Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America

Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America

Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America

Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America


The nineteenth and twentieth centuries saw a dramatic shift in the role of children in American society and families. No longer necessary for labor, children became economic liabilities and twentieth-century parents exhibited a new level of anxiety concerning the welfare of their children and their own ability to parent effectively. What caused this shift in the ways parenting and childhood were experienced and perceived? Why, at a time of relative ease and prosperity, do parents continue to grapple with uncertainty and with unreasonable expectations of both themselves and their children?

Peter N. Stearns explains this phenomenon by examining the new issues the twentieth century brought to bear on families. Surveying popular media, •#8220;expert" childrearing manuals, and newspapers and journals published throughout the century, Stearns shows how schooling, physical and emotional vulnerability, and the rise in influence of commercialism became primary concerns for parents. The result, Stearns shows, is that contemporary parents have come to believe that they are participating in a culture of neglect and diminishing standards. Anxious Parents: A Modern History of Childrearing in America shows the reasons for this belief through an historic examination of modern parenting.


This book IS DESIGNED to inform the challenge of contemporary parenting by discussing some significant changes in child-adult relations in the past several decades. It is not a how-to book, of the sort that dominates parenting shelves in the bookstores. Rather, it is an orientation to the history of modern parenting and to the connections of past to present; as such, it offers considerable understanding of how-not-to, which is important in its own right.

Why is it that American parents so often get caught up in worries that they lose perspective on some of the basic goals and pleasures of parenting? Understanding the sources and locations of some key anxieties can help us decide what's worth worrying about. And the process that brought us to our current anxieties is interesting and revealing in its own right, which adds to the pleasure of contemplation. We need to know, and we can know, how we got to where we are today, distresses and all.

The basic argument is not complicated. Several decades back, many American parents, and those who advised them, began to change their ideas about children's nature, attributing to it a greater sense of vulnerability and frailty. This new view then influenced the handling of matters within the family, such as discipline and chores. It also affected the ways parents tried to mediate between children and other experiences that affected them, such as schooling or recreation. Some of our most striking practices, from grade inflation to worries about children's boredom, result from the intersection of beliefs in vulnerability and the influence of wider social institutions.

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