Bringing Up Baby


In colonial times, when most men tilled the soil at home, it had been the fathers, not the mothers, who taught and disciplined their children. But with the progress of the new industrial age, fathers were likely to be away from home for ten or more hours a day, six days a week. They necessarily delegated the reins of child management to their wives, who were often young things in their teens or early twenties—eager and determined but woefully uncertain, and suspecting that the changing times required changed methods. In 1830 a mother looking for a book on child care would have found that the few that were available gave far more attention to physical care, manners, and salvation than to everyday problems of management. But not many years later the situation was entirely changed: a mother would scarcely have found time to read all the advice available. She could learn what to do if her little boy should bite the baby (bite him back); whether to tell a child to believe in ghosts (yes, because there are supernatural beings in the Bible and children must believe the Bible); how to handle questions about sex (use unintelligible terms). For good measure a mother might join a mothers’ club, usually supervised by a clergyman but not limited to religious discussions.


The young American mother threw herself into her new role as energenitically as her husband threw himself into his business. Her most important job was to produce sons who would become the nation’s leaders and some day say, like George Washington, “Home influence directed by pious mother is the source of my success.” As for the daughters, they were to become gentle, devout, pure, and accomplised—not much in domestic skills as in such pursuit as piano playing, embroidery, and reading Sir Walter Scott aloud and with expression. The old-fashioned domestic skills, such as spinning, weaving, and making candles, were no longer esteemed. Some mothers did not even teach their girls to cook and dust. In the first place it was now possible to buy many necessities readymade and to hire immigrant Irish girls to do the dirty work, and in the second the American middle class was slowly becoming infected by the Old World idea that ladies and gentlemen did not work with their hands. Better travel facilities now enabled rich Americans to visit England and the Continent, whence they were likely to return (as the New York diarist Philip Hone complained) full of “the foppery of foreign manners and the bad taste of antiAmericanism. ” Their less prosperous but upwardly mobile neighbors watched what they did and tried to imitate them.

Old-fashioned people railed against the bad influence of un-American notions. Mrs. Lydia Child, a New Englander of impeccable background, argued in The Mothers Book (1844) that daughters must be prepared to fill any station in life: ”… half our people are in a totally different situation from what might have been expected in their childhood.” In case a girl’s fate took her downward, she should be able to support herself; if she moved up, domestic efficiency should be no disgrace. Mrs. Child pointed out that Abigail Adams, “the admiration of European courts… knew how to make butter and cheese as well as any woman in Weymouth.” Foreign observers were almost always dismayed by American children, finding them precocious, noisy, and disrespectful of their elders. One of the more charitable critics, the German Francis J. Grund, thought that the phenomenon was caused by bad climate, long school hours (a boy between four and six years old was likely to spend six hours a day in school and three more doing homework), and the fact that American parents “are living altogether for their children.” Harriet Martineau also noted this devotion and added shrewdly that it was natural for children to occupy an important place in a country of enormous resources and small population.

Another cause of early precocity, just beginning to be apparent in the 1830’s and 40’s, was the decline of the father as teacher, model, and authority. Now that boys necessarily acquired skills and knowledge outside the home, they often picked up bits of new technology and science that the father had never heard of. No wonder (Grund said) that “from the earliest period of his life a young American is accustomed to rely upon himself as the principal artificer of his fortune” and exhibits “a certain untimely intelligence seldom found in Europe.”

Yet never before in history had there been children so worried over and thought about as those little Americans born in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Although the rod was prominently displayed on the mantel, and in many households did not gather dust, it was no longer used as a matter of course. There were doubts as to the desirability of breaking the will. Would not the child have need of one when he entered the great American race for success? As Catherine Sedgwick briskly pointed out in a book addressed to boys and girls, “You have a great responsibility as American children. It is not here as in the old world, where one man is born with a silver spoon, and another with a pewter one, in his mouth. You may all handle silver spoons, if you will.” Clearly a young person who was out to get his own silver spoon had better have work done on his character as well as on his soul.