From Horror To Hope: The Evolution Of Childrearing

(Photo Caption:  Young boys and girls working in the spinning room of the Cornell Mill in Fall River, Massachusetts. January 1912 photo by Lewis Hine/Shutterstock.)

“The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, terrorised, and sexually abused.”  — Lloyd de Mause

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Parents today are bombarded with more conflicting advice on how to raise their children, by a greater number of ‘experts’, than ever before. As soon as their first-born takes a first breath, well-meaning friends, family and professionals crowd their doorway clutching towers of books, all penned by the most highly accredited child care specialists. Some say you must use ‘controlled crying’; others say ‘co-sleeping’ is better. Some say breastfeed on demand, others recommend schedules. Still others say just trust your own instincts. The bright side is the fact that we have so many contradictory views shows how hard our civilisation is working to improve the child’s quality of life.

A useful way to get some perspective is to look at the historical evolution of childrearing practices. When I first began to read about this history, I was confronted by some truths about our childrearing heritage that are shocking, hard to believe, and difficult to come to terms with.

Lloyd de Mause, principal founder of the fast growing field of psychohistory (an analysis of the way in which psychological matters influence social changes and world events) examined over 800 historical references before compiling his essay: The Evolution Of Childhood (1982). His findings have been corroborated internationally by a large number of psycho-historians. De Mause’s analysis of childrearing practices in the Western world throughout the ages yielded some important findings: the first is that the care of children has evolved in distinct periods or stages, much like patterns of biological evolution. The second finding was that the further back one delves into Western history, the worse these practices become. Historical childhood is hardly the fairy tale that many of us might have romantically or nostalgically dreamed up. I was dismayed to find, through the work of de Mause and others, that: ‘The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, terrorised, and sexually abused’. Indeed, de Mause’s research has unearthed some unthinkable horrors that were the norms accepted and perpetrated by our forebears.

The Infanticidal Period


De Mause has categorised into periods the different modes of parent–child relations throughout Western civilisation. He refers to the first period — dating roughly up to the fourth century AD — as ‘Infanticidal’. There are hundreds of references to infanticide of both legitimate and illegitimate children in the Western world — an accepted and everyday occurrence which only slowly began to abate by the Middle Ages. Small children and babies were routinely thrown into rivers, flung into cess trenches, or simply exposed to die on roadsides or in the wilderness. Surviving children would have been witness to this barbarous, and surely terrifying, activity. As girls were more frequently disposed of than boys, the documented result was significant imbalances in male–female population ratios.

Until the fourth century AD, neither law nor public opinion found infanticide wrong, in either Greece or Rome. Meanwhile, all neighbouring European nations were continuing to sacrifice children to gods. (The recent discovery of three mummified victims of child sacrifice in the Andes, serves as a reminder of the universality of this custom.) It is also deeply disturbing that many of the children who were allowed to live were used as servants and sex objects. Child labour in the home and paedophilia were condoned and encouraged in all echelons of society, and were openly depicted in both the art and literature of this period in our history.

The Abandoning Mode

A different means of coping with the anxiety and burden posed by the rearing of children began to emerge around the fourth century AD. An ‘Abandoning’ mode of parent–child relations, which persisted into the thirteenth century, was characterised by parents sending their children away, often for several years. References abound depicting children dispatched en masse to wet-nurses, to monasteries or nunneries, as hostages in lieu of debt repayments, or to work as servants or apprentices. Wealthy parents who could afford servants would engage in only the most negligible child care, even if their children stayed at home.

Child sale was a widespread European practice, and in Russia was only outlawed as late as the nineteenth century. Amongst all classes of Welsh, Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians, it was common for parents to send their children away to be reared until around seventeen years of age. It was rare, not only among the wealthy, but also among many who could ill afford wet-nurse services, for mothers to nurse their own babies. In Rome, professional wet-nurses gathered daily around the designated ‘Colonna Lactaria’ to sell their services.

Vast numbers of city dwellers would allow their babies to remain with their assigned wet-nurses in the country until weaning. Though it may defy belief, a survey conducted as late as 1780 by the Police Chief of Paris, found that of the 21,000 children born annually in the city, 17,000 were sent out to the country to wet-nurse. Of the 1,400 that were lucky enough to stay at home with their parents, only 700 were nursed by their own mothers. Much to the revulsion of European mothers, England took the lead in slowly re-introducing the mother–child breastfeeding bond. Wet-nursing, however, did not disappear until the eighteenth century in England and America, and the twentieth century in France and Germany.

The Ambivalent Mode

Fourteenth-century Europe saw a proliferation of childrearing instruction manuals. It was as if parents collectively began to allow their children to remain close to them, but only under strict conditions of non-demanding behaviour. De Mause refers to this growing new parenting style as the ‘Ambivalent’ mode, the emphasis of which was to beat (often severely) or mould children into convenient shape. An examination of over 200 pre-eighteenth century statements on childrearing advice found that the majority expressed approval of severe beatings, whereas only three discouraged child-beating of any kind. One thirteenth century article of law begins with: ‘If one beats a child until it bleeds, then it will remember…’

Viewed from a modern perspective, most children before the eighteenth century could be classed as ‘battered children’. Instruments such as whips, canes, birches and shackles for feet were commonplace. It was not unusual for children to be restrained with stocks around their feet during study, tied to chairs, wrapped in restrictive corsets, made to wear iron collars for ‘posture’, or forced into standing stools to prevent crawling. This abusive form of child rearing was not linked to social class or family income, and was prevalent among both rich and poor.

A particularly bizarre, yet universal, fashion was the excessively tight and prolonged swaddling of babies and infants. Bandages were used to completely immobilise babies into rigid cocoon shapes. Designed as inescapable bonds, swaddling could be so tight and complex as to require over an hour to completely dress an infant. Doubtless this practice rendered the unfortunate infant more manageable. With a minimum maintenance, controlled child being the goal, it is little wonder that this kind of swaddling continued in England and America until the eighteenth century, and in France and Germany until last century. Also in vogue were the old-fashioned whippings, which only started going out of style in Europe and the USA around mid-nineteenth century, continuing longest in Germany. The earliest individual accounts of childhood without beatings found by de Mause occurred between 1690 and 1750.

The Intrusive Mode

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The ‘Intrusive’ mode of parenting, which began in the eighteenth century, saw the first signs of empathy creeping into the closer ties forged between parent and child. Although the prevalence and severity of child beating abated, strict obedience was demanded in exchange for love and acceptance. Rigid moral codes replaced some of the physical abuse, leading to a reduction in infant mortality. As child battery and abandonment receded, the increased health, freedom and vitality of children posed new challenges which parents met by becoming intrusively over-controlling. The objectives of parenting at this age were to conquer the child’s will, emotions, impulses and needs. Children were to be ‘seen and not heard’.

Striking at the heart of a child’s autonomy, their sense of their own bodily rhythms and pleasure, there arose a widespread tendency toward early toilet-training, and an obsession with prohibiting masturbation. The use of a variety of surgical interventions aimed at preventing masturbation peaked between 1850 and 1879. Doctors were prescribing a range of gruesome genital restraint devices, akin to instruments of bondage and torture, which were most popular between 1880 and 1904. After two centuries of such assault on children’s genitals, these methods had died out in Europe by 1925.

The Socialising Mode

The domestication and control of the child became less brutal and more subtle as the ‘Socialising’ mode of parenting was ushered in at the close of the nineteenth century. Even preceding modern contraceptive methods, a drop in birthrates reflected parents’ desire to give more care to each child. The aim remained, however, to instill parental values and goals into children rather than producing self-directed and free-thinking individuals.

Earlier trends of over control, terrorising or beating were replaced by spanking and psychological manipulation. It is de Mause’s assessment that this modality continues to guide and inform most parent–child relationships today. The focus of this mode is on pedagogy (child training) rather than on the subjugation or conquest of the child. The child is to be tamed or trained, as early as possible, to conform to social norms, to venerate authority, to be a well-behaved or ‘good’ child. The ‘good’ child is obedient, does not question or negotiate, restricts passion and emotion, absorbs parental values and has minimal needs. Under the ‘Socialising’ mode, even babies are expected to be ‘good’! One of the most frequently-asked questions regarding infants seems to be, ‘Is he/she a good baby?’

Although the central theme of behaviour control persists in the new millennium, we have certainly become progressively less extreme in our efforts to dominate children. Instead, we have become more sophisticated and scientific with modern behaviour modification methods, while at the same time allowing our children a far greater range of self-expressive behaviours. Modern behaviour modification methods such as ‘controlled crying’, proliferate because they successfully manipulate those children’s behaviours which are deemed undesirable. Scant regard is given, however, to the possible emotional consequences for the child.

The evolution of parent–child relations mapped by de Mause and others shows a distinct, gradual development away from violence or manipulative control, and towards the growing use of empathy and dialogue with the child. Parental feelings of anxiety and overwhelm caused our forebears to project into the child images of evil and the demonic, requiring punishment or even exorcism. Today, we are more likely to project onto children that they are small tyrants or manipulators, whenever their needs are too great for our limited or exhausted patience. Remnant fears from earlier periods warn us not to ‘spoil’ children, that we must deny their needs, not show too much empathy lest they totally over-run our lives. A favourite warning of the ‘Socialising’ mode is: ‘You mustn’t let your baby get control over you.’ This is a disturbing and alarming denial of babies’ abject helplessness.

An Emerging New Mode

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Psycho-historically, we find ourselves at the cusp of an emergent new mode of childrearing which Lloyd de Mause names the ‘Helping’ mode. Progressively, each new mode has signified more nurturing, and less blame on the child for parental feelings of anxiety or overwhelm. The ‘Helping’ mode is characterised by empathic responses to the child’s needs, two-way dialogue with the child, and a greater tolerance for children’s emotional self-expression. It features less demand for the child to be quiet or still, and supports natural curiosity and exploration of the environment. Rather than imposing ‘good’ values through punishment or control, or by enforcing blind obedience, the ‘Helping’ parent fosters autonomy, self-regulation and creativity in the child by allowing the child’s individual will to develop. While the setting of firm boundaries remains important, we are learning to do so without resorting to humiliation, shaming, or violence against the child.

Far from the chaos that many feared might ensue, children of ‘Helping’ mode parents tend to be gentle and self-possessed rather than imitative or group-oriented, and are less intimidated by authority. Although this parenting style may initially consume more time and energy in children’s early years, they appear to develop more independence and self-responsibility later.

With the advent of the new child-rearing modes, conflict inevitably arises. We have relied on familiar methods, and change brings about anxiety and despair, insecurity, backlash and even anger. We are collectively just beginning to wean ourselves off our need to control and manipulate babies into docile and manageable packages, and so any suggestions of alternative methods based on trusting the rightness of infants’ expressions of need, continue to provoke anxiety and guilt.

As tired parents, when our baby’s cries meet with our despair and exhaustion, do we look to silencing the baby — do we decide that there is something wrong with the baby who cries at night? Or, instead, do we seek more support from our environment, replenishing ourselves so that we can meet our baby’s needs? This important question is answered by our steady move into the ‘Helping’ mode era. It makes more sense for us as parents to be surrounded by supportive friends, family and community, helping us to fulfil the enormous task of childrearing, than it does to behaviour-modify infants to fit more neatly into our harried lifestyles.

Principally, the supporting of parents is a societal responsibility. An inspiring example comes from Boulder, Colorado, where their Community Parenting Center co-ordinates volunteer assistance home visits to almost a third of all homes where new children are born, rich and poor alike. Since this parenting support service has been in place, (now funded by an additional tax/levy), the rate of injuries to children through abuse has dropped dramatically.

In the overall scheme of things, we keep evolving and, as we do, the lot of children keeps improving. It is exciting to note that improvements in childrearing practices are accelerating, propelled even faster by our current information revolution. However, for any progress to take place, it is important that we have the courage to acknowledge any of our own insufficiencies as parents — and those of our parents. Yet we can recognise that each successive generation has, on the whole, improved on the childrearing ways of the last.

A tenet central to the field of psychohistory is that the nature of world affairs is a product of the way we treat our children. It is no accident that, paralleling the progress made in childrearing, the Western world has accomplished unprecedented levels of democracy, welfare, gender equality, fairness in labour laws, and awareness of ecological issues. Though we remain a long way from a just, equitable and sustainable global society, the ever evolving childrearing improvements give us reason for hope.


Published in byronchild/Kindred, issue 15, September 05

Parenting for a Peaceful World

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  1. […] Let’s explore the progression of the predominant societal beliefs about caring for children. (To read about this in greater detail, visit) […]

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