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He Was an Author Only a Mother Could Love

In the 1920s, John B. Watson's parenting manual dispensed advice that had the emotional warmth of ice.

May 11, 2003|Ann Hulbert | Ann Hulbert is author of "Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About Children" (Knopf, 2003).

Mother's Day brings out the carnations -- emblems of the sweetness, purity and endurance of mother love -- but it also has a history of bringing out the curmudgeon in some Americans.

Anna Jarvis herself, the woman whose tireless campaign inspired the 1914 congressional resolution naming the day, spent the rest of her life ranting against greedy florists and assorted exploiters of the occasion.

"Charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers and other termites," she called them, complaining that she had "wanted it to be a day of sentiment, not profit."

She might have included the child-rearing expert John B. Watson in that cold-eyed company. The strident behaviorist issued his manual for mothers, "Psychological Care of Infant and Child," in time for May sales in 1928. As an all-out attack on sentiment, the book set new standards. Its centerpiece was a chapter called "The Danger of Too Much Mother Love," in which Watson vented his disgust at the spectacle of the typical mother who showers "love and kisses upon her children -- and thinks the world should laud her for it. And it does."

Watson's warnings were dire. Mother love was "a dangerous instrument which may inflict a never-healing wound, a wound which may make infancy unhappy, adolescence a nightmare, an instrument which may wreck your adult son or daughter's vocational future and their chances for marital happiness."

His cure for the crippling emotional dependence was draconian. "Never hug and kiss" your children, Watson instructed, his rhetoric as sharply cut as his suits. "Never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinary job of a difficult task."

His attack on "mawkish, sentimental" mothers sold about 50,000 copies its first year.

Over the decades since Watson dispensed his heart-chilling diagnoses and dictates, alarm has mounted that intimidated, frazzled mothers are down on their knees in the "answer mecca of the universe -- the parenting section of a trendy bookstore," as one expert recently put it. But Mother's Day is a good moment to note that the experts' audience has perhaps not been so readily awed and cowed by them and their shifting advice after all. Even Watson's notoriously tyrannical reign at the height of Americans' zeal for scientific parenting was embattled, and his book's heyday was brief.

Watson's diatribe against mother love was the work of a man acutely aware that he had a hard sell on his hands. In 1920, eight years before his manual appeared, a scandalous affair with a young lab assistant had cost him his psychology professorship at Johns Hopkins University and landed him in a very different line of work: He re-created himself as a vice president at the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency.

He still yearned for the advisory spotlight but faced a tough market. Watson griped that "even in the homes of 'advanced' mothers -- mothers who are listening eagerly for words of wisdom about the care of their children, you hear the complaint: 'The behaviorists are on the right track but they go too far.' " This only goaded him to go further.

It was not lost on the adman that over-the-top threats and dictates can at least win a parenting guru an audience and sales. Obedience was another matter.

Two years after his manual's appearance, Watson's own wife (he married the lab assistant) voiced reservations about the regimen in an article called "I Am the Mother of a Behaviorist's Sons" in Parents magazine in 1930. Looking like a sophisticated former flapper in the accompanying photograph -- with bobbed hair, arched eyebrows, eyes and lips barely suppressing a smile -- Rosalie Rayner Watson struck the tone of a liberated woman raising liberated children. She challenged the excesses of by-the-book behaviorism, lamenting that "people are forgetting in this epoch of scientific rationalization what fun a home can be."

Not that striking a "homey" balance in a busy world (and with a bossy husband) was easy, she admitted. She was happy to report that, thanks to habit training (and those pats on the head), "both my boys accept the fact that I go when and where I please, and their lives are organized so independently that they don't care."

But defying her stern spouse, she confessed the "wish that on the score of their affections they will be a little weak when they grow up, that they will enjoy a little coddling once in a while, that they will have a tear in their eyes for the poetry and drama of life and a throb for all romance."

She was not the first, or last, mother to juggle unwieldy advice, along with the countless other competing demands of life and of kids.

And who knows, maybe those boys of hers dared to sneak her a Mother's Day card when their father wasn't looking.

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