents have been anxious about how their kids would turn out for decades. She also shows that they frequently turn to the experts for guidance; experts who have an annoying habit of contradicting one another. Throughout the centry there has always been a "hard" approach to parenting advocated as well as a "soft" approach advocated usually by two separate experts. Many experts have, and continue to make exaggerated claims about the results of taking their advice. James Watson the famous behaviorist was the paragon of this sort of wild claim, deciding based on a few experiments with white furry things and a scared infant that he knew the secrets to take any sort of child and raise them for a career of his selection and with the character of his choice.
A century later, much is the same though there are some important differences. We continue to have an array of voices with a good deal of overlap as well as with a number of contradictions. The difference now perhaps is that there are approaches all along the continuum from soft to hard, rather than one or two at either end.
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Breast or bottle? Co-sleeping or crib sleeping? Cry-it-out or rock to sleep? To spank or not to spank? New parents, eager to do what's best for their children, face endless decisions about the "right way" to raise their children. A quick glance through the parenting shelves at the local bookstore reveals that there is no lack of books weighing in on just about every current controversy, from pretty much every conceivable point of view. In just over a century, the study and popularization of child development has burgeoned from a handful of specialists to a plethora of experts, each with a particular ax to grind. How this happened is the focus of RAISING AMERICA, Ann Hulbert's ambitious history of twentieth-century parenting experts and expertise.
Hulbert structures her history around five key parenting and family conferences, from 1899's National Congress of Mothers to 1997's Conference on Early Childhood Development and Learning, pausing in each case to reflect on the state of parenting philosophies and advice at the time. To further illustrate the evolution of expert advice on children, she profiles two key experts in each generation, each of whom falls into a distinct "camp." One exemplifies "child-centered" or "soft" parenting, a proponent of letting "nature take its course in childhood" and an advocate of parent-child bonding. The other, "parent-centered" expert instead advises strict discipline, believing in the power of parental nurture to shape child behavior for good or ill.
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