Social history

Parenting advice from Uncle Sam once wildly popular

 

Slate

A century ago, an Orwellian plot to subjugate American children to federal authority was set in motion. Government bureaucrats systemically undermined the sanctity of the family: They told parents the right way to raise their children. Children no longer belonged exclusively to their parents. Uncle Sam was moving in.

Or at least, that’s how it would be described today. At the time, they called this dystopian nightmare the U.S. Children’s Bureau, founded in 1912. And it was wildly popular.

In an era of high child mortality and chronically poor health, as well as rapidly changing norms for childrearing, the bureau was seen as a salvation. Parents across the country immediately inundated it with letters — at its high point, 400,000 a year — and got personal responses.

“Some of the letters are handwritten, semi-literate, pencil letters from rural, black communities in Alabama — and then some are from Fifth Avenue,” says Janet Golden, a historian at Rutgers-Camden. “Sometimes you have wealthy people who write and say, ‘I took my baby to five different doctors but I want to know what the government thinks.’ ”

The new scientific-minded childrearing wisdom of the era was disseminated through the bureau’s wildly popular pamphlet, “Infant Care.” Tens of millions of copies were distributed. Early baby books, where parents kept a record of their infants, were also filled with its official advice; the publishers simply cut and pasted parts of “Infant Care” into their books.

In the 1910s and ’20s, people not only felt invested in government programs — they thought the job of the government was to give advice.

“Today a lot of people have a ‘Don’t tell me how to live my life’ attitude toward the federal government,” Golden says. “And here we have an era where people are saying, ‘Please tell me how to raise my child.’ ”

This may be the most fundamental difference between the world for which the Children’s Bureau was founded and our own. Parents then and now are still obsessed with the same things: eating, sleeping, what to buy, how to survive this madness. The advice of the authorities about these things has changed — but then again, the advice was, and is, always changing. The far bigger change is where we look for that authority.

Nicholas Day is the author of “Baby Meets World,” a book about the science and history of infancy.

Read more Lifestyle stories from the Miami Herald

  •  
A few months ago, the Desert Inn had a for-lease sign in front and looked abandoned. The restaurant has reopened under new management, and there are ambitious plans for the rest of the property.

    Yeehaw Junction

    Desert Inn to get a Wild West revival?

    Some men look at an old restaurant and ask: “Why?”

  • Southern Cross Stargazer for Aug. 31-Sept. 6

    At dusk Mercury is visible rising above the western horizon. About 8:30 p.m. a celestial triangle forms in Libra in the southwest. The moon floats beside westbound silver Saturn, above eastbound ruddy Mars. Huge Scorpius crawls toward the southwest. Antares, a red supergiant, is the heart beating in Scorpius. The stellar Teaspoon shimmers above the left handle of the Teapot.

  •  
Tallahassee is a rooted place with a sense of history, more genteel and dignified than any of the state’s other urban centers, and infinitely more Southern.

    Quick trips: Florida

    Visit Tallahassee for fine and funky food (and football)

    Boiled p-nuts. Sometimes “boiled” is spelled wrong, too. There are stands that dot the back roads of the rural Florida Panhandle, fronted by hand-lettered signs that tout the glories of the green peanut. The outskirts of Tallahassee are P-nut Central, the stands’ proprietors hunkered over burners at the back of rattletrap trucks in the hot sun. So you stop.

Miami Herald

Join the
Discussion

The Miami Herald is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere on the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

The Miami Herald uses Facebook's commenting system. You need to log in with a Facebook account in order to comment. If you have questions about commenting with your Facebook account, click here.

Have a news tip? You can send it anonymously. Click here to send us your tip - or - consider joining the Public Insight Network and become a source for The Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald.

Hide Comments

This affects comments on all stories.

Cancel OK

  • Marketplace

Today's Circulars

  • Quick Job Search

Enter Keyword(s) Enter City Select a State Select a Category