Generational Parenting Theories

If you have never said it yourself, then you have heard someone else say it: “I won’t raise my kids the way my parents raised me.” Emerging out of the fields of psychology and pediatric medicine, a class of well-respected child-rearing authorities has sought to advise and comfort parents at every stage of development. Theories have changed, but today's parents still look for answers to many of the same questions their grandparents asked decades ago.

The New Science of Parenting: 1900 to 1930

In the years before World War II, American children benefitted from science and social reform. Infant mortality decreased, child labor laws were enacted and formal education came to a growing number of native born and immigrant children. Traditional maxims such as “spare the rod, spoil the child,” clashed with the new views of children as vulnerable beings in need of nurturing. Mothering became a profession and fathers remained outside the home as breadwinners and disciplinarians.

The Behaviorists: 1930 to 1950

In her book, “Raising America: Experts, Parents and a Century of Advice about Children,” Ann Hulbert describes how psychologist John B. Watson led a movement based on the idea that children can be molded by external environments 1. He urged parents to reward children for good behavior with treats and to create homes where bad behavior could be avoided. He famously envisioned an electrified table that gave a child a mild electric shock if she reached for a breakable object, but would do no harm while she drew or ate.

Dr. Spock’s Generation: 1950 to 1980

For our parents, Dr. Benjamin Spock was the authority anxious parents turned to first. He encouraged parents to “trust themselves” and allow children to grow at their own pace with plenty of bonding and nurturing. While behaviorist experts viewed Spock as “permissive,” he declared, “I think that good parents who naturally lean towards strictness should stick to their guns and raise their children that way.” Spock did warn against the long-term consequences of harsh punishments and persistent criticism.

The New Guard: 1980 to Present

Today’s parents have access to more information and advice than any preceding generation. As parents use the Internet, watch television and draw on personal experiences, they seem to find more questions than answers. On his website, Dr. William Sears strongly promotes Attachment Parenting 3. Attachment Parenting emphasizes the vital importance of the parent-child bond in the early years. Sears uses recent research to theorize that breast-feeding and close bodily contact can impact a child’s behavior in future years.

On the other side of the crib sits John Rosemond, a psychologist and syndicated columnist with a view of toilet-training and other issues that harken back to the behaviorists. For example, Rosemond instructs, “You remove the diaper, put a portable potty within reach of your 2-year-old and wait … kids that age hate to have 'it' running down their legs."

Basic parenting questions might not have changed in more than 100 years, but the answers and advice doled out by experts has.