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1 Anxious Parents A 20th-Century History 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 where none had existed before. Parents Magazine, in fact, became both a stimulus and an outlet for a range of parental worries, from children’s physical health to their performance in school to their personality development . Polls in the late 1930s, exploiting a new capacity to probe public opinion, encouraged parents to rank-order a long list of worries. Post–World War II parents wondered, in cyclical fashion, whether bad marriages or divorces were worse for children. Surveys in the 1970s and 1980s suggested declining parental satisfaction with children, in part because of the troubles involved in raising them. By the 1990s, anxious parents increasingly sought new targets, arguing that schools and teachers should rate their kids highly regardless of performance, lest the child’s or the parents’ self-esteem be damaged as a result of an adverse opinion. The 20th century, once rated the “century of the child,”1 became rather a century of anxiety about the child and about parents’ own adequacy . And children did not necessarily benefit from this process of adult debate and self-doubt. To be sure, a few worries soared for a time, only to recede. Strictures about children’s posture, high on the anxiety scale during the first third of the century, ultimately fizzled, as adults gave up on slouch. The need 1 to identify and correct left- handedness disappeared by the 1950s. But new problems were discovered. Hyperactivity, for example, though discussed by experts in the 1920s, became a widespread concern only in the 1970s. The list of targets did not shrink. In one sense, the level of anxiety was surprising, for the 20th century ushered in some unprecedented gains. American children were far less likely to die in the 20th century than were their counterparts in centuries past. Key childhood diseases were conquered. Thanks to improvements in adult life expectancy, children were also far less likely to be orphaned. Standards of living and educational access improved for most children, though there were continuing pockets of poverty and periods of concern. Child labor abuses receded under the twin glare of regulation and economic change. Opportunities for entertainment expanded . Against these gains, obviously, two countercurrents surfaced. First, the very successes achieved in improving children’s lives led to an escalation in what came to be seen as the minimal standard for children’s well-being, which brought its own set of anxieties. Second, successes were not clear-cut: the ubiquity of mass entertainment brought new worries, and even the decline in child labor raised unexpected issues about children’s functions and identities. Levels of anxiety experienced by parents did not correlate with what might have been registered as historic progress in children’s quality of life. This is a book about the emergence and evolution of key parental worries during the past century. It does not ignore the joys, but it deliberately concentrates on the anxious undercurrents. It focuses on concerns not only about children but also about parental adequacy. It seeks to explain what caused these anxieties and why objective gains did not enhance parents’ self-confidence. The basic argument is simple: it was during the past century that some of the key uncertainties about modern childhood were clearly deployed . The key question was what children’s role should be, as traditional functions were progressively stripped away. While elements of the question had been posed in the 19th century, particularly for sectors of the American middle class, its prominence is a 20th-century phenomenon . For it was only during the past hundred years that it became fully clear that children could not be expected to contribute significantly to the family economy, that in truth they were primarily economic burdens, and that, as a result, other measurements of function 2 ANXIOUS PARENTS had to be developed. Given the fact that children had literally always worked in the past, usually for the family directly, this fundamental redefinition posed a tremendous challenge, one that has not fully been resolved to this day. The fact that many parents sensed the definition dilemma only vaguely, believing instead that their concerns stemmed from more specific problems...


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