News and Tribune

Community News Network

April 24, 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 | Photo Reprints
Community News Network
  • Screen Shot 2014-04-22 at 4.42.47 PM.png VIDEO: Leopard attacks crowd in India

    A leopard caused panic in the city of Chandrapur when it sprung from the roof of a house and charged at rescue workers.

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • The top 12 government programs ever

    Which federal programs and policies succeed in being cost-effective and targeting those who need them most? These two tests are obvious: After all, why would we spend taxpayers' money on a program that isn't worth what it costs or helps those who do not need help?

    April 22, 2014

  • In cuffs... 'Warlock' in West Virginia accused of sexual assault

    Police in West Virginia say a man claiming to be a “warlock” used promises of magical spells to lure children into committing sexual acts with him.

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Cats outsmart the researchers

    I knew a lot had been written about dogs, and I assumed there must be at least a handful of studies on cats. But after weeks of scouring the scientific world for someone - anyone - who studied how cats think, all I was left with was this statement, laughed over the phone to me by one of the world's top animal cognition experts, a Hungarian scientist named Ádám Miklósi.

    April 22, 2014

  • McCain 1 House Republicans are more active on Twitter than Democrats

    Your representative in the House is almost certainly on Twitter. Your senator definitely is. But how are they using the social network? Are Democrats more active than Republicans, or vice versa? Who has the most followers on the Hill?

    April 22, 2014 1 Photo

  • Do your genes make you procrastinate?

    Procrastinators, in my experience, like nothing better than explaining away their procrastination: General busyness, fear of failure, and simple laziness are just a handful of the excuses and theories often tossed around. Now researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder have added another option to the list: genetics.

    April 21, 2014

  • Do White Castle prices tell us anything about the minimum wage?

    The paper looked at how many delicious steamed sliders the minimum wage has been able to purchase over time. The point is that as it notes, in 1981, the $3.35 minimum could buy a whole dozen. Today, at $7.25, it could purchase just 10.

    April 21, 2014

  • VIDEO: Moose charges snowmobile, flees after warning shot

    While snowmobiling in New England, Bob and Janis Powell of Maine were charged by a moose and caught the entire attack on camera.

    April 21, 2014

  • Can Hillary Clinton rock the cradle and the world?

    What's most interesting to contemplate is the effect becoming a grandmother will have on Hillary's ambition. It's one of life's unfairnesses that a woman's peak career years often coincide with her peak childbearing years.

    April 21, 2014

  • Smartphone kill switches are coming

    Smartphones need kill switches. It's a relatively easy solution to the pricey (and irritating) problem of smartphone theft. But who would have thought that the big carriers would team up with Apple, Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Samsung and lots of other manufacturers to voluntarily begin adding the technology by July 2015? The cooperative spirit! It makes so much sense!

    April 18, 2014

LOCAL MAGAZINES
Easter 2014 photos


Click on any photo to purchase it.

SPECIAL CONTENT
Twitter Updates
Follow us on twitter
Hyperlocal Search
Premier Guide
Find a business

Walking Fingers
Maps, Menus, Store hours, Coupons, and more...
Premier Guide
AP Video
Bon Jovi Helps Open Low-income Housing in Philly Pipeline Opponents Protest on National Mall Hagel Gets Preview of New High-tech Projects S.C. Man Apologizes for Naked Walk in Wal-Mart New Country Music Hall of Fame Inductees Named 'Piles' of Bodies in South Sudan Slaughter New Yorkers Celebrate Cherry Blossom Blooms SCOTUS Hears Tv-over-Internet Case Justice Dept. Broadening Criteria for Clemency Chief Mate: Crew Told to Escape After Passengers 'Miss Meadows' Takes Holmes Back to Her Roots Biden: Russia Must Stop Talking, Start Acting David Moyes Out As Manchester United Manager Raw: Leopard Bites Man in India Iowa College Finds Beauty in Bulldogs High Court to Hear Dispute of TV Over Internet Stowaway Teen Forces Review of Airport Security
2013 Photos of the year


Take a look at our most memorable photos from 2013.