Tuesday, November 06, 2012

The Invention of American Childhood

On an emotionally turbulent day, David Brooks writes not about politics but the psychological climate shaping generations.

“The Heart Grows Smarter” describes a Harvard study that tracked students from 1938 on and now has come to an unexpected conclusion: “It was the capacity for intimate relationships that predicted flourishing in all aspects” of their lives.

Those with close emotional bonds not only lived longer and did better but, pace Dr. Freud, changed and re-invented themselves even after difficult early years.

None of this comes as a surprise to the editor and friend of Dr. Benjamin Spock who invented modern American childhood after World War II with a parenting guide that became the best-selling book in history after the Bible.

It changed the mindset of treating children as creatures to be trained and restrained to seeing them as human beings to be loved and nurtured.

Along the way, his followers and indeed Dr. Spock himself discovered the difficulties that come with a tectonic shift in social and cultural ideas. He became distraught over the duplicity of politicians and morphed into a leading opponent of the Vietnam War along with Martin Luther King.

A decade later, the beloved baby doctor of the 1950s was indicted for “conspiracy to counsel, aid and abet resistance to the draft,” convicted and sentenced to jail, but results of the blatantly political trial were overturned and Dr. Spock devoted his remaining years to social protest.

“I’ve spent my life,” he wrote, “studying and advising how to bring up children to be well-adjusted and happy. Now I see the futility of such efforts if these children are then to be incinerated in an imbecilic war.”

Now as Brooks celebrates a new study that vindicates Spock’s ideas about childhood and later life that, for better or worse, helped shape the Baby Boomers, how do Americans reconcile knowledge of what makes for personal happiness with the political dislocations that roil their lives?

Election results won’t provide any answers but, unless those underlying questions are addressed, America will be an unhappy place for a long time to come.

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