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Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children


Ann Hulbert

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Excerpted from
Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children

This new authority figure, the child-rearing expert, did not present a single image of enlightened parenthood but, appropriately enough, two basic models—one sterner and more "masculine," the other empathetic and effusive, yet both impressively scientific. At the podium at the Congress of Mothers, Dr. Holt and Dr. Hall made an emblematic pair. Rough contemporaries, Hall at fifty-five and Holt at forty-five performed as complementary public promoters of enlightened scientific wisdom about children. It was a role they had begun to cultivate during the 1890s, Holt with his best-selling little book and Hall with a busy lecture schedule.

Each looked perfectly cast for the part he played. Dr. Holt was the rationalist authority in the physical realm. The pediatrician, who had once described the child as a "delicately constructed piece of machinery," taught that the key to growth and health lay in a carefully regimented diet. He was a study in buttoned-up propriety, almost "immaculately dressed," his hair "parted exactly in the middle," as a devoted—and evidently awed—former student described him. "Not one hair was out of place." Holt's speaking style was just as meticulous. "He spoke in short, crisp sentences, in a voice low and clear. His manner was deadly earnest... there was never any digression from the steady progression of facts." (His wife once reported in a letter to her son that a colleague had tried in vain to prod Dr. Holt to more extemporaneous delivery, urging him not to be glued to his text, but "he is demurring on account of stage fright, which seems amusing to me.")

Dr. Hall's completely different appeal, in his biographer's words, "was his special combination of moralism and romanticism." His vast domain was the unplumbed depths of the child psyche, in which he believed lay the "soul of the race," the secrets of growth. He had the full beard, the piercing eyes, and the shining pate of a prophet. His former friend William James once said of Hall, when they had become rivals, that he "hates clearness ... and mystification of some kind seems never far distant from anything he does." His writing could indeed be Teutonically convoluted, but evidently his rhetorical style at the podium struck his listeners as warm and inspirational. There was nothing crisp about it. Hall cascaded, speaking "with great sincerity and naturalness of manner, gliding easily from simple exposition to lyrical hyperbole."

Dr. Holt and Dr. Hall exemplify contrasting perspectives on the relationships among child, parent, and expert that have coexisted ever since the start of the century and soon enough began to compete. In his speech to the congress, Holt outlined, in Lockean spirit, the all-important power of parental nurture especially during the formative period of infancy. The pioneering "parent-centered" expert, he coolly emphasized rational discipline as the route to self-control in the child and peace for mothers. Hall took a more Rousseauian tack. One of America's first psychological advocates of the "child-centered" perspective, he championed the child's own natural impulses and rich imagination as the best guide to his growth, promising inspiration in the process for mothers as well. It was the spurt of adolescence that Hall felt deserved, and rewarded, the most attention and care.

The two experts' tum-of-the-century urgency about a decadent culture turning children into "miniature men and women" before their time sounds surprisingly current. And their lectures, like the addresses delivered throughout the Congress of Mothers gathering, joined in pointing up two defining features of the experts' child-rearing mission that persist to this day. First of all, on an occasion dedicated to celebrating the promise of childhood and the eradication of "a vast proportion of human ills ... from the face of the earth," alarm about the perils of parenthood—to say nothing of "The Supreme Peril of Modern Civilization" (the topic tackled by the president of the League for Social Service)—ran notably high. From the very start, an enterprise officially dedicated to understanding and raising children has been as preoccupied, if not more, with criticizing and training parents, mothers in particular. Mrs. Birney's welcoming address in 1899 mentioned children only in passing, in the most blandly general terms. It was their elders who roused her and her expert colleagues' fervor. "I claim, without hesitancy," she announced, "the greatest evil to-day is the incompetency, the ignorance of parents, and it is because of this evil that others exist."

Second, and obviously related, this brand of advice has never engaged in the conventional business of dispensing reassurance. Though nervous adults, and children, had the conferees very worried about the health of the nation, the cure itself—self-conscious, attentive study and care of children—was not designed simply to soothe. Quite the contrary. "No man or woman of even average ability could read some of the admirable books and articles on child study," Mrs. Birney declared, "without becoming painfully conscious of shortcomings in themselves." And though she was sure they would also become "impressed by the wonder, beauty and vastness of the realm of child culture," there was plainly a great deal to master—and for poorer "sisters who are compelled to work," she noted, finding time to pore over the literature would not be easy. In his speech, Holt noted a worrisome problem at the heart of the enterprise: those he judged most in need of enlightenment were "least likely to avail themselves of it."

"The light of science has eliminated the glamor of superstition and the glitter of false theory," a congress report went ahead and announced with excitement. It had also offered a glimpse of reality, suggesting how vast and elusive child study could be, and how extensive a mother's responsibilities might turn out to be. But only a glimpse: this was the beginning of a crusade, and hope outran doubt. And the experts, and children themselves, offered models of indefatigable curiosity to emulate. "Our soul is to be filled by the child, just as the man of science is possessed by his investigations," Ellen Key wrote in The Century of the Child as she elaborated her "entirely new conception of the vocation of mother, a tremendous effort of will, continuous inspiration." Then she recast her comparison in homelier terms. Mothers are to "be as entirely and simply taken up with the child as the child himself is absorbed by his life."

At the 1898 meeting of the Congress of Mothers, a speaker had proposed the missing analogy, which closed this circle of avid learners. Mrs. Mary Lowe ***inson, president of the National Council of Women in New York City, had welcomed the scientific experts and others at the podium as, what else, children: "children [who] have been gathering their pebbles on the shore—new views, profounder convictions, broader theories, more comprehensive plans, deeper truths, more solid facts, daintier dreams, more practical methods—and have brought those pebbles here."

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