Raising Baby by the Book: The Education of American Mothers

By Goodard, H. Wallace | Family Relations, January 2002 | Go to article overview

Raising Baby by the Book: The Education of American Mothers


Goodard, H. Wallace, Family Relations


Grant, J. (1998). Raising Baby by the Book: The Education of American Mothers. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. 352 pages. Hardcover. ISBN 0300072147. Price: $37.00.

If you were to pore over the records of various mothers' meetings over the last century, you would find a complex story of women's struggles to find answers for their child-rearing challenges. Julia Grant did exactly that. In particular, she examined the records of the Child Study Association of America, the National Congress of Mothers, and Extension homemakers. One cannot help but admire a person who has shown such tenacity.

Grant effectively shows the challenges that mothers have faced, as the confident and sometimes dogmatic advice of the experts lurched from the behavioristic to the psychoanalytic to the developmental. She observes, "It often seems that by the time a theory has been put into actual practice by parents, it is no longer accepted" (p. 183). She notes the tension between the counsel of experts (usually men) and the instincts of the practitioners (almost universally women). She comments that mothers have often been counseled to discard their own instincts in favor of expert advice, only to find that the expert advice of one decade or era becomes anathema in the next.

Thus, mothers have often been wise enough to take expert advice with a grain of salt. For example, "mothers who spoke in favor of responsiveness toward children were vindicated by child development professionals in the 1940s and 1950s, who characterized behaviorist child-rearing techniques as pathological" (p. 142).

Grant documents condescension toward immigrant mothers and the effort to push them toward more "scientific" parenting. In fact; one of the less explicit messages of much advice to mothers was that they should disregard instinct in favor of science. Benjamin Spock's message that "you know more than you think you do" (Spock & Rothenberg, 1992, p. 1) was a rare exception. Of course, Spock still believed that, despite all they knew, mothers needed his book.

Some of the quotes in the book elicit real compassion for the challenges that mothers have faced in raising their children with little support and frequently contradictory advice. For example, Grant quotes a 1950s mother who describes her experience of motherhood as "murderous alternation between bitter resentment and raw-edged nerves, and blissful gratification and tenderness" (pp. 212-213).

The book provides rich insights into mothers' struggles to find answers, and this is both its strength and its weakness. For example, the politics of club viability is not a central issue for family scholars. A related and significant problem with the book is the expectation derived from the phrase by the book in the title. This could be understood to mean by the prevailing ethos, or it could be understood to refer to print sources of child-rearing guidance. …

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