- Raising Baby by the Book: The Education of American Mothers
The other day I was channel surfing and hit upon a television commercial featuring the famed pediatrician and dispenser of advice T. Berry Brazelton. The pitch was for a new type of diaper specially designed for toddlers, two years and older, who had still not mastered the important art of being toilet-trained. As Dr. Brazelton gleefully exclaimed with an untrained toddler in his lap, “It’s got to be his choice.” Only a century earlier, the well-known pediatrician and author L. Emmett Holt urged American mothers to toilet train their babies as early as two to four months of age! Despite this humorous example of our historical mantra of “change over time,” parenting, of course, is a serious business that requires not only deciding when or how to potty-train, but also avoiding or preventing disease, deciding how and what to feed one’s child, promoting the psychological well-being of that child, and myriad other issues. How parents came to rely so heavily upon the advice of medical and psychological experts in the rearing of their children is the basic question of this important and elegant historical study by Julia Grant.
Beginning with the mid-nineteenth century, when “people often sneered at those who were inept enough to raise their children ‘by the book’” (p. 4), Grant examines the experiences of American mothers over the past 150 years in order to demonstrate how they understood and reacted to the prescriptions of medical experts on child-rearing. Rather than portraying a unidirectional or dominant relationship where pediatricians “foisted their findings on unsuspecting mothers,” Grant provides convincing historical evidence that most mothers are enlightened consumers “who evaluate professional expertise as one body of knowledge to be considered along with existing maternal practices and familial, religious, and community values” (p. 6). The focus of Raising Baby by the Book, then, is less on the authorities in pediatrics and child development who medicalized motherhood than it is on the women who actively applied this work to a movement to benefit parents. Moreover, Grant spends considerable time exploring how mothers responded to this information as it was dispensed in a variety of venues, [End Page 518] including well-baby clinics, baby-welfare stations, mothers’ study clubs, and the ever-burgeoning industry of child-care advice in the form of books, magazines, and newspaper columns.
Perhaps the most novel aspect of this study is Grant’s excellent use of a body of historical documents that have heretofore not been incorporated into the history of American child-rearing, parenting, and pediatrics—specifically, the records of mothers’ study clubs and the letters that mothers wrote to child-care experts in the 1950s. Not only are the voices of middle-class, educated mothers recovered in this study but so, too, are those of immigrant, working-class, rural, urban, and African-American women.
But there is a new wrinkle in parenting that requires future study—namely, the role of fathers in child-rearing, and particularly, how that has changed over the past two or three decades. Most pediatricians will tell you that more and more fathers are accompanying their children on well-child visits, and any trip to a park or shopping mall will support the notion that there is, at some level, more male involvement in parenting now than in the past. Despite this change over time, as Grant notes in her conclusion, child-care experts continue to articulate the primary role of women in the parenting enterprise.
Moreover, how do we offer advice to parents who do not fit the so-called traditional mode of two-parent families, because of either the rising incidence of divorce or varying socioeconomic status? One solution offered by Professor Grant is to continue to listen carefully to the voices—all of them—of those who care for children. Expert advice alone will not solve the problems that accompany the American parenting experience today, any more than it has done in the past...