400 Years of Parenting Advice

Debates about the best way to raise kids are nothing new. Books of childrearing advice have argued back and forth for hundreds of years. What has changed is the market: parents are spending vastly more for advice than ever before.

Our modern debates about the best way to raise kids are nothing new. In the West, books of childrearing advice were first printed a few hundred years ago.  

From the beginning, these books cleaved between nature vs. nurture, discipline vs. permissiveness, science vs. religion. 

That anxiety now leads parents to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on childrearing advice. This advice is often insightful and useful. (I learned about family meetings in a book of advice for parents, and it dramatically changed my family life for the better.) However, parenting advice can also be self-serving, even exploitative.

The English verb “to parent” was first used in the 1660s, around the same time that John Walmot famously wrote:

“Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children and no theories.”

It was the dawn of the Age of Enlightenment. In the West, philosophers were writing about childhood in a new way. In 1693, John Locke published the hugely influential Some Thoughts Concerning Education.  

He emphasized the role of parents in raising “virtuous” children, which for him meant children with strong self-restraint. Locke was against rewards such as candy or toys. Unusual for his time, he also wrote against corporal punishment.

While Locke advocated a Puritan ideal of babies as blank slates, Jean-Jacques Rousseau believed that humans are born innately good and that civilization and socialization “degenerate” children. His book Emile, or On Education published in 1762 was influential enough to inspire a new form of national education in France.

These books (and their publishing success) influenced later works on childrearing. The split between Rousseau and Locke is an early version of the parenting debates that rage today: permissive vs. authoritarian, helicopter vs. free-range.

Advice literature for parents soon became widespread. Physicians typically published these books. For example, both William Cadogan’s 1749 Essay on Nursing and William Buchan’s 1804 Advice to Mothers went through many American editions. 

Just as the medicine practiced by these physicians was terrible, so was their advice.  For example, in Advice to Mothers, Buchan famously wrote that “in all cases of dwarfishness or deformity, ninety-nine out of a hundred are owing to the folly, misconduct or neglect of mothers.”

The Maternal Physician (1811) was pro-breastfeeding and cold baths;  Advice to a Wife  recommended that babies stop nursing by six months but at least was anti-cold baths.

Advice to a Wife also answered the apparently common question “To prevent a new-born babe from catching cold, is it necessary to wash his head with brandy?” with the wise advice “brandy is more likely to give than to prevent a cold.”

Soon ministers and preachers jumped in with their Bible-based books and pamphlets about raising children. These advocated for the strict moral development of children through respect for authority and regulation of behavior.

Each era had leading themes. Throughout, childhood was increasingly viewed as precious, pure and sacred.

By the early 20th century, “scientific” advice from psychologists and scientists became dominant.

In many cases, scientific didn’t mean sound.  In Dr. L. Emmett Holt’s bestselling 1894 book The Care and Feeding of Children, he told mothers to strictly schedule their children’s bowl movements (two a day), not to kiss them, and to ignore their crying.

This book influenced John B. Watson’s 1928 Psychological Care of Infant and Child;  Watson told mothers to “never hug and kiss” their children or “let them sit in your lap.” For more insanities from early parenting books, read Don’t Think of Ugly People.

While pamphlets and books from psychologists and scientists were popular, the most influential source of scientific parenting came from the U.S. Children’s Bureau. The pamphlet Infant Care reached tens of millions of parents after it was published in 1914. Clearly people were searching for advice; the Bureau received 125,000 letters a year from mothers searching for answers about how to raise their children.

The Modern Era

Societal change accelerated in the early 20th century. Extended family structures broke apart as people moved hundreds or even thousands of away for new prospects. Tight-knit communities came undone during the first World War. New traditions were introduced via waves of immigration and new media like the radio.

In 1918, the word “parenting” as a verb was first cited in the Oxford English Dictionary. It was first recorded in a satirical cartoon in the Washington Post.  

However, in written use, the word “parenting” didn’t overtake “childrearing” until 1975. It’s been on a sharp upward spike ever since.

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In 1946, Dr. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Childcare exploded the parenting advice landscape. It immediately sold nearly a million copies.

Propelled by the baby boom and a positive, balanced approach, The Common Sense Book was the second-best selling non-fiction book for over 52 years. Only the Bible outsold it. 

While millions embraced The Common Sense Book, it also experienced a backlash for being too permissive, especially from religious leaders like Norman Vincent Peale.

The book’s success inspired a flood of new parenting books from psychologists, physicians, and hundreds of self-described experts.

This new parenting advice industry gathered new momentum during the baby boomlet of the late 1970’s. Notably, that’s also when the use of the word “over-parenting” spiked. 

In 1984, parenting advice moved to the womb with the influential bestseller What to Expect When You’re Expecting. There was also a backlash to that book, “for promoting paranoia and fear among pregnant women.”

An Invaluable Marketing Demographic

In the past, parents were stressed about the very survival of their children. As childhood mortality decreased, parental anxiety shifted to other concerns. Early parenting books focused heavily on hygiene and medical needs; modern books focus on behavior and academic achievement.

Parenting today may actually feel harder than ever. Parents are stressed from increasing demands on their time, a more competitive economy, reduced support and advice from family and community, and fear-driven media that exploits parent’s worst nightmares to get ratings and clicks.

Some parental anxiety is self-imposed. Many parents view childrearing as a job that can be perfected.  Inside and out, we’re bombarded by the idea that there’s always something we can do better.

But the most powerful parental anxiety comes from simple, genuine love and concern for our children’s wellbeing. 

All this anxiety has made parents into a dream segment for marketers. Families are one of the largest consumer segments in American society. There are more than 4 million babies born in the U.S. every year. Total U.S. spending on baby products alone was at least $23 billion in 2013. It will cost over $290,000 to raise a child born today to the age of 18.

Today, Amazon returns 35,814 results for parenting books. A Google search for “parenting advice blog” returns 104,000,000 results. 

Yet all this information doesn’t necessarily mean that parents are better informed; as sources of information have multiplied, it may mean that parenting biases (and fears) are simply more entrenched.

Believe in permissive parenting? Google returns 168,000 links to back you up. What about authoritarian parenting? Google returns 211,000 results to help you argue your point.

While debates about the best way to raise kids roars on, we can at least turn to history to see how many childrearing fads simply come and go. Hot housing, four-hour feeds, tiger mom, eagle mom, etc etc.

The truth is that even with the best information, parenting can be insanely difficult and complicated.

Perhaps Dr. Spock was right: “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”