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Anxious Parents

A History of Modern Childrearing in America

Peter Stearns

Publication Year: 2003

The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw a dramatic shift in the role of children in American society and families. No longer necessary for labor, children became economic liabilities and twentieth-century parents exhibited a new level of anxiety concerning the welfare of their children and their own ability to parent effectively. What caused this shift in the ways parenting and childhood were experienced and perceived? Why, at a time of relative ease and prosperity, do parents continue to grapple with uncertainty and with unreasonable expectations of both themselves and their children?

Peter N. Stearns explains this phenomenon by examining the new issues the twentieth century brought to bear on families. Surveying popular media, *#8220;expert” childrearing manuals, and newspapers and journals published throughout the century, Stearns shows how schooling, physical and emotional vulnerability, and the rise in influence of commercialism became primary concerns for parents. The result, Stearns shows, is that contemporary parents have come to believe that they are participating in a culture of neglect and diminishing standards. Anxious Parents: A Modern History of Childrearing in America shows the reasons for this belief through an historic examination of modern parenting.

Published by: NYU Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-11

THIS BOOK IS DESIGNED to inform the challenge of contemporary parenting by discussing some significant changes in child-adult relations in the past several decades. It is not a how-to book, of the sort that dominates parenting shelves in the bookstores. Rather, it is an orientation to the history...

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pp. xi-xii

MANY FAMILY MEMBERS and scholars have contributed to this study, intentionally or not. Sincere thanks to my children and stepchildren for a host of insights and much support. Anumber of suggestions by Deborah Stearns, Eryq Dorfman, Paula Fass, and my wife, Meg Brindle,

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1. Anxious Parents A 20th Century History

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pp. 1-16

SYMPTOMS OF PROBLEMS may shift, but the anxiety remains the same. A rash of new child-rearing manuals began to appear in the United States in the 1920s, followed shortly by Parents Magazine; the publications were designed to provide answers to parental concerns but also to offer standards that might lead parents to feel concerns...

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2. The Vulnerable Child

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pp. 17-56

WORRIES ABOUT CHILDREN and anxieties about their potential deficiencies surface in most societies, and certainly were present in earlier periods of American history. The concept of original sin once organized a host of concerns, and for some groups in the United States...

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3. Discipline

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pp. 57-80

THE IDEA OF THE CHILD as vulnerable had obvious implications for discipline. It was vital not to overdo, lest the parent harm a fragile psyche. Nineteenth-century advice literature had already begun a campaign against using fear to bring children into line, and attacks also targeted degrading...

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4. All Are above Average: Children at School

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pp. 81-124

WHEN I WAS a high school freshman, my parents spent the year in England, and I went to a school that specialized in preparing boys for public school exams. Not, I admit, with its largely upper-middle-class clientele, a typical English school. I was beginning Latin and took along...

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5. Work and Chores: Do I Have To?

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pp. 125-162

WORRIES ABOUT CHILDREN’S WORK are not unique to the 20th century, but only in the most general sense. Lazy kids are not a modern invention. Traditional folklore is replete with stories about children who were not diligent,...

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6. I’m Bored: The Two Faces of Entertainment

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pp. 163-210

PARENTS’ OBLIGATION to keep children entertained intensified fairly steadily in the 20th century. The amount of entertainment specifically available for children increased massively, a major facet of the burgeoning consumer society. Entertainment standards went up accordingly: if it was easy to give children fun, then surely parents...

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Conclusion: The Impact of Anxiety

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pp. 211-233

THERE HAVE BEEN great joys in 20th-century parenting. No history of new anxieties should becloud this crucial truth. Some of the pleasures attach directly to the distinctive styles developed during the course of the century. The effort to share more in children’s leisure can be immensely rewarding, an obvious point confirmed by research on...


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pp. 233-234


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pp. 235-244


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pp. 245-250

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About the Author

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pp. 251-251

PETER N. STEARNS is Provost and Professor of History at George Mason University. Editor of the Journal of Social History, he has written widely on recent social history, both European and American...

E-ISBN-13: 9780814786987
E-ISBN-10: 0814786987
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814798294
Print-ISBN-10: 0814798292

Page Count: 263
Publication Year: 2003

OCLC Number: 58840767
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Anxious Parents

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Subject Headings

  • Parent and child -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Parenting -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Child rearing -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Child development -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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