Bringing Up Baby

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The self-appointed child experts still backed themselves up with scripture whenever appropriate, but now the favorite quotation was Saint Paul’s “Provoke not your children to wrath.” Some even advanced the theory that when Solomon had said, “Spare the rod and spoil the child,” he had not meant that parents should actually lay hands on their children but that they should maintain discipline by wielding a symbolic rod. That might sound tricky, but if anyone could manage it, it would be “the gentle ruler,” the “force that is to the moral world what the steam-engine is to the physical,” she who is “one of God’s own vice-regents,” without whom “men cannot stir a step in life to purpose.” In other words, “the Christian mother—ah, in her what influences center! From her what perfumes breathe, what dews distil, what forces, still but mighty, ever emanate!” By the 1870’s there was a tacit understanding in most households that child management was the mother’s province, by right.

Gentle Measures in the Management of the Young (1871) went through many editions until the end of the century. Its author, Jacob Abbott, had enormous prestige with mothers because for years he had been turning out the wholesome, moralistic, and boring Rollo Books, as well as countless other stories and histories for the young. He was an ordained (but not practicing) minister, a schoolmaster, and the brother of John Abbott, who back in the thirties had written The Mother at Home . Abbott told the late-Victorian mother exactly what she wanted to hear : that hers was an exalted and difficult mission; that it was possible to be both gentle and authoritative at the same time; and that she need not feel guilty if she were, in certain areas, permissive. Children, said Abbott, ought to be given “the greatest freedom of action. … It seems to me that children are not generally indulged enough … as a general rule, the more that children are gratified in respect to their childish fancies and impulses and even their caprices when no evil or danger is to be apprehended, the better.” However, like good soldiers they must obey parental orders, “even when they know their way is better or as good.” The suggestion that a child might be capable of a better idea than his parents must have shocked oldtimers. About this time Emerson quoted a friend, a “witty physician,” as having remarked that “it was a misfortune to have been born when children were nothing, and to live till men were nothing.”

But the pendulum had still not swung all the way. Some of the child-care books of the eighties and nineties made Gentle Measures look old-fashioned, arbitrary, and even cruel. ”… abolish law or the appearance of law,” was the message of one Mrs. Mattie W. Trippe in Home Treatment for Children (1881). “Let [the child] revel in an absolute sense of freedom, feeling only the restraints of affection.” In the opinion of Mrs. F. McCready Harris in Plain Talks with Young Homemakers (1889) children should be permitted to slide down the banisters because they will probably do it anyway. “If you forbid them, in nine cases out of ten you teach them to deceive. Better coax them not to out of love and pity for you, who can not help feeling nervous, thus appealing to their chivalry; or… spread your pillows and blankets … and let them have a grand slide. Any trouble, any wear and tear of clothes and furniture, is better than risking our child being pushed to a lie.”

Chivalry was much on the minds of late-Victorian parents. They had been raised on Tennyson, after all, and were prone to give their children early English names, such as Arthur, Maude, Ethel, and Egbert. Making the Best of Our Children (1909), by Mary WoodAllen, demonstrated to mothers how chivalry might help build character. When little Franklin pushes his sister Lucy into the lake, their mother, Mrs. Dawson, says, “I’ve been wondering if we left my little Sir Arthur at home today.” Franklin argues that Lucy deserved what she got, since she tore his hat and threw it in the water. But Mrs. Dawson points out that the business of a true knight is to fight for the weak and to succor distressed damsels. (“Do you think Sir Arthur would have pushed a little girl into the water?”) Franklin at once becomes contrite, and when he sees his sister “shining in her clean attire,” he kisses her and begs forgiveness. No rod ever enters the picture; the Dawsons probably do not own one.

In The Science of Motherhood (1894) Mrs. Hannah Whitall Smith advised mothers to win their children to goodness —“don’t drive them.” If a boy pounds nails into the furniture, give him some blocks into which nails can be hammered; a little girl who cuts holes in the curtains or in her clothes should be supplied with colored paper to cut—and an explanation as to why. Mothers, give reasons—so that the child will learn to choose the right! Don’t nag, be polite, and use the word “don’t” as little as possible. “The will is one of the most sacred parts of our nature and should no more be broken than the main shaft of a steam-engine.”