Mt. Vernon Register-News

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
Community News Network
  • The Simpsons still going strong

    The groundbreaking animation first hit the air Dec. 17, 1989, but the family first appeared on television in "The Tracey Ullman Show" short "Good Night" on April 19, 1987.

    August 21, 2014

  • Police chief resigns over racial slur repost to Facebook

    A repost on his personal Facebook page of a racially-charged comment by the original poster of a comedy video has forced the police chief of an Oklahoma city to resign his office.

    August 21, 2014

  • Does Twitter need a censor?

    Twitter decided last year to make images more prominent on its site. Now, the social network is finding itself caught between being an open forum and patrolling for inappropriate content.

    August 21, 2014

  • sleepchart.jpg America’s sleep-deprived cities

    Americans might run on sleep, but those living in the country's largest cities don't appear to run on much.

    August 20, 2014 1 Photo

  • Africa goes medieval in its fight against Ebola

    As the Ebola epidemic claims new victims at an ever-increasing rate, African governments in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia have instituted a "cordon sanitaire," deploying troops to forcibly isolate the inhabitants in an area containing most of the cases.

    August 18, 2014

  • Democrat? Republican? There's an app for that

    If you're a Republican, you might want to think twice before buying Lipton Iced Tea, and forget about Starbucks coffee. If you're a Democrat, put down that Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, and throw away the cylinder of Quaker Oats in your pantry.

    August 18, 2014

  • Five myths about presidential vacations

    In the nuclear age, presidents may have only minutes to make a decision that could affect the entire world. They don't so much leave the White House as they take a miniature version of it with them wherever they go.

    August 15, 2014

  • weightloss.jpg The scales of injustice: Weight loss differs between men, women

    You're not imagining it: There really are differences between the way men and women diet, lose weight and respond to exercise.

    August 13, 2014 1 Photo

  • Drug dealers going corporate

    A top federal official on Tuesday said that 105 banks and credit unions are doing business with legal marijuana sellers, suggesting that federal rules giving financial institutions the go-ahead to provide services to dealers are starting to work.

    August 13, 2014

  • wwimemorial.jpg The benefit of World War I omission on the Washington Mall

    By 1982, when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial opened on the National Mall, something had shifted in the way we remember our wars. A national memorial, prominently placed on the nation's most symbolically significant public space, came to seem like an essential dignity offered to veterans, their families and the memory of those who gave their lives. But there is an exception.

    August 11, 2014 1 Photo

Twitter Updates
Facebook
Stocks