The Land :: www.TheLandOnline.com

Nuts & Bolts

April 25, 2013

Slate: Parenting advice from Uncle Sam

CHICAGO — A century ago, an Orwellian plot to subjugate all American children to federal authority was set in motion. Government bureaucrats systemically undermined the influence and the sanctity of the family: They told parents the right way to raise their children. Children no longer belonged exclusively to their parents. Uncle Sam was moving in.

Or at least, that's how it would be described today. At the time, they called this dystopian nightmare the U.S. Children's Bureau, founded in 1912. And it was wildly popular.

 In an era of high child mortality and chronically poor health, as well as rapidly changing norms for childrearing, the bureau was seen as a salvation. As if they'd been waiting for the bureau to be founded, parents across the country immediately inundated the Children's Bureau with letters - at its high point, the bureau received 400,000 missives a year - and got personal responses back. Many of the letters, from mothers desperate for guidance and struggling to survive, are heartrending to read. "Some of the letters are handwritten, semi-literate, pencil letters from rural, black communities in Alabama - and then some are from Fifth Avenue," says Janet Golden, a historian at Rutgers-Camden. "Sometimes you have wealthy people who write and say, 'I took my baby to five different doctors but I want to know what the government thinks.' "

 The new scientific-minded childrearing wisdom of the era - the new right way to raise your child - was disseminated through the Bureau's wildly popular pamphlet, "Infant Care." Tens of millions of copies were distributed - but that actually underestimates its reach. Early baby books, where parents kept a record of their infants, were also filled with its official advice; the publishers simply cut and pasted parts of "Infant Care" into their books.

No one objected to all this federal oversight. On the contrary, in the 1910s and 20s, even before the modern welfare state, people not just felt invested in government programs - they thought the job of the government was to give advice. It's a communal connection unimaginable today. "Now we have a very privatized world," Golden says. "We don't have a collective interest in our babies. It's my baby."

And how: Just recently, MSNBC's Melissa Harris Perry ignited a firestorm by saying that Americans need to have a more collective notion of our children. Perry was making what she thought was an anodyne comment. And it once would have been. But it isn't anymore.

"Today a lot of people have a 'don't tell me how to live my life' attitude toward the federal government," Golden says. "And here we have an era where people are saying, 'Please tell me how to raise my child.' "

This may be the most fundamental difference between the world for which the Children's Bureau was founded and our own. Parents then and now are still obsessed with the same things: eating, sleeping, what to buy, how to survive this madness. The advice of the authorities about these things has changed - but then again, the advice was, and is, always changing. The far bigger change is where we look for that authority.

Nicholas Day's book on the science and history of infancy, "Baby Meets World," was just published. His website is nicholasday.net. He is @nicksday on Twitter.

              

1
Text Only
Nuts & Bolts
  • 130408_NT_BEA_good kids We're raising a generation of timid kids

    A week ago, a woman was charged with leaving her child in the car while she went into a store. Her 11-year-old child. This week, a woman was arrested for allowing her 9-year-old daughter to go to the park alone. Which raises just one question: America, what the heck is wrong with you?

    July 18, 2014 1 Photo

  • Your chocolate addiction is only going to get more expensive

    For nearly two years, cocoa prices have been on the rise. Finally, that's affecting the price you pay for a bar of chocolate - and there's reason to believe it's only the beginning.

    July 18, 2014

  • Afghanistan vet who ran to grenade gets Medal of Honor

    A former Marine Corps corporal who was severely wounded when he risked his life to shield a squad mate from a grenade blast in Afghanistan was awarded the nation's highest military decoration Thursday.

    June 20, 2014

  • May 2014 was the hottest may in recorded history

    According to new data released this week, May 2014 is officially the warmest May in recorded history.
    Both NASA and the Japan Meteorological Agency have tentatively ranked May at the top of historical measurements, though NASA's numbers are preliminary because crucial information is still missing from China.

    June 20, 2014

  • Nelly-elephant.jpg Bet the farm: 5 'psychic' animals predict soccer victories

    Need some guidance on whom to place your bets for this year's World Cup? Since Paul the Octopus achieved a prediction success rate of 85 percent in 2010, hosts of animal oracles around the world have sought attention as soccer sages. Here's a look at a few of them.

    June 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Is the FDA waging a war on artisanal cheese?

    Is the Food and Drug Administration waging a war on artisanal cheese?
    The answer depends on your perspective. But this much is certain: The agency's answer to New York regulators about using wooden boards to age cheese has caused an uproar in the domestic industry and raised questions about the status of imported cheeses that use the same process.

    June 12, 2014

  • Texting while driving is latest teen risk as smoking declines

    While smoking among American teens has fallen to a 22-year low, most adolescents admit to engaging in a new type of risky behavior: texting while driving.

    June 12, 2014

  • No one is against devoted dads

    Father's Day is Sunday, which means that it's time for pundits and politicians to scold the American public - with special ire reserved for black members of the American public - for our supposed indifference to the wonder and awe of fatherhood.

    June 12, 2014

  • Lindley, Tom.jpg College World Series finally onto baseball-like scores

    College baseball deadened its aluminum bats three years ago, deflating the game's offense and dialing back runaway scores. Fans who watch this year's College World Series may actually catch a shutout, or even a pitchers' duel.

    June 12, 2014 1 Photo

  • Jeffrey Land mg.jpg Tough scrape: Inmate faces new charges after failed escape try

    An inmate at a Georgia detention center could spend more time behind bars after officials said he tried to use a piece of metal to cut through his cell wall in an apparent escape attempt.

    June 12, 2014 1 Photo

Featured Ads
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
The Land's Twitter Feed