Bringing Up Baby

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Soul saving was not forgotten, but the new child-care books expatiated at length on character building. Two of the most widely read of these books were written by Congregationalist ministers who allowed their orthodoxy tobe tempered by compassion for children in this world. In The Mother at Home (1833) the Reverend John Abbott insisted on a child’s absolute obedience, exacted by the rod, if necessary; but at the same time he warned parents not to punish for accidents or ignorance, nor to find fault continually, nor to pepper the child with commands. If a whipping became inevitable, a mother should remain cool while making sure to inflict real pain. “It makes mother very unhappy to have to punish you,” she should say, adding, when the child appeared contrite, “Do you wish me to ask God to forgive you?”—for it must be clear that a parent acted as the Lord’s surrogate and that the only appeal was to Him.

Theodore Dwight, in The Father’s Book (1834) —despite the title, the book was also for mothers—showed sympathy and tenderness for small children, even while subscribing to the Calvinist doctrine that their natures are inherently evil (“The nature of man is ever running one way”). He enjoined parents to soothe and divert fretful little ones in order to head off confrontations. Fathers ought to ask themselves,” What is my business and ought it to engross me so as to make me a stranger to my children?” Further, he recognized that children should not be blamed or punished for behaving like children.

“Backward, turn backward, O Time, in your flight, Make me a child again just for tonight!” These are the opening lines of “Rock Me to Sleep,” one of the most popular poems of the nineteenth century. It was learned by heart, wept over, recited in elocution classes, and given at Christmas in a keepsake edition bound in blue and gold. Its author, Mrs. Elizabeth Akers Alien, was born in 1832, a member of the generation in which children began to assert themselves. If the response to “Rock Me to Sleep” is any criterion, the new methods must have engendered many happy childhoods. For example, Julian Hawthorne, in his autobiography, wrote that if angels had given him permission to choose his own fate, he would have answered, “Let me be the only son of Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife Sophia, born in Boston, Massachusetts, at 1 o’clock in the morning of June 22nd, in the year 1846” —which is just what he was. Lucy Larcom, born in 1824, was one of ten children of a family so poor that when the father died, the little girls had to go to work in the Lowell mills. Nevertheless, she remembers her childhood as a joyful one. “We were a neighborhood of large families, and most of us enjoyed the privilege of a little wholesome neglect. Our tether was a long one. …” And ”… the happiness of our lives was rooted in the stern, vigorous virtues of the people we lived among…. There was granite in their character and beliefs, but it was granite that could smile in the sunshine and clothe itself with flowers. We little ones felt the firm rock beneath us and were lifted up on it, to emulate their goodness and to share their aspirations.” (We, of the anxious, peripatetic twentieth century, have our own name for that kind of granite and sunshine: security.)

One could go on at length with these glimpses of satisfactory childhoods. Nevertheless, there were definite drawbacks to child life ofthat time, and most of us would find them hard to bear. Schools were stuffy and uncomfortable, the hours long, the masters handy with the rod. Children’s clothing inhibited play. Medications were horrid (for headache, leeches sucking blood at the back of the neck; for stomachache, a sticky paste of rhubarb and magnesia; for almost anything, castor oil). But worst of all, about a third of the children born did not live past the age of five. Tuberculosis took a terrible toll of adolescents and puerperal fever of mothers. This high mortality rate was nothing new, of course, but now the widening horizons of science and the decline of Puritanism made meek resignation more difficult. Infant damnation was becoming very unpopular.

But if there was a falling off in strict adherence to Calvinism, there was little or no slackening of outward religious observance. “Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy” was as important a Commandment for most Americans as the seventh or the sixth. In most homes no work or play was permitted from sundown Saturday evening until Monday morning. There were church services for three hours on Sunday morning and three hours more in the afternoon. The close of the day brought family prayers, Bible reading, and hymn singing. “What can be more delightful on earth,” asked Theodore Dwight in The Father’s Book , “than the Sabbath in a family where every arrangement and practice has been established in conformity with the principles of the gospel?” Yet Dr. Dwight allowed a few un-Puritan laxities that no earlier clergymen would have countenanced. Hc thought that small children might be given a toy or two on the Sabbath and that since pews are uncomfortable for little people—their feet dangle—they might be allowed sometimes to stand up on the seat and look about. Kind parental looks and even a few sugarplums might also help them through the service. However, there could be no question of leaving them at home.