The News & Observer (Sunday) - - Arts & Living - BY JEN­NIFER SZALAI The New York Times

Amer­i­cans sup­pos­edly have lit­tle pa­tience for ex­per­tise these days – ex­cept, it seems, when it comes to par­ent­ing ex­perts, who con­tinue to churn out guides as quickly as their au­di­ence can con­sume them. This ap­petite for coun­sel in­evitably re­flects deeper, of­ten un­spo­ken mid­dle-class as­pi­ra­tions and anx­i­eties; as psy­cho­an­a­lyst and es­say­ist Adam Phillips once ob­served, the ap­peal of such books goes be­yond the im­me­di­ate need to deal with a sullen teenager or a sleep­less new­born. “Our ob­ses­sion with child de­vel­op­ment and with so-called par­ent­ing skills,” he wrote, “has be­come a code for our for­lorn at­tempt to find a san­ity for our­selves.”

Jen­nifer Traig ap­par­ently agrees. In “Act Nat­u­ral: A Cul­tural His­tory of Misad­ven­tures in Par­ent­ing,” she takes so­lace in how use­less, con­tra­dic­tory and down­right harm­ful so much ad­vice has his­tor­i­cally been. “The things we take for granted as nor­mal and nat­u­ral strike par­ents in other parts of the world as ab­surd and dan­ger­ous,” she writes, in this brisk sur­vey of chil­drea­r­ing tips through the ages.

As the par­ent of two chil­dren and the au­thor of pre­vi­ous books about ob­ses­sive-com­pul­sive dis­or­der and hypochon­dria, Traig wanted to ex­am­ine how “de­vel­ope­d­world, mid­dle-class Western­ers” learned to fol­low a script that is so cul­tur­ally spe­cific. She ended her re­search feel­ing not just in­formed but re­lieved: “Peo­ple have done crazy, crazy things to their chil­dren through­out his­tory, and the species con­tin­ued all the same.”

The species may have sur­vived, though the fates of in­di­vid­ual chil­dren were an­other mat­ter. The his­tory re­counted in this book is stud­ded with vi­o­lence and death. Child aban­don­ment was once rou­tine; in an­cient Rome, 20 to 40 per­cent of ba­bies were left to die of ex­po­sure. Even the ad­vent of foundling hos­pi­tals in Euro­pean cities didn’t help much; the mor­tal­ity rates in some in­sti­tu­tions (un­der­staffed, suf­fused with dis­ease) could reach 90 per­cent.

Par­ents have al­ways found rais­ing chil­dren to en­tail a great deal of work, en­list­ing rel­a­tives and ser­vants – some­times hand­ing off­spring over to re­li­gious orders. As Traig says, “the his­tory of par­ent­ing is, in large part, a his­tory of try­ing to get out of it.” This was true even when ba­bies were con­sid­ered lit­tle la­bor­ers-to-be, ex­pected to con­trib­ute within a few years to the fam­ily liveli­hood.

Philoso­phers like Locke and Rousseau pub­lished trea­tises on child­hood ed­u­ca­tion, but it was only to­ward the end of the 19th cen­tury – when chil­dren be­came, in so­ci­ol­o­gist Vi­viana Zelizer’s mem­o­rable phrase, “eco­nom­i­cally worth­less but emo­tion­ally price­less” – that par­ents be­gan to see them­selves as wholly re­spon­si­ble for cul­ti­vat­ing a child’s in­tel­lec­tual and emo­tional life. In the 1970s, the term “to par­ent” emerged as an ac­tive verb.

A lot of par­ent­ing ad­vice has his­tor­i­cally had to do with the phys­i­cal needs of the mother and child; a lot of it also turned out to be fa­tal. Colostrum, for in­stance, was once con­sid­ered so toxic that moth­ers were in­structed to feed their new­borns honey in­stead, thereby trad­ing the an­ti­bod­ies in breast­milk for bot­u­lism.

It was of­ten male doc­tors who dis­pensed such ad­vice – the same co­hort that was so sure of its ex­per­tise that it un­wit­tingly in­fected la­bor­ing moth­ers with puer­peral fever in ma­ter­nity hos­pi­tals dur­ing the 18th and 19th cen­turies. Doc­tors blamed the epi­demic on sour breast­milk, tight corsets, bad air; it took a while be­fore they grudg­ingly bought into the germ the­ory of dis­ease and started to wash their hands be­tween pa­tients and af­ter au­top­sies.

Traig’s book is filled with tales of men telling women what to do, and she’s can­did about how fu­ri­ous it makes her. She calls one em­i­nent 19th­cen­tury doc­tor “A PATRONIZING CHAUVINIST” (the all caps are all hers; she later ad­mits that her go-to dis­ci­plinary move with her own chil­dren is to yell). Old med­i­cal text­books, from the an­cient Greeks through the me­dieval Eu­ro­peans, are filled with men’s spe­cious as­ser­tions about fem­i­nine hy­giene: “I think we can agree that any­one who feels qual­i­fied to hold forth on some­thing he has no ac­tual knowl­edge of can, rather ac­cu­rately, be called a douche,” she quips.

She isn’t wrong, but the non­stop vaude­ville can get weary­ing. Some of her punch lines are so broad that they should be ac­com­pa­nied by a sad trom­bone.

Par­ent­ing is a sub­ject that gen­er­ates so much piety that you can’t fault Traig for hav­ing a sense of gal­lows hu­mor, though the cal­i­bra­tion is off.

Much of the story she tells is pieced to­gether from other books, in­clud­ing Ann Hul­bert’s “Rais­ing Amer­ica” and Sarah Blaf­fer Hrdy’s “Mother Na­ture.”

Still, it’s a fas­ci­nat­ing nar­ra­tive, trac­ing a long his­tory of mis­takes and re­ver­sals and cul­tural pre­sup­po­si­tions.

De­pict­ing her­self as both ex­tremely lazy and ex­tremely anx­ious, Traig says that what she wants the most as a par­ent is some re­as­sur­ance that she isn’t do­ing it wrong: “Par­ent­ing is so hard; and like our kids, we’re all look­ing for per­mis­sion to slack off in some ar­eas.”


Il­lus­trated. 336 pages. Ecco/HarperCollins Pub­lish­ers. $26.99.Act Nat­u­ral: A Cul­tural His­tory of Misad­ven­tures in Par­ent­ing By Jen­nifer Traig

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