Monday, April 2, 2012

History and parenting

Parenting has changed a lot throughout history. Of course, the historical context has affected the way people parent. But I rarely hear about how the way people parent has affected history. Wouldn't that make a great book to read? Think of how the Roman consul had his two sons put to death for treachery. Surely an attitude of "state before family" affected every Roman child. Meanwhile wealthy British children of the 19th century mostly went to boarding school. What effects might this have had on English policy once those aristocratic boys grew up to become members of Parliament?

Hunter-gatherers were known to be extremely indulgent parents, who expected children to teach themselves and left them to it. Their society was egalitarian and pretty much anarchical. In feudal times, children were expected to be obedient and dutiful. Their society was in a strict hierarchy, without a lot of freedom for anyone. Which is the cause, and which is the effect?

I read in Parenting With Grace (an interesting book; review to follow ... eventually) that someone thought to do a background study on the way Germans under the Nazis were parented. They found a very deep divide. The German custom of the time was very strict parenting expecting "first time obedience" with no back talk, and utilizing frequent corporal punishment. Those who were raised this way tended to grow up to collaborate with the Nazis. Among those who objected, joined resistance groups, or saved Jews, it was found that almost all of them were raised in households considered very "lax," where they were allowed to question their parents' orders and where they were rarely spanked, if at all. The apparent conclusion is that those who are raised to be obedient will continue to be so as adults; those who are raised to question authority will do so when they grow up.

This all gets me thinking about the huge changes in parenting in the past century. I keep hearing of how awful the 20th century was, how huge a shift in culture there was, and yet no one seems to have an adequate explanation for why, after the "perfection" of the 1950's, all those Baby Boomer kids ran out and experimented with sex, drugs, and rock and roll. In fact, no one seems to adequately explain the Baby Boom at all.

Try this on for size: the 1940's and 50's were when formula feeding became the norm. Breastfeeding went so far out of style as to be considered something only the impoverished would do. Formula was sterile, doctor-approved, and could be given by the nanny while Mom was out being Rosie the Riveter.

At the same time, birth was completing its shift from home to hospital. More and more, women were turning to doctors and books to learn how to raise their babies, rather than their mothers, because it was doctors and nurses who surrounded them in their first days of motherhood, not family. Mothers were told to raise their children on strict schedules and ignore their crying -- something which perhaps had been suggested before, but for the first time, mothers listened and obeyed.

The first result I can see is that all of a sudden, probably quite unexpectedly, women lost the natural child spacing they were accustomed to. Maybe they didn't know that breastfeeding helped space babies out; but surely they noticed that they were getting pregnant a lot more often. Family size exploded. The assumption is always that the birthrate rose because people wanted more babies -- but I'm pretty sure that a lot of people didn't use birth control back then. Babies just happened, and suddenly they were happening a lot more often. (I'm not saying they minded.)

The second result was a generation that had no desire whatsoever to follow in their parents footsteps or make their parents happy. They suffered from a profound disillusionment about everything their parents said and did. Can it be from a lack of attachment in infancy? Who can say?

I'm always told, generally by baby boomers, "These kids nowadays, they never behave. Back when we were kids, in the 50's, we had to do what we were told or get a smack. And we grew up great." Well, maybe. But weren't they also the world's first rebellious teenagers?

Each generation since has been parented a bit differently. Gen-Xers are likely to have been latchkey kids. What common traits does this generation have, and what in their upbringing might have contributed to that? As for my own generation, it's a mixed bag. Ditto for the one being raised today. We are increasingly unlikely to believe either our pediatrician or our mother -- instead, we read a wide variety of sources to try to decide how we want to parent. Attachment parenting is on the rise, but so are a number of other schools of thought (tiger mothering, French parenting, helicopter parenting, fundamentalist Christian parenting). I personally parent pretty much how my parents did, because I like the way I was raised. Many other parents who share my philosophy are doing the opposite of what their parents did, because they don't like how they were raised.

The book Our Babies, Ourselves maintains that each society maintains rules for child-raising based on its values. They seek to raise children who will adopt the values of the society they live in. What are the values modern Americans want to instill in our children? Independence, interdependence, obedience, love of liberty? Clearly we don't all agree on what "product" we want to turn out. But we should be looking at history and trying to figure out what parenting habits produce what product. Then perhaps we'd have some idea how we ourselves should raise our children.

This is just a rambling list of ideas about how history and parenting affect one another. Wouldn't you just love a book on this topic, by someone who knew more about it than I do? What do you think about my hypotheses?


Enbrethiliel said...


I agree with you, Sheila, that a book about parenting and history would be a fascinating read! When are you going to start writing it? ;-)

Your hypothesis that lack of attachment in infancy had something to do with the Baby Boomer rebellion is especially interesting. If "the medium is the message," then the message of infant formula is that self-actualisation outside the home is more important than family ties. And it's reasonable to say that children picked up on that and acted/rebelled accordingly.

Amy said...

I would read that book! Very interesting thoughts.

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