Child-Rearing Advice Literature

The very appearance of printed advice literature meant to help parents rear a child signals a profound historical change in the social distribution of knowledge. In most cultures, across space and time, child-rearing advice is an oral genre found in face-to-face groups. GRANDPARENTS and other members of the extended family living with or near young parents are available to dispense advice and, often, to participate actively in the rearing of children. The oral culture of child-rearing advice still thrives, even in modern industrialized societies, where mothers might seek and offer advice in a conversation with other women, or where fathers might have conversations with male friends about how to rear a boy in today's world.

A number of historical forces, however, gave rise to published advice literature in Europe and the British American colonies in the seventeenth century. Initially written by physicians and eventually by ministers and others who extended the advice to matters of morality and character, the appearance of this printed genre suggests the increased physical mobility of families (who might move away from the extended family), the rise of certain professions with legitimated "expertise," and certain social conditions (e.g., social class aspirations) that would lead parents to distrust their own instincts and to seek professional advice on matters as seemingly commonsensical as child rearing. The ENLIGHTENMENT, with its emphasis on reconstructing humanity and creating a reasonable citizen, also encouraged advice-giving and -seeking in child-rearing matters.

The emergence of this advice literature also required a conceptualization of childhood as a distinct and separate stage in life. The material culture of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the American colonies, for example, supports the account from written evidence of the historical transition from viewing the child as a little adult to the Enlightenment portrait of the child as an innocent creature with unique needs for nurturance and guidance. Children began to have their own rooms in houses, their own dishes and chamber pots, and more durable TOYS. The invention of childhood in this period in many ways required the parallel invention of motherhood and fatherhood.

Child-rearing advice literature may have been a prime mover in these inventions, and historians read it for evidence of changing conceptions of the child, of the mother, and of the father. As historical evidence, printed child-rearing advice has some limitations. It is not at all clear, for example, whether the advice given during a historical period was actually followed by the parents who received it. Not every social class has access to printed advice, even in the present, as differences in both disposable income and literacy limit the expert knowledge available to a segment of the society.

Still, historians are drawn to the child-rearing advice literature not merely because the advice signals a social class's conception of the child and of parental duties. One way or another, most historians share the belief that "the child is father of the man," or (to switch aphorisms) that "the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world." In short, historians are eager to reconstruct the child-rearing practices of a society or of a segment of a society in order to understand what sorts of adult men and women that rearing would be likely to create–or at least the kinds a society would like to create. From the mid-eighteenth century, scientific psychology provided a number of theories of child development aimed at linking childhood experiences with adult thought and behavior, and the history of child-rearing literature charts the history of these ideas. But some historians also attempt to use developmental psychologies (most often psychoanalytic theory) to explain a society's patterns with reference to child rearing. For some historians, then, the psychologies linking child rearing and adult personality are both subject matter and analytical tool.

Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

Physicians were among the first to put into print their advice on how to rear children. The first advice manuals in the American colonies and in the early national period came from England and include William Cadogan's 1749 Essay on Nursing and William Buchan's 1804 Advice to Mothers, which went through many American editions. Books like these mark the beginning of the "medicalization of motherhood," as the historian Julia Grant put it in 1998, but these physicians did not limit their advice to the purely medical. For physicians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the socialization of children's feeding, TOILET TRAINING, crying, sleeping, ANGER, and independence implied issues of character. While these physicians wrote primarily from the Enlightenment view (inherited from JOHN LOCKE, JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU, and others), which saw the child as an innocent creature of nature, they were quite aware of the popular Calvinist view that rearing a child was a battle of wills between the inherently sinful infant or child and the parent. The physical punishment of children in order to shape their behavior and character, for example, had deep religious roots and meanings for Americans. It was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that mainstream Protestant ministers, such as Horace Bushnell, provided their congregants with sermons that urged them to see young children as capable of being gently molded toward the good and not innately sinful. By then, middle-class parents had already begun to mellow their regimens and disciplinary devices under the tutelage of physicians.

Advice to parents softened in the eighteenth century, and the general trend across time has been toward recommending increasingly permissive, child-centered approaches to socializing the child. Scientific thinking and advice was slowly replacing purely moral advice about rearing children, though the moral and the scientific have always been tangled in American approaches to rearing children. Historians working on the history of emotions note, for example, the eighteenth-century campaign against anger as an emotion to be eradicated in children. Physical punishment declined, and the authors of advice manuals recommended guilt rather than shame as a way to motivate good behavior. Experts writing in the eighteenth century tended to see the family as a microcosm of society, so what children learned of human relationships in the family was important to their future interactions as adults in a society increasingly moving from a rural social organization and agrarian values to more mobile, urban, commercial patterns.

Nineteenth Century

With the industrialization and urbanization of life in western Europe and the United States came the increasing separation of life into two spheres, the public and the private, which also came to be associated with gender roles. The public, masculine sphere demanded certain qualities in young men, which were suited to the competitive individualism of a commercial culture. The literature on child rearing in the early national period made it clear that this public figure was created in the private, domestic sphere belonging to women. A cult of motherhood developed, recognizing the crucial role of mothers in creating independent (male) citizens for the new nation.

Advice manual writers in the antebellum period put new emphasis on self-control and self-discipline. Emotions like anger and JEALOUSY were unproductive in this social world, and parents were advised to help their children learn ways to control their tempers. Writers advised against parents' expressions of anger, since Victorians saw the home as, in Christopher Lasch's phrase, a "haven in a heartless world." Among the public activities of white, middle-class antebellum women was the creation of maternal organizations, usually associated with churches, and the 1830s through 1840s saw the publication of new monthly magazines and books aimed at sharing information on mothering.

The Enlightenment-based psychology of the child so common early in the eighteenth century gave way after 1859 (the publication date of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species) to a Darwinian, evolutionary psychology that acknowledged instincts and unconscious drives as features to be reckoned with in rearing children. Psychologist G. STANLEYHALL, a powerful figure in the creation of scientific psychology in the United States and a key inventor of the idea of ADOLESCENCE as a period of life distinct from both childhood and adulthood, was instrumental in founding the CHILD-STUDY movement, which provided scientific foundations for advice to parents and teachers about how to rear children. The child was no longer the "blank slate" of Enlightenment thought but was the inheritor of instincts and traits forged by evolution. Advice literature based on Darwinian psychology urged parents, teachers, and youth workers (a growing professional group) to channel these powerful instincts into positive activities rather than attempt to eradicate or suppress them.

Early Twentieth Century

By 1909 enough experts on the scientific rearing of children existed that the first WHITE HOUSE CONFERENCE ONHILDREN could be convened, and in 1912 the federal government created the U.S. CHILDREN'S BUREAU, which would soon become a primary source of scientific information about children, from diet and health to socialization. The authorship of advice manuals shifted, accelerating the decline of the morally based advice manual in favor of those making some claim to science. By the early twentieth century, PEDIATRICS and CHILD PSYCHOLOGY were established specialties with expertise about the child. Through the Children's Bureau and other venues, the government published books and pamphlets and established infant-welfare stations meant to provide the most current scientific information about children's health, safety, and well-being. Research universities, especially land grant public universities honoring their mission to serve the citizenry, established home economics extension services to help disseminate the most current scientific knowledge about rearing children. By 1920 an extensive institutional network existed, offering expert advice, which was supposed to be scientifically grounded, on understanding children.

The women's movement was also having effects on child study and parent education. The National Congress of Mothers, the Child Study Association, and the American Association of University Women, for example, generally supported a scientific (as opposed to religious) approach to understanding modern motherhood.

The behaviorism of JOHN B. WATSON and others provided the scientific psychology behind most ideas about child rearing in the 1920s and 1930s, though Freudian and other psychoanalytic ideas also enjoyed some popularity in these circles. Both approaches considered the first two or three years of life to be critical to child rearing. The behaviorist approach assumed that behavior could be fashioned entirely through patterns of reinforcement, and Watson's ideas permeated the Children's Bureau's Infant Care bulletins and PARENTS MAGAZINE, which was founded in 1926. As historians and others have observed, this approach to programming and managing children's behavior suited a world of rationalized factory production and employee management theories rationalizing industrial relations. Watson explicitly criticized "too much mother love," advising parents to become detached and objective in their child-rearing techniques so as to develop self-control in the child.

Many experts in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries expressed concern about the large number of immigrant mothers raising children in the United States. These mothers became the target audience for efforts by parent education associations to Americanize the huge immigrant population. Similar political motives impelled efforts to teach African-American mothers what were considered modern, scientific approaches to child-rearing. It has also been suggested that changes in generational relations and the decline of advice within the family made even middle-class parents more dependent on advice. Certainly child-advice book sales and the number of titles in print soared by the 1920s.

While the behaviorist approach continued to have great strength through the 1930s, there were also signs of a growing realization that children have individual natures which must be taken into account. The growth of a child-centered approach redirected the problem of child rearing from the training of children to the training of parents to be more sensitive to the needs of the child. At the same time, the economic circumstances of the GREAT DEPRESSION tended to disrupt gender roles, placing more women (and children) into the workforce and leading experts to elevate the importance of the father in child rearing. The language of the advice to parents in the 1930s became more therapeutic, stressing the need for a family culture that was more egalitarian and more sensitive to the individual needs of children, mothers, and fathers. The gentle management of emotions, especially anger, became a central topic in this advice.

ARNOLD GESELL and Francis L. Ilg's enormously popular 1943 book, Infant and Child Care in the Culture of Today, put an end to the behavioral approach and popularized a developmental approach that recognized the power of biology in the child's physical and psychosocial growth. In the midst of World War II, this book made explicit the ideology of their developmental approach. Whereas regimented behaviorism resembled fascism, a developmental approach aimed at maximizing the growth of the unique individual child was suited to a democratic family and a democratic society. The child-centered approach recommended relaxed approaches to feeding, toilet training, and independence training.

Mid-to Late Twentieth Century

Dr. BENJAMIN SPOCK's 1946 book, The Commonsense Book of Baby and Child Care, guided the child rearing of the BABY BOOM GENERATION's parents (1946–1964). Spock's aim, he said, was to get mothers to trust themselves again, to take a more relaxed approach that recognized the qualities of individual children. The book, however, and Dr. Spock himself, became a central topic in the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, as some conservatives blamed society's woes on the effects of his permissive, child-centered approach. Dr. Spock's own high visibility as a critic of the Vietnam War helped cement the impression that he had helped create a generation of rebellious children and adolescents who mocked authority.

By the 1970s other physicians were vying with Spock to be the most visible and most trusted dispenser of advice on rearing babies and children. Dr. Lendon H. Smith was among the most successful of these. Beginning with his 1969 book The Children's Doctor and continuing in his radio and television shows in the 1970s, Smith pointed to the diet and resulting body chemistry of children to explain their behavior. His message that children's health and behavior could be managed through diet suited the 1970s and 1980s trend, which looked toward biology, rather than learned behavior, for the cause of behavioral problems. In contrast, Dr. Thomas Gordon, a clinical psychologist, took a management training approach in his 1970 book, Parental Effectiveness Training: The No-Lose Program for Raising Responsible Children, which became the foundation for Parental Effectiveness Training Seminars and programs around the country.

A new baby boom (sometimes called a "boomlet" or an "echo boom") of births began around 1982, creating a demand for books on baby and child care, parenting, and related matters. The bookstores began stocking large numbers of titles as physicians, psychologists, and others raced to claim the increasing readership.

Physician William Sears and his wife, Martha Sears, a nurse, came the closest in the mass market of the 1990s and early 2000s to duplicating Dr. Spock's wide influence. Beginning with their 1993 The Baby Book: Everything You Need to Know about Your Baby from Birth to Age Two, the Sears couple, sometimes with a coauthor, have written a series of books offering advice on topics ranging from basic health care to moral education for older children, as in their 1995 The Discipline Book and their 2000 The Successful Child: The Proven Program for Raising Responsible Children. Like their predecessors, these books emphasize the earliest period of a child's life as the most fundamental. Recent studies of early brain development have reinforced this trend. At the center of the Sears couple's advice is "attachment parenting," whose origins in JOHN BOWLBY's theories of attachment make it a somewhat controversial approach. It counsels nursing for as long as both mother and child enjoy the relationship; responding promptly to the infant's cries; being responsive to the baby's preferences in sleeping arrangements (including sleeping with the baby in a king-size bed); and carrying the baby in a sling that keeps him or her in touch with the mother's or father's body. Attachment parenting, insist the authors, makes it more likely that parents will be sensitive to their particular child's needs and will trust their own responses to those needs; consequently it increases the child's skill at giving the parents cues. The trust developed in this relationship, argue the authors, sets the foundation for a child's self-esteem, for the child's bonding with other people throughout his or her life, and for a disciplinary relationship based on trust and the growth of a "healthy conscience."

The rapid development of the Internet in the 1990s and the early 2000s multiplied the range of resources parents could turn to in search of child-rearing advice, though the class issues of the digital divide still affect access to this information. Parents who have access to the Internet can find all books in print through Internet bookstores and finding services. Perhaps more important, hundreds of websites dispense information and advice on children's health and personality training. Dr. William Sears has his own website, for example, as do many other well-known authors of baby-care and child-rearing books. Often these websites feature questions from online readers, with answers provided by the experts. Parents of children with special needs–which includes physical disabilities, emotional problems, attention deficit problems, and developmental problems–can find websites full of advice and resources for parents dealing with these challenges.


Child-rearing advice provides useful historical evidence of changing conceptions of the child and of the proper roles of mothers, fathers, family members, and other care givers. As the advice has moved from oral to written to electronic means of communication, the source of expertise has moved from family to religious leaders to physicians and psychologists. The general trend in the written advice proffered by authors over the past four hundred years has been toward more permissive child-rearing practices (feeding on demand, relaxed toilet training, reduction of frustrating experiences, and so on), with an occasional swing back in the direction of rigid scheduling and control (e.g., the behaviorism of the 1920s and 1930s).

In the last decade of the twentieth century, stricter demands about toilet training and feeding have returned, together with a reduction in strictures against physical correction. This has resulted from both a new view of parental nurture as less significant than the natural internal development of the child's emotional and cognitive life and in response to growing concerns about children's misbehavior. The heightened visibility of the evangelical religious right in public disputes about the family has clearly affected this development as well.

Child-rearing advice has always carried ideological weight. Advice reflects the religious, scientific, and broadly political ideas of a period, even if what they reflect is a profound conflict over and discomfort with the tension between the current ideas. Political and economic ideologies work their way into child-rearing advice in the United States as experts and parents debate which child-rearing approaches are compatible and incompatible with current thinking about the nature of American democracy and its institutions, including the family. This was as true in the early national period as it was in the twentieth-century debates, but a heightened public discourse about culture wars in the 1980s and 1990s has again put debates about the proper rearing of children at the center of deeply felt debates about the nature and future of American democratic institutions. Sociolinguist George Lakoff shows how many differences about the political and moral meanings of the United States are rooted in two different conceptualizations of the family, one hierarchical and authoritarian, the other egalitarian. Similarly, in concluding her historical account of the education of parents for child rearing, Julia Grant notes how a number of current, highly visible experts on child rearing (among them T. Berry Brazelton, Penelope Leach, and David Elkind) are promoting the view that there is a biological foundation for gender differences in parenting. Public arguments over the role of fathers and other care givers in raising children has been particularly fierce. Child-rearing advice, it seems, speaks to some of the largest issues and tensions experienced by a society, and that is unlikely to change soon.

See also: Fathering and Fatherhood; Mothering and Motherhood; Parenting; Scientific Child Rearing.


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