Parenting is hard. Writing well about parenting is even harder. Americans have transformed what was once a natural function, guided by age-old conventions and instincts, into an elaborate, minutely analyzed project beset by conflicting recommendations and expectations. A steady stream of works on childrearing, family life, and parent-child relations pours from our presses—tomes of ethnography, psychology, and sociology with scholarly pretensions, memoirs fond and gruesome, and volumes filled with advice from the homely to the expert. We can’t seem to get enough. Yet what do all these tracts amount to? As a parent myself, an aficionado of such works, and with an academic interest in how children become contributing citizens, my answer is: not much, and little of use to the average American parent.

This doesn’t stop bookstores from being well-stocked with parenting guides. Through this welter of advice there has emerged a rough “goldilocks” consensus, at least among the educated class: don’t be too “permissive” or “authoritarian,” but embrace the happy medium of “authoritative”—that delicate balance of stability and consistency, reasonable limits and patient explanation, that keeps children centered while nurturing their “authentic selves.” The grounds for this advice are dubious and obscure, and some of society’s most successful

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