When you’re growing up, it can feel like your parents are doing everything wrong. Alternatively, it can feel like their style of parenting is the only style of parenting…so you’re shocked when you find out at the age of 25 that not every 12-year-old had to write book reports during the summer.
It’s easy to forget that our parents were probably just clueless kidults like us, trying to do the best they knew how. Can we really blame them for being shaped by their times, and the (often misguided) trends that came along with them? No. Maybe. (If those trends involved following a fundamentalist Tennessee couple’s advice from To Train Up A Child to abuse children, yes.)
Here are eight bizarre or just plain terrible parenting trends from the past century or so. Judge for yourself.
Withholding Affection From Children
For Slate, Libby Copeland checked out the worst advice given to parents, going back as far as the 1700s. “What stands out most in these books,” she writes, “is the chiding tone espoused by the mostly male physicians writing them.” Women were routinely blamed for their children’s problems, and “science was often positioned in opposition to motherly instinct.”
Behaviorist John B. Watson weighs in with his 1928 book Psychological Care of the Infant and Child to advise that parents simply treat children in “a sensible way” (i.e., “as though they were young adults”). He writes:
“Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning. … In a week’s time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kindly. You will be utterly ashamed of the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it.”
Right-o, Watson, you unfeeling toad.
It’s not particularly surprising, giving the overwhelmingly male sources of parental advice, that some of the most enduring ideas about how to instill virtue in children involved cultivating in them traits associated with masculinity, like emotional distance.
But of course there are other, more specific, social explanations for the evolution of parental affection and discipline styles. Carol Magai and Susan H. McFadden write in The Role of Emotions in Social and Personality Development: History, Theory, and Research that “Watson’s views … can be seen as unwittingly reflecting on his own emotionally brutal childhood … [and] also are a glimpse into the mind of an American public during the immediate postwar years, a mind and spirit that would readily embrace prescriptions we would today find cold, if not peculiar.”
Greasing Up Newborns
We’re probably all familiar with the Babies Being Bathed In Sinks (And Other Small Objects) genre of photography. No doubt the majority of us have, somewhere among the dusty family albums, an old polaroid, or a collection of photos from one of those disposable cameras (do they even still exist???) showing our baby selves bathed in the kitchen sink, or a bucket of water (why?).
Well, there was a trend at the turn of the century that was kind of like that—only it involved bathing your baby in lard, or otherwise oiling it up (don’t worry, “fresh butter” was also fine), after birth. One book from 1911 by Anna Martha Fullerton, A Handbook of obstetric nursing for nurses, students and mothers, says:
“The baby will be found to be covered over portions of its body by a white, greasy, substance, called ‘vernix caseosa,’ or ‘cheesy varnish.’ This substance is found in greatest quanity [sic] on portions of the body subjected to friction while in the womb, hence it serves to protect the child’s skin. Some kind of grease is needed for its removal. … All this cheesy substance must come away with the first washing, as, if left, it irritates the skin and produces sores.”
In reality, the vernix may have healing benefits and The World Health Organization advises delaying baby baths until 24 hours after birth, according to this Parents.com article about the cheesy stuff.
While it’s widely accepted that children shouldn’t be expected to use toilets until about 2 or 3 (and even then, according to WebMD, the “child must be both physically and emotionally ready”), the parental-advice-dispensers of certain circles are decidedly less flexible, suggesting that newborns should maybe begin potty training…as newborns.
At least, that’s what seems to be suggested in this 2012 webinar, “The Fruit of Child Training,” from nogreaterjoy.org, the website started by the authors of To Train Up A Child, Michael and Debi Pearl.
The video, featuring the couple’s children Nathan, Shalom, and Shoshanna, lets the kids sound off on how great their parents’ child-rearing techniques were. (If you’re curious, Nathan and Michael spend the first handful of minutes addressing how the “the entertainment media” has misconstrued the message of To Train Up A Child.)
Apparently, a mother who’s devoted enough can potty-train her baby within two weeks after the child’s birth. Who knew?
Starting Newborns On Solid Foods
It hasn’t always been assumed that newborn babies should exclusively consume milk. “After World War II, commercial baby food producers as well as pediatricians drastically lowered the age at which they recommended babies start solids,” Copeland writes in Slate.
“Between the 1930s and the 1950s, much to the delight of Gerber and Beech-Nut, the average age at which parents introduced solids plummeted from 7 months to four to 6 weeks, according to various surveys.”
Then, Dr. Walter W. Sackett Jr. came on the scene, lowering that age even more. According to a 1956 Time article, “Medicine: Speedup Feeding,” Dr. Sackett had babies under his care eat “a spoon of thin oatmeal or barley when they are but two days old. At ten days vegetables are added; at 14 days, strained meats; at 17 days, strained fruits; at weekly intervals thereafter, orange juice, eggs, soups, mashed banana, custard puddings…”
As Sackett writes in his 1962 book Bringing up babies; a family doctor’s practical approach to child care:
“Don’t be surprised to see Baby eat his first cereal with gusto and a surprising dexterity. I suspect that those authorities who claim that muscles for swallowing solid food are not properly developed until four months of age, and then must undergo further development, have made this idea up in their own minds and have never actually tried feeding solids to a newborn.”
Giving Babies Coffee, Bacon, And Eggs
Here’s another fun idea from Dr. Sackett: feed your babies coffee, bacon, and eggs! In Bringing up babies; a family doctor’s practical approach to child care, he says that, beginning at nine weeks, a baby can begin enjoying bacon and eggs—”Just like Dad!”—granted that the former is fork-crumbled. (“[T]he saltiness and bacony taste is most acceptable to Baby. He loves it!”)
Then, and this sounds truly wild, he says babies can begin having coffee as early as six months old to, you know, begin adapting to “the normal eating habits of the family.”
“Don’t scream when you find me recommending tea and coffee for babies,” Sackett (more like Hack-ett, amirite?) writes in his book. “Yes, I know they contain caffeine, and that caffeine is a drug. The same drug is in cola drinks, which many mothers give their children, and I much prefer the caffeine of coffee and tea to the combination of drugs and sugar found in the carbonated beverages.”
Okay, here we can kind of get on board. But maybe, like, don’t give your babies cola or coffee. Just a thought, Sackett!
In one of the more bizarre manifestations of people’s historical fixation with telling women, especially mothers, how to be, at least two physicians suggested that nursing mothers shouldn’t engage in certain thoughts or feelings if they didn’t want to make their babies sick.
As husband-and-wife doctors William and Lena Sadler warn in their 1916 book, Mother and Child, “If the mother worries greatly, or thoughtlessly ‘gets very angry’ just before the nursing hour, there is a substance known as ‘epinephrin’ secreted by the glands located just above the kidneys which is thrown into the blood stream and which raises the blood pressure of the mother and often produces not only colic in the babe, but many times throws him into severe convulsions.”
The Sadlers’ warning feels a bit like thought policing or superstition, which you wouldn’t think should have a place in the medical sphere, but they weren’t the first to disseminate such ideas.
British doctor Pye Henry Chavasse’s 1877 book (with the fantastically long and patronizing title Advice to a wife on the management of her own health and on the treatment of some of the complaints incidental to pregnancy, labour, and suckling, with an introductory chapter especially addressed to the young wife) said that women who breastfed past nine months put their babies at risk of “brain disease” and themselves at risk of “deafness and blindness.”
Training Children Out Of Left-Handedness
Writing, throwing, or drawing with a certain hand comes so naturally to most of us that it can be weird to even think about the fact that we have “dominant” hands for these tasks at all. But we do, with the majority of folks being right-handed, and about 10 to 15 percent being left-handed.
While now being left-handed may well be associated with special gifts, like artistic skill, creativity, and a knack for leadership, back in the day, left-handedness was seen as something that needed to be fixed.
“Many twentieth-century British and American educators, psychologists, and psychiatrists advocated forcing left-handed children to write with their right hands,” says one paper in the US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health.
“These experts asserted that a child’s decision to rely on his or her left hand was a reflection of a defiant personality that could best be corrected by forcible switching.”
Letting Babies Cry So They Wouldn’t Become Socialists
If you thought Dr. Sackett seemed smug and kind of delusional with his vociferous opinions on newborns eating solid foods and giving babies stuff like coffee, bacon, and eggs, wait till you hear this chestnut: parents should let their infants cry so they won’t grow up into socialists.
“If we teach our offspring to expect everything to be provided on demand, we must admit the possibility that we are sowing the seeds of socialism,” Sackett writes in his book Bringing up babies.
It sounds weird to hold babies accountable for their crying habits, but this was a time when children raised with too much affection were believed to be in danger of spoiling like old milk.
Sackett certainly wasn’t the first to invest an infant’s emotional whims with moral significance. “Experts advised mothers to keep infants on schedules for feeding and sleeping,” as Copeland points out in Slate. “Holding them just for the sake of it was considered a sure way to produce what a 1911 text termed a ‘little tyrant.'”