Helicopter parenting, Tiger Moms, attachment parenting, free-range parenting. We’re so critical of modern parenting styles.
We’ve certainly made some great improvements on parenting norms of the past. No more feeding kids the bladders of dead animals to cure bedwetting or hanging them out the window in cages to get some air.
But have we taken it too far?
In the 21st century we are absolutely pummelled with an unending stream of orders, based on research studies of variable quality, about how to be a ‘good parent’:
- Give kids praise, BUT not too much praise.
- Help kids be the best they can be BUT don’t put too much pressure on them or you’ll create an anxiety disorder.
- Spend hours and plenty of money preparing and feeding them home cooked organic, preservative-free food BUT also go out into the paid workforce or be seen as a ‘lazy’ stay-at-home parent.
Is it any wonder that parental anxiety has risen over the past 100 years?
This new-fangled thing called ‘parenting’
Did you know that the whole concept of parenting didn’t even exist a couple of hundred years ago?
There was advice and plenty of tips but the real ‘science’ of parenting came about in the mid 1800s when obstetricians and pediatricians started to take over from midwives and ‘mother knows best’.
The vague and quantitatively unsatisfying concept of ‘maternal instinct’ was thrown out the window in favour of scientific methods.
Science had recently enjoyed some success in improving the health of babies and kids and stop them from dying routinely. Understandably, people started to listen.
Fast forward a couple of centuries and we’re now sold a range of ideologies designed to make us think that modern parenting is the only ‘right’ way to parent. Reasons are variously categorised under:
- because it’s natural
- because science says so *
- because things are getting progressively worse over time so we have to change now.
* Just to be totally clear, when it’s really truly scientific medical evidence about something that actually relates to science or medicine (like immunisation), I’m all for it. What I’m talking about is the murkier ideological social engineering guilt trip stuff.
Let’s bust a few of these myths, shall we?
MYTH #1: Mums always used to stay at home to look after the kids
Modern mums are the first to venture into the paid workforce en masse.
Their poor kiddies are abandoned into institutional care. This is the fault of the sexual revolution in the 1970s and things have only got worse since then.
Families used to be able to survive on one wage, but now they can’t.
Attributed to: everyone who ever wanted to put parents down
Being unable to live on one income is not a new thing. In fact, a study of early 19th century working-class England found that families not only depended on two incomes, they also depended on the income of their children¹.
Families in 19th century Paris routinely sent their babies out to the countryside to be looked after for the first years of life. This was especially true of shopkeepers. Mum was needed to work in the shop while Dad made the goods out the back.
Daycare would have been a massive improvement.
MYTH #2: Babies were always breastfed by their mums
Wetnursing was very trendy in the seventeenth century among wealthy mothers who were accused of complaining that breastfeeding ruined their figure, stained their clothes and cramped their social life (sound familiar?).
And exclusive breastfeeding for long periods of time? Not necessarily. New evidence suggests that even Neanderthal mums may have breastfed exclusively for just seven months and completely weaned their children not long after their first birthday.
The reality is that before reliable and safe baby formula was available around the 1940s and 50s, the best way to feed your baby was to breastfeed them yourself. It had very little to do with ideology, bonding or improving their IQ and much more to do with trying to make sure they made it to their first birthday alive.
MYTH #3: Kids need fancy toys to learn and develop
This statement is only true if you end it with ‘if you never want to hear them whinge ever again.’
The reality is children have always found something to play with. Kids have always created miniature versions of whatever adults had.
Pull-along trojan horses followed by tin soldiers followed by Star Wars Rebels Command Attack Packs (yes, they’re a thing).
Rag dolls followed by other dolls followed by… well, let’s face it, the pretend baby industry hasn’t developed a whole heap over the centuries. They still need to be fed and burped and have their bottoms cleaned.
MYTH #4: Little children are sweet and innocent. It’s a fact.
Children are born sweet and innocent, right? They have a right to enjoy a free and idyllic childhood, right?
Sure they do. Now. But earlier…
From around the 4th century until the 12th century children were considered to be born in sin, thanks to St Augustine. Naturally this led to the sort of parenting where it was necessary to discipline this evilness out of the little cherubs.
It was a belief which reared its ugly head regularly throughout history and still pops up from time to time today. A sermon from the 1520s accused children of lusting after:
adultery, fornication, impure desires, lewdness, idol worship, belief in magic, hostility, quarrelling, passion, anger, strife, dissension, factiousness, hatred, murder, drunkenness, gluttony…’²
I have to agree with the author on many of these points – my 2 year old believes in the magic of mummy being able to be in 10 places at once, passionately quarrelling with his brother, dissension from pretty much anything I tell him to do and impurely desiring to be dirty and messy as much as humanly possible. These days we call that being a toddler.
MYTH #5: Getting Dad involved with the kids is a new age thing no one ever thought of before
Back in the 1600s in western countries, dads were in charge of everything. Including saying how the kids would be raised.
This only changed around the 1800s with the industrial revolution. Instead of working in the family business (usually a farm, sometimes a shop attached to the house) Dads left the house to go to work so mum was now in charge of the kids during the day.
The ‘involved father’ is practically a retro movement.
MYTH #6: We should be able to do it all by ourselves
it’s very doubtful that humans could have evolved without childcare helpers. Taking care of infants and children is just too difficult.
Somewhere along the way mums have become convinced that they must be able to raise children, manage a household, do paid work and supporting the extended family and social network all by themselves.
Because Super Mum.
Because we have all these gadgets that make housework easier so it’s practically non-existent which means we have plenty of time to do everything else.
Yes, technology has improved. We don’t have to boil our clothes in massive coppers to get them clean anymore. We just pop them in the washing machine and turn it on. But we still have to hang them on the line, bring them in, iron them, fold them up and put them away.
And last time I looked there was no technology that would raise children for you, unless you count television and iPads (which I don’t, just to be clear).
The one thing that has fundamentally not changed since the first humans walked the earth is that caring for babies and children is hard work which was never intended to be borne alone.
¹ Colin Heywood, A History of Childhood (Cambridge, 2001), p135.
² Colin Heywood, A History of Childhood (Cambridge, 2001), p33.