Act Natural: A Cultural History of Misadventures in Parenting

Jennifer Traig does things a little differently than historians like Ann Hulbert. For starters, her scope is insanely broad, covering all of history and the globe. Then there’s her tone. Traig’s writing is truly accessible, bringing ease and pleasure to two traditionally taxing topics: historical study and parenting. “Children from all social classes just did not spend that much time with their parents,” she writes in a characteristic passage: “Unlike us, they probably did not feel much guilt about it, much as my mail carrier doesn’t feel guilty for not mowing my lawn. It’s simply not his job.” 

Act Natural take two

She doesn’t just make the material readable though; Traig makes it funny, like LOL funny: “Medieval childcare books are generally very stern and preachy. They are still fun for the modern reader, however, because early printers used a long s that, to the modern eye, looks just like an f. Since the books tend to dwell at length on breastfeeding, you read a lot about getting the fuckling infant to fuckle. Mostly, however, you read about faving the infant’s foul from fin.” Her personal and whimsical asides occasionally annoy, but the vast bulk of them land, helping break up some seriously legit research into manageable chunks.

Did you know, for example, that “a shocking amount of [parenting advice was] written by people who either had no children or were estranged from them” including monks? That, thanks to Freud, “botched toilet training was blamed for everything from homosexuality to World War II”? That Puritan books had “sunny, child-friendly titles like ‘Deaths of Pious Children’ and ‘The Exhortation that a Father Gave to His Children Which he Wrot a Few Dayes Before His Burning’”? That John Newbery, “the father of children’s literature” was a ruthless capitalist who maximized product placement in children’s books, including for an abortifacient? 

She goes on and on, even touching on modern times: 

In the United States, a child who’s been out of the womb 366 days is one, but in countries that use East Asian age reckoning, which counts from conception, he’s two. Some cultures add a year on your birthday, and some on the calendar new year. Even the length of the year can vary, with the lunar calendar clocking in eleven days shorter than the Gregorian. Were I to fly to Shanghai, I would find myself twelve hours ahead and two full years older….

***

Beng babies are considered living humans when their umbilical stump falls off. Aboriginal Anbarra babies remain classified as fetuses until they smile the first time. For Balinese Hindus, babies don’t become fully human until the 105th day after birth; before that, they belong to the spirit world, and are considered so holy their feet aren’t permitted to touch the ground. The Namibian Himba people believe a baby is alive before it’s even conceived, backdating its existence to the time it first came to its mother as a thought. 

Traig offers up a good deal of comfort too. “The history of parenting,” she writes, “is, in large part, a history of trying to get out of it.” That is to say, in some respects, our problems are not new. In 1671, Jane Sharp lambasted overparenting (“Their children by overcockering, growing so stubborn and unnatural, that they have proved a great grief to their parents”), and during the 1940s, many asserted that “overinvolved mothers were creating a generation of psychological cripples.” Modern parents probably do have it worse in some ways though. Take sibling squabbles. For much of history, parents escaped most of it since they “were less likely to be around their children, and their children were less likely to be around each other, given that they were either working or dead.”

Along similar lines, Traig concludes that “a lot of parenting’s thorniest issues—sleep resistance, picky eating—began when we started trying to fix something that wasn’t particularly broken.” A final note of solace reads as follows: “If I’ve learned anything, it’s that barring the really awful stuff, things mostly turn out fine, and the ones that don’t were beyond our control anyway.”

For the most part, the book soars. It’s interesting. It’s amusing. And most of the writing is tight with flawless transitions. But some of those get sloppy, and there’s an uncomfortable amount of unacknowledged repetition, of factoids and even a punchline or two. Another round of edits would have gone a long way.

There’s also the small issue of the facts receiving gloss. There’s just no way to make definitive statements about parenting across the centuries without smoothing over a few things. And I’d be remiss not to note that this “cultural history” focuses on white culture.

Still, I highly recommend Act Natural as a fun way to get perspective on modern parenting.

BONUS REVIEW ON THE SAME TOPIC: 

In Raising America: Experts, Parents, and a Century of Advice About ChildrenAnn Hulbert chronicles how twentieth-century parenting experts in the United States have offered dramatically varied “dogmas and data,” reflecting “American confusions about children’s natures and futures, and about mothers’ missions.”

raising america

The new plague of anxiety about child-rearing, it turns out, is actually as old as the plague itself: “pick any post-medieval century as it turns,” Hulbert writes, “and you can find historians proclaiming a notable shift in, and rising concern about, parent-child relations.” That’s comforting. So too is her conclusion that the experts “have fared no better or worse than the rest of us in the quest for calm consistency in child-rearing technique and theory.”

And Raising America contains a good deal of interesting information and reflection. Yet Hulbert’s is a copiously researched historian’s history of the central dilemma (“is it more discipline or more bonding that they need at home?”) and as such, one I recommend only for those hoping to feel like a college student again.

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