Saturday, April 26, 2008

History of worrying

Emily Bazelon in Slate reacts to the child-subway story with a history of parental concern.
According to Peter Stearns' Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America, the idea that a bad parent stood behind every child accident—that there were no accidents, in fact—dates from about the 1920s. Nineteenth-century parenting manuals focused on health, not the risk of accidental calamity, Stearns writes. But, in 1922, people such as journalist and author Ida Tarbell were warning, "By analyzing some of the accidents to children, the mother's responsibility is clear enough. None but she could have prevented them." The timeline matches a small revelation I had when I read my kids the beloved All of a Kind Family books. The series, first published in 1951, is set on New York's Lower East Side in the 1910s. When the family's small son hurts his head badly after playing at a street construction site, his parents are naturally upset. But there's no self-flagellation. They don't berate themselves or even mention their own role, or lack thereof. The norm was so different that I had to stop myself from pointing it out to my kids, who don't really need me to reinforce the notion that it's parents who are at fault.
Sadly, the article then drops into what has to be the most spurious advocacy for parental leave I have ever seen: that having a parent at home will soothe anxiety and restore some sanity to worried parents.

Now I am not shy about recommending government intervention where there is some sort of market failure or an under-priced social good but come on. Payments to parents to help them get with it and stop worrying about their children. That is an incredible stretch and, moreover, no specific evidence is cited of the posited link.

Bazelon gives much airtime to Neil Gilbert, a professor of social welfare at Berkeley who has a new book on the rise of feminism and changing family life. I must say that linking the thoughtful material of Lenore Skenazy to this does not seem to be helping matters.