"Psychological Care of Infant and Child"

A Reflection of its Author and his Times

by Suzanne Houk

Paper written for Psych 683, Prof. Packer

reproduced here with the author's permission

March 15, 2000


A happy child is one "who never cries unless actually struck by a pin, - who loses himself in work and play- who quickly learns to overcome the small difficulties in his environment without running to mother, father, nurse or other adult - who soon builds up a wealth of habits that tides him over dark and rainy days - who puts on such habits of politeness and neatness and cleanliness that adults are willing to be around him at least part of the day; (he is) a child who is willing to be around adults without fighting incessantly for notice -who eats what is placed before him and 'asks no questions for conscience sake' - who sleeps and rests when put to bed for sleep and rest" (Watson, 1928, p. 9-10). This introductory exhortation in John Broadus Watson's book, Psychological Care of Infant and Child alludes to his view of man as a machine, a physical substance that should perform as expected. His stance, as portrayed in this best-selling book on childcare, mirrors not only the author's viewpoint, but the times in which he wrote.

Implicit in his definition of a happy child is a stark simplicity and streamlining of the human experience. To him, happiness consisted of being self-reliant, productive, and devoid of emotion. In discussing parental affection, he warns "to the extent to which you devote time to petting and coddling- and I have seen almost all of a child's waking hours devoted to it- just to that extent do you rob the child of the time which he should be devoting to the manipulation of his universe, acquiring a technique with fingers, hands, and arms" (Ibid, p. 79-80). For Watson, mastery over the environment was the hallmark of the human experience. Perhaps influenced by our capitalist society, he stressed the importance of encouraging children to be productive from an early age. In his theories, the seedling of our current achievement-oriented culture was planted.

Watson was fully enamoured with science and its promises to explain, predict and ultimately control human behavior. This book was an attempt at such control. His notion of science as the pinnacle of truth led him to extremist conclusions as times. He writes "it is a serious question in my mind whether there should be individual homes for children -- or even whether children should know their own parents. There are undoubtedly much more scientific ways of bringing up children which will probably mean finer and happier children" (Watson, 1928, p. 5-6). His faith resided solely in the promise of scientific discovery. Despite the views, his ideas found favor with his contemporaries.

O'Donnell (1985) states in The Origins of Behaviorism that "Watson's radical formulations ... involve assumptions of materialistic monism and positivistic insistence of viewing man as a stimulus-response machine and consciousness as epiphenomenon" (p. x). By controlling inputs, outputs of behavior can equally be manipulated. His premise was calculably simple for the complex and changing times in which he wrote. That simplicity was part of the appeal. O'Donnell goes on to write that in the 1920's "Edwin G. Boring (the author of the History of Experimental Psychology) declared it seemed as if all America had gone behaviorist" (p. 207). In a published debate between William MacDougall and Watson (1929), MacDougall acknowledges that Watson was considered "a prophet of much honor in his own country" (p. 87). His scientific contributions were heralded in a 1925 New York Times article. It portrayed Watson as a groundbreaking scientist in the field of child psychology. The reporter claimed that Watson had "performed work never before attempted in his science. His conclusions threatened to upset some of the accepted principles upon which the standard psychology of the day is built" (Kalonyme, 1979, p. 94). Considered by many to be a great popularizer, Watson's notions of child rearing gained widespread acceptance.

The 20th century was known as the Century of the Child. It was a phrase popularized in the early 1900's by Ellen Key, a writer on child rearing. During this time, children were starting to be viewed as qualitatively different than adults. Their unique qualities demanded special consideration. Watson saw a need for attention to turn to the study of childhood. He wrote, "no one today knows enough to raise a child… Radium has had more scientific study put upon it in the last fifteen years than has been given to the first three years of infancy since the beginning of time" (Watson, 1928, p. 12-13).

Prior to the 1900's, authors on parenting were usually religious leaders or mothers writing from personal experience. However, in the late 1800's a shift was taking place. The rise of technology and the gradual reliance on science led to a turning away from spiritual leaders for answers. Science, rather than Biblical wisdom, was attended to for answering one's questions and solving one's dilemmas. Writers on the care of children were no exception; they increasingly came from the scientific community. The first such author was a hybrid from both traditions. Puritan pediatrician L. Emmett Holt wrote the Care and Feeding of Children. In it, he advocated strict time schedules for feeding and toilet training, as well as limiting affection. "A really contrary infant, he warned, might try for an hour, or even for two or three hours, to get the best of his mother by crying. She must never give in, provided she is convinced that nothing is physically amiss with the child. Habitual criers should be left alone most of the time; otherwise they might become 'nervous.' Babies under six months old should never be played with, and of kissing the less the better" (Cable, 1975, p. 166-167). As his book reveals, Watson was influenced by this popular book that went through dozens of editions between the years 1894 and 1934.

Another example of the shift from reliance on God to reliance on science was the composition of mothers groups. Pre- Civil War mothers clubs were led by clergy. The child-study groups that cropped up in the late 1800's to early 1900's were led by mothers who invited experts such as Dr. Holt to speak (Cable, 1975 p. 165). In this, there is a sense that the conception of motherhood was evolving from a spiritual calling to a profession. Watson called for such change. He wrote, "where the mother herself must be the nurse - which is the case in the vast majority of American homes - she must look upon herself while performing the functions of a nurse as a professional woman and not as a sentimentalist masquerading under the name of 'Mother' "(Watson, 1928, p. 149).

The role of women in society was also changing. The women's suffrage movement, coupled with the influx of women into the workplace as part of the war effort, led to the feminist movement. However, this held a somewhat different meaning than it does today. As Herbert Costner wrote in The Changing Folkways of Parenthood, a feminist conception of womanhood meant "rational, efficient, 'scientific', the equal of males" (p.363). He also wrote, "the adoption of 'manly' occupations (by women) and the application of the 'manly' ways to the feminine sphere of activities, e.g., 'rational-scientific' methods in the care of the home, in the preparation of food and in the care and training of children, became 'self-respect' symbols to women whose self-image no longer included a conception of themselves as irrational and flighty, and, in general, inferior to men" (p. 362). This also contributed to mothers seeking the advice of experts so that they could deal with their children in rational - scientific - ways. Watson appealed to this growing desire in women to emulate the putatively rational male. At this point, the 'different voice' was not yet heard.

In discussing different types of mothers he states that the best is "the modern mother who is beginning to find that the rearing of children is the most difficult of all professions, more difficult than engineering, than law, or even than medicine itself. But along with this conviction comes the search for facts which will help them" (Watson, 1928, p. 12). In Watson's opinion there was no room for intuition or affection. "Treat them as though they were young adults. Dress them, bathe them with care and circumspection. Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job on a difficult task. Try it out. In a week's time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be utterly ashamed of the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it" (Ibid, p. 81-82). He advocated a cool businesslike relationship between mother and child. He was attempting to transform the very bond and human connectedness upon which family and all social relationships rest. This is man as machine in the scientific era. Who we truly are, essentially social beings, as Aristotle claimed was being undermined. Women feeling the need to be equal to men, were denying their human desire to nurture by accepting these claims.

The attainment of women's suffrage in 1920 led to a dissipation in organized feminist activity. "With normalcy as its watchword, American society began a retreat from progressive politics in the 1920's, and the idea that the woman's place was in the home prevailed in conventional wisdom. But the home itself had radically changed" (Buckley, 1989, p.164). With technology, the marketplace and the home were joined. Machines were now able to do many of the household chores that once required great amounts of time and energy. This provided women with greater freedom. In an article Buckley cited entitled "The Behaviorist's Utopia," Watson wrote "Wives haven't enough to do today. Scientific mass production has made their tasks so easy that they are overburdened with time. They utilize this time in destroying the happiness of their children" (Ibid. p.162). He maintained that too much affection and not enough time spent in hard work spoiled the youth of his time. He believed that this period prolonged infancy and dependency. In his opinion, children should be treated as little adults as soon as possible. They should be self-reliant "factors in production" (Ibid. p. 161).

This technological age also saw a change in parental values. As Costner notes, parents always seem to want what is best for their children. However, "what is best gets redefined. The prominence and importance attributed to values by participants in a changing society rise and fall" (p. 4). He continues by stating that in the early part of the 20th century, "American middle-class parents have become less concerned about inculcating 'moral character' as they go about the business of training their children, and have simultaneously become more concerned about equipping their children with a set of social skills and a capacity for 'adjustment' "(p. 4). This transition echoes the move from a faith in God to a faith in science. In a Christian worldview, following the dictates of the Bible was central. A person was judged by his moral integrity. The scientific epoch, embedded in a capitalistic society, shifted that focus onto productivity and accomplishment. As such, the focus with society's young is on making them high achieving, fit producers. Central to this mindset is the ability to cope, adjust, and to get along well with others. Childhood mistreatment, Watson claimed, was the cause of adults falling out of their expected productive roles in society. Specifically, he described long term negative effects from too much coddling in infancy as resulting in adult invalidism. Adults who complained of aches and pains undoubtedly had too much 'mother love'. He was convinced that this interfered with productive society. For him, this was a major reason for mothers to be aloof with their young. This type of motherly demeanor allowed the children to become absorbed in activity. These productive habits of engagement would carry over into adulthood (Watson, 1928, p. 76-77). Watson also tried to take morality out of child rearing practices. He and his second wife, Rosalie Rayner, never used the words "good" or "bad" when training their two sons. Several nurses were discharged for this very misdeed.

With a changing moral compass, the sexual revolution was also at a seedling stage. In the years between 1910 and 1920, Cable writes, "hem lengths rose and makers of cigarettes and cosmetics experienced a boom" (p. 174). In 1910, author Katherine Busbey described a co-ed beach scene in Homes of America. This cavorting caused a girl to lose her "exquisite sex-reserve…the very kernel of her womanhood. When a young girl can dance and bathe and loll with only an apology for skirts with a possible or positive suitor with as little sensibility as if he were another girl, she is flouting the fundamental reason for her existence" (Cable, 1975, p. 174). This citation reveals one author's view on women that had not yet been influenced by the budding feminism of the time. It however does describe the open display of sexuality pursued by the youth of the day. Watson was in favor of this expressiveness. From an early age, he and his wife often talked with their boys about sex. Watson believed that sexual expression was a skill and a performance of great import. He felt that boys should have 'hired women' to practice with in their early teens so that they might be experts in technique by the age of marriage. In opening up the subject of sex, he advocates that "it is very easy, if you start early, to form a 'talk it out club' with your children" (Watson, 1928, p. 163). He believed that this should not wait until the child asks questions. The parents should take the lead and begin introducing the topic. As part of Rosalie's contribution to the book, she discusses the notes she kept on this subject. They detail interactions with their eldest son. He was four when he came home from a visit with a friend whose mother said the stork had brought them a new baby. The following is their resultant conversation. "I (Rosalie) said, 'Well you know better than that, don't you?" He laughed and said, 'Well she said so.' So I said, 'Well now you tell me the truth,' and he said, 'Did it come from her stomach?' with some uncertainty of conviction. So again I told him that it did and asked him if he didn't remember how large my stomach was when Bobby was born. He said 'yes' but I think it was vague" (Ibid, p. 170).

This example pursues realism at the cost of the fantastic and imaginative realm of childhood. The mechanical scientific truths are the only reality and our 'micro machines' must be inculcated at every turn. One caution against these clubs is leveled by Watson. He warns that the children may become attached to their parents. "The only danger there is, is the danger of too strong fixation by the child upon the father or mother" (Watson, 1928, p. 163).

Watson was a man of his times and in those times was a man who was also 'slanted' by his upbringing and experiences. He grew up in the poor south on a small farm in Greenville, South Carolina. His mother, Emma, was a devout Baptist and his father was a carpenter who taught Watson the trade as a young boy. When John was 13, Pickens Watson abandoned his family. The behaviorist's father was a heavy drinker who kept several Indian mistresses. It was believed that he went to stay with one of them nearby. Pickens was described as "having a wild streak in him - a streak that was often to be found in his son" (Cohen, 1979, p. 9). In his biography of Watson, Cohen goes on to write, "Pickens not only gave his son a sense of defiance, he also betrayed him. Watson would be fearful of too much intimate contact. He was close to his father who left him and he was close to his mother who tended to overwhelm him with too much love. It became difficult for the young Watson really to give himself totally to anyone" (Ibid, p. 22).

These early experiences appear to influence the ideas depicted in Psychological Care of Infant and Child. Two examples of his early experiences that resonate in his book are his directives on potty training and fear. Cohen writes that "When Watson wrote about children he was fierce and rigid in arguing that children had to be (toilet) trained from when they were six months old: it is hard to believe such passion did not stem from his own experiences. His own children were set on the pot from when they were four months old. It would fit well with the whole atmosphere of Emma's house for her to insist on cleanliness. It was crucial to be clean. Dirt was the mark of the devil" (Ibid, p. 7). In the quest for self sufficiency of the young, Watson stressed toilet habits as soon as possible. The infant and chamber pot were paired early on. In regard to fears, Watson recalled that as a child his nurse told him "the devil lurked in the dark and that if ever Watson went a-walking during the night, the Evil One might well snatch him out of the gloom and off to Hell…To be terrified of the Devil was only right and prudent" (Cohen, 1979, p. 7). As a fundamentalist Baptist, his mother also shared this view of Satan's constant prodding. Throughout his life, Watson feared the dark. His life-long phobia motivated his research interest on infant fear responses. These citations enlighten the stances taken in the book.

After a rebellious adolescence, he managed to get accepted to Furman University nearby his hometown. He earned a Master's degree there, then went to study at the University of Chicago. Upon graduation, he secured a post at Johns Hopkins University. He was married and had two children when he met and fell in love with his student, Rosalie Raynor. Even in love, he was a scientist. "…I know every cell I have is yours individually and collectively" (Ibid, p. 151). This passage was from a love letter Watson wrote to her. The affair was soon discovered, which forced his resignation from Johns Hopkins. He soon divorced and was remarried to Rosalie on New Year's Eve in 1920. He forged a new profession in advertising. There he applied his behavioristic principles with great success. He was a wealthy man, but he longed for the field that had rejected him.

It was during this time that he pursued the study of infants and his best selling Psychological Care of Infant and Child was published. His book drew great attention and controversy in both professional and public realms. Cable writes on one hand, "many parents and child-care professionals greeted these ideas with enthusiasm. It sounded so easy and rational" (p. 177). Bertrand Russell was quoted as saying that "no one since Aristotle had actually made as substantial a contribution to our knowledge of ourselves as Watson had" (Cohen, p. 218). However, other academics "complained that Watson had demeaned himself, which was only to be expected, and demeaned their science, which was only to be deplored" (Ibid. p. 218). Many magazines featured excerpts and reviews of the book. Watson was known as a great popularizer who utilized his Madison Avenue know-how to stir public interest. His sons were promoted as the behaviorist's plan in action. They served as proof that his principles were effective.

Perhaps it was his rebellious nature or the time of change and flux in the culture that led to such a diverse reaction to his work. Nonetheless, it is evident that his prescriptions for aloof, systematic parenting were not ignored. And in the end, it is clear that this work indeed reflected the man and his day.


Buckley, K.W. (1989). Mechanical Man: John Broadus Watson and the Beginnings of Behaviorism. New York: The Guilford Press.

Cable, M. (1975). The Little Darlings: A History of Child Rearing in America. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

Cohen, D. (1979). J. B. Watson: The Founder of Behaviorism. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Costner, H. L. (1980). The Changing Folkways of Parenthood: A Content Analysis. New York: Arno Press.

Kalonyme, L. ( 1979) Man at birth has no fear, tests reveal. In G. Brown (Ed), The Great Contemporary Issues: The Family. (pp. 94-97) New York: Arno Press.

O'Donnell, J. M. (1985). The Origins of Behaviorism. New York: New York University Press.

Watson, J. B. (1928). Psychological Care of Infant and Child. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Watson, J.B. &MacDougall, W. (1929). The Battle of Behaviorism; an Exposition and an Exposure. New York: W.W. Norton &Co.