Fads, Theories : Parenting: Mother of Invention

Times Staff Writer

In 1928, John B. Watson, the leader of the behaviorist school of psychology, offered what he claimed to be a foolproof method of child rearing. If mothers would only follow his dictates, Watson said, they could produce whatever category of child they wanted: “A doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and yes, even a beggar-man and thief.”

Watson’s approach, like the whole field of behaviorist psychology, was to mold human behavior by scientific control. The method was simple and straightforward. Begin with firm, four-hour feeding and sleeping schedules (no matter how hungry the child gets or how much he wants to sleep). See to it they are toilet trained early (6 months is certainly not too early to begin, he said, and may even be too late). Forbid pacifiers, thumb-sucking and other forms of coddling. Employ strict discipline at all times. And above all, show no displays of affection.

‘Mother Love Is Dangerous’

“Never hug or kiss (your children), never let them sit on your lap,” Watson cautioned. “If you must, kiss them on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. . . .”


Understand, Watson said, that babies and children can and should be left alone, to cry if they must.

“When you are tempted to pet your child,” he warned, “remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument. An 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.”

Today, it’s hard to believe that parents took this approach to child rearing seriously. But, according to commentators at the time, thousands of Americans rushed to hear Watson’s lectures and to buy his books (presumably, along with pairs of earplugs to block out the sounds of their wailing children).

Mothers Struggled to Comply

Although it is unlikely that many parents gave up kissing or caressing their children altogether, virtually every educated mother of the period struggled bravely to put Watson’s scheduling regimes into practice, believing that it could be the only way to rear a successful human being.

In that sense, Watson’s former popularity is understandable, for what he espoused is what many parents still want to believe: that their child, if reared properly, could become President of the United States.

Parents of the 1980s, like their counterparts in the 1920s, believe that their children are the most remarkable creatures ever created, and if they (the parents) just don’t make too many mistakes, the future for their offspring will surely be limitless.

But the methods for rearing the young have changed. What they should eat, how they should be disciplined, when they should start school--all have been subject to the vagaries of fads and generational preconceptions. Indeed, the rules of child care have been revised so often and so thoroughly that what was gospel for one generation seems to become folly for the next.

How do these changes come about?

Part of the answer, according to pediatricians and historians who have studied the subject, has to do with genuine medical advances.

Cod liver oil has been thrown out in favor of fortified milk and multiple vitamins, both of which are probably more effective and certainly easier to administer.

Orange-flavored chewable aspirin, which became associated with Reye’s syndrome in children who have chicken pox and influenza, was replaced with Baby Tylenol and other brands of acetaminophen.

Tonsillectomies, once the operation of choice for children with chronic sore throats, have been all but done away with (though they appear to have been replaced by a more recent ear-tube operation for children with recurring earaches).

Technology and politics have also played roles in child rearing.

Automobile safety seats for children hit the market in the 1960s when Ford Motor Co. invented the Astro-Guard, and such safety devices seem to have paid off.

Last year alone, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the lives of at least 400 children were saved because of the safety seats. And it is only because parents don’t always use these safety devices that automobile accidents remain America’s leading killer of children over age 1, the Department of Transportation says.

But many of the practices of child care are not based on such clear-cut technical advances or medical improvements. Rather, child-care rules are, more often than not, simply the prejudices of one generation of parents and pediatricians reacting to the whims and excesses of the previous one.

Pacifiers and thumb-sucking, once thought to be dangerous and unclean, are now considered by many experts to be an essential ingredient in a person’s long-term mental health. Today’s toilet training doesn’t begin until children reach at least 2 or 3 years of age because to do so earlier, experts now are now certain, could cause irreparable psychological harm.

Formula, once heralded as the greatest convenience to modern woman since sliced bread and seamless stockings, has been all but forsaken in the return to breast milk, which is now thought to be not only healthier but more convenient.

Even heavy sweaters and warm hats--the ones grandmother always insists on--have gone out of vogue with modern parents and pediatricians who know that it is as unhealthy to overdress children as it is to plunge them into icy cold baths--a practice religiously followed by grandmother’s mother.

Parallels U.S. History

It is not surprising, said Daniel Beekman, author of “The Mechanical Baby: A Popular History of the Theory and Practice of Child Rearing,” that the history of child-care practices in the United States also closely parallels the history of the country as a whole.

Beekman’s 1977 study is one of a growing number of books and scholarly articles in the last decade and a half not just on current child-care practices but on the history and evolution of those practices.

Communication, Beekman notes, was the byword of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s and, as a result, the era saw a burgeoning of self-help communication programs for the parents of toddlers as well as teen-agers. Perhaps the most famous of these was an elaborate system of games and self-analysis developed by Thomas Gordon under the rubric Parent Effectiveness Training.

The ‘60s and ‘70s were also a period of strong political convictions, endorsing democratic governments and socialistic societies but shunning monarchies and dictatorships. Hence, some pediatricians have noted, parents could no longer simply lay down the law; even children could call a family “town meeting” to air complaints and act on pressing business. In the 1980s the pendulum has begun to swing back and parents are once again beginning to set limits and to tell children what will be tolerated and what will not, said Dr. Robert J. Haggerty, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics and now president of the William T. Grant Foundation in New York.

Political Overtones

But, Haggerty added, discipline today also seems to have political overtones, with conservatives more likely to use discipline with their youngsters and liberals less likely to do so.

The women’s movement, it comes as no surprise, has also had a profound impact on child rearing in everything from the purchase of toys (girls can now safely play with trucks) to the selection of wardrobes (it’s OK for baby boys to be wrapped in pink blankets, though only the most committed feminists would have the courage to do so). Even child-care books, once written solely for the mothers of male children, have begun to take note of the fact that there are girl babies as well as boys and that there might be a male parent on the scene, even if he isn’t always living under the same roof, Haggerty said.

Be Seen, Not Heard

By the 1920s and ‘30s, when Watson was writing, American society was not a particularly comfortable place for children to be reared, partly because the parents who were doing the rearing were preoccupied with other matters. At first it was the thrill and excitement of economic prosperity of the Jazz Age. Then it was the struggle and hardship of financial ruin of the Great Depression.

In that era, the prevailing attitude was that children should be seen, not heard, said Dr. Barbara Korsch, professor of pediatrics at USC and head of the division of general pediatrics at Childrens Hospital of Los Angeles.

“Conditioning” became the byword of this generation of parents, Korsch said in a recent interview. “People tried to condition their babies like animals. . . . They tried to make them fit for human consumption.”

Regularity was important above all else. Babies were given soapy enemas, their bowels irrigated to make certain they were not only clear but “on schedule,” according to a 1920 guidebook titled “Healthy Babies.”

“The amount of ingenuity devoted to stopping thumb-sucking is particularly noteworthy,” wrote Beekman. Among the devices that could be purchased or made at home were leather cuffs and aluminum mittens. Splints were fitted to babies to keep them from bending their arms; tape was used to bind their limbs and bodies. Bad-tasting ointment was applied to their fingers and thumbs.

An Era of Flexibility

If the 1920s and ‘30s were devoted to the notion of discipline and biological scheduling, scholars agree, the 1940s and ‘50s became the era of flexibility, dedicated to the emerging psyche of both parent and child. Freud had come to roost on the cradle. What’s more, many have noted, the war seemed to have had a profound impact on child-rearing practices, strengthening the bonds between mothers and children, making the family all-important.

This was the era of child psychology, an era that spawned Anna Freud, Eric Erikson and--the most famous of all--Dr. Benjamin Spock.

Over the next four decades, “Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care” sold about 30 million copies and was translated into three dozen languages. Unlike Watson, who warned that “no one today knows enough to raise a child,” Spock titled the first chapter of his child-rearing guide, “Trust Yourself,” and began with the reassuring words, “You know more than you think you do.”

The emphasis was on nurturing. Be gentle. Be reasonable. Use your own best instincts, Spock advised. Like Freud, he warned that too much discipline could be dangerous--the result of parents’ projecting on the child their own fears and inadequacies rather than guiding them on how to control their own behavior in ways that were appropriate to their development.

By the end of the 1960s, Spock had had a profound effect on a whole generation of Americans. He was credited with rearing the postwar baby boom generation almost single-handedly. He was also blamed for their excesses. For years, child-care experts and lay persons alike attributed the counterculture revolution of the ‘60s--hippies, drugs, sex--on Spock’s “permissive” approach to child rearing. And many quoted Spock as saying he was sorry he had written what he had about child care. But that was not quite the case.

‘More Balanced View’

It is true that in 1968 Spock himself was convicted on charges of conspiracy to counsel young men to avoid the military draft, a conviction that was reversed on appeal. It is also true that in that same year he published a new edition of his book and moderated some of his more permissive stands on child rearing. But the reason, he said, was not that he had changed his mind about either war or kids. Rather, it was that society as a whole had changed. “Nowadays there seems to be more chance of a conscientious parent’s getting into trouble with permissiveness than with strictness. So I have tried to give a more balanced view.”

Most historians and physicians agree that in the ‘60s, as in any era, there were too many factors (among them, the Vietnam War and the economy) present to attribute a whole generation’s characteristics to any one physician or any one theory of potty training.

But what of parents today? What are their “rules” of child care? Are they any closer to the “truth” than were their parents and grandparents?

“Worried” is what they are. At least that’s what the experts say. The members of today’s so-called Yuppie generation are having fewer children and they are having them later in life. But when they do adopt or give birth, these parents often turn the high-achieving, hard-driving ambition of their careers into an obsession about children.

Tortuous Worry

The generation that grew up watching the idealized reflection of its own youth in “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” is now reflecting on the self-absorption and tortuous worry being played out in “Thirtysomething.” A caricature of today’s mother might have her alone in her therapist’s office before work, agonizing about the hazards of day care, wondering how to hire and manage a baby-sitter and in general lamenting the psychological pitfalls of a dual-career couple having too little time to spend at home. Middle-class parents today are well-versed in the psychology of child care and desperately want their children to be well adjusted, but they are also, in the words of one pediatrician, “overeager for their children to over-achieve.”

The result has been the creation of “Super Baby,” said USC’s Korsch, who is head of the psycho-social section at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Under the supervision of Super Moms and Super Dads, Super Baby has the latest gadgets, the best reading materials. Her crib is so filled with the most appropriate objects that there is hardly room left for Super Baby to sleep. There are musical instruments to entertain her, swinging devices to exercise her manual dexterity, a mirror (unbreakable, of course) in which to study her reflection, pictures of her parents to facilitate her loving and bonding feelings.

More Seen as Better

The notion behind Super Baby, Korsch said, probably began in the 1960s with the introduction of Head Start, a federal program designed to provide supplementary training and support to the children of lower-income families who did not have the advantages of the middle-class and well-to-do.

“Like vitamins, the assumption was that if a little was good for some people, a lot would be good for everyone,” she said.

Even Super Moms and Super Dads know that some of the efforts to provide children with the best and the most money can buy can be misguided and even detrimental to the well-being of children.

If, for instance, a typical new parent of today were to see an article that had been published in Ladies Home Journal in 1963, he or she would probably find it troubling, if not downright horrifying. The article proclaimed an “amazing,” “revolutionary” approach to teaching reading to children at age 2. “If you are willing to go to a little trouble,” the article said, “you can begin when your baby is 18 months old or--if you are very clever--as early as 10 months.”

Anyone who is current on reading theories (and what college-educated parent isn’t?) knows that the latest research on the subject shows that children, with some notable and rare exceptions, simply are not ready to deal with the printed word in any systematic way until they are 5 or 6 years old. To put them through the paces earlier does them no good and may well cause them considerable harm.

Reliance on ‘Experts’

“Pediatricians see the ill effects of the stress that results: fears, stuttering. . . . We are the ones who have to help parents resist these pressures, to help them see it is better to do simply what comes naturally,” Korsch said.

In a sense, pediatricians and other child-care specialists have become the grandmothers of the 1970s and ‘80s, according to some observers.

The “expert” has always been consulted when there are problems but in recent years the tendency to rely on the judgment of others may have been carried to an extreme, said Beekman. “One image that repeatedly stuck with me as I researched,” he said, “was a picture of a mother who, hearing her child cry, rushes for the book rather than the baby.”

The reasons for that are probably many and varied. In part, it is because families are now so dispersed and new mothers and fathers often don’t have their parents nearby to counsel them on small matters or even large ones. But it is also a characteristic of American cities that experts can be found for any problem, be it a trainer to help plan an exercise program and make sure you stick to it or a wardrobe consultant to see that you are properly dressed in the mornings.

“It is probably no wonder,” said Haggerty, former president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, that many parents rely on what the medical and psychiatric community has to say before making “a move” about their children’s upbringing.

Search for Simple Answers

“Many areas of child rearing are very complicated but parents today want simple answers, quick solutions,” said USC’s Korsch. “You see this in the buzzwords going around.”

For example, many parents have come to believe that they can solve all their children’s behavior problems simply by calling “time outs"--which is nothing more than a new phrase for making a child stop whatever he or she is doing wrong. “ ‘It’s OK to have aggressive feelings,’ parents tell their kids, but you must not hit, you must ‘use your words.’ ”

The medical community has been only too willing to give advice. The American Academy of Pediatrics with its 33,000 member physicians issues periodic policy statements on a variety of issues. In recent years, it has advised against infant swimming classes. (There are dangers associated with it and it is unlikely that babies or children under the age of 3 can be made “water safe.”) It has opposed boxing as dangerous to children and young adults and discourages traditional team sports (football, basketball, baseball) in favor of much more emphasis on aerobic and “lifetime” activities (bicycling, swimming, tennis, running).

But many of the issues have yet to be settled.

Diet is one. Spurred on by the long-term consequences of heart disease and the current obsession with weight, some parents have begun to restrict the use of fats and cholesterols in their children’s diets. But doctors do not yet know the long-term consequences of such practices except that in at least a few cases they are being carried to such extremes that children are literally starving from inadequate diets.

Circumcision is another issue yet to be settled. Although the pediatric academy declared several years ago that there was no medical indication for routine circumcision of newborn boys, few Americans were swayed by these arguments. And now, in light of new evidence that there may be increased chances of infection in boys who do not undergo the operation, the pediatric community is once again reviewing its position.

“One thing you have to ask is, what does the profession really know if it changes its mind so often?” Haggerty said. “There isn’t a neat formula, as we used to think. . . .

“Most of the studies that have been done so far have been on white middle-class kids,” he said. “But we’re now beginning to look at other cultures, both here and in other countries. And what we are now beginning to recognize is that there are many, many ways kids have been raised successfully.”


From one generation to the next, parents and pediatricians have altered the way they feed, teach and discipline their children. Some examples across the decades:


1900s-1910s: Nursing popular although many well-to-do women preferred wetnurses.

1920s-1950s: Commercial formulas marketed and became all the rage as a convenient and sophisticated means of nourishing infants.

1960s-1970s: A return to nursing promoted by women’s groups and pediatricians as healthier and more natural.

1980s: Nursing overwhelmingly perferred by middle-class white women, less popular with blacks and Latinos.


1900s-1910s: Attitudes not uniform, although often discouraged.

1920s-1930s: Forbidden by most parents and doctors.

1940s-1950s: Allowed, along with pacifiers.

1960s-1970s: Encouraged, along with pacifiers.

1980s: Offered, along with pacifiers but neither discouraged nor encouraged.


1900s-1910s: Enemas and bowel irrigation popular methods of “cleaning” babies.

1920s-1930s: Begun as early as 2 months of age.

1940s-1970s: Delayed until six to 18 months.

1980s: Child determines time to begin, usually between ages 2 and 3.


1900s-1910s: Children expected to act like small adults.

1920s-1930s: Strict and early discipline advocated.

1940s-1950s: Common sense and nurturance urged.

1960s-1970s: Permissive era of childrearing.

1980s: Moderate discipline at appropriate ages.


1900s-1910s: Moral training began early.

1920s-1950s: Nursery schools proliferated as early education became popular.

1960s-1970s: Early reading advocated along with early training for disadvantaged children.

1980s: “Super babies” urged to be treated normally; increasingly day care becomes a national issue.