You see I cannot take my child into the country. Work forbids it. With a child I could not find a place there…it will not be long before I come back. Will you keep my child for me?” –Fantine, Les Misérables
What Fantine experienced was commonplace in her time. Of children born in 1875, 93,000 were abandoned, and one out of fourteen was illegitimate. There were hospices in every arrondissement in Paris, and the poor often could not afford their care, leaving children out on the streets
Among the upper class, one would think life might have been a bit easier in terms of child-rearing, but often that was not the case.
For centuries children of the upper class were viewed as second-class citizens—property to be dressed and worked like adults. There were strict rules of conduct placed upon them. Upper-class children were afforded education, but that didn’t make their position in the family any higher. In aristocratic families, daughters learned their place in family and society from their mothers, and coldness and distance was the characteristic relationship between fathers and sons. A manual in 1886 titled, Well Brought Up Children instructed the children this way:
“When you have the honour to be admitted into the salons of your mothers, you must behave yourself in such a manner that they do not regret having accorded you this favour. You will, rightly, not dare present yourself in a salon without your gloves. Provincials are even more rigid observers of the etiquette than we.” Comtesse de Ferry, Les Enfants bein élevés- 1886
Its counterpart, a study titled Badly Brought Up Children, instructed thatway to be successful in child rearing was to be an authoritarian. “By the exercise of authority, one makes one’s sons respectful and men of duty.” This book argued that children had one instinct: a fear of being left to suffer.
On the opposite side of such literature, was Paul Janet who in 1861, praised intimacy in the family unit. He insisted this did not ruin the strength of a family but reinforced it. In years past children were neglected, respected only as far as roles of primogeniture. By Janet’s work, parents were seeking to win respect by love, not discipline (La Famille 1856). But like the above manual by Comtesse de Ferry, children remained an instrument for parental aspiration and social gain for years to come.
The transformation of the family began when children rose to a position of central importance in the home, after years of neglect and were accorded a basic right-of-life different from that of their parents—when children were allowed to be seen as children and not business tools. Before this shift, there was no social gain to being a good parent, or mar to being a bad one. The family was not a sentimental unit.
The increased attention families slowly took in their children did not mean overnight liberation from strict rules or preoccupied parents. Neglect was replaced with obsessive love (many of these manuals had opposing views) often resulting in increased demands on the children to act and behave as their parents desired. These manuals often were counterproductive. At first, it was preached that newborns should be purged, scheduled feedings were not needed, wet-nurses were preferred, and cold baths were a good thing. Then came the manual that said warmth was better, sex play, masturbation, and discovering their young bodies, bad. Thumb sucking was a horrible thing. Heaven forbid you bite on anything while teething! Despite all this, a parent needed to show the child affection, but not too much! It would be wrong to overstimulate them. (Ryerson: Medical Advice on Rearing Children. 1550-1900)
There are many modern sources new parents use today. The “What to Expect” books, the “Happiest Baby Books,” and the millions of pamphlets given handed out by various childcare providers, doctors, teachers, organizations. However, I think there is a reason children shouldn’t come with manuals.
They will only eat the paper then demand a cookie chaser.