With painstaking detail and with considerable wit, Hulbert takes us through the century and helps us to see that parents have been anxious about how their kids would turn out for decades. She also shows that they frequently turn to the experts for guidance; experts who have an annoying habit of contradicting one another. Throughout the centry there has always been a "hard" approach to parenting advocated as well as a "soft" approach advocated usually by two separate experts. Many experts have, and continue to make exaggerated claims about the results of taking their advice. James Watson the famous behaviorist was the paragon of this sort of wild claim, deciding based on a few experiments with white furry things and a scared infant that he knew the secrets to take any sort of child and raise them for a career of his selection and with the character of his choice.
A century later, much is the same though there are some important differences. We continue to have an array of voices with a good deal of overlap as well as with a number of contradictions. The difference now perhaps is that there are approaches all along the continuum from soft to hard, rather than one or two at either end. Hulbert implies that all the contradicitons make it unlikely that anyone has a corner on the "correct" approach. Her NPR interview got at the practical and important point for parents at the how to bookshelf. Parents are wise to pick from among techniques offered by approaches that resonate with their core values. My take on the situation, since I am a therapist by trade, is that parenting experts are much like psychotherapy approaches. The research is clear that no one approach is heads and shoulders above others concerning measurable outcomes for therapy. However, it is clear that for people suffering from anxiety and depression, for example, therapy is certainly better than no treatment. My guess is that the results are the same with parenting. I suspect that most people taking a well organized parenting class do better than people with the same intitial skill level taking no class. I further would recommend that people pick a style that teaches mutual respect. Another key is an approach that is practical enough to teach parents how to set, healthy, reasonable limits in a way that is loving. Most people soon tire of being in the company of a child who runs the house and who is very tuned in to their own feelings and needs, but who lack the balance of knowing how to be respectful of others.
Hulbert makes superb work of bringing big parenting experts of the past century to life and letting us in on some of the details that they might have preferred not be shared openly. I found it particularly helpful to read up on Spock, as we frequently hear his name as a common cultural reference, but I like most people wasn't familiar with the fascinating and sweeping trajectory that his advice and his career took. Hulbert knows her stuff. It would be wonderful to have a conversation with her about this history of parenting experts and how they measure up to the research, including the significant blows that Judith Harris dealt developmental psycholgy by being the first to make a widely publicized stink about the lack of controls for the role genetics, and the and the failure to account for kids having effects on adults' parenting in The Nurture Assumption (another must read for those serious about understanding what we know about parenting styles). I suspect I won't get a chance at the conversation with Hulbert, but this book was a superb second best.