Scientific Child Rearing

The origins of scientific child rearing in the United States are diverse and may be traced back as far as the seventeenth century, when poet and mother of seven children Anne Bradstreet theorized: "Diverse children have their different natures; some are like flesh which nothing but salt will keep from putrefaction, some again like tender fruits that are best preserved with sugar… . Those parents are wise that canfit their nurture according to their nature." Bradstreet's comparison of the techniques of food preservation to disciplining children was only one of many scientific analogies that would inform thinking about child rearing. Her conception of the mother as a scientist of child nurture would have salience in the centuries to come, even as it vied with the idea that mothers must rely on experts to raise their children.

Seventeenth-century philosopher and physician JOHN LOCKE offered another analogy for child rearing when he conceived of the child's mind as a tabula rasa, or blank slate, for parent's to write upon. His influential Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693) articulated his vision of parenting as a systematic and consequential enterprise. In Émile (1762), JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU also shed philosophical and scientific light on childhood. Unlike Locke, who was primarily concerned with discerning how best to prepare children for adulthood, Rousseau urged parents and educators to preserve and nurture the "natural" child. In succeeding centuries, scientific child rearing literature would veer between emphases on socialization versus development. However, scientific child rearing has traditionally been the province of middle-class parents, who have had the time, leisure, financial resources, and inclinations to utilize expert advice in parenting.

The idea of child rearing as a scientific enterprise made increasing headway in the nineteenth century. The focus on specialized techniques of child rearing was at least partially a consequence of economic and demographic changes, which contributed to smaller family sizes and intensified nurturing. In 1800, the average family raised seven children to adulthood; by 1900, that number had shrunk to three or four. With fewer children and productive responsibilities in the home, child rearing became a focal point of women's work in the home. In a society where one's fortunes could rise and fall in a lifetime, parents sought to inculcate children with the habits and virtues that would allow them to maintain or improve their economic position and social status. While philosophy and religion initially provided the theoretical rationales for informing parents about the best means of rearing children, science and medicine began to make inroads on this discourse by the close of the century.

The advent of the field of PEDIATRICS in the nineteenth century was central to the evolution of scientific child rearing. Physicians acquired greater influence over family life throughout the century, but it was not until 1887 that the American Pediatric Society was established, and the idea of well baby health care took hold. Pediatricians orchestrated campaigns to alleviate INFANT MORTALITY, initiated regularly scheduled well baby examinations, and pronounced themselves as authorities on INFANT FEEDING. During the World War I era, child health activists sponsored infant welfare clinics, better baby contests, and milk stations. In both rural and urban areas mothers congregated at settlement houses, county fairs, and government offices to have their babies weighed, measured, and receive milk. In these venues, mothers learned that there were scientific rationales for psychological as well as for physical care. Physicians and nurses offered advice about feeding, clothing, and how to respond to a crying infant. However, there was variability in the extent to which mothers accepted scientific authority over their mothering practices. Poor mothers, especially, were often receptive to suggestions concerning sanitation and nutrition, while remaining skeptical about the idea that science should determine their techniques of nurture and DISCIPLINE.

CHILD PSYCHOLOGY accompanied pediatrics into the twentieth century as both an academic enterprise and source of knowledge for popular consumption. Pioneer psychologist G. STANLEY HALL championed CHILD STUDY as a vital subject of research in the late nineteenth century. He enlisted mothers and teachers to gather data on children's habits and development as a means of reforming education and parenting. Hall's message that children's discipline and education should be normative and shape their educations and upbringing became, he himself claimed "almost like a new gospel."

Hall was practically a patron saint to the National Congress of Mothers, forerunner to the PTA, which was founded in 1897. This national organization of mothers' groups was the most prominent advocate for scientific motherhood. In 1896, African-American women founded the National Association of Colored Women, which similarly promoted the concept of "better motherhood." The National Association of Colored Parents and Teachers was formed in 1926 for African-American segregated school districts. These various women's organizations differed in their deÆ-nitions of parent education, but all agreed on the centrality of science in improving the conditions of childhood.

In 1909, the first WHITE HOUSE CONFERENCE ONHILDREN was held, uniting scientists, reformers, and educators to craft public policy on childhood. The conference led to the establishment of the U.S. CHILDREN'S BUREAU (1912), which gathered data on infant and maternal health problems and issued a series of bulletins relating to children's physical and emotional care. The Bureau maintained a voluminous correspondence with mothers from both rural and urban settings about many aspects of childcare and nurture and helped to advance the idea that government should play a role in parenting.

By the 1920s, scientific child rearing had become an obsession for the American middle class. A slew of publications warned that faulty child rearing could lead to criminality and psychological disease. Many argued that the radically transformed conditions of the modern era were such that neither the maternal instinct nor tradition could be relied upon to raise children. In Psychological Care of Infant and Child (1928) JOHN BROADUS WATSON portrayed children as human "machines" whose behavior could be programmed by maternal technicians. Watson chided mothers for their indulgence, warned about the dangers of "too much mother love," and prescribed strictly regimented feeding schedules for infants. While influential throughout the 1920s and 1930s, behaviorist ideas of child rearing were eclipsed by more child-centered philosophies of parenting as World War II approached. However, Watson's perception that twentieth-century children were "spoiled" by indulgent parents and required more objective handling would be a recurring refrain as the century progressed.

Child-centered parenting received a boost from the research of pediatrician and psychologist ARNOLD GESELL during the 1930s and 1940s. Gesell produced and popularized developmental norms that detailed the physical, behavioral, and temperamental characteristics of children of different ages. While these norms enabled parents and physicians to identify developmental delays and disorders, they could also be rigidly applied and exacerbate anxiety about children whose walking or talking was slightly behind schedule. In terms of discipline, Gesell's norms advanced child-centered disciplinary strategies, by redefining behaviors such as temper tantrums as normal consequences of the process of development, rather than undesirable habits that needed to be extinguished.

BENJAMIN SPOCK's Baby and Child Care, first published in 1946, was heralded as a watershed in advice literature to parents. The paperback was inexpensive, widely distributed to parents at hospitals and doctor's offices, and covered a range of topics from diaper rash to dawdling. The post–World War II era was characterized both by large families and geographical mobility, leaving many mothers far from relatives and friends who could offer timely advice. The book was more often used for midnight medical emergencies than for psychological advice. Yet the idea that an expert such as Spock was a more valid source of information than friends or relatives increasingly permeated the experience of motherhood.

Spock's baby book distilled a number of concepts that would be influential throughout the Cold War era. Whereas earlier scientific child-rearing literature sought to eradicate the notion that motherhood was based on instinct, Spock described motherhood as natural and instinctual. A student of psychoanalysis, he sought to reassure mothers of their competence and alleviate their anxieties, believing that negative emotions could cause psychological damage to children.

Research on war ORPHANS and institutionalized children during the 1940s and 1950s dramatically underscored the significance of the mother-child bond. Scientists ANNA FREUD, Dorothy Burlingham, and JOHN BOWLBY offered compelling evidence that children who were deprived of individual caregivers during the early years suffered emotional and cognitive damage. This research had positive implications for public policy relating to dependent children, but it stigmatized working mothers and women who were discontented with full-time motherhood. Instead of suffering from "too much mother love," children without access to their mothers on a twenty-four hour basis were thought to be victims of maternal neglect and rejection.

By the 1950s, scientific child-rearing advice had come full circle. From a rejection of the maternal instinct in the 1920s to a vindication of motherhood in the 1950s, science did not yield a clear and coherent message to parents in the twentieth century. Fortunately, parents, and mothers in particular, have tended to utilize scientific child-rearing advice selectively, picking and choosing from among the diverse messages being delivered to them. Yet the idea that the science of childhood should influence child rearing continued to influence parenting and public policy throughout the century. Research on attachment, the infant brain, and day care and divorce informed pediatric practices, parent education, and public policy, making science a primary frame of reference for parenthood in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

See also: Child-Rearing Advice Literature; Parenting.


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