'Don't Think of Ugly People': How Parenting Advice Has Changed

The curious history told in 19th and early 20th century mothering advice books is a mix of unreasonable demands and unfounded claims. At the same time, though, one can see how it made sense.
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I recently visited my friend Julia, mostly to nuzzle the head of her newborn, Eloise. As Julia and I talked, I shifted Eloise to lie on my stomach, facing the large television that dominates Julia's living room.

Suddenly Julia's relaxed body snapped alert. "Oh! No, turn her around. She's not allowed to watch TV until she's two." She seemed prepared to jump up and shield her daughter from the television. I turned Eloise's warm little body around, kissing her cheek as I did it, "Uh-oh, Sweetie," I told her. "You have those kind of parents."

What Eloise has, like most babies, are good parents. Good parents, especially first time parents, seek advice. Julia and her husband are following the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that screen time for babies is unhealthy. They have a fat stack of parenting guides sitting in their daughter's carefully assembled nursery, full of similar information that can help them care for a person who has very specific needs which she can't communicate.

"Turn it occasionally from side to side, feed it, change it, keep it warm, and let it alone."

The market is pretty much choking on baby care books today. The a phenomenon seemed to launch in the 1950s with Dr. Benjamin Spock's Baby and Child Care. While his child-rearing advice reached the largest audience in history, he was by no means the first to put rules for infant care in authoritative print. The business of instructing mothers on how to do their job really bloomed in the 19th century.

If you're a fan of peculiar history, you won't do better than 19th and early 20th century mothering advice books. They are conglomerations of pseudoscience, unreasonable demands, and authoritative statements without foundation.

At least they seem so now.

In 1878, in The Physical Life of Woman, Dr. George H Napheys cites a published study by child care expert Dr. Henry Kennedy. The study presented evidence that, if you truly wanted your child to maintain health, the baby's sleeping position most always be with the head pointing due north. "There are known to be great electrical currents always coursing in one direction around the globe. In the opinion of Dr. Kennedy there is no doubt that our nervous systems are in some mysterious way connected with this universal agent, as it may be called, electricity."

feedingbaby.jpgArticles needed for baby's feeding [The Mother and Her Child]

Well, you can't prove they're not, can you? And what would it hurt to play it safe, just in case?

"Pregnant mothers should avoid thinking of ugly people, or those marked by any deformity or disease; avoid injury, fright and disease of any kind." This was written in the 1920s, in a book called Searchlights on Health: The Science of Eugenics, by B. G. Jefferis and J. L. Nichols. It's interesting to note that a remarkable number of parenting manuals from the era used the word "eugenics." This was before it had come to be mean, "something Hitler was really into." To them it had positive connotations, related to increasing the strength and qualities of the next generation, and less to do with stamping out the impurities of mankind for the propagation of the Master Race.

These books were written well into the scientific age, by men who claimed to possess scientifically collected knowledge. It shows how deeply bewildered and susceptible parents were as the world changed around them, and how tightly the old wives' tales still gripped people's minds. Who wanted to be the first to contradict them at the peril of their child?

Still, that sort of counsel represents the more fringe advice of the era. There might have been almost as many people rolling their eyes at it then as now. It was the advice they actually followed that is truly disturbing. So much so that you begin to wonder how anyone survived a 19th century childhood without emerging as a hardened sociopath.

From the day of birth, schedules and strict discipline were of deep importance. This baby was to interfere as little as possible with your life. Affection was to be restricted, with care instructions more fitting a ficus than a child. From 1916's The Mother and her Child by Drs. Lena and William Sadler: "Handle the baby as little as possible. Turn it occasionally from side to side, feed it, change it, keep it warm, and let it alone; crying is absolutely essential to the development of good strong lungs. A baby should cry vigorously several times each day."

As the child grew, regulated contact could be tolerated. "At the age of two weeks, the child may be systematically carried about in the arms 2 to 3 times a day, as a means of furnishing additional change in position," is the precise advice of Dr. JP Crozer Griffith in 1900.

Even bowel movements were regimented. "Children under one year of age should have two movements of the bowels in the twenty-four hours, and those from one to three years at least one stool a day," wrote Napheys. Should the baby not conform to these healthy perimeters, the same books prescribed any number of enemas, draughts, and oils to make things more shipshape.

As for "crying it out," the advice of the early manuals was unanimous. A spoiled baby will be miserable its entire life, prone to hysterics and weakness, unable to cope with the life's hard turns. And the first and worst way to spoil a baby is to hold it when it cries. Per the Sadlers:

We run into many snags when we undertake to discipline the nervous baby. The first is that it will sometimes cry so hard that it will get black in the face and may even have a convulsion; occasionally a small blood vessel may be ruptured on some part of the body, usually the face. When you see the little one approaching this point, turn it over and administer a sound spanking and it will instantly catch its breath.

There comes a time in every parent's journey, when, after doing everything they can, they simply must close the door on a secured but screaming baby and walk away. Few make a habit of it, and fewer still would see their newborn's face turning black and convulsing with ruptured blood vessels as a "snag" worthy of a spanking.

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Therese Oneill is a writer based in Oregon. Her work has appeared on Mental Floss and in The Salem Weekly.

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