Since the early twentieth century, experts on child development have dished up a confusing and often conflicting stew of advice that has more often followed cultural, moral, and economic trends than solid scientific evidence. “It wasn't firm data that drove child-rearing expertise, but changing social concerns that seemed to dictate its swerves and emphases,” says Ann Hulbert in her book Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children.
The field was born from the process of industrialization, when families were confronted with a number of dramatic and disorienting shifts. Amid this confusion, reformers called on scientists to provide parents with advice on how to prepare their children for this harsh new world. Many intellectuals in the Progressive Era were infatuated with science and professionalism, looking as they were for something to replace the religious strictures and traditions of the Victorian Age. The scientific approach got a further boost when newly devised IQ tests showed that halt' of all U.S, Army recruits in World War fell below normal intelligence levels, scaring a nation into believing they were raising intellectual lightweights.
The idea that child rearing required extensive knowledge sat well with the swelling ranks of college-educated women, who hoped to reconcile their scholarly interests with the often mundane requirements of mothering. But it wasn't long before child rearing was viewed as too important to be left to the individual. “It is beyond the capacity of the individual parent to train her child to fit into the intricate, interwoven, and interdependent social and economic system we have developed,” said one university president in 1930.
Another trend, the breakdown of the extended family, reinforced the role of the expert, since grandmothers and aunts were no longer on hand to dish out daily advice, Sociologist Frank Furedi believes that the overreliance on experts can be blamed not only on the breakdown of communities in which elders shared responsibility for molding the behavior of youngsters but also on the tendency of the press to exaggerate stories about violence, health scares, and accidents.
The pendulum of advice offered by experts has swung between two poles, the strict and the permissive. The push to prepare children for the harsh and impersonal industrial world led the way for experts to claim that too much motherly love was counterproductive. The pendulum swung the ether way during World War II, when it was feared children were suffering from a lack of care from working mothers. A loathing for Nazism and the “authoritarian personality” also drove American families to nurture their children so that they wouldn't develop into little Halters. World-renowned baby expert Dr. Benjamin Spock developed his approach at this time, decrying coercive child-rearing practices and espousing greater love and freedom for both parents and children.
Ironically, it is experts like Ann Hulbert who are now asking why Americans have relied so heavily on experts for child-rearing advice. Several new books are exploring the question of why Americans are so anxious, and so eager for “expert advice.” As sociologists and others show how advice has changed along with the mores of the times, it has become evident that there is more to child-rearing advice than just raising children.