Blame the Book: Parenting by Decade

by Laura Lambert

Photo credits: Ernst Haas, Hulton Archive/Getty Images; Kees Smans, Fototrove/Getty Images; Thomas Tolstrup, Taxi/Getty Images.

If you’re a parent today, you’ve likely been shaped by both the books and parenting ideologies of your parents and those of today. This tour of the big names in parenting covers where you came from and where you’re headed.

If you were born in the ‘70s … you drank from garden hoses and piled four-deep into the back of station wagons, sans seatbelts — and you survived! And did your parents learn all that in a book? Likely not. Most moms of this era asked real live people for advice — their own mothers, their peers, or a doctor.

Those who did read, though, may well have had a copy of The Mother’s Almanac by Marguerite Kelly and Elia Parsons (1975). This bestseller was the original for-moms-by-moms tome written, as Parsons once explained, to “de-escalate the idea that you have to be an expert to raise a child.” Full of down-to-earth, lived experience, plus recipes and projects, it was new and different for its time — and would be utterly commonplace today.

Or perhaps it was a copy of Your Baby and Child: From Birth to Age Five by Penelope Leach (1977). A descendant of Dr. Benjamin Spock (by way of Great Britain), Leach, a psychologist, championed the maternal-child bond and preached the “trust yourself” gospel to scared new parents. “Whatever you are doing, however you are coping,” she wrote, “if you listen to your child and to your own feelings, there will be something you can actually do to put things right or make the best of those that are wrong.”

And if your parents leaned religious-conservative, they might have read Dare to Discipline by James Dobson (1970). If Leach is a descendant of Spock, Dobson — who later founded Focus on the Family, a nonprofit Christian ministry — is a descendent of all that Spock railed against, notably the pediatrician Dr. Luther Emmett Holt’s pro-spanking, strictly-scheduled baby care.

If you were born in the ‘80s … ah, the era of Reaganomics, the rise of the Religious Right, “Dynasty,” “Dallas,” and Aquanet-enabled big hair. The ‘80s were also when some of the most serious parenting book dynasties were born.

You may recognize the name John Rosemond. Like Dobson, he was the founder of a Christian radio ministry. He published his first parenting book, Parent Power in 1981 — and has gone on to publish more than a dozen more, tackling things like spanking, homework, teens, and ADHD. Rosemond advocates for a less-attention-is-more approach.

The ‘80s also saw the birth of Heidi Murkoff’s What to Expect series. What to Expect When You’re Expecting, first published in 1984, still manages to make the New York Times bestseller list. Five years later, she followed up with What to Expect the First Year (1989), expanding into baby care with the same from-one-mom-to-another style. There are now nearly twenty books in the series, including children’s books under the same brand.

Parents of this era were also the first to be targeted by what I call the Infant Sleep Industrial Complex, kicked off with two bibles of sleep training, Dr. Richard Ferber’s Solve Your Child’s Sleep Problems (1985) and Dr. Marc Weissbluth’s Healthy Sleep Habits, Happy Child (1987).

If you were born in the ‘90s … congratulations, you’re a bona fide millennial! By the ‘90s, there were five times as many parenting books as in 1975. The factions — and the brands — were stronger than ever.

Your sleep-deprived mother may have consulted the next wave of infant sleep books, including the controversial On Becoming Babywise by Gary Ezzo, founder of a parenting ministry, and Dr. Robert Bucknam. The rigid approach — particularly with regard to infant feeding — prompted the American Academy of Pediatrics to issue a warning, citing risks of poor weight gain and dehydration. This book, too, spawned a dynasty.

In 1992, pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton’s first book, Touchpoints, was published. His Spock-esque advice was aimed at helping parents understand infant and baby behavior, and he delved deep into temperament to demonstrate that each child is unique. There are now three-dozen books that capture “The Brazelton Way.”

Similarly, in 1993, the first of a library of more than thirty books penned by Dr. William Sears, The Baby Book, was published. Sears is now widely considered the father of Attachment Parenting.

If you were born after 2000 … I seriously doubt you’d be reading an article like this. But for those of us parenting after 2000 — in our 20s, 30s, 40s, or beyond — one thing is absolutely clear: there is no single go-to baby bible. There are just more and more book dynasties — Leach, Sears, Brazelton, Dobson, Rosemond, Ezzo, say hello to Harvey Karp’s happiest babies on the block, Elizabeth Pantley and her No-Cry empire, to Gina Ford’s contented little babies and Tracy Hogg’s Baby Whisperer series. You can now bring your child up the French Way, the Chinese Way, the Vegan Way, the RIE Way, the Free-Range Way. Last I checked, Amazon alone had more than 100,000 parenting titles.

Though I’m almost out of the weeds with respect to parenting very small children, I still watch the bestsellers. I think it’s telling that two of the most persistent books on the charts lately are What to Expect and Adam Mansbach’s “children’s book for adults” Go the F*ck to Sleep — to me, it’s the book you think you want before you’re a parent, and the book that actually captures what it’s like to be parent. Maybe that’s all you really need.