Excerpted from The Prime of Life: A History of Modern Adulthood by Steven Mintz, published by Harvard University Press. Copyright © 2015 The President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reprinted, reproduced, posted on another website or distributed by any means without the written permission of the publisher.

From “The Trials of Parenting”

In evaluating recent changes in parenting, there is a tendency to exaggerate evidence of decline and ignore the genuine gains that have occurred. There is no evidence to suggest that most parents are less engaged in child care than in the past or that adults have become “anti-child.” While fewer parents participate in PTAs, many more take an active role in soccer leagues and Little League. Although parents are having fewer children, they are investing more time and resources in those they do have. Better-educated parents are much more aware of children’s developmental needs and of the dangers of abuse, and most fathers are more engaged in childrearing than their fathers were. Meanwhile, neither rising divorce rates nor increasing numbers of working mothers have had the negative psychological consequences that some predicted. Research suggests that children suffer more when their parents stay together but have high levels of conflict than when they divorce. Moreover, working mothers are less likely to be depressed than stay-at-home mothers; they also provide valuable role models, especially for their daughters.

Parental anxieties are historically contingent, taking very different forms at particular points in time. To be sure, there are certain continuities. During the twentieth century, the introduction of every new entertainment technology, from radio and the movies to television, videogames, and the Internet, has provoked concern that an insidious force threatens children’s well-being. But over time there has been a marked shift in the nature of parental fears. In the early and mid-nineteenth century, parents were primarily concerned about their children’s health, religious piety, and moral development. In the late nineteenth century, parents became increasingly attentive to children’s emotional and psychological well-being. During World War II, concern swirled around father absence and over-solicitous mothers, while the early postwar era worries focused incessantly on polio, despite the fact that it killed fewer children than diseases like whooping cough. For parents whose childhood had been disrupted by the Great Depression and World War II, images of breadlines and mushroom clouds provoked intense anxiety about their ability to shelter their children from external threats. In addition, during the mid-twentieth century, parental anxieties centered on children’s gender identity and their ability to interact with peers in conventional and acceptable ways. Today, much more than in the past, insecure parents worry that their children not suffer from boredom, low self-esteem, learning disabilities, and excessive school pressures, all of which may lead to depression.

In an environment in which parents are bombarded with contradictory advice, it is impossible to raise a child unselfconsciously or instinctively. Of course, a concern with proper childrearing is not new; childrearing manuals are virtually as old as the printing press. What has changed, however, is authorship — as tracts written by clergy and educators gave way to those written by physicians and psychologists, and more recently, by mothers and fathers themselves — as have parental concerns, which shifted from moral education and physical health to topics that aroused little concern in the past, such as early academic achievement, the quality of peer relationships, and children’s happiness. Perhaps the most notable change was the growing attention to children’s psychic health. Over the course of the twentieth century, a new psychologically informed vocabulary of parenting emerged. By the late 1920s, expert opinion had begun to embrace the notion that children’s experiences during the first three years of life mold their personality, lay the foundation for future cognitive and psychosocial development, and leave a lasting imprint on children’s emotional life. In addition, there is a widespread consensus that even very young children have the capacity to learn, that intellectual development depends on the kind of stimulation that children receive, and that play serves valuable developmental functions. Furthermore, there is a sense that growing up requires children to bond with peers and separate emotionally and psychologically from their parents.

During the 1940s and 1950s, child psychologists identified a series of behaviors that helped define parent-child relations. These include warmth, responsiveness, demandingness, protectiveness, sensitivity, and control. The last can take various forms, from monitoring and reasoning to shaming and harsh physical discipline. In 1966, the developmental psychologist Diana Baumrind identified three distinct parenting styles, general orientations that reflected parents’ fundamental values and personality. There was an authoritarian style (a strict approach that emphasized compliance with a parent’s rules and directions), an authoritative style (a warm but firm, demanding, but responsive, approach), and permissive style (a lenient, non-directive, and indulgent approach). Subsequent observers added a fourth parenting style, negligent or uninvolved. It turns out that these categories do not effectively describe the parenting practices within many immigrant or ethnic minority families, which have higher levels of parental protectiveness and distinctive forms of control that combine supportiveness with a greater reliance on shaming. Yet they do serve as a guide to the ways parents viewed their possibilities for parenting.

Since the 1970s, a host of parenting styles has been held out as ideal. Among the most influential is “attachment parenting,” a phrase coined by the pediatrician William Sears in 1992. Sears argued that a child’s psychological well-being depended on developing a secure emotional and physical connection to his or her parents. This, in theory, could be best reinforced through breastfeeding upon demand, co-sleeping, and baby-carrying, all of which involve maintaining close bodily contact with an infant or young child. According to this model, parents were to be highly attentive, emotionally available, and responsive to children’s emotional needs. They were to avoid unrealistic expectations, in order to prevent their child from becoming frustrated, and were to use nonpunitive forms of discipline: redirection, setting boundaries, and time-outs. Such a style demanded a great deal of patience on a mother’s part.

Then there was helicopter parenting, a pejorative phrase coined around 1990 to refer to overprotective, hyper-attentive, overinvolved parents who hover over their children, step in to solve their problems, and assist with their homework and social life. A less pejorative description of this approach is “concerted cultivation,” since the self-conscious goal is to stimulate children’s development. To this end, parents provide their children with a rich language environment, and seek to reason with their children and ask frequent questions. But parents are also expected to do more: entertain their children and ensure that they are happy; provide a wide range of adult-supervised and structured enrichment activities such as music lessons, organized sports, and play dates; and run interference for their children in schools and other settings, thus providing a model for asserting oneself in bureaucratic settings. More recently the phrase “tiger parenting” emerged, which criticized “Western-style” childrearing as overly concerned with children’s self-esteem, desires, and preferences, and insufficiently attentive to their need for achievement. The polar opposite of this approach is “free-range” or “slow” parenting, which encourages children to develop at their own pace, and discourages attempts to over-structure their activities. Each childrearing style underscores contemporary society’s intense concern with parent-child relations and the extreme pressure this puts on parents, especially mothers.

5.4. Homecoming, 2006. Photograph by Cassandra Locke.

When viewed from a cross-cultural, cross-temporal perspective, it is striking how narrowly childrearing is defined in the United States compared to many non-Western societies. In this country, the focus is almost exclusively on the nature of the parent-child bond, especially the parent’s responsiveness to a child’s distress, approaches to discipline, and strictness of scheduling. More difficult to measure, but equally important are the values that the parents teach and the behavior they model. In many other societies, childrearing, rather than being monopolized by parents and usually the mother, is diffused among a variety of nurturing figures (termed “allomothers” or “alloparents” by anthropologists), which may include older siblings as well as a variety of kin and non-kin. Parenting practices, of course, account for only some of the influences on children’s socialization and development. Other influences include the child’s temperament, interactions with siblings, relatives, and peers, and various cultural influences. Yet in the United States, it is parent-child relationships that are in the spotlight.

Steven Mintz is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin and Executive Director of the University of Texas System’s Institute for Transformational Learning.