25th August 2022 It has been many decades since I was a new mum – way back in 1976! But I was thinking the other day, how things have changed in recent times as to the ‘received wisdom’ regarding pregnancy and childrearing nowadays compared to generation after generation for hundreds of years.
Looking back to medieval times, the bearing of children was one of the very few things that only women dealt with. Whilst doctors were all male, midwives were the authority on the whole business, and men were rarely involved. And of course, your station in life was very much an element of how the business progressed. To this day, we still call pregnancy ‘confinement’ and this refers to the period back in the day, probably around a month before the expected due date, when women of the upper ranks would prepare for the child to arrive. This meant a woman would be confined to her chambers, with only her women for help and support. All windows were sealed shut and shuttered or curtained because light and air were thought to bring ‘bad humours’; regardless of the season, a brazier would be burning to ward off any evil spirits. The excruciating pain of labour was to be endured without complaint as it was considered the deserved punishment from God towards all women for the original sin of Eve leading Adam astray. When the time came, the new mother and her attendants would pray to the saints (particularly the Virgin Mary) for help, and a birthing stool used, or she could cling to ropes tied around the posts of the bed to help with the pushing. More women died from childbirth than any other cause, and the mortality rate of children was unbelievable. Following the birth, the child was cleaned up and ‘swaddled’ – that is, it would be wrapped tightly in a cloth and strapped to a board, which was believed kept the arms and legs straight. Contemporary art shows the babies almost wrapped up like Egyptian mummies. The mother would remain confined to her chambers for several weeks until she was ‘churched’ and accepted back into the wider community, since during childbirth women were considered impure, unclean and contaminated, the same as during menstruation.
Providing both mother and child survived the birthing procedure, 17th century advice was to let the child sleep and ‘provoke it to sleep by rocking in the cradle and singing lullabies to it.’ It was also recommended to cuddle and feed on demand, although not too much at a time and alternating breasts. As for crying – a little was fine to help the brain and lungs, but not too much as this might be dangerous by ‘overstraining’. Which comes as something of a surprise since by the Victorian age and onwards there was a complete reversal of thinking about baby- and childcare.
By this time, parenting had become all about routine and discipline. ‘Children should be seen and not heard’ and ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ were bywords regarding how children should be brought up. The advice of the day was that babies should be fed by the clock, as irregular feeding was sure to be followed by evil consequences. Even potty training began at birth, with babies being dangled over chamber pots before and after every feed. Even worse, sometimes a piece of soap was inserted inside their bottoms as a stimulus! Which seems completely barbaric in this day and age, and a parent following the same routine today would surely find themselves the subject of child abuse charges!
Mothers were told that children should not rule you, and should not be given into. One of the major proponents of this way of thinking was Dr Frederick Truby King, who believed that a scientific approach was needed. This began just a few hours after the birth, when the baby should be breast fed every three to four hours, beginning at six am but never through the night. The child should be cuddled for only 10 minutes per day, and not held by the parents at any other time. Fresh air was compulsory, no matter what the season or the weather, and crying should be ignored. Bed time meant placing the child in its cot, windows open, lights out, door shut and no dummy. Timetables should be adhered to across the board in the nursery, for sleep, feeding, toilet training and bathing.
This kind of regime continued into the first half of the 20th century, and far beyond. I well remember during my own childhood that we were taught to be quiet, and well mannered when visiting or being visited by adult friends and relations, and never to interrupt adult conversations. Children were secondary to adults and were expected to fit in with older generations plans, rather than given choices in all aspects of life as they are today.
Hence, we had the advantage in that we were left pretty much to our own devices when it came to play and free time, which gave us the freedom and self-sufficiency denied to today’s youngsters. I’m sure every one of my generation remembers those far off days during the long summer holidays when we went out to play all day, and as long as we were home for tea-time no one bothered where we were or what we were up to.
But I believe the strictness of our childhoods made us much more determined to be easier on our own children, easing up on the timetables and the discipline and much more flexible in our routines. And we were backed up by Dr Spock, who suggested that cuddles and kindness were more beneficial to our children than the rigidity of Truby King.
Even so, when they hear of some of the things we did during our babies’ early lives, today’s mothers recoil in horror. Thing such as:
Dip the dummy in honey or brandy – or even just giving a dummy!
Put them to sleep on their front
Rub whisky on their gums to help with teething
Giving a bottle of water under 6 months old
Leaving him in the pram outside the shop
Not having a car seat or strapping children into the car
A bit of cake or a biscuit when they start on solids
Gripe water, used to relieve wind and colic – but it contained alcohol!
Smacking when naughty
That last item is one that causes all sorts of arguments between today’s parents. I recently read an article that said, amongst other things on the subject of smacking: “I believe we should treat kids with respect. I think they should be listened to, their opinions heard, their feelings validated and space given to hear them out when they feel aggrieved – exactly as we do with other adults. This isn’t the Victorian era; we don’t live in a world where children should be “seen and not heard”; in some misguided attempt to reduce their rights and treat them as “less than”. We should be treating kids as we expect to be treated. They’re human beings – just slightly smaller ones.” The article carried on to say the writer viewed smacking akin to cruelty to animals. She has a point, I suppose, but like with young animals, there needs to be a hierarchy, with the adult in charge of the young, and not allowing them to run wild and cause themselves and others any harm.
In my own, humble, opinion, I don’t agree that smacking should be completely out of the question. It might be the case with maybe junior aged children, when they can understand what is being said and use some measure of judgement in their behaviour, but how do you reason with a toddler? How do you explain to a toddler, mid tantrum, that whatever it is they’re creating about is not good for them or is not acceptable behaviour? They don’t understand reasoning, and don’t have the judgement to see the larger picture. Now, I’m not advocating that we beat up our toddlers, not by any stretch of the imagination, but sometimes, though it should never be done in anger, a slight tap on the hand or leg is the only thing that will shock them into regaining control of their temper. Not enough to hurt, or leave a mark, but done so rarely as to give surprise and only as the very last resort. There is a world of difference between a light smack and beating a child senseless, which of course should never, ever happen.
I cannot ever remember a single instance of being hit by my parents. My Dad never ever laid a finger on any of us, although he did once chase my older brother round the kitchen table and up the stairs when Dad walked in and found my brother shouting and cursing at my mother. I don’t know what happened after that, or even if he caught him, but I’m sure I’d have heard about it if Robert had been walloped. But I think I must, at some point, have been slapped by my Mum, because I know the threat of it happening again was quite enough for me to stop whatever naughtiness I might have been up to. We’ve talked about it since, my brother, sister and I, and have agreed that Mum would usually contrive to give a slap to the fleshy part at the top of the thigh when her hand was wet which made her hands feel like old leather and made it sting much, much more. But this might just be family folklore; a legend we have imagined because, as previously said, a) I don’t ever remember it happening, and b) since she never did the dishes or the laundry (because I did all that!) why would she have wet hands?
In the last generations, child and baby-care seems to have done a complete about-face. Children are now the most important people in the family and the whole universe seems to revolve around keeping them happy, to the detriment of all else. They are wrapped in cotton wool, and it seems they must never be disappointed for fear of damaging their mental health. There are the cranks who insist that it is abuse to change a baby’s nappy because the baby has not given its permission to do so. WTAF? When discussing holiday destinations, there have to be enough ‘attractions’ to keep the children occupied and happy. Parents beggar themselves into penury to ensure their offspring have the very latest in everything, be it fashion, holidays, toys, footwear or technology. Parents must make themselves available to ferry their children to and from every activity including school, extra-curricular lessons and clubs, and playdates. It must be exhausting for the parents, and how on earth do the children learn any self-sufficiency? How can they learn to cope with the things that life will throw at them, if they never get chance to do anything for themselves, or learn how to deal with the knowledge that they are not, in fact, the centre of the very universe? I don’t understand situations where children make decisions that affect the whole family. For example, a recent ad on TV showed a father whose child had said they no longer wanted to eat meat. The next scene showed said Dad cooking vegetarian for everyone. Maybe I took umbrage at this because I am omnivorous and fail to see why I should give up eating meat when I choose to. It used to really annoy me when my late beloved’s son used to come for dinner and Glyn would spend hours cooking a vegetarian menu so that his son would not be offended with the meal. I have nothing against vegetarians, I just don’t want to be one. I wouldn’t expect a vegetarian to eat meat just because I do, so why should the reverse be true? Whenever I have had vegetarian guests, I’ve simply cooked a vegetarian alternative for them, but not for the whole company! So, my action would be, if I was the parent in the advert, to of course respect the child’s wish not to eat meat, but provide an alternative – for the child!
God knows my childhood was far from perfect, and yes, I’m still dealing with the mental scars left from my experiences growing up, but today’s children are going to find things much more difficult when they leave the cocoon of their parents’ attention during every minute of their waking lives and find themselves faced with a world that doesn’t care, where it’s dog-eat-dog and fortune favours the brave. How do they protect themselves when they find out that, actually, they might not be everything they want to be, like they’ve been brainwashed into believing? I’m not saying they should be discouraged in their ambitions, but dear God, when you tell them that they can be anything they want to be, at least add the caveat: ‘if you’re prepared to fight tooth and nail to do it’. Not everyone can be an astronaut or POTUS – someone has to sweep the streets and work in a call centre. The best advice you can give your child is to do their very best to make their dreams come true, but to also take pride in anything and everything they do because they are worth every bit as much as the astronaut or the president. As Aunt Eller says in ‘Oklahoma’: “I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else, but I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good!”
I don’t think children benefit from an environment where they are given a free hand in everything. Children, like small animals, need boundaries – set by the parents to help the child become a sane, useful member of society. And of course, it’s in the child’s nature to push those boundaries, to see how far they can go, but it does them no good at all if they can just do exactly as they please without repercussions or consequences. They need to be taught that it’s not acceptable to throw tantrums in public, or run wild in restaurants, or be rude to people. They need to be taught to be kind and thoughtful, to share with others, to help people who need help, and not to bully or ridicule those less fortunate. Instead, we seem to be breeding a generation of narcissists and opportunists; who think they’re ‘entitled’ to have everything handed to them on a plate without having to reciprocate or earn the rewards.
If we could find a middle ground between the strict discipline and harshness and the over-cosseting and spoiling of our children, how much better the world would be for future generations.
All of this, of course and as usual, is simply my opinion, right or wrong. I’d love to hear your views whether or not you agree. Simply comment in the box provided or send email to the usual address.
Until next time,