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3 Discipline 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 uses of shame or excessive physical violence. These programs continued (suggesting, among other things, how slowly and unevenly the new standards were received). By the late 1920s, it was no longer necessary to point out the harm of using bogeymen to scare children , but debates about spanking and other traditional measures continued . Concern about childish fearfulness obviously added to the pressures to reduce severe responses. Particularly with the decline of strict behaviorism, by the late 1930s, a growing expert chorus urged parents to reason with their children, explaining the boundaries of good behavior and giving positive incentives to meet proper standards. Toilet training goals relaxed, a clear sign of parental willingness to accept nuisance in return for careful handling of children. Repression was to be avoided in teaching children not to soil themselves, even if one had to wait an extra year for children to respond to the logic of bathrooms . A host of standard 19th-century disciplinary staples, quite apart from spanking or will-breaking, were now seen as retrograde. Fathers, in the updated view of good parenting, were no longer to be used as final disciplinary authorities. Paternal involvement with children was encouraged, but the new styles stressed friendliness—it was important to treat children as pals. And, in fact, though some 57 fathers unquestionably maintained the older methods, in most middleclass families mothers became the chief sources of discipline. “Wait till your father gets home,” the classic 19th-century threat, became less common. In part the result of a major redefinition of gender roles in parenting , the shift both reflected and contributed to an effort to be gentler with children. Periodically, in the 1920s and then again, more consistently, from the 1960s on, new attention to child abuse also helped set limits on the most extreme forms of discipline. Again there was debate about this, and some parents and subcultures viewed as acceptable practices that the larger society came to question. At the same time, some critics felt that the attacks on abuse were too restrained, leaving too many parents free to inflict physical or psychological harm on their offspring. Still, the publicity given to abuse, and the clear effort to extend the definition to cover mental (and sexual), as well as physical, harm, signaled the growing consensus that discipline had to stay within some boundaries. Practices once seen as permissible became criminal, beyond the pale. The democratic claim that abuse knew no social boundaries drove the point home to the middle classes. Public standards, in this regard, echoed the messages being delivered in the child-rearing literature. And, throughout the period, new expertise abounded, urging parents to reconsider their disciplinary traditions and natural impulses alike. As one guru put it in 1952, with explicit condescension: “Where professional guidance cannot be accepted . . . because of the neurotic personality of a parent, the problems become intensified.”1 Parents took this approach with some large grains of salt, but it was difficult to avoid some additional uncertainty about one’s own conduct in dealing with problems of children’s behavior. The impact of expertise was heightened by the increasing isolation of many parents. Looser ties with other family members, including parents’ parents, left more fathers and mothers wondering about the validity of their disciplinary choices. Suburban living allowed families to glimpse varied styles of discipline—from strict to permissive —but without full community sanction for any one style. The need for individual decision making increased, and, with it, some new uncertainty. Children, for their part, in peer networks tighter than those their parents enjoyed, eagerly reported on other, alternative disciplinary patterns that were more to their taste (“But Susie’s parents let her . . . ”). 58 ANXIOUS PARENTS From a number of angles, then, 20th-century adults, experts and parents alike, revisited the question of disciplining children. Some discussions followed from debates launched in the 19th century. Others, however, like those involving fathering, specifically challenged 19thcentury conventions. It proved difficult, however, to seize on a fully acceptable 20th-century alternative, in part because the idea of children’s vulnerability made almost any disciplinary move suspect. What not to do was clearer than the reverse, and parental anxiety understandably increased, given the lack of...


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MARC Record
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