The hand that rocks the cradle

Mother’s Day is upon us this year on Sunday, 13 May with the flowers, cards, and special breakfasts. It is wonderful to celebrate the person who carried us in her womb, gave birth to us, and nurtured us.

Throughout most of human history, childrearing was a cooperative venture involving grandparents, relatives, and friends. Childrearing advice was passed down from generation to generation.

Physicians were among the first in the early 18th century to put into print how to raise children. In some texts the child was seen as an innocent creature of nature, the infant brain a “tabula rasa.” In contrast, Calvinist writers of the time viewed the child as the bearer of original sin. Raising a child was thought of as a battle between the inherently sinful child and the parents. Physical punishment was a means to direct the child.

By the late 18th century scientific thinking slowly replaced moral advice. Physical punishment declined and advice manuals recommended inducing guilt feelings to motivate good behavior.

Important separation of gender roles occurred with the rise of industrialization in the mid-19th century. The emerging competitive and commercial culture of the times favored certain qualities in young boys. Less attention was payed to young girls, whose place was going to be in the domestic scene. Motherhood was held in high esteem. The American poet William Ross (1819–1881) went farther to praise mothers: “the hand that rocks the cradle is the hand that rules the world. . . Angels guard its strength and grace.”

The Darwinian evolutionary concepts of the late 19th century led to acknowledgment of instincts and unconscious drives in raising children. The child’s brain was not a blank slate, and the role of nurturing was to focus instincts in positive directions instead of suppressing them.

The rise of the behaviorist approach in the early 20th century suggested that behavior can be fashioned through reinforced idealized patterns.  Programming and managing children reflected the employee management trends in factories. Mothers were criticized for offering too much motherly love, and parents were urged to be detached and objective.

New roles emerged for women and men in the 1930s economic circumstances of the US and Canada. The father’s role became more important, and the need for fostering family culture and gentler management of anger were emphasized.

With the Second World War, democratic notions promoted a child-centred focus in contrast to the fought-against Fascist thinking. The importance of early independence was emphasized.

Benjamin Spock’s 1946 book, The Commonsense Book of Baby and Child Care, emerged as a virtual bible for child raising for the next 20 years. Spock’s approachable book was based on some of Freud’s principles to protect young minds from repressive damages. Spock encouraged mothers to take a relaxed approach to feeding and toilet training. He emphasized the need to recognize a child’s individual qualities. In the 1960s Spock became involved in anti-Vietnam War and anti-nuclear war movements. He was accused of helping to create a generation of rebellious children and adolescents. In the 1990s Dr William Sears and his wife, nurse Martha Sears became the more popular child-raising advisors with their attachment-parenting approach. They recommended nursing for as long as possible, responding promptly to an infant’s cries, sleeping with the baby, and carrying the baby in a pouch to foster physical touch with the mother or the father.

Moving into the 21st century’s Internet environment the range of information about childrearing multiplied in many directions, with many ideas. History tells us that, unlike our avian and mammalian evolutionary ancestors, we are without hardwired genetic instructions for raising our offspring.

And what is my message? Mothers, on your day, forget all that has been written above. Just have a happy Mother’s Day! We love you! But don’t let go of the cradle!
—George Szasz, CM, MD

Suggested reading Child-rearing advice literature. Accessed 30 April 2018.

This posting has not been peer reviewed by the BCMJ Editorial Board.

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