How Maternal Self-Help Changed over the Years

By Beckerman, Jim | The Record (Bergen County, NJ), May 4, 2014 | Go to article overview

How Maternal Self-Help Changed over the Years


Beckerman, Jim, The Record (Bergen County, NJ)


Mommy books, like diaper bags, have become a staple of parenting. But it wasn't always so.

Up until the 19th century, advice for mothers came from ministers, priests and family members. In wealthier households, children were mostly entrusted to wet nurses, nannies and boarding schools. Discipline was the bottom line.

In the 19th century, old ideas gave way to "Enlightenment" ideas of the child as a tabula rasa, an innocent who needs shaping by a loving hand. At the same time, literacy, the popular press and the middle class all came into their own. And so a new sort of book - often, but not always, written by men - emerged to help mother do her sacred duty.

"There was this sense that middle-class people needed instructions that were different from religious tradition, and were no longer dependent on what the mother's mother had to say," says historian Peter N. Stearns, provost of George Mason University in Virginia and author of "Anxious Parents: A History of Modern Childrearing in America." "You needed more up-to-date instruction."

In self-reliant America, where such books were especially popular, they evolved over the years to reflect increasing interest in the child as a child, and increasing attention to both child psychology and physiology.

"It's gone from the moral, even religious, perspective to the field of child psychiatry and pediatrics," says Peter Woodbury, executive director of Thom Child & Family Services in Massachusetts. "That's a long process."

Different eras reflect different concerns, of course. Nineteenth- century books rail about the evils of "tight-lacing" (too-tight clothes). In the 1920s, as families began to shrink to two or three children, "sibling rivalry" became the great concern. In the safety- conscious 1980s and '90s, "child-proofing" became the buzzword.

Here are some mommy-book touchstones:

* 1838. "The Moral Instructor for Schools and Families: Containing Lessons on the Duties of Life," by Catharine Beecher. …

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