Reality television today has nothing on the parenting experts of yore, their public personas, half-baked beliefs, obsessions and often deeply chaotic or dysfunctional personal lives must rival anything on Bravo or TLC. It’s so easy to poke fun at them, the absurdity and the hilarity of their advice and concerns. Eighteenth and nineteenth century fears about children’s morality, original sin and masturbation or self-pollution. Early twentieth century worries that kissing, playing or unnecessary touching of babies would cause psychological harm. Mid-century concerns about poor posture that had universities photographing naked college freshman. LOL. They actually worried about that? They really did that?
Even the babble from the more respected experts, the really famous ones still in college textbooks, seems preposterous.Take behaviorist James B. Watson, kicked out of academia after an adulterous affair but not before leaving his mark on psychology and the child rearing literature with a particularly memorable claim:
"Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief, and, yes, even beggarman and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors." –John B. Watson, Behaviorism, 1930
Those who took Psych 101 probably laughed at his feeble experimental attempt at conditioning Little Albert, yes a real human baby, with a ringing bell and a rat. Watson himself admitted it was not a success. I could go on and on but I probably don’t need to convince anyone that regardless of time period or zeitgeist, the experts have always foisted questionable claims on parents. However incredible the advice and antics of the experts in the past, it’s impossible to come away from them untarnished. A stroll down the annals of advice makes it all the more difficult not to be suspicious about the current experts and their offerings.
It also presents an obvious question. Who will our grandchildren and great-grandchildren lampoon?
Surely they will have plenty to choose from with the ballooning parenting media. But it won’t be easy. No single expert, not even a handful really stand out in my mind from the past decade or so since I became a parent. Maybe I’m reading too much, maybe I’m too familiar with the parenting genre to pick out only a few voices but I suspect that’s not quite it. There are so many experts today, and I use the term loosely, that no one immediately rises to the top of pile. When someone comes out with a bestseller or controversial book (e.g., Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom, Bringing up BeBe, The Genius in All of Us) sure, the author gets some attention in the media but soon she or he will get bounced off the podium, knocked out of the limelight by the next contender. It's not 1950 anymore when Dr. Benjamin Spock ruled the parenting gurus. His book Baby and Child Care out-sold every other non-fiction book for nearly 50 years, second only by the Bible.
Thanks to the Internet, 24/7 cable, satellite radio, smart phones, tablets, and other new media and digital devices we have a never ending stream of parenting styles, official recommendations, studies and opinions. Given the diversity and increasing specialization of the parenting posse, from neuroscience researchers and practicing psychotherapists to journalists, celebrities and mommy bloggers, it’s more complicated today to settle on a select, highly influential group of experts—not to be confused with a highly knowledgeable or informed group of experts.
Some of the bestselling, most read, most re-tweeted, most “liked” parenting fodder today comes not from who most of us probably regard as experts (e.g., researchers, scientists, academics with specialized knowledge and experience) but less formal experts and in many cases, people without any identifiable expertise in the areas of children or parenting, such as journalists, celebrities, mothers and less often fathers. So our progeny first will have to comb through the behemoth parenting media, good luck to them, and then decide which experts to skewer for the historical record, the most expert, the most prolific, the most popular, the most dramatic?
Such a task will require considerable persistence, self-discipline, grit, minimal attention deficits, highly developed neural connections, abstract reasoning skills, confidence in math and science, healthy gender identities, creativity, innovation, uninterrupted REM sleep, interval training, breaks for mindfulness, breaks for nature, breaks for maintaining interpersonal social skills, an ergonomically-eco friendly chair, and finally time. Plenty of time. Hopefully our grown children will find some space in their schedules for such a feat and can squeeze it in between breastfeeding on demand, tummy time, play dates, unstructured play time, creative movement, monitoring their children’s homework, monitoring their social media use, monitoring their screen time, monitoring their sugar and trans fats consumptions, and shuttling them from Mandarin class, soccer try-outs, piano lessons, speech therapy, occupational therapy, Kumon, birthday parties, bully-prevention seminars, mandatory community service or whatever the reigning ideology.
So, take a stab. What advice will sound absurd years from now?