- Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America
At its peak, in the 1980s, the milk carton campaign was putting pictures of missing children on breakfast tables all across America. Promoters of the campaign claimed that 50,000 kidnappings of children occurred annually. The actual number of such abductions by strangers turned out to be 200 to 300 a year.
Peter Stearns has an eye for such extravagant discrepancies and a sure instinct for the parental anxieties they betray. He reminds us of the widely publicized (and never substantiated) reports of strychnined candy and razorbladed apples that changed to this day the innocent tradition of trick-or-treating on Halloween. He recalls the university-sponsored (and methodologically suspect) studies of sexual exploitation of children that purported epidemics of pedophilic sexual predation.
In a couple of wondrously deft pages, he tracks a complex history of a half-century of concern for the mysterious crib deaths that came to be called Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). With compassion as well as a wry, withering wit, he follows the intriguing twists and turns by which a movement driven by parents' guilt and pediatricians' good intentions led not only to research funding and national legislation but also to journalistic hyperbole and genetic findings that only compounded the parental guilt and anxieties the movement meant to relieve.
Anxious Parents is founded on such ironic tangles, and on Stearns' indefatigable research into them. He has a keen appreciation of what really mattered to 20th-century Americans, in their families and beyond. Indeed, it is his easy command of all that was going on outside the home—and his profound grasp of the connectedness of those larger developments and their consequences for child-rearing [End Page 766] —that sets his study apart from other histories of the modern American family.
Writers such as Ann Hulbert have come at the subject through the prism of childrearing advice. Their focus on the prescriptive part of the story allows them a clarity and a mordant marking of the perenniality of parental perplexities that Stearns never attains. His is not an exercise in internalist elegance. His is a much messier endeavor. He seeks to connect ideas to attitudes, emotions, and actions, and to their social and economic contexts. He seeks to plumb the subtle sources of change on all those fronts.
To do so, he draws ingeniously and imaginatively on every sort of evidence out there. He finds fascinating implications in survey data and equally suggestive significances in bumper stickers. He canvasses controversies on familiar issues such as permissiveness and discipline, and he sets forth his own original investigations of subjects such as chores and boredom, which have never had historians. He conducts an expansive reconnaissance of the effects on children of our ever-augmenting consumerism, and he offers brief illuminations of a multitude of other, equally tantalizing phenomena. His pages pop with provocative apercus on everything from allowances to grounding, from Chuck E. Cheese to Ritalin, from homework to summer vacations, and from the pressure for grade inflation to the frenzied pace that makes mothers the most frequent offenders caught by the hidden cameras that snare drivers running red lights.
Even his brief treatments embed complex insights. His more extended discussions are richer still. Stearns' account of parents' century-long struggle to come to terms with schooling—from their first frontal assaults on homework to their later insistence on grade inflation—is a satisfying synthesis of economic, demographic, familial, and attitudinal shifts that came together by the Sixties, when the campaign for student self-esteem emerged. His analysis of attempts to impose household chores on children is a resonant rendering of the emotional conflicts—generational tensions, spousal resentments, maternal guilts, and more—that conditioned the pathetic failure of such efforts.
In one arena of childrearing after another, Stearns traces spiraling paroxysms of parental anxiety. They afford him the substance of his study. But the question that informs all his accounts is why 20th-century American parents worried so incessantly when they had...