Childhood Studies Childcare Manuals
by
Angela Davis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 April 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0066

Introduction

There have always been experts advising parents how to raise their children: community elders, religious leaders, and medical men and women, among others. In most cultures, though, childrearing advice has been passed on by word of mouth, often among neighbors and kin. Even in modern developed societies oral transmission continues, with knowledge and information about childrearing practices passed down the generations and between peers. However, a significant change occurred in the 18th century with the proliferation of printed material. Coupled with demographic changes such as smaller families and increased social and geographical mobility, the availability of childcare literature encouraged parents to turn to this new source of advice. Advice manuals have been written by a range of experts, from physicians and philosophers to educators and psychologists, and their authors have also included parents themselves. Underlying themes present within the manuals selected here are the tension between “scientific” and “natural” approaches to childrearing, and the degree to which parents should try to meet or anticipate their children’s needs and wants. However, when reading advice literature we need to remain cautious about the picture of childrearing such manuals present. While we have evidence that manuals were written, and even that they were read, we know far less about if and how parents actually followed the advice they contained. Just because mothers had “the book” it did not mean they used it. Differences occurred in how parents accessed, received, and applied the advice on the grounds of gender, class, region, and ethnicity. Parents’ accessibility to other sources of advice, whether in the form of kin, professionals, or new technologies such as the Internet, has also varied. This article focuses on childcare manuals and books written or popular in translation in the English-speaking world, although reference is also made to cultures of childrearing in comparative perspective.

General Overviews

Childcare advice literature is a literary genre aimed at parents. In childcare manuals and related works authors who consider themselves experts in childrearing advise parents on how best to care for their offspring. It has been viewed as a means of tracing changing attitudes toward childhood, the relationship between parents, and childhood and wider social and cultural trends. For example, Beekman 1977 and Hardyment 2007 consider the history of popular childcare books in Britain and the United States. Taking a feminist stance, Ehrenreich and English 1978 looks at the rise of expert power over women in the field of childcare, as well as over other aspects of women’s lives, such as their health or housekeeping. Many studies of advice literature have focused on the United States in the 20th century, such as Grant 1998, Hulbert 2003, and Stearns 2003. However, sources such as Mechling 1975 also advise historians to be cautious in their use of manuals as a historical source.

  • Beekman, Daniel. The Mechanical Baby: A Popular History of the Theory and Practice of Child Raising. Westport, CT: Laurence Hill, 1977.

    E-mail Citation »

    Considers popular childcare books, principally in Britain and the United States, from 1450 to the 1970s. The book considers the relationship between the history of childcare and the history of society. It is not intended as a scholarly reference work but an introduction to past generational trends in childcare.

  • Ehrenreich, Barbara, and Deirdre English. For Her Own Good: 150 Years of the Experts’ Advice to Women. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1978.

    E-mail Citation »

    Written from a feminist perspective, Ehrenreich and English chart the rise of expert power over women. They propose that the ascendancy of the experts was linked to the growth of a market economy and professional science, and in turn with women’s loss of authority over their traditional tasks.

  • Grant, Julia. Raising Baby by the Book: The Education of American Mothers. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998.

    E-mail Citation »

    Grant uses mothers’ letters to Spock and Gesell to reconstruct the official and unofficial ideologies of American motherhood in the postwar years. She charts two parallel organizational forces: the professionalization of childrearing advice and the creation by women of clubs and organizations for sharing information and emotions about childcare.

  • Hardyment, Christina. Dream Babies: Childcare Advice from John Locke to Gina Ford. London: Francis Lincoln, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    Offers an account of how and why the advice of childcare experts has changed in Britain and the United States over the last 300 years. She argues that advice has been dependent on the social, philosophical, and psychological climate in which they were written.

  • Hulbert, Ann. Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice about Children. New York: Knopf, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Considers American childcare experts in the 20th century. It divides the century into four quarters, focusing on the most influential experts of each period. The central theme of the book explores the tension between those experts who advocated tight parental control over children and those who advocated permissiveness.

  • Mechling, Jay. “Advice to Historians on Advice to Mothers.” Journal of Social History 9 (1975): 44–63.

    DOI: 10.1353/jsh/9.1.44E-mail Citation »

    Poses four objections to using manuals in historical research: 1) doubt about the advice’s meaning; 2) sample bias; 3) the assumption parents learn to parent from manuals; and 4) that manuals are evidence of childrearing values. Instead he argues manuals are evidence of the “manual-writing” values of their authors.

  • Mechling, Jay. “Child-Rearing Advice Literature.” In Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. Edited by Paula S. Fass. New York and London: Macmillan Reference USA, 2004.

    E-mail Citation »

    Traces the history of childcare advice from the 17th century to the present, focusing on the American experience. He examines the social context and theoretical developments that lay behind the literature. In the conclusion he discusses general trends and the ideological nature of advice.

  • Stearns, Peter N. Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Child-rearing in America. New York: New York University Press, 2003.

    E-mail Citation »

    Asserts that parental anxiety in the United States rose dramatically in the 20th century. It bases this conclusion on the increased attention paid to parenting in both professional and prescriptive literature. Stearns elaborates on this argument in a series of chapters dealing with discipline, schooling, work, and entertainment.

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