Five Stories about Parenting Gleaned from America’s Past
In honor of Mother’s Day, here are some stories from America’s past to remind us all how much motherhood and parenting has changed throughout the years! Raising children “by the book” started early in the 20th century when sociologists began studying regular people and purporting that “science” could lead to many improvements—from better house cleaning methods to better ways of childrearing. Here are five stories to make you smile or shake your head:
1. In 1933 Norman Rockwell provided the Saturday Evening Post with a cover illustration featuring a mother with a child over her knee and “child psychology” book in hand, reading the instructions on spanking.
2. In 1936 an ad in Good Housekeeping for Lysol featured this headline above a photo of a sick child in bed:
“Madam, you are to blame!” The ad continues: “She’d have given her right hand to keep her baby well…yet that very hand may have caused the illness. The ad noted that the mother kept a clean house, but because she did not use Lysol, it was not “hospital clean.”
3. The government stepped in to advise parents. Many states produced handouts with a recommended daily schedule. One handout produced by the Minnesota Department of Health recommended a “sun bath during the morning” and that the entire day should be spent outside—naps should be taken in the sun if the weather permitted. This was long before the invention of sun block!
4. In 1945 a woman and her baby were released from a hospital in Los Angeles with very specific feeding instructions: “Feed the baby and burp her.” Upon arriving home, she gave the baby her first bottle and promptly brought up the anticipated air bubble. After a second bottle a little later, the mother patted, then pounded a little harder, and after 30 minutes, she called the doctor to ask how long she should burp the baby. The doctor asked, “How long have you been trying?” “Thirty minutes,” the mother replied. The doctor’s answer: “Stop and put that baby down. Use some common sense.”
5. In her book, Perfect Motherhood, Rima D. Apple tells a wonderful story from Hollywood about a scene in a 1939 film Bachelor Mother, starring Ginger Rogers and David Niven. In a Hollywood-esque series of plot twists, Rogers, a single woman and sales clerk, becomes caretaker of an infant. David Niven is the son of the store owner and stops in to check on how Rogers, in whom he is interested romantically, is doing with the baby. When he arrives Rogers is feeding the baby, and Niven inquires how she knows she is doing it correctly. Rogers notes that it is not complicated. She puts the food on the spoon, puts the spoon in the baby’s mouth, and the baby swallows it. Niven grabs a childcare manual to verify that this is proper…he soon reads that the doctor “with twenty years experience” notes that Rogers is doing it wrong, that the food is to be rubbed into the child’s navel.
Reflecting the spirit of the day, Rogers is clearly torn: The experts should know—but on the other hand, the baby had been happily eating. She takes the book from Niven’s hands and reads the section herself—only to discover that several of the pages were stuck together, and the “rubbing into the navel” treatment actually involved warm oil and was a treatment for colic. She went back to her own method of feeding the baby.
As early as the 1920s, a young mother is quoted as saying, “I try to do just what you [parenting authorities of the day] say, but I am a nervous wreck just trying to be calm.”
The Arrival of Dr. Spock
Dr. Benjamin Spock (1903-1998) whose book, Baby and Child Care, was published in 1946 was particularly well-received because his message started with the idea that mothers should trust their instincts: “you know more than you think you do.”
While each generation has its parenting gurus (more recently, Penelope Leach and T. Berry Brazelton as well as numerous experts expounding on how to “raise a gifted child,” “help a child with ADD,” or “toilet train in seven days,” they are just part of a long line of experts that have been advising parents for at least the last 100 years.
As Amy Chua’s book, “The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” climbs today’s best seller lists, it’s probably wise to remember Dr. Spock and his belief in parental instinct: “Don’t be afraid to love [your baby]. . . . Every baby needs to be smiled at, talked to, played with, fondled — gently and lovingly. . . . You may hear people say that you have to get your baby strictly regulated in his feeding, sleeping, bowel movements and other habits — but don’t believe this. He doesn’t have to be sternly trained. . . . Be natural and comfortable and enjoy your baby.”
The same could be applied to raising children of any age!
Happy Mother’s Day!
This is a guest post By: Kate Kelly, America Comes Alive! If you have thoughts on how parenting has changed, you can write Kate at: email@example.com or visit her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AmericaComesAlive. Kate’s website is also a wonderful resource for parents and families, providing little-known stories of America’s past and information for sharing our rich heritage with children, so be sure to check it out!