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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.
“Hulbert could hardly have taken on a more ambitious assignment, and for the most part she succeeds beautifully. She has fit her prodigious material around five of the century’s conferences on childhood, focusing on the generations of experts who have guided us through this increasingly materialistic, increasingly meritocratic and increasingly messy business. . . Her history is fascinating as it reflects the tensions and anxieties of a century.” —Stacy Shiff, New York Times Book Review
“Were I to recommend one book to a new parent, it wouldn’t be a how-to manual, but rather Ann Hulbert’s diverting and thoroughly illuminating study, Raising America . . . . It’s 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.” —Steven Metcalf, The New York Observer
“Lucidly written . . . thought-provoking . . . Not merely an account of a ‘century of advice’ but also a history of the ways in which our ideas about families, women, childhood and adult responsibility have and have not shifted over the course of a hundred years. Hulbert’s achievement is to examine our hopes and fears as they are played out in the lives of our children and to understand how we have come to determine the proper time to pick up a crying baby.” —Francine Prose, L.A. Times Book Review
“Raising America is a generation-by-generation history of advice, and the joy of this book is in how successfully Hulbert renders the taste and smell of the circus. Here are the same kinds of runaway and pediatric best-sellers as we have today . . . the same folksy Dr. Feelgoods. . .” —Sandra Tsing Loh, The Atlantic Monthly
“Ann Hulbert’s book is that rarest of things—a really intelligent, sophisticated, and knowledgeable book about childrearing. She tells the fascinating, complicated, and often surprising story of a distinctively American phenomenon—the child-raising expert. By weaving together the histories of the men who gave advice and the women who took it (or didn’t), she provides an important corrective to the simplicities of the typical ‘baby books’. More, her subtle and wide-ranging knowledge of the science, history, and politics of child-rearing provides real insight into the dilemmas individual parents, and the nation, face today.” —Alison Gopnik, coauthor of The Scientist in the Crib: Minds, Brains, and How Children Learn
“Ann Hulbert’s unfailing generosity and kindness towards experts, parents, and children alike results in a book of incisive ideas as well as wonderful stories about raising children. Raising America immeasurably enhances our ability to understand the mixture of our own confusions and good intentions, both as parents and as veterans of our family pasts.” —Christine Stansell, Professor of History, Princeton University. author of American Moderns
“Ann Hulbert is one of the most astute observers of American cultural mores. She casts a discerning eye on our peculiar reverence for child rearing experts. Over the last century American children have been unwitting research subjects, their parents the researchers, with the experts off-stage writing the scripts on how to raise better if not perfect children. The story she tells is at once touching and troubling. Nobody does this better.” —Jean Bethke Elshtain, The Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics, The Unversity of Chicago. Author, most recently, of Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy