Commentary Magazine

The Changing American Parent, by Daniel R. Miller and Guy E. Swanson

Bringing Up Mama
The Changing American Parent.
by Daniel R. Miller and Guy E. Swanson.
John Wiley and Sons. 302 pp. $6.50.


This is the Age of Spock and Gesell, of child psychiatry, progressive education, and a host of other child-rearing pedagogies devised by professional experts and marketed under the brand of Science. Those who deplore our bondage to the experts often wistfully recall the past, which may mean anything from twenty-five to one hundred years ago. Then, children were allegedly raised not by the book but according to the precepts of common sense and traditional wiscdom, handed down through the ages from mothers to daughters. As the opening chapter of this book by two University of Michigan social scientists indicates, this picture is, to say the least, an exaggeration. Books, manuals, and magazine articles on child-rearing date back at least to the late 18th century, and we may assume that they were read for guidance by middle- and upper-class parents if not by the wider audience exposed to their present-day counterparts.

In the early 19th century, the most prevalent view of the child bore the marks of Calvinism. The child was believed to be born with “the Devil in him” and the task of the parent was to “break his will” by imposing stern punitive discipline. But even at this date there was a trend toward a more “permissive” outlook, picturing the child as a “flower opening to the sunshine” and stressing reward and persuasion in opposition to corporal punishment. By the middle of the century European visitors were already complaining about the irreverence and lack of discipline of American youngsters. Moralistic conceptions of child-training have been conspicuously absent from parental handbooks ever since, although there have otherwise been dizzying ups and downs in fashion. Thumb-sucking and masturbation have been alternately regarded as dangerous, or harmless, or even beneficial; scheduled feeding and early toilet-training have been first recommended and then condemned, and so on.

In the 1930’s and 40’s, the idea that particular details of infant care have a crucial impact, irreversibly moulding the child’s character, became widely current. Since then there there has been a reaction against this overly deterministic view—“diaperology” as its critics christened it—and the figure of the anxious mother tending the baby with one hand while grasping Spock’s manual in the other has been held up to derision. Parents are nowadays urged—of ten by the books themselves—to follow their own instincts and feelings instead of relying upon the formulas of the experts which may shortly become outdated. But, in any case, what the child-rearing manuals have advocated and what parents have actually done are two different things. We cannot consult 18th century parents, except for those few rare individuals who have left detailed accounts of how they brought up their children. If we want to find out what contemporary mothers do, however, we can turn to another group of experts, the sociologists.



The Changing American Parent is the latest of a series of studies based on questionnaires submitted to large samples of American mothers, in this case to mothers living in metropolitan Detroit. These studies, of course, don’t really tell us what mothers do, only what they say they do and why, but they do provide a mass of information to be run through IBM machines and manipulated statistically in the best traditions of contemporary social research. Professors Miller and Swanson are chiefly interested in the parent’s image of the child as reflected in such practices as breast or bottle feeding, early or late bowel training, responses to early sex play, etc. The book’s focus on the parent enables it to raise a number of important questions about the relation between contemporary family life and changes in the larger society.

The authors think (and it is hardly a novel thesis) that the United States has recently changed from an “individuated-entrepreneurial” society, characterized by work situations that isolated people from one another and forced them to compete, to a “welfare-bureaucratic” society in which a growing segment of the population works for large organizations where personal contacts are mostly cooperative. Following the lead of David Riesman, they suggest some of the implications of this by now almost universally recognized “big change” for attitudes toward ambition, styles of morality, and, ultimately, for methods of child care and parental treatment of the young. Still echoing Riesman, they argue that a more bland, hedonistic approach to the child, equipping him for amicable relations with his peers and willing submission to his superiors, is suited to the demands of a bureaucratic career, whereas rigorous self-control and assertive independence are suited to an entrepreneurial career. (I am, incidentally, amused to see how the ideas of a maverick like Riesman, which were at first coldly rejected or at best patronized as “literary” by the majority of his social science colleagues, are here, after a lapse of only a few years, taken up by a pair of scholars who typify the very model of the modern social scientist.)

The analysis of the questionnaire answers does reveal a slight but unmistakable difference in attitudes toward child rearing between women married to husbands employed in “bureaucratic” occupations and those married to “entrepreneurial” husbands. To put it as simply as possible and therefore somewhat misleadingly: the bureaucratic mothers are a bit more “permissive” than the entrepreneurial mothers. This finding, in itself hardly conclusive, is strengthened by the discovery that fewer differences are evident when the mothers are classified by ethnic origin or by conventional measures of social class. Yet it is hard to say just what it means. As is so often the case with studies of this kind, the authors’ general theory is vague and schematic to begin with, and has to be drastically simplified to make it relevant to the rather scanty questionnaire information (this is called “operationalizing one’s concepts” in the lingo of the social research technician).



For instance: families are classified as “entrepreneurial” if the father is self-employed, works for a small organization, and earns at least half of his income in profits or fees; also if either parent was born on a farm or in a foreign country. This last criterion seems particularly questionable: the whole world is not necessarily divided between “entrepreneurial” and “bureaucratic” outlooks, like the ancient Chinese view of the universe split between the contending forces of Yin and Yang. Riesman, in addition to his two types that correspond more or less to Miller and Swanson’s (“inner” and “other” direction), also recognized a third, “tradition-direction,” American examples of which he sought precisely among foreign-born groups. Close examination of a table on page 183 of The Changing American Parent indicates, indeed, that the fact of rural or foreign birth, when separated from the other entrepreneurial criteria, shows little relation if any to childrearing practices. This, in conjunction with the difficulty of discovering just how the authors classify professionals—a group that has been increasing along with bureaucratic white-collar workers—suggests that the findings may reflect nothing more than a difference between small businessmen (the classic petty-bourgeoisie) and the rest of the urban population.

That there is a broad congruence between the institutions and values of a bureaucratic society and the less severe disciplining of children seems entirely plausible. The new dicta of the experts, set forth in the child-rearing manuals, may be superficially responsible for the change, but Miller and Swanson are clearly right in believing that a deeper, more “sociological” explanation is required to account for the increased susceptibility of parents to the experts’ recommendations. Moreover, the authors find several discrepancies between what the mothers practice and what the books preach: for example, surely no more hoary bit of traditional lore has been unanimously rejected by the experts than the maxim “spare the rod and spoil the child”; yet bureaucratic mothers are more apt to spank their children, while entrepreneurial mothers are given to lecturing theirs. The authors very ingeniously interpret this to conform with their theory of the shift from an entrepreneurial to a bureaucratic outlook.

However, Miller and Swanson are so eager to demonstrate the reality of the bureaucratic-entrepreneurial difference that they fail to explore the precise nature of the link between working for a large organization and seeing one’s children in a new way. Even if it were certain that the differences their data reveal were indisputably real, one would still be compelled to ask just how a man’s work experience comes to affect his wife’s attitude toward the children. Actually, the authors find that the fathers (according to their wives’ testimony at least) are stricter and more old-fashioned in their views on child rearing, even though it is the men who have had the newer, more “cooperative” work experiences and the women who are still chiefly concerned with raising the family. Perhaps suburban living has more to do with the matter than work experience, granted that this too is deeply involved in the “big change.”

I am also troubled by the readiness of the authors, especially in a “frankly speculative” final chapter, to relegate the restless mobility, competitiveness, and eternal discontent that have for so long seemed to be the distinguishing traits of “modern life” to the bad old entrepreneurial past. I think they miss the subtle dialectical relation between these surviving features of our society and the newer trends toward “togetherness” and “organization men.” And, while recognizing the superficiality and sheer silliness of many of the current battle cries against “conformism,” I am unable to share their sanguine view about either the quality or the permanence of American life as it is lived in the 1950’s.



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