restricted access 2. The Vulnerable Child
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2 TheVulnerable Child 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 these concerns remain. In a real sense, many 20th-century anxieties constitute a secularization of problems that used to be described within the context of sin. Nineteenth-century culture, already moving away from convictions about original sin, produced another rhetoric of anxiety, especially around the theme of maternal responsibilities and mothers’ deep concerns for their children’s wellbeing. Without attentive mothers , children might be misled by strangers or fall into ill health. Efforts to monitor possible masturbation were one outcome of the concern that children, and particularly boys, might go astray. Twentieth-century anxiety literature unquestionably built on these older traditions. There was change as well, however, and not only because some customary concerns, for instance in the health arena, became objectively less necessary. The image of the vulnerable child, the subject of this chapter, is one way to bring the change into focus. The concept of the vulnerable child, potentially overwhelmed unless parents provide protection , has some similarities to the view of the sinful child in provoking parental attention, but there are crucial differences, as well, including the extent to which threats came to be seen as forces outside the child’s obvious control, and without any fault on the child’s part. The differences help explain a more anxious, and far less harsh, parental response . And, while motherhood and worry went hand-in-hand in 17 much 19th-century imagery, society also had a good bit of confidence in the sturdy child, capable, unless felled by disease, of learning from experience , surmounting obstacles, and heeding good advice. Even prodigal sons returned, in one standard Victorian story line. New levels of concern in the 20th century resulted in part from the increasing value placed on each child, at least in principle. Viviana Zelizer has legitimately called our attention to how “priceless” children had become by the 1890s. As the birth rate declined, each child seemed more precious. Parents who found themselves incapable of having children became more loudly desperate than ever before, and considerable industries developed throughout the 20th century around trying to enhance fertility or find children for the involuntarily childless. But the same value inevitably provoked new levels of concern about children: what if these priceless entities were swept away or went astray? How could parents not only control the environment to make sure that they had children but also make sure that children prospered? The theme of control on the part of parents who knew that having children was now a choice runs through the emergence of the concept of the vulnerable child. New expertise, and especially psychological discoveries about children, helped differentiate 20th-century responses from those of the 19th century, but the desire to reduce the role of change and accident played a central role. This desire warred against new forces from the outside, from schools to the purveyors of children’s goods, that threatened to reduce the parental function. A SEA CHANGE IN PARENTING ADVICE In 1901, Felix Alder issued a revised edition of what was in effect the last widely popular 19th-century manual on childrearing, entitled The Moral Instruction of Children. It went through a number of printings, as many of its predecessors had. Then there was a publishing pause, as if both authors and audience needed a moment to shift gears to a different type of operation. Only one major source, the government-sponsored pamphlet Infant Care, suggested a new approach before 1918, and, while widely popular, the manual initially focused only on health issues . Then, in the 1920s, springing in part from authors associated with the same Children’s Bureau that continued to issue Infant Care, a new generation of literature began to emerge. This was capped, as noted ear18 ANXIOUS PARENTS lier, by the establishment of Parents Magazine, which enshrined the new approach to child- rearing advice on a regular, reach-into-your-home basis. Child-rearing literature is tricky evidence. It is not aimed at everyone but normally reflects the values of a dominant group—in this case, a white, urban middle class. Not everyone reads it (though an audience can develop beyond the group of origin), and not everyone who reads it agrees with it or pays serious attention. Child-rearing...


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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