Bringing Up Baby


“What a sacred office is that of the parent!” exclaimed an anonymous contributor to The Parent’s Magazine in December, 1840. By 1915, he went on, the population of the United States should reach 156,000,000, and “what an influence when [the parent] may mould the character ofthat distant day and ofthat multitudinous population! … What destiny temporal and eternal awaits it depends upon parents now upon the stage. … An individual is now something; he is known and felt, and claims his influence and importance; then individuality will almost be lost when the greatest man is only one in one hundred and fifty-six million!

Need he have distressed himself? Even in a population of more than two hundred million, the average American feels himself to be “something” and “claims his influence and importance”—perhaps rather too much so at times. Just as the Parent’s contributor predicted, those mothers and fathers who were “upon the stage” in 1840 did indeed have a far-reaching influence. Hardly anyone remembers it now and it was scarcely apparent then, but the parents of that generation were the pioneers of permissive child rearing.

In our time the name of Dr. Benjamin Spock comes to mind when permissiveness is mentioned. But in fact, in the middle and late nineteenth century, there were dozens of writers on child care who could match him and several who wildly outdid him. The latter were at the farthest swing of a pendulum that had moved from an opposite extreme, the rigidity of Puritanism.

During the early years of the Republic, American children were still being brought up according to the Bible and John Calvin. The Bible left no doubt as to how to proceed :

“Withhold not correction from the child: for if thou beatest him with the rod, he shall not die.”

”… a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame.”

“The eye that mocketh at his father, and despiseth to obey his mother, the ravens of the valley shall pick it out, and the young eagles shall eat it.”

And, best known and simplest, the no-nonsense message paraphrased from Solomon, “Spare the rod and spoil the child.”

In Calvin’s view a child was born evil. A parent’s most important duty was to break his will and thus bring him to realize what a loathsome little worm he. Parents who neglected to lead or push their children toward salvation would find themselves in a nasty situation on the Judgment Day. Child rearing, according to the Puritan tradition, was largely a religious concern.

”… they go astray as soon as they be born, speaking lies,” said the psalmist. There were parents who whipped nursing babies on the ground that the little wretches were thinking and acting lies, even though too young to enunciate them—plotting ways of getting, attention, for instance, by feigning hunger or pain. Lying was one of the worst of sins and practically guaranteed the liar an eternity spent in “the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone.” One seven-year-old who told his father a lie in order to cover up a forbidden skating expedition pined away and died of remorse—even though he confessed the lie ten minutes after telling it and was corrected with the rod.

That awe-inspiring implement, the rod, was usually either a slender switch of birch or apple or a whalebone from Mamma’s stays. It was kept in a handy and conspicuous place, such as the mantelpiece. Theoretically, it would be seldom needed if the parents did an efficient job of subduing their children, preferably at the first sign of defiance. Mothers magazine about 1833 told of a sixteenmonth-old baby girl who was able to say “dear Mamma,” but one day declined to do so on command.

“Say ‘dear Mamma,’” insisted Dear Mamma.

“Won’t,” replied the child, and the battle was joined. For four hours the mother alternately whipped her daughter and shut her in the closet. At last “dear Mamma” was forthcoming and the Devil exorcised. Whether he ever attempted a comeback in this case is not recorded, but the Reverend Orange Clark proudly described an infant boy whose will had been broken at ten months. He was taught “never even to cry in his father’s presence,” and when he grew up his chief delight was in rendering his parents happy; their wish was his law. “Life to such a child is never a burden. … A parent’s will to him is paramount, and cheerfulness and happy industry crown his days.”

But if traditional child-rearing methods were still being followed in the early nineteenth century, change was abroad in the land. The Republic was young and rambunctious. It had achieved its independence not through submission and a broken will but through self-assertion- a lesson not lost on bright children, who were urged to be patriotic and to learn their country’s history. “In every home in our land, the altar of patriotism should stand beside the altar of religion,” intoned a writer on child care. “Mothers should teach the first lesson in history, in one word—Washington.”