What’s a 4-year-old supposed to be like? In pandemic times, when I—the first-time parent of such a beast—have less of a chance to observe other 4-year-olds for comparison than I otherwise might, the books of 20th-century psychologist Louise Bates Ames have proved their value again and again. “For the most part,” she wrote back in 1989 in Your Four-Year-Old: Wild and Wonderful, “we have found the boy and girl of this age to be joyous, exuberant, energetic, ridiculous, untrammeled—ready for anything.” “Untrammeled,” I repeat to myself, regarding my own child as she runs naked into the snow wearing only her rain boots to hug me as I return at the end of the day. “Ridiculous,” I remember, trying to weather her endless imperious demands. This is the value of Ames’ books: They help you to feel like you’re not living in the upside-down. Or, if you are, you’re not the only one.
Ames’ series, each book describing one year of a child’s life—Your One-Year-Old: The Fun-Loving, Fussy, 12- to 24-Month-Old; Your Two-Year-Old: Terrible or Tender; Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy, and so on—first came out in the 1980s. Some of the books are written with Ames’ collaborators, pediatrician Frances L. Ilg and psychologist Carol Chase Haber. The books are focused on providing parents information about something the authors would call, with a very 20th-century sense of assuredness about their field’s power to categorize, the “normal” child. Chapters cover each age’s general characteristics, subtopics like social abilities and cognitive milestones, and parenting “techniques” specifically helpful to the age. The idea behind the books is that parenting, which is partly an intuitive practice (how many people have told me to “listen to my heart” over the past four years?), can become a lot easier when you’re armed with some knowledge about how things usually go.
The “years” books’ formula, and the message behind it, has remarkable staying power. Although Ames wrote other books in the midcentury period, for whatever reason, the “years books” are the ones that I see recommended over and over in parenting Facebook groups, usually with a description that goes something like this: “old-fashioned, but so helpful.” When Keith Gessen wrote in 2019 in the New Yorker about reading parenting advice to try to help his relationship with his son Raffi, he reported that it was Your Three-Year-Old: Friend or Enemy that “finally helped me (and Raffi) survive this year of our lives.” Reading an Ames book, you get the idea that she has the parent’s happiness in mind, as much as the child’s—an attitude that cuts against the intensive parenting norms of 21st century America that seem to demand parental sacrifice at all costs.
Louise Bates Ames got her Ph.D. in experimental psychology at Yale during the Depression, writing a dissertation on creeping and crawling behavior in infants. Ames worked at the Yale Clinic of Child Development, was research assistant to psychologist Arnold Gesell, then founded the Gesell Institute of Child Development. She wrote newspaper columns and many books on child development, and hosted TV shows on the topic. She was a high achiever in the field and made a point of helping other women along. Ames died in 1996.
Even while loving Ames’ books and finding their descriptions of my child to be so incredibly apt, I keep wondering whether it can really be true that children are children, whether the year be 1985 or 2021. Surely our understanding of childhood has changed in the intervening years? I ran some of the advice that makes people call Ames “old-fashioned” past a few present-day developmental psychologists to see what they would say. Tovah Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of How Toddlers Thrive, and psychologist and parenting coach Rebecca Schrag Hershberg, both of whom had generally positive assessments of the Ames books, agreed to play along.
Among the bits of Ames’ books on 3- and 4-year-olds that seemed the most unfamiliar to me were the parts where she advocated for more time apart as a way to help both parents and kids. (The pandemic parent of a 3½-year-old may be forgiven for huffing a big “Oh, great” upon encountering this passage.) Three-and-a-half-year-olds, Ames wrote, should probably be with a nonmaternal caregiver quite a bit to break up the power struggles between mother and child. “It can be rather frustrating to an experienced and normally effective mother to see a young baby-sitter or day care worker doing better with her child than she,” Ames writes. “But the fact seems to be that Three-and-a-half is amazingly sensitive to the reactions of others.”
Klein generally approved of this bit of advice, contrasting it with present-day conventional wisdom around maternal presence that tells us there’s never too much togetherness. “The message still is, the more you’re with the children the better, and that’s not what the data shows,” Klein said. “It’s true for infants, with maternity leaves, but when they’re older, it’s the quality of time you spend. The child cannot be the full focus of a mother’s life, the sole focus of your identity, because when a child’s having a normal but challenging period, you feel terrible. You don’t want that yourself and you certainly don’t want that for a child.”
Some parts of Ames’ books can feel exceedingly suburban, like the passage where Ames recommends that a 4½-year-old could be “trusted to play outdoors without much supervision or checking” and do little “errands” in the neighborhood by herself. “The recommendation assumes a certain setup, like there’s a yard where you can look out into it,” Herschberg pointed out. “And neighborhood safety, and just a certain level of socioeconomic privilege.”
There’s a lot of what a sophisticated analyst might call “weird gender stuff” in these books. There are scattered assumptions that girls are shy and boys exuberant, but also some presumptions about mothers and fathers that no longer sit right. Ames often invokes a usually absent male disciplinarian. As a dedicated member of the “family meals are probably best, but they’re far too excruciating to force on a toddler” club, I was initially happy to read Ames agreeing with me in Your Three-Year-Old. “It has always amazed us that families put up with mealtime struggles with the preschooler at the family table when a little planning to feed him before dinner would solve the problem so easily,” Ames marvels. But then comes the reason why: “For some the family situation is too complex as they are likely to be too demanding of attention and their dawdling, poor table manners and food refusal are apt to get them into trouble, especially with Father.”
Though Ames’ perspective on physical discipline was middle-of-the-road in the ’80s, it’s no longer supported by evidence, Klein and Herschberg said. “An occasional spanking, if it works, is not immoral, though spanking should never be relied on as a chief form of punishment,” wrote Ames in Your Three-Year-Old. Herschberg laughed to hear it put this way. “I mean, first of all, the phrase immoral is hilarious,” she said. “That’s not why it’s wrong! It’s just been shown to be really ineffective and potentially damaging.” She doesn’t believe it “works,” either. “You can shock your kid into stopping a behavior, but it has no long-term efficacy, and if you want to keep shocking your kids you have to do it harder and harder, which is obviously not recommended,” she said. “And there are lasting long-term consequences of parenting in a way in which our kids are afraid of us.”
The most outdated parts of Ames’ books are probably the chapterlong discussions of the ideas of William H. Sheldon, whose 1942 book, The Varieties of Temperament, outlined the differences between children as being related to body type. This is a concept called “constitutional psychology” that can feel uncomfortably close to “biology is destiny.” Klein said that although psychologists still debate the question of temperament and its biological basis, and pointed to the work of Thomas and Chess in articulating key dimensions of typical temperaments, the idea now is that some parts of this are inborn and some are not. “You can mold temperament a bit,” she said. “It’s not destiny. It’s kind of your flavor, so to speak.”
In at least one matter, Ames seems almost like a prophet. “One thing that from now on can make a great deal of difficulty,” Ames wrote in her book on 4-year-olds,
is that most children hate it when their mother is on the telephone, especially when her conversations run on and on. They hate it; they behave badly and get into trouble and then make a fuss; and then their mother scolds and yells and punishes. It is probably hard for a mother who may feel that she has little enough fun or time to herself during the day to appreciate how shut out a child feels when his mother is gossiping on the phone.
This observed truth—translated from the “receiver under the chin, stretching the cord to stir a pot” sense familiar to ’80s children into the “staring at a rectangle, muttering ‘one minute’ ” phone distraction of the present day—has, my interviewees said, been borne out over time. “I find the research on parental phone use, and its effects on the parent-child connection, even more compelling than the research on kids’ screen time,” Hershberger said.
One thing these books offer that does transcend time is a feeling of parental solidarity—and that, alone, is valuable. “The parents’ questions tend to be about the same,” Ames said to an interviewer in 1988 who asked her whether, after decades in practice, she thought there was anything new under the parenting sun. Describing a mother whose 5½-year-old child was being a real jerk, Ames said: “Children that age are just mean to their mothers. … This poor lady thought it was her fault. People have been calling me with that problem for 40 years.” Great! Can’t wait.