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Eugenics Theory, Better Baby Contests, and the Formation of Modern Parenting Advice

What it means to have the best babies has changed over the years, but the impulse to compete has not.

Modern parenting advice is linked to anxiety that has become the norm for many parents concerned with giving their children the best start in life. But there was a time when the best parenting practices were much more subjective than they are now, reliant on cultural norms rather than expert guidance. Unfortunately, along with that lack of pressure came poor health outcomes. Babies today have a far better chance of living to adulthood than they did 100 years ago, but the trade-off appears to be an increase in parental stress. What tipped the balance? White supremacy and the eugenics in America.  

That’s the argument historian Bethany Johnson and University of North Carolina Communications Studies professor Dr. Margaret Quinlan put forth in their new book, You’re Doing it Wrong: Mothering, Media, and Medical Expertise. It all began in the early 20th Century with Better Baby Contests. The explicit aim of the contests, held across the U.S., was to publicly promote healthy babies and baby-rearing practices through a public competition. But in doing so, they held up a mirror to “progressive” values that were inextricably linked to white supremacy via eugenicist theory.

What did a Better Baby Contest look like?

Once babies got in the room the child would be stripped down to standardized clothing to create an objective landscape for the judges. There might be a psychological exam, an eye exam, whole-body measurements. There might be a dentist or a 400 point exam that measured the texture and sheen of their hair to the strength of their teeth to a deep examination of the quality of their fingernails. There were scales and paperwork for all of this.

So not dissimilar to a modern pediatrics visit?

This set the groundwork for pediatrics to develop because the state and local public health agencies encouraged parents to continue certain types of parenting behavior from feeding to sleeping to bathing. A lot of these campaigns were very successful in reducing infant mortality. They constantly counseled parents to take their baby to a doctor which was a new message. And parents because they now had this score, wanted to know how their child could get a better score the next year. The response was “Get them to a doctor and follow the advice in these pamphlets and maybe they can win.” 

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But your book suggests there’s a dark side to all this. 

When pediatrics emerged in the 1930s those doctors would have grown up in a world very friendly to eugenics principles. Eugenics came out of the study of genetic parentage. It is the science of improving the human condition by encouraging some behaviors and discouraging others. The reason it fit so well in the progressive era is that progressive activists had a goal of improving society through social control. They didn’t want child labor or kids dying before 5, but they also thought you could reproduce in such a way that there could be no blindness. They didn’t want people breathing in coal dust all day but they did feel like poor people might be poor because they had some moral failings. When you believe those things at the same time, it’s a perfect opening for eugenics.  So the conversation that was changing was, let’s step in and give a chance to improve and by doing that we’ll improve the entire race. 

And pediatricians bought into this?

Pediatricians in the 1930s were culturally primed to accept these ideas. These are people who were trained by those who put together better baby material and saw the measurement of children as a way to produce the healthiest children by marking what we were going towards and outlining normal around that goal. 

The Better Baby Contest itself was very ableist, very racist, very classist. At state fairs in places like Indiana they actually built buildings that would be used yearly for these Better Baby Contests. The day of the contest which might last up to two days, there would be a bunch of nurses and local doctors who worked for the state public health system or volunteer private practitioners. Parents would line up with children and read materials in a eugenics exhibit while they waited, reading about how parents could eradicate “idiocy”, blindness, disability, through a good marriage. It was considered scientific at the time. 

How does that legacy affect modern childcare and pediatrics, exactly?

You know when you go to a doctor’s appointment or a well-child visit and there’s a checklist of stuff? Some of that seems odd. Like asking if a baby can hold a pencil and drawing a straight line. Well, that a better babies contest activity. Some of these have stayed. Some of these have changed. Some are now research-backed. What’s fallen off though are questions like, “What is your grandparent’s race.”   

But a lot of this sounds like milestones. There’s still a checklist asking about what babies can do at certain ages. 

Milestones grew out of better baby contests. The creator of milestones was Arnold Gesell. He actually said in his own writing that this material would cause parents anxiety and we needed to be careful with how we used it. Apparently, nobody listened.

Milestones are so pervasive though.

Well, the thing that is so provocative and dangerous is that in a society where people live a long way from family and record their children’s early lives on social media, the only way you can show that your excelling as a parent is if you’re reaching milestones early. But that actually means nothing. The real impact of eugenics was the shift between what is desired and what is normal and what is desired became what is normal and that changed the expectations we had for our children. 

This isn’t to shame parents who are trying, though. I think that’s important. And it would be counter to the point of your book. 

What we tell parents a lot is that the way science works, we will come to new conclusions all the time. But that doesn’t mean that what you were doing previously was wrong. You do the best you can at the moment you’re in. And what works for you might not work for others, and that’s okay. There’s a lot of things under the heading of “What feels right for me and my kid” that are healthy.