Raising America

Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children by Ann Hulbert

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This book tells about the history of the parenting advice industry, focusing on experts like Dr. Spock, Dr. Terry Brazelton, and their predecessors. It goes into incredible detail about the biographies of these men, mostly to show how the parenting advice they gave followed from the issues in their own families. Several of these experts say their goal is to calm the anxiety parents feel, but usually they just make things worse. The experts often say they don’t want people to be “over-awed” by them; taking a century-long perspective, as Hulbert does here, is the best way to cure an overly credulous parent of their misplaced worship. Hulbert’s thesis was that parenting advice is self-contradictory, poorly researched, and subject to trends; it reflects the tensions in our society and its views of families more than it guides or shapes those families. Two books on opposite sides of the spectrum in parenting philosophy might end up actually advising parents to do the same things, although maybe for different reasons. This thought, and the overall tone of the book, was incredibly reassuring to me, as someone who’s felt overwhelmed and baffled by the advice I’ve read in several books about caring for babies.

I would have liked to read more about the more contemporary experts, like Dr. Sears, but he only got about a page of coverage, while a century-old manual on baby feeding got a full chapter. I was also surprised not to read anything at all about blogs or the way the internet makes every parent an expert if she wants to be. The book is very in depth and almost academic in its scope, but with some wry humor in delivery. At the very end, Hulbert advises parents to read the experts they disagree with, because they are less likely to buy into their ideas wholesale, and feel anxiety and guilt for not measuring up to their vision, but they still might learn a few techniques or new ways of thinking about a problem. I’m not sure I could even finish a parenting book that I disagree with, but I do think that this book has helped me gain a little perspective on the quest to figure out how to raise a child.

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