TCS Daily

Would You Like Boric Acid with that Boiled Diaper?

By Helen Smith - November 3, 2005 12:00 AM

Most parents worry about the damage they may be inflicting on their children by following parenting advice touted by parenting guides, mental health professionals, school personnel and even talk show hosts. Even those uncouth parents who try to tune out the current fads of child discipline and advice are swayed by community mores, school rules and the jail time involved if they vary too much from the norm. But many of us wonder how much of this advice is not only unhelpful, but just plain wrong. How can we know what will be the outcome of time outs, drugging kids with Ritalin, withholding discipline or sending kids to Brat Camp? Perhaps in the future, we will be looking back, wondering why we followed the advice given by well-meaning ninnies when in fact, there were other methods that might have worked better. The parents in James Lileks' new book on bad parenting advice probably wondered the same thing.

Lileks' new book, Mommy Knows Worst: Highlights from the Golden Age of Bad Parenting Advice, is a virtual cornucopia of hilarious parenting advice from the 1940's and '50's. The book uses photos, advertisements, magazine articles and government-issue parenting guides to give the reader an idea of the rigidity that the baby boomers' parents were subjected to in raising their children. Perhaps this is what boomers were rebelling against when they chanted, "don't trust anyone over thirty." Lileks inserts a running commentary on each of the illustrations that will leave his readers in stitches over the atrocities that American children -- or perhaps their parents -- were made to suffer.

In chapters on "Health and Hygiene' and "Sun and Air," Lileks fills us in on old fashioned advice on how to keep your baby healthy. What do you do if your child has soiled diapers that reek of ammonia? Why, spend all afternoon boiling them and sprinkling them with boric acid. The bed linens can also be boiled and the crib mattress can be taken outdoors and left in the sun. And speaking of the sun, all of the old childcare books agreed that leaving your baby to bake in the sun everyday was healthy. Sunbathing in the winter was possible, too, if the parents rolled the baby crib over to the window. There are even amusing pictures of babies sleeping in open-air compartments strapped outside the window to get still more fresh air. Lileks points out that the sales of these compartments dropped off after the Lindbergh kidnapping.

Parental displays of affection were very much frowned upon by earlier experts: "The mother, perhaps, cannot be denied altogether the privilege of exhibiting her child to admiring friends, or of taking him up in order that she may lavish upon him her own caresses; but such disturbances should be reduced to a minimum, for they are very trying to the child's nerves and may even cause direct injury to his delicate little organs." Apparently, experts also feared that lavishing the child with affection would result in the child starting out in life with an exaggerated sense of importance which could later land him in an insane asylum, for his "exalted ego."

Later, in a chapter entitled, "Bowels," the reader is treated to the puzzling obsession that boomer parents' had with constipation -- so much so that ads in parenting magazines showed parents literally spanking their children with a hairbrush for not taking a laxative. It's a wonder the boomers turned out as well as they did.

However, this is not to say that the baby boomer's children are without their own problems. Yes, we have learned from yesterday's mistakes in areas like proper sun exposure and showing parental affection. But as a psychologist specializing in adolescents, I have seen the pendulum swing too far in the opposite direction with some current child raising fads.

We now tend to shower our children with praise for the smallest of things, lest they suffer from low self-esteem. Yet most of us are not aware that self-esteem has little correlation with socially valuable behavior. In fact, high self-esteem and narcissism have been linked to violent behavior in kids. We are also reluctant to discipline children, except with "time-outs" which rarely seem to teach children much about the consequences of their behavior. Schools have few resources to discipline children, so they are now sparing the rod and bringing out the Ritalin. Even food seems to be used as a pacifier in the classroom and in daycare centers. Try asking your six-year-old what he or she had to eat during the school day and at day care: usually there is a long list of party foods, snacks and soft drinks. These foods often are used as reinforcers for good behavior or to calm the kids down. No wonder so many of our kids are obese. There are even times when the appearance of "getting tough" on kids backfires. Some research shows that kids who go to boot camps for juvenile delinquents re-offend at a higher rate than their peers.

What I learned from Lileks' interesting and entertaining book is that moderation is the key in child rearing and, sometimes, it is best to trust our own instincts. Experts are there to help but Lileks reminds us that they are human and make mistakes, too. Mommy Knows Worst is a great read for those who wonder if child rearing was always this hard. Apparently, the answer is "yes."

Helen Smith is a forensic psychologist in Knoxville, Tennessee. She has a blog on popular culture and psychology here. She is also the author of The Scarred Heart: Understanding and Identifying Kids Who Kill and the writer and director of Six, a documentary about a mass murder.



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