Meanwhile, Watson's contemporary, Arnold Gesell, advocated exhaustive and exhausting studies of a child's developmental stages -- and an ever-attentive regard for the child's desires and needs. The ideal mother, wrote Gesell, never strives for "executive efficiency" but rather "aims first of all to be perceptive of and sensitive to the child's behavior. Thus she becomes a true complement to him; alertly responsive to his needs. The child is more than ... a treasured possession. He is a living, growing organism, an individual in his own right to whom the culture must attune itself if his potentialities are to be fully realized."
Closer to our own time, Dr. Benjamin Spock became perhaps history's most famous model of the reassuring professional, "the confiding companion whom suburbanizing mothers yearned for, living as they did miles away from their parents and a well-manicured lawn away from everybody else. And unlike an in-law or a nosy neighbor, America's first truly pop Freudian urged mothers to loosen up and get in touch with their feelings and their children's." At more or less the same time, Bruno Bettelheim was echoing Watson's gloomy predictions about the perils of over-involved motherhood when he blamed childhood autism on "parental inadequacies" and favored Israeli kibbutz nurseries over the nuclear family.
Finally, in our own time, doctors such as T. Berry Brazelton continue to advise a sensible, generally tolerant attitude toward children, while conservatives, such as James Dobson, campaign to save the young from, in his words, "Eastern establishment, liberal, secular humanists." Citing John Rosemond's "A Family of Values," Hulbert characterizes the belief that the " 'child-centered' view and psychological research had dominated, and distorted, parental counsel for too long. At stake was the preservation of adult authority and family integrity, the last defense against an 'overweening state' and a decadent society."
Without stooping to easy psychologizing, Hulbert delves into a number of the experts' biographies as a means of understanding how a particular upbringing might predispose an individual to form certain ideas about the most efficacious method of bringing up other children. Many of the authorities described in these pages had long and complex careers; interestingly, the strict behaviorist Watson would go on to deploy his gift for shaping response and personality at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency. And one of the book's most illuminating chapters examines how Spock became a vocal anti-Vietnam activist and a generational icon.
For all the missionary zeal and clinical objectivity with which these scientists pursued their research projects and, in a few cases, mistreated their hapless young research subjects, the effects of child-rearing techniques are (as the experts themselves know all too well) remarkably hard to quantify. Slyly, Hulbert tracks the arc and the outcome of the experts' own failures and successes as husbands and fathers. With surprising (or perhaps unsurprising) frequency, these accounts of their domestic lives feature resentful wives and troubled children -- and provide a counterpoint to the certainty and assurance with which the confident professionals advised their followers on how to manage their households.
One of Watson's sons committed suicide and the other had a breakdown and suffered from suicidal impulses. Spock's first wife, Jane, whom he divorced in 1976, told an interviewer that "I might have been more of a somebody. But I don't think he could stand it, sharing the spotlight." Gesell's daughter-in-law Peggy wrote him a letter, which is a humorous, reasonable and quietly devastating critique of her father-in-law's schedules and systems: "There are feedings in the early a.m. when I have omitted the weight readings," she told him. "That is because the scales make quite a distinctive loud noise and Pete at that hour is easily wakened by it. And frankly, science is as nothing to me when compared to a few minutes more sleep."
At times, I found myself wishing that Hulbert had said more about the economics of the child-rearing business. Quite a few of the authorities have produced bestselling books, and it's always instructive to follow the money to discover, for instance, if and how parental anxieties are exploited for profit. But that's a minor complaint.
What's most engaging about "Raising America" is how the book succeeds in adding up to more than the sum of its parts. It's not merely an account of a "century of advice" but also a history of the ways in which our ideas about families, women, childhood and adult responsibility have and have not shifted over the course of a hundred years. Hulbert's achievement is to examine our hopes and fears as they are played out in the lives of our children and to understand how we have come to determine the proper time to pick up a crying baby.