Apply With Caution: The History of Parenting Guides from Holt to Spock

January 31, 2016

The mother "begins to destroy the child the moment it's born," wrote the founder of behaviorism and parenting "expert" John B. Watson.


In another he essay he suggested, "Most mothers should be indicted for psychological murder."


We can wonder what Rosalie Rayner Watson, the protagonist of my new novel and mother of two of his children, thought about such a claim. But Watson got more praise than resistance for these over-the-top statements. 


Mostly forgotten now, but an academic and popular-media superstar in his day, Watson dedicated his 1928 bestseller, Psychological Care of Infant and Child, to the first mother to raise a happy child. By which he seemed to be suggesting that no mother in history had ever succeeded in raising a happy child.


If you thought, as I did, that the "fathers know best" sentiment began in the 1950s and was said in half-jest, then you'll be amazed to peer into the minds of the men who wrote most of our early twentieth century parenting manuals. Often, these same men -- even if they were fathers -- had little direct experience with children.


Benjamin Spock, the eldest of six children and an active pediatrician, was an exception. The post-war champion of parenting manuals, his Baby and Child Care (1946) sold second only to the Bible and reassured mothers and fathers both, "You know more than you think you do."


Those of us who raised babies in the slightly anxious but mostly hopeful eighties and nineties -- the latter days of Spock, and the early days of What to Expect When You're Expecting and books by T. Berry Brazelton and Penelope Leach, among others -- might not appreciate how revolutionary Spock's message was. He was picking a fight with a long line of psychologists and other male parenting experts who had instructed mothers to maintain strict feeding and sleeping schedules and to abstain from hugging or kissing their children. Watson's utopian ideal would have been to separate babies from mothers altogether and to rotate them among different parents so they didn't become attached to any adult.


Autonomy and routine, not affection or attachment, was the goal for many decades in early twentieth century America, and babies were seen as little machines best raised in lockstep, molded according to new scientific principles. In this schema, grandmothers and mothers-in-law and any gray-haired nanny types were especially potent enemies. They brought with them not only nasty germs, but old-world ideas that got in the way of the new scientists' philosophical overhaul.


Even "Sage of Baltimore" journalist and critic H. L. Mencken got in on the profitable parenting-manual act, ghostwriting a baby book that opened -- in Watson style -- with a scene dramatizing the sins of the mother and mother-in-law against vulnerable babies.


And how could Watson and Mencken have been so outrageously anti-mother? They were only expanding upon the style of the day, which was grounded not in confidence of mothers' basic competence, but in fear of mothers' potentially lethal mistakes, as emphasized in Luther Emmett Holt's bestselling 1894 book, The Care and Feeding of Children, the book that most resembles Watson's in its emphasis on detachment-style parenting.


A little more historical context might put things in perspective. At the turn of the century, the infant mortality rate was 10 to 30 percent, with the worst conditions in crowded cities. Women of all classes and for a variety of reasons had started turning to cow's milk -- often contaminated -- in the late 1800s. At least into the 1920s, physicians and public advocates, including Holt, fought this change, reminding women that mother's milk was best. But given that the culture of breastfeeding seemed to be heading toward extinction (as proof of the limits of prognostication, consider the 2012 Time cover of a woman breastfeeding her 3-year-old son), Holt resolved to teach mothers how to make their own formula from cow's milk, safely. It was a complicated process, and takes up most of his infant manual.


The nutrition part of Holt's teachings, while outdated now, isn't half as passé as his behavioral advice. Holt strongly recommended against any rocking or soothing of children, and he discouraged parents from responding to normal crying. Following Holt's rules, a baby was to be potty trained by the second month. As for playing: "Babies under six months old should never be played with; and the less of it at any time the better for the infant."


On Holt's heels, Watson -- ushering in the new era of scientific psychology -- took those questionable ideas and garbed them in the phony rigor of a new and still-simplistic experimental science. Though more comfortable with white rats than people, he nonetheless felt confident about his instructions for shaping the future of humanity. And if a controversial writing style earned him healthy book sales, all the better, since Watson had been expelled from academia following his affair with 20-year-old graduate student Rosalie, whom he later married.


Watson relished telling a story about an older woman who, at the end of one of his lectures, said she was glad that her own babies had already grown up, so that she'd managed to enjoy them before being influenced by Watson's ideas. I, for one, am glad I had my own babies after the ideas of Holt, Watson and like-minded authoritarians had mostly expired.


The take-away message is not, of course, to distrust what fathers or male authors or even scientists and public health advocates of either gender say about babies and children. The message is to beware the easy slogan, the unproven bit of advice and the newly-coined expert. (Even Watson later confessed that perhaps he wasn't experienced enough with children to have written his influential book.) Beware the trend that goes against a parent's own gut, observations and all of human history, during which most mothers have managed -- actually -- not to murder or destroy their babies.


I read contemporary advice manuals a little differently now, knowing how many manuals from the past were dead wrong. And I hope I'm more sympathetic to past generations of parents, knowing what kind of manuals they were reading. They did their best, of course. We all do. Parenting is never easy for mothers or fathers, and we should beware the messages of new "experts" who, each in their own time, seem eager to throw the baby out with the bathwater.




A version of this blogpost first ran in the Huffington Post.

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