We all know the saying ‘children should be seen and not heard’ - perhaps we were told it ourselves when we were kids.
Today, the idea of tutting those words at our children as the basis of our parenting ideology seems farcical. And yet it wasn’t so long ago that this, and many other ideas like this, were commonplace.
The history of childhood is a fascinating subject that stretches far beyond being about what toys were in vogue at the time. Our attitudes and beliefs towards raising children were so often a reflection of where our society was economically, technologically, scientifically and shaped by external events such as wars and social movements.
The modern idea of childhood emerged by the late 19th century and has continued to evolve and transform throughout the last 200 years.
In the 1850s, the Industrial Revolution created the factory and new machinery removed our reliance on human labour in production. Before this time, children were a large part of manufacturing - small agile bodies, and nimble fingers were put to work from an early age in almost every sector, from chimney sweeps, farming to even weaving the threads on intricate fabrics in the garment industry. Before this time, there was no such thing as childhood, especially in the working classes. As a child you were expected to help and contribute to the family as soon as you were able. And so, with the industrial age, came our modern idea of childhood.
In 1894, American Doctor, Luther Emmett Holt published the book, ‘The Care and Feeding of Children’. Holt was passionate about routine and record-keeping and his advice echoed societies newfound reliance on machine production. After all, if machinery can be reliable and scheduled, then so should children! Holt advocated all children should be treated the same, regardless of temperament or needs. Parents were told that children were to be fed at the same times, never to be played with, and no affection was to be given. He believed that a stern approach was best for the future character of the child, and these theories remained popular right through until the early 20th century.
In the 1920’s American Psychologist John B Watson, building on Holt’s ideas, became the most prominent childcare expert. Watson had been heavily involved in strategy and planning in World War One, aiding the government's attempts to control the enemy through psychology. His work during the war clearly influenced his parenting theories and his book “Psychological Care of Infant and Child” focused heavily on controlling children. Mothers were told to shake off their instinct to hug their children and instead should shake their hands! He was quoted as saying “If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. You will soon be ashamed at the sentimental way you have been handling it." Holt advocated that babies should be left to cry, rather than responded to, so that they didn’t learn to manipulate their parents. Watson’s work certainly reduced the time parents spent with their children, perhaps affording them time to work hard rebuilding their country after the war.
The Second World War was responsible for the next big change in childcare philosophy. British Psychologist John Bowlby became interested in the emotional effects of children who had been orphaned, alongside those who had been evacuated and hospitalised during the war. Bowlby had noticed that children who had been hospitalised were forbidden from having visitors, even their own parents suffered from what he termed ‘maternal deprivation’. This spurred his work on Attachment Theory, the idea that children need free access to their primary attachment figure (usually their mother, at this time) to grow up happy and emotionally healthy.
This shift towards attention and affection coincided with the rise of the mid-century housewife. Dr Benjamin Spock, pushed the idea that women should stay home with their children. His 1946 book “Baby and Childcare” is still the bestselling childcare book of all time. In it, women were expected to stay home and raise their children full time, and be there for them 24/7.
By the 1970s, however, an increasing number of women were returning to the workplace, due to a rise in feminism, women's liberation, and also divorce. The work of Spock became unfashionable with the family structure becoming more diverse, and the stay-at-home mom model, unrealistic and out of date. By the 1990s over 70% of mothers were working and a more authoritarian attitude of child-rearing made a comeback with Gina Ford’s bestseller ‘The Contented Little Baby Book’. Ford advocated for strict routines and leaving babies to cry to get them sleeping through the night. There is undoubtedly a large cross-over between Ford’s advice and the need for children to be less bothered by their busy working parents and Ford’s ideas were debunked by professional bodies for not meeting the wellbeing and needs of children.
Today, supported by scientific and academic advances in how we are able to study and monitor psychological and neurological images, we cannot deny the importance of quality time, affection and interaction with our children. The saying ‘Children should be seen and not heard’ is thankfully obsolete and instead we crave activities where we interact and converse with our children. Playtime, reading and shared activities are proven ways to build strong bonds with our kids, enhance emotional intelligence, and improve the chances of our kids growing up to be stable, compassionate, adults with healthy relationships and empathy.
With the past, and it’s antiquated beliefs regarding child rearing, thankfully well behind us, we as parents are caregivers have never been so well informed about the benefits of quality time and affection, and this 1-1 time has become something we cherish and aim to build on rather than resent. All we can ever hope for is that our kids grow up healthy, happy and emotionally intune with their surroundings.
With a focus on affection and interaction, and a little help from thoughtful and loving books and toys from the Kiss Co, we’ll know we are giving the best chances of this possible for the next generation and beyond.