Glance At The History Of Parenting Infants

Infancy is an easily definable stage of life, based on biological and mental data as well as on social convention. Infants do not speak, whereas young and old people do; infants creep and crawl, whereas young and old people walk and run. Harkness and Super (1983, p. 223) suggested that "a primary function of culture in shaping human experience is the division of the continuum of human development into meaningful segments, or 'stages____' All cultures... recognize infancy as a stage of human development." Infancy had already achieved that recognition in pre-Classical times; when the Romans depicted periods in the career of a typical man on "biographical" sarcophagi, they included infancy. Indeed, artists everywhere and throughout the ages have represented infancy as typically a first age or early stage in the lifespan (Bornstein and Kertes, in preparation). Iconographically, infants symbolize origins and beginnings.

Informal interest and concerns for parenting infants have been motivated in large measure by perennial questions about the roles of heredity and experience in the course of child development. Speculation on the subject dates back centuries to ancient Egypt, the Code of Hammurabi, and the pre-Socratic philosophers (French, in Vol. 2 of this Handbook). Plato (ca. 355 B.C.) theorized about the significance of infancy; Henri IV of France had the physician Jean Heroard (1868) carefully document experiences of the Dauphin Louis from the time of his birth in 1601; and Charles Darwin (1877) and Sigmund Freud (e.g., 1949) both initiated scientific observations of infants and theoretical speculations about the role of infancy in development and in culture.

The formal study of parenting infants had its beginnings in attempts by philosopher, educator, or scientist parents to do systematically what parents around the world do naturally everyday— observe their babies. The first-ever studies of children were diary descriptions of infants in their natural settings written by their own parents—"baby biographies" (Darwin, 1877; Hall, 1891; Preyer, 1882; Rousseau, 1762; Taine, 1877; Tiedemann, 1787; see Jaeger, 1985; Prochner and Doyon, 1997; Wallace, Franklin, and Keegan, 1994). Darwin, who developed evolutionary theory in 1859 with the Origin of Species, published observations he had made in the early 1840s on the first months of life of his firstborn son, William Erasmus, nicknamed "Doddy." Darwin's (1877) "Biographical Sketch of an Infant" gave great impetus to infancy studies (Dixon and Lerner, 1999). In succeeding years, baby biographies grew in popularity around the world—whether they were scientific documents, parents' personal records, or illustrations of educational practices—and they still appear today (e.g., Brazelton, 1969; Church, 1966; Mendelson, 1990; Stern, 1990). Perhaps the most influential of the modern baby biographers, however, was Piaget (e.g., 1952), whose writings and theorizing refer chiefly to observations of his own young children.

These systematic historical observations of infancy had many salutary effects, heightening awareness in parents and provoking formal studies of how to guide infant development. Historians and sociologists of family life have documented evolving patterns of primary infant care (Colon with Colon, 1999). Because of high rates of infant mortality, parents in early times may have cared for but resisted emotional investment in the very young (Dye and Smith, 1986; Slater, 1977-1978), a point of view that persists where especially dire circumstances reign (e.g., Scheper-Hughes, 1989). One historian theorized that parents have generally improved in their orientation to and treatment of infants because parents have, through successive generations, improved in their ability to identify and empathize with the special qualities of early childhood (deMause, 1975). Today, advice on parenting infants can be found in professional compendia that provide comprehensive treatments of prenatal and perinatal development, such as Effective Care in Pregnancy and Childbirth (Chalmers, Enkin, and Keirse, 1989), in classic how-to books, such as Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care (Spock, Parker, Parker, and Scotland, 1998) and Your Baby and Child (Leach, 1997), as well as in numerous popular periodicals that overflow drugstore magazine racks.

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