Part of the issue Everything old is new again from The Highlight, Vox’s home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
On a recent Monday, my son didn’t want to go to school.
The straps of his bicycle helmet were too loose, or possibly too tight, and because he is 4, this was a catastrophe that simply could not be borne. He informed me, through tears, that he would not be leaving the house, and neither would I nor his baby brother, who was already strapped to my chest and ready for day care. Then he lay down on his bed with his shoes on and refused to move.
As a millennial parent in 2023 with a phone and a medium Instagram addiction, I had a lot of advice at my fingertips for handling such a situation. “Authoritative” parenting, a calm but firm style characterized by clear boundary-setting, would probably dictate that I explain to my child, without raising my voice, that his behavior was not okay and we needed to go to school (I tried this). Advocates of “gentle” parenting, a more recent trend that discourages rewards and time-outs in favor of trying to understand the feelings behind a child’s behavior, might suggest I ask my son why he didn’t want to go to school (I tried this, too). Some of the homesteading, homeschooling influencers I see on my feeds might suggest that I pull the kid out of pre-k entirely and go live in the woods (I won’t say I didn’t think about it). I probably could have tried some tricks from devotees of free-range parenting, French parenting, or tiger parenting, schools of thought Jessica Grose of the New York Times mentions in a recent rundown, but I was getting pretty exhausted.
The fact that none of my tactics worked and I was still fruitlessly begging, bribing, and ordering my son out of bed half an hour past school drop-off time illustrates an age-old truth about parenting: It is hard, confusing work, and we are often eager for people to tell us how in the world to do it.
To parents, it can seem like a new child-rearing trend pops up every few years, complete with new buzzwords and new ways to screw up. Each parenting philosophy presents itself as the definitive way to raise happy, well-adjusted, hard-working kids. The advice we get, however, is often both more and less than we bargained for. The effect can be dizzying — are we doing gentle parenting now or what? Indeed, child-rearing advice tends to be cyclical and reactionary, with each trend reversing what came before.
Making sense of the conflicting and overlapping ideologies of parenthood is, to some degree, about tuning out the noise and tuning in to your individual family; as Mia Smith-Bynum, a professor of family science at the University of Maryland College Park, put it, “listen to your child and adapt accordingly.” It’s also, on a broader level, about understanding the history of parenting advice, one that’s steeped in racism, classism, and a kind of toxic individualism that seeks to blame everything on Mom rather than finding systemic solutions for the problems that plague families.
Pushing back on this kind of blaming and shaming requires us to understand parenting less as a series of individual success and failures, and more as something we do as part of a community. It requires us “to really value the logistical, intellectual, and emotional labor of caregiving,” said historian Jodi Vandenberg-Daves.
Parents have always gotten advice from one another and from their elders. It’s “just part of the human experience,” said Vandenberg-Daves, a professor at the University of Wisconsin La Crosse and the author of Modern Motherhood: An American History. But at least in the US, larger cultural trends in advice for mothers, specifically, began to come to the fore in the 1830s and 1840s, with the rise of women’s magazines that promulgated “the idea of the moral mother, the pure and pious woman who operates from her sphere of influence, which is the domestic sphere.”
This represented a shift in attention toward mothers and away from fathers, who had previously been seen as “the moral leaders of the family and especially as the disciplinarians,” Vandenberg-Daves said. The mid-19th century also brought the new idea of children as innocent and better suited to the “gentle, soft influence” that mothers could provide.
The idea of the mother at home, softly tending to the children, was always “full of assumptions about race and class, as well as gender,” Vandenberg-Daves said. In the 1830s, for example, millions of Black women in America were enslaved, many of them forced to care for the children of white families rather than their own. While the norms of parenthood in general and motherhood in particular would shift in the decades that followed, the commentators dishing out parenting advice would continue, explicitly or implicitly, to hold up a white, middle- or upper-middle-class family arrangement as the ideal.
Adhering to this ideal wasn’t just an individual responsibility — indeed, good parenting has long been sold as both a moral and social imperative. “Every Christian family ought to be as it were a little church, consecrated to Christ, and wholly influenced and governed by his rules,” the Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards once said in a sermon. “And family education and order are some of the chief means of grace.” Though child-rearing ideology lost some of its explicitly religious character with time, the idea that bringing up children correctly was part of a greater or higher good continued to hold sway — and may help explain why Americans, expert or not, have long felt entitled to comment on one another’s families. After all, American babies, children, and even pregnant people are often treated as a kind of communal property, even if their well-being is not a communal responsibility.
Outside commentary on families and children became more formal in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as child-rearing advice became more professionalized, with a crop of mostly male doctors and psychiatrists putting themselves forth as experts, said Paula Fass, a professor of history emerita at UC Berkeley and the author of The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child. Pediatrics was emerging as a medical specialty, and science was replacing religion as the main influence on parenting ideals, Vandenberg-Daves said. By the 1920s, American families got “an explosion of parenting advice,” Fass said, much of it sending the message that “mothers don’t know what they’re doing, and that they need to turn their children over to the advice of those who do.”
Such allegedly knowledgeable people included John B. Watson, father of the psychological discipline of behaviorism, which held essentially that humans were no more or less than a collection of responses to conditioning — or, as Fass put it, “you are what you are trained to do.” In 1928, Watson published Psychological Care of Infant and Child, which became the most influential parenting book of its time. Watson was “very skeptical about mothers’ and women’s roles” and wanted to replace women’s supposedly “tender emotions” with a sterner approach, Fass said — he instructed parents not to hug or kiss their children. Watson was also responsible for the notorious “Little Albert” experiment, in which he and colleague Rosalie Rayner trained a baby to fear a white rat, and later furry things in general, by playing loud noises at him.
In addition to discouraging hugs, the parenting experts of the early 20th century spent a lot of time telling immigrant parents to make their children more American. Advice included “do not give them the foods of your home country,” said Bethany L. Johnson, a doctoral student in history at the University of South Carolina and co-author of the book You’re Doing it Wrong! Mothering, Media and Medical Expertise. American doctors of the period warned that a non-American diet would make children sick, and advocated bland staples like cornflakes, milk, and stewed pears.
Child welfare programs of the period dispensed advice for families in poverty about how to keep their homes clean, sterilize bottles for safe infant feeding, and make sure their children got sunlight and fresh air. The organizers of these programs rarely acknowledged that poor parents might not have the money, space, or time to keep a spotless home or guarantee their children ample outdoor playtime. Instead, the idea was “if you just tried harder, you would be like these middle-class people who have clean children,” Johnson said.
The tide began to shift again in 1946, with the publication of Benjamin Spock’s bestselling book Baby and Child Care. Dr. Spock, as he became known, “wanted to bring back confidence in American mothers,” Fass said. His famous maxim was, “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.”
Spock’s advice was less judgmental than the finger-wagging of Watson and the behaviorists, but it was also “based on this idea of essential maternal instincts that all women have,” said Vandenberg-Daves. “There are a lot of gendered assumptions in Dr. Spock.”
Despite (or perhaps in part because of) these assumptions, Spock reigned supreme for decades — Baby and Child Care has sold more than 50 million copies, and is now in its 10th edition. In fact, there has arguably yet to be a central figure in American parenting discourse to unseat him. But what has come to the fore since about the 1980s, scholars argue, is a more generalized movement often called intensive parenting, based on the idea that, as Vandenberg-Daves put it, “to be a really good parent you have to be extremely involved.”
A constellation of factors, from an increase in women entering the workforce to a media-fueled panic over kidnappings to deepening income inequality and financial insecurity among the middle class, likely led to the rise of intensive parenting. Whatever the cause, the result was that parents, especially moms, were asked to put a new level of time and energy into child-rearing, even above the norms of the supposedly family-obsessed 1950s. Indeed, working moms in the 2010s spent as much time with their kids as stay-at-home moms in the 1970s, and across income groups, parents are spending more of their money on their kids than they did in 1980.
Vandenberg-Daves has tracked the shift using Mama Bear from the Berenstain Bears books — the bonnet-headed matriarch starts out her career relaxing in the treehouse, but by the 1990s she’s chasing her cubs with sunblock at the beach, trying to get them to watch less TV, and “lying awake at night worrying about her children while Papa Bear lies there,” Vandenberg-Daves said. “She is doing intensive parenting.”
But what kind of intensive parenting? Today, in 2023, there are many ways of doing the most. Attachment parenting, which rose to prominence in the 1980s, emphasizes bed-sharing, babywearing, and breastfeeding on demand as ways of establishing a secure attachment between a parent (almost always the mother) and child, which adherents say will help that child grow up into a confident and emotionally healthy adult. The philosophy has inspired a backlash, with critics arguing that its emphasis on the nursing parent’s constant physical availability to a child is emotionally taxing, guilt-inducing, and often incompatible with work and adult relationships. Still, Instagram and TikTok are full of parenting coaches and enthusiastic amateurs ready to tell you that if you don’t nurse your baby in response to every cry, you are a monster.
A more recent trend is “positive” parenting, sometimes called “gentle,” “conscious,” or “respectful” parenting. Popularized by experts like Janet Lansbury and Becky Kennedy, the approach discourages time-honored tactics like the sticker chart and the time-out in favor of trying to suss out the feelings behind children’s behavior and helping them regulate those feelings. As Jessica Winter writes in the New Yorker, “Instead of issuing commands (‘Put on your shoes!’), the parent strives to understand why a child is acting out in the first place (‘What’s up, honey? You don’t want to put your shoes on?’) or, perhaps, narrates the problem (‘You’re playing with your trains because putting on shoes doesn’t feel good’).”
Much like the parenting philosophies of the past, gentle parenting requires a set of resources that simply aren’t available in every home. In America today, “we do not have guaranteed paid parental leave, we do not have a universal pre-K, and then we’re in a period of inflation,” said Smith-Bynum, the family science professor. “If you take any parent, and you put that kind of constant economic pressure on that family, you’re just going to have less patience.” Also, “you’re going to have less time.”
Still, as with attachment parenting, there are plenty of passionate devotees of the gentle/positive/conscious ethos out there making shouty TikToks about how raising kids any other way will doom them to a life of psychological problems. All this is extra confusing because a number of other parenting styles also have their own, opposing camps — no matter what you’re doing, you can certainly find someone to tell you you’re doing it wrong.
“What we have today is a mishmash,” Fass says. “There’s just a lot of continuing and contradictory advice.”
Part of cutting through those contradictions is simply understanding how little is truly new when it comes to childrearing ideology. Parenting advice tends to evolve less through innovation than through reaction, as Katie Pickert pointed out in her viral Time cover story on attachment parenting back in 2012. Spock was reacting to the harshness of Watson; positive parenting is, to an extent, reacting against a strand of baby boomer helicopter parenting that some millennials argue resulted in a generation of anxious people-pleasers. Parenting TikTok is rife with references to “cycle-breaking,” or interrupting the generational cycle of trauma by raising your children differently than you were raised.
It is, of course, possible to avoid repeating a previous generation’s mistakes, and we’ve certainly learned some lessons as a culture since the days of the “Little Albert” experiment. There is now broad consensus among experts, for instance, that corporal punishment is abusive and results in worse behavior in children over time. Still, the problems of the past are all too evident in a lot of parenting advice today.
For example, 21st-century experts do tend to acknowledge that fathers exist — revised editions of The Baby Book, the 1992 “attachment-parenting bible” written by William Sears, include sections on “attachment fathering.” But mothers still do a disproportionate amount of child care in American families; mothers were the ones most affected by the daunting new parenting challenges of the pandemic; most of the people listening to Becky Kennedy and poring over parenting books at night are moms. “Fathers are being addressed in child-rearing advice” today, Fass says. “But it’s still mothers who are being made crazy.”
Mainstream parenting texts have also become somewhat more inclusive of queer families over time — the 2004 edition of Spock’s Baby and Child Care included advice for gay parents. But images and anecdotes of cisgender, heterosexual couples still dominate American parenting discourse. In the 2021 memoir The Natural Mother of the Child, Krys Malcolm Belc writes about the legal and social hoops he’s forced to jump through as a transmasculine parent who has given birth — when one of his kids “asks when we can meet other families like ours,” he writes, “I say, honestly, that I do not know.”
Indeed, despite some gestures toward gender, racial, and class equity, today’s culture of parenting advice is not so different from the 19th-century tips about keeping a clean house. Then, as now, child-rearing philosophy centered on the idea that “we can fix the problems that ail children and families through maternal education,” Vandenberg-Daves said. If we just tell women the right things to do, they’ll raise healthy, well-adjusted children — no outside support required. “We have a very privatized model of parenting and the family,” Vandenberg-Daves said, “and an assumption that mothers will take so much upon themselves.”
This kind of thinking can result in advice that’s at best unhelpful, and at worst stigmatizing. Recommendations to limit kids’ access to screens, for example, assume that parents have the time and resources to entertain their families in screen-free ways. “It’s all very well and good to say, when you’re in the car together, listen to stories or talk to each other,” Johnson said. “But if you don’t have access to your own car, you have to take three buses to get your kids to day care so you can go to work, there might be a reason that you’re making different choices about your parenting.”
The American hyperfocus on individual maternal behavior can be actively dangerous for families — Black moms, for example, have been literally policed for their parenting choices, to the point of having their children taken away if they let them play without constant supervision. Short of that, there’s the constant fear of social media shaming, like what a mom experienced in 2016 when she was photographed looking at her phone in an airport while her baby lay on a blanket nearby. American mothers in 2023 are “being surveilled by others at all times,” said Margaret M. Quinlan, a professor of communication at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and co-author of You’re Doing It Wrong.
None of this is to say that parenting advice today is entirely toxic or useless. Indeed, the basic tenets of “gentle” parenting have been practiced by many families for generations, and not only in affluent homes, Smith-Bynum said. When people say they didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but “we had a lot of love,” she explained, “that’s gentle parenting.”
Taking what works from child-rearing wisdom past and present, then, is about understanding that while kids have some needs in common, every family situation is unique. “Kids need to feel loved,” Smith-Bynum said. “They need to feel valued and respected. They need clear guidance and direction. And you as the parent need to adapt to the demands on the ground.”
That can mean ignoring certain maxims if they don’t work for you or your kid. “My children have different personalities,” Johnson said. Some responses “that feel really good and really respectful to my daughter,” like making eye contact during a tantrum, just make her other child upset. “If you’re trying to do something, and it’s not working in your family, go ahead and give yourself the freedom to just not do it,” she said.
Parents (and non-parents) need to extend the same grace to other families, Johnson said. “If you find something that resonates with you and works on your family, go for it. But don’t assume that’s going to work for anyone else.”
On a broader social level, navigating the chaos and stigma of parenting advice is also about recognizing that child-rearing shouldn’t be an individual task that moms (always: moms) succeed or fail at, but something people do in concert with others, both in their families and in the wider world. Vandenberg-Daves calls for a return to “community-building around the work of caregiving and advocacy around the work of caregiving,” which can look like parents’ groups, advocacy groups devoted to issues like gun violence or environmental justice, or using “public schools as spaces to bring families together.” Child care as a collective act is already common in many communities. “Black folks have a long tradition of caregiving that goes back many generations, particularly when caring for what we might call play kin or fictive kin,” Smith-Bynum said. “I myself have several play-nephews and nieces.”
For people who don’t have support close at hand, or who may be marginalized in their geographical area, such as parents of trans kids, social media can be a powerful tool. Families “can find a space online that may help build community that they may not have in their immediate physical environment,” Vandenberg-Daves said.
I wish I could say that when my son refused to go to school, I called on my neighbors or friends for help, or that I reached out to one of the many authors and journalists of my generation who are writing wisely about caregiving and who I’ve come to think of as a kind of intellectual community. The truth is that, eventually, I pulled the book Everyone Poops off the shelf and read it to my screaming kid. This allowed him to think about poop, which is all he ever wants, and it improved his mood enough that he agreed to leave the house.
Parenting is difficult and confusing; it’s also ridiculous, silly, and absurd. We are all doing what we can with what we have. These truths have not changed in decades, maybe centuries. They are something to hold on to, even as everything else shifts.