Bringing Up Baby


A Boston Brahmin lady, born in 1842, writes of a contented childhood—except for Sunday. “Sunday,” she states flatly, “was a dreadful day.” On the other hand, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, born some years earlier into the same milieu, remembers “mild” Sundays. His mother circumvented the prohibition of secular music on the Sabbath by decreeing that “all good music is sacred.” Higginson even notes in his memoirs a Sunday afternoon when he actually played ball behind the barn. Apparently, Mrs. Higginson did not subscribe to Mothers magazine; if she had, she might have been dismayed by the story of a condemned murderer who said, “When I was quite young, I had many stings of conscience, till one Sabbath I went into a neighbor’s cornfield and plucked three ears of corn and my mother boiled them for me . From that fatal hour my career of sin and impiety has been unbroken till it has at length brought me to the gallows.” Deploring the laxity of the times, Mothers went on to say that in the old days a child who played in church would find the minister stopping the sermon to bellow out his name and command him to report to the parsonage next day. But now (1833) ministers seemed to have lost their power to terrify. And if they preached the doctrine of infant damnation, the result was likely to be newly empty seats in the meetinghouse rather than new conversions.

There was no doubt that the sterner Protestant communions—the Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Methodists—were losing members to the Unitarians and Episcopalians. To the rescue, in 1842, came a Congregationalist minister named Horace Bushnell. He relieved the minds of thousands by pointing the way to reconciliation between the old beliefs and the new. In the book Christian Nurture Bushnell postulated that children are not born depraved but are “formless lumps” at birth, equally capable of good or of evil. If the parent gives proper guidance (“Christian nurture”), the child will grow and thrive in goodness. Religion should not be presented as a gloomy restraint but as “the friend of play.” Children should not be scolded for inattention in church, nor should they be “worried and drummed into apathy by dogmatic catechisms.” While parents “personate God in the child’s feelings and conscience,” they must be careful how they use their authority. If they are harsh and rejecting, the child will feel shut out from God.

Although Bushnell’s book was primarily intended to present a religious doctrine, it was filled with helpful hints on the daily management of children. Some of them seem to foretell modern psychology. Bushnell was the only writer of his day to suggest that children pass through developmental stages. An infant, he said, is at the “stage of impressions” ; the first three years are of more importance in character building than any “stage” that follows. The young absorb the faults and virtues of their parents, who must therefore make an enormous effort to be wise and self-controlled. While parents must not be harsh, neither must they be overprotective, for then the child will grow up lacking in self-confidence. The trick is to slowly let him go so that he will be able to stand on his own; not to break his will but to teach him to control it.

Bushnell’s superiors in the Congregational church were not ready for Christian Nurture . In fact, they found it so distressing that he withdrew it from circulation. But he went on preaching, and twenty years later, when his ideas no longer seemed radical, he revised and reissued the book and it became a best seller. By the time of his death in 1878 most clergymen and most child-care writers found Bushnell’s methods normal, if perhaps even a little oldfashioned.

By midcentury there had clearly been a revolution in child management, even though it took time for its impact to spread from the comparatively few parents who read books and magazines and were not afraid of new ideas. Some advice was reiterated for decades before it became common procedure. For example, we read again and again of the necessity for fresh air in the nursery; or of the inadvisability of securing a diaper with straight pins or (!) needles; or of the therapeutic benefits of allowing little girls to dress simply so that they might romp and play. America must have abounded with stuffy nurseries, pricked babies, and wan girls keeping their dresses clean.

During the latter half of the century the flood of childcare advice continued unabated, growing slowly more secular and more permissive. In this it reflected the mood of a middle-class America that had lost some of its old complacent rigidity and was changing its values. The shattering effects of the Civil War, the winning and closing of the West, the movement to the cities, the declining power of the Protestant ethic, the rise of great wealth and great poverty, and the dawning awareness that millions of fellow Americans did not share AngloSaxon middle-class traditions (the idea that they might not want to share them was still far distant)—all these factors combined against a rigid society. A mother’s impulse was to screen her little ones from this complicated world. Father would go out and cope with it, but it was too perplexing and sordid a place for mothers and children.