Child Rearing in 19th Century France

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

Such was commonplace in 19th century France. Of children born in 1875, 93,000 were abandoned by their parents, and one out of fourteen was illegitimate. There were hospices in every arrondissement in Paris, and the poor often could not afford to work and care for their kin. Among the upper class, one would think life might have been a bit easier in terms of child rearing. But often that wasn’t the case.

Bonhams - John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) Portrait of a Child 22 x 16in

Ever wish parenthood came with a manual? Instead of plunging your lower body into the fiery pits of hell to push something the equivalent of alien out of your body, only to be told to to communicate with the mute pile of smiling wrinkles and enjoy it for the next eighteen years…

In 19th century France, apparently parenthood did.

For centuries, children were viewed as second class citizens–property to be dressed like adults and worked like adults. There were strict rules of conduct placed upon them. Upper class children were afforded education, but that did not make their position in the family any higher. Daughters were to learn their place in the family and society from their mothers, and coldness and distance was a characteristic relationship between some fathers and sons in aristocratic families.

A manual in 1886 titled Well Brought Up Children instructed children thusly:

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.

Its counterpart, a study of Badly Brought Up Children, instructed the way 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 following Janet’s work, parents sought to win respect by love not discipline. But like the above manual by Comtesse de Ferry, children still 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 a 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 a mar to being a bad one. The family wasn’t a sentimental unit. (Yet those manuals still were being published…)

The increase families slowly took in their children didn’t mean overnight liberation from strict rules or preoccupied parents. Neglect was replaced with obsessive love (many of these manual had opposing views), often resulting in increased demands on the children to act and behave as their parents desired. These manuals seemed counterproductive. According to Ryerson’s Medical Advice on Rearing Children 1550-1900, 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 was bad and thumb-sucking was a horrible thing. Heaven forbid you bite on anything whilst teething! Despite all this, a parent needed to show the child affection–but not too much! It would be wrong to over stimulate them.

This author and  mom admits to buying in to the modern manuals. I had the What to Expect books, the Happiest Baby books, the millions of pamphlets provided by various doctors, teachers, and organizations. I think there’s a reason children don’t come with manuals.

They will only eat the paper and demand a cookie chaser.



originally posted by the author on Unusual Historicalsimage Bonhams:John Singer Sargent Portrait of a Child

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

5 × five =