You may have had this experience: finally settling down with that book you’ve been meaning to read or the paperwork you’ve been meaning to do, only to find that you just can’t focus. If there are other demands on your attention—kids, for example—sustained concentration can seem near impossible.
This unpleasant problem feels like a modern one, and research backs that up, suggesting our digital addictions are destroying our ability to concentrate. But if it makes you feel any better, parents haven’t really had an attention span to speak of for most of the last century.
“There comes a moment in every mother’s life when she takes up a book or serious article in a magazine and finds that she cannot fix her attention upon it, that she has lost her power of concentration,” educator Jessica Cosgrave wrote in the 1929 parenting manual The Psychology of Youth: A Book for Parents. (The book is out of print but was recently spotted and highlighted by Lyndsey Jenkins, a doctoral candidate in history at Oxford University.) Cosgrave continued:
If she has once had that power to an unusual degree, she will probably find that it has only become diminished by the duties of the recent years, and by a little effort she can bring it back. If, however, her power of sustained attention was never very good, she may sigh hopelessly and feel that what little power she had is gone forever.
The founder of Finch College, a girls’ preparatory school in New York, Cosgrave prepared young women for lives of near-constant industriousness at home and in work. She believed women’s lives should unfold according to a strict and unvarying schedule: education until the age of 22, work until 26, stay home raising at least four children (any fewer would allow too much idle time) until about 40, before resuming work or politics until the age of 70. (At this point, presumably, a good Cosgrave Woman would be permitted to survey her achievements with satisfaction and die.)
Such a prescriptive view would probably be unpopular today, but Cosgrave was also an early advocate for a recognizably modern form of parenting: one that harnessed new developments in psychology and behavioral science for the benefit of children and the people rearing them.
The concentration deficit plaguing parents today is nothing new. Neither are arguments about technology. “The telephone, automobile, and moving pictures have made a totally new environment for our growing children, and have caused a real chasm between the generations,” she wrote, several decades before the Snap IPO.