Bringing Up Baby

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Elizabeth Glover’s Children’s Wing (1889) is a denunciation of the well-to-do for shunting the young off among nurses and servants. “Sensitive, delicate, little born ladies and gentlemen,” she declared, “should not… keep uncultivated company. … Their fathers and mothers could not bear such companionship for an hour … the child is born with all the sensibilities of the class to which it belongs.” The author’s solution to the problem was not that mothers should stay at home and mind the children but that the children should be taken about and allowed at grown-up parties.

Probably not many children were indulged to the extent recommended in these books, but for the great majority of middle-class, native-born American children the norm was certainly a good deal of freedom, with family life providing an anchor and a sense of belonging. The world had not yet learned to thrust itself into families. Without TVS, radios, uncensored books and magazines, “R” movies, many telephones, and fast, easily available transportation, it was easy for parents to keep an eye on their children and still not seem oppressive. A child, said Kate Douglas Wiggin, the author of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm , “has a right to a genuine, free, serene, healthy, bread-and-butter childhood.” She thought the best place for the young was a farm, where they could pick blueberries and slide down haystacks and feed chickens. The life of a farm was one in which “the child can share, and in the sharing of which he is moved to a sense of his own responsibilities.” The less he had to do with adults and their concerns the better, lest he “miss his childhood.”

In his autobiography, The Age of Confidence , Henry Seidel Canby tells of growing up in the nineties as a member of a prosperous family in a small city. His parents, he tells us, had a laissez-faire attitude toward their children. “Parents were by no means indulgent, yet they seemed usually to be secretly leagued with us to give the child a chance in the house. They let him alone unless he was outrageous. … It was the grandparents you had to watch out for.” It was his opinion that homes of the nineties were happier than in the “previous generation,” because they offered “more give and take between parents and children, more liberty and more cheerfulness.” Mother was usually at home, meals appeared regularly, “our house moved with felt rhythms.” Sunday was more a day of the family than a day of religion. “The parents left religion to the Church and the Church left it to the service and the Bible.” (The Canbys attended the Episcopal church, although earlier generations had been Presbyterians and Quakers.) To attend church was a matter of course, but “there was a tacit understanding between the two younger generations that hellfire had been overdone, though of course no open acknowledgment. It seemed to be agreed that if we stuck to character, hellfire need not be expected.”

Other memoirs of the nineties show middle-class childhoods that, like Canby’s, were passed under a generally serene blue sky. Nevertheless, there were clouds moving in as far as children’s freedom was concerned, and the long Victorian children’s picnic was nearly over. The turn of the century was a time of reform and moral uplift; while Ida Tarbell attacked the trusts and Lincoln Steflens was muckraking among the big city bosses, a crusading doctor named L. Emmett Holt stormed into the nursery to straighten out the children, especially very young babies. Dr. Holt, whose Care and Feeding of Children went through fifteen editions between 1894 and 1934, was the dominant nursery mentor of the early twentieth century. There was a good deal of the Puritan in Dr. Holt, but he was a doctor of medicine, not divinity, and his chief interest was in physical welfare rather than spiritual. He decreed no more coddling of babies. They must be fully regimented by the age of three or four months, eating, sleeping, and answering calls of nature according to the clock. Early child-care writers had suggested that happiness came first and that it was unimportant whether the child was dressed by nine o’clock or went to bed at six. But none of those earlier writers had been trained physicians like Dr. Holt, whose enormous prestige with mothers was a measure of the rise of science. In millions of American homes infants objecting to their schedules were left to scream in their cribs. Dr. Holt said it was good for them: “It is the baby’s exercise.” He warned mothers against playing with their babies: not at all under six months, very little after that. Of kissing, the less the better. No baby might have a pacifier. Should he attempt to pacify himself by sucking his thumb, pasteboard splints must be applied to his elbows to prevent him from bending his arms, and at night his hands must be tied to his sides. Tots must understand that mealtime is not for fun and games. (Twenty years before, one of the unscientific experts had offered the advice “Make the breakfast table a playground.”) Mother must permit no amusement at this solemn occasion, nor any playing with food, and she must see to it that children eat what is given them. She was warned that if they get the notion that they can eat what they like, they will give trouble in other respects.