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April 26, 2013

Slate: Parenting advice from Uncle Sam

CHICAGO — A century ago, an Orwellian plot to subjugate all American children to federal authority was set in motion. Government bureaucrats systemically undermined the influence and the sanctity of the family: They told parents the right way to raise their children. Children no longer belonged exclusively to their parents. Uncle Sam was moving in.

Or at least, that's how it would be described today. At the time, they called this dystopian nightmare the U.S. Children's Bureau, founded in 1912. And it was wildly popular.

In an era of high child mortality and chronically poor health, as well as rapidly changing norms for childrearing, the bureau was seen as a salvation. As if they'd been waiting for the bureau to be founded, parents across the country immediately inundated the Children's Bureau with letters - at its high point, the bureau received 400,000 missives a year - and got personal responses back. Many of the letters, from mothers desperate for guidance and struggling to survive, are heartrending to read. "Some of the letters are handwritten, semi-literate, pencil letters from rural, black communities in Alabama - and then some are from Fifth Avenue," says Janet Golden, a historian at Rutgers-Camden. "Sometimes you have wealthy people who write and say, 'I took my baby to five different doctors but I want to know what the government thinks.' "

The new scientific-minded childrearing wisdom of the era - the new right way to raise your child - was disseminated through the Bureau's wildly popular pamphlet, "Infant Care." Tens of millions of copies were distributed - but that actually underestimates its reach. Early baby books, where parents kept a record of their infants, were also filled with its official advice; the publishers simply cut and pasted parts of "Infant Care" into their books.

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