From a distinctive, inimitable voice, a wickedly funny and fascinating romp through the strange and often contradictory history of Western parenting
Why do we read our kids fairy tales about homicidal stepparents? How did helicopter parenting develop if it used to be perfectly socially acceptable to abandon your children? Why do we encourage our babies to crawl if crawling won’t help them learn to walk?
These are just some of the questions that came to Jennifer Traig when—exhausted, frazzled, and at sea after the birth of her two children—she began to interrogate the traditional parenting advice she’d been conditioned to accept at face value. The result is Act Natural, hilarious and deft dissection of the history of Western parenting, written with the signature biting wit and deep insights Traig has become known for.
Moving from ancient Rome to Puritan New England to the Dr. Spock craze of mid-century America, Traig cheerfully explores historic and present-day parenting techniques ranging from the misguided, to the nonsensical, to the truly horrifying. Be it childbirth, breastfeeding, or the ways in which we teach children how to sleep, walk, eat, and talk, she leaves no stone unturned in her quest for answers: Have our techniques actually evolved into something better? Or are we still just scrambling in the dark?
Traig (Devil in the Details) explores parenting throughout the ages in this alternately hilarious and disturbing historical survey. A mother of two, Traig emphasizes how difficult parenting is in any era, observing that "to do even a half-assed job is a Sisyphean task." Though the topics explored in different chapters childbirth, feeding, sibling conflict, sleep, and children's literature are familiar, this is no ordinary childcare book. Traig finds a wealth of shocking "historical horrors"; in ancient Rome, for instance, parents often "exposed," or abandoned, their unwanted offspring, and in later times sent them to "foundling homes," which almost invariably proved fatal (infanticide and abandonment, Traig writes, functioned, in an era before safe and reliable birth control, as crude forms of "early family planning"). Alongside such ghoulish details, Traig finds amusingly offbeat ones, such as bizarre names bestowed by Puritan parents on their children for purposes of moral instruction (these include Kill Sin, Fly-Fornication, and Faint-Not). Throughout, Traig exhibits a sardonic wit, as when noting the historical curiosity that many early gynecological texts were written by monks, "who presumably knew less about female reproductive anatomy than anyone on the planet." This information-rich history lesson is so entertaining it may keep parents up reading well past their bedtimes.