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7 Conclusion The Impact of Anxiety 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 parental satisfaction. While worry can dim a recognition of childish wonder, many parents preserve or even enhance their appreciation of their children’s curiosity. The growing commitment to schooling raises concern about children’s progress, but it can yield great pride when children achieve. Many men have found the reconnection with children and with child rearing a true blessing that adds considerably to the rewards of life. While fathers vary greatly in their commitment, and while sometimes their involvement may be forced or stressful, their pleasure can be quite real. On another front, while parental concerns about children ’s health are fierce, and the guilt for major illness tremendous, the normal relief from child mortality is tremendous for contemporary parents compared to parents at any other time in history. There is great variety in 20th-century parenting, which means that anxieties vary, as well. A father drops a son off for his freshman year at college, tearfully pleading with a university orientation official to take care of his treasure. Another father, same scenario, cheerfully drops his child off and tells the same official, “See you in four years.” No history of anxiety should omit this vital divergence in level of parental worry. Parenting styles are not defined by some blanket, uniform anxiety. 211 Nor, finally, is parental anxiety the greatest problem in the story of 20th-century American childhood. For many groups, structural factors clearly outweigh it; poverty and racial discrimination have had far greater impact in distorting many childhood experiences. The expansion in the number of American children living below the poverty line during the 1980s and early 1990s (up to a full quarter of the total) makes it clear that anxiety about children has not led to consistently solicitous national policies—which means, again, that anxiety itself should not be overrated as a factor in directly shaping childhood experiences. But the anxiety has been palpable, nevertheless, affecting childhood and, even more, adult experience alike. From Rudolf Dreikurs, in 1958: “the situation is especially difficult when love for one’s child is mingled with anxiety. Discouraged individuals are prone to overestimate the frailty of human nature and the hostility of the surrounding world. When they become parents, they are doubly anxious about their offspring. . . . Every moment holds the threat of dangers, and [many parents] are unwilling to face any risks. Parents are attached to their children, and the loss of a child would be a dreadful blow to any one of them. . . . You may live in constant fear of neglecting some important aspect of your duty, and magnify every little fault of your child until it seems a sure sign of his ultimate ruin.” But, in typical expert fashion, Dreikurs combines an effort at reassurance with another attack on parental self- confidence: “Excessive concern over the child’s welfare is a personality fault.” And: “There is no doubt that most parents feel keenly their inadequacy in their relations with their children.” Indecision and oscillation between excessive praise for a precious child and anxious criticism of his deficiencies typically reveal their “most striking expression” in widespread parental nervousness. Hence the great need for many parents to seek advice, perhaps themselves to undergo counseling , but hence also some serious doubts that any remedy can really heal the underlying anxiety.1 From historians of 20th-century advice literature: Michael Zuckerman , writing about Dr. Spock’s success as a popularizer: “in one sense, there is nothing unusual at all in the modern American obsession with child-rearing. Americans have been ill at ease about the younger generation , and preoccupied with it, for centuries. But in another sense there is something odd indeed about this extravagant anxiety. Few parents anywhere have ever put themselves as hugely and hopefully in the hands of child-care counselors as American parents of the aspiring 212 ANXIOUS PARENTS classes have in the twentieth century. And few parents anywhere have ever had so hard a time raising their children.” This is a strong claim, but one that is easily supported by evidence from the various categories of parental worry and by the fundamental attachment to the new...


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