Parenting and Politics 3/5


Content warning: This series contains description of abusive and neglectful parenting 

Dr. Truby King, a New Zealander surgeon and child welfare activist, proposed keeping babies on a rigid schedule. He believed that discipline and detachment could help the young infant better focus on the work of eating, sleeping, and growing, rather than the distractions of parental love and bonding. He also taught that an infants bowel movements ought to be on a schedule, and that toilet training should begin at six weeks. His methods were extraordinarily popular in his own country and much of Europe and his words are still quoted today by those who say “Children should be seen and not heard.”

The idea that a quiet, clean, toilet trained baby was a morally good baby pervaded infant care advice in the 19th and early 20th century. Childhood enemas were commonly promoted and sold. A 1935 US Department of Labor pamphlet entitled “Infant Care” called the infantile regulation of bladder and bowels “character building”. It suggested having a child toilet trained by 10 month, and stated that doing so would enable the child to “learn that he is part of a world bigger than that of his own desires”.

Over the years, male parenting experts have gone back and forth on the toxicity and sexual nature of breast milk. Nursing challenges were chalked up to the moral or emotional failures of mothers, such as being angry or worried. Fears about the moral and physical cleanliness of wetnurses abounded. Early milk substitutes were often pastes made of ground flour or other grains mixed with water. Infants raised on the substitutes were less likely to survive then breast-fed infants, yet disdain for the natural practice persisted.

In the years immediately after World War II, Dr. Benjamin Spock wrote his Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care in 1946. In this book he he advised parents to “Trust yourself. You know more than you think.” Spock promoted a more permissive and intuitive parenting style, and advised against spanking. He also protested the Vietnam war. These two things are related, and I will come back to how soon.

Even after the introduction of gentler, more permissive parenting advice by Dr. Spock, classic authoritarian parenting advice still sold well. Pediatrician Dr. Walter W. Sackett Jr. wrote a 1964 book Bringing Up Baby that advocated discipline and corporal punishment of babies, and asserted that babies as young as nine weeks could eat “bacon and eggs, just like Dad!” The US national average of infants starting solid foods went from seven months to seven weeks, to the great delight  and profit of Gerber and other baby food makers.

In recent years, Dr. William Sears has been one of the most successful parenting book authors. His 1992 publication The Baby Book promotes “attachment parenting ” which has also been called “child centered”. Dr. Sears promotes breast-feeding as the best option with formula as a distant second choice. He has drawn some criticism for promoting a delayed vaccination schedule and suggesting “alternative” medicines are just as good as the real stuff.






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