Circumcision, less tea and other ways to handle naughty children
Not all of Irish Times’s parenting advice from previous centuries remains applicable today
Spanking children was much discussed by parenting experts from previous centuries. Photograph: Getty Images
Irish Times article from 1955 entitled “Discipline is a good thing”.
Cartoon in the Weekly Irish Times on Saturday, October 15th, 1932 entitled “How to obtain a good night’s sleep in spite of interruptions”.
Many readers turn to these pages for information and advice on raising children. The provision of parenting guidance, however, is no new departure for The Irish Times. And while many of the recommendations of previous centuries may, in hindsight, be neither wise or informed, some remain applicable today.
“McCracken’s Baby” published in 1886, would still resonate with many modern subscribers. It told the tale of first-time parents. Having studied all the current books of advice, when the new baby cries at night they are afraid to feed it, pick it up, or even rock the crib, because of warnings about how they could spoil their offspring. Only when they ignore the manuals, and the baby is picked up, fed, and soothed, does peace prevail.
Throughout the 1800s and 1900s, however, much emphasis was placed on not indulging children – even babies – in their demands, or their diets.
In 1932 our resident physician claimed that picking up a new baby when it cried taught it: “that if he yells loud enough and long enough he will win the day, no one will take any notice of him unless he makes himself a conspicuous nuisance . . . He will never be content to be ignored. Children find various ways of getting themselves in the limelight . . . interviews with the schoolmaster, visits to the doctor – the child is the centre of interest and that is what he wants.”
“Plain Food for Children” in 1885, advocated a culinary regime that would produce fewer “sickly, deformed” youngsters, praising the “hardy and muscular” Scotch working classes who “eat oatmeal porridge where our children eat flesh or puddings and jam”.
The article contended that growing children require very little meat. By the time they reached three of four years of age their daily diet should also consist of “stewed fruits, boiled rice and milk, light suet puddings, a pint or so of new milk daily, and oatmeal porridge . . .”
“Why,” our correspondent asked, “will mothers give their children jam tarts, plum buns, sweets, and other confectionery, green apples, or any other fruit . . . for which the child expresses a preference, and only too often beer? Until mothers learn to treat children with as much care as a cattle-dealer does a prize pig, or a trainer his horse, they must expect to find their offspring grow up to blame their parents for some constitutional deformity that robs them of the full enjoyment of the world. The golden rule should be – do not overfeed your children, either by quantity for quality: do not indulge them, or they will be a nuisance to yourself as well as to others . . . ”
Often writers went against the parenting approach of the day. “Let the Girls Romp”, published in 1890, beseeched mothers to allow their daughters run, race, skip and climb in the open air: “these are the things that strengthen the muscles, expand the chest and build up the nerves.
“Mothers, therefore, who counsel the little girls to play very quietly make a mistake. Better the laughing, rosy-cheeked romping girl than the pale lily-faced one, who is called every inch a lady.”
The anxieties of childhood were also addressed. In “Children and Darkness” from 1893, a medical writer advised: “If mothers notice that the brains of their little ones conjure up uncanny sights and thoughts from the shadows of a room more or less dark, let the light burn brightly. To force a child to become accustomed to the darkness is a grave error, if the nervous system is so organised that this forcing is productive of fright. The nervous system of a child is a very susceptible organisation, and the deleterious impression made upon it will often make their influence felt throughout its whole after-life. If the child asks for a light under such circumstances do not refuse it.”
Sleep is a subject that also occupied parents past. In 1929 a health correspondent bemoaned the difficulty of teaching parents the value of sleep to a growing child. A sleeping child “is a proof that the brain still needs rest. The child cannot remain asleep through mere cussedness or because it wants to avoid its nurse or mother.
“If it is necessary for the child to be wakened at a certain hour so as to be in time for school . . . and if the child is still fast asleep at that hour it is a proof that it did not go to bed early enough . . . If a child is irritable, do not buy medicine, give it more sleep. If a child has headaches, do not buy medicine, give it more sleep.”
Spanking children was also much discussed. “Child study is completely neglected by parents; they think any child can be corrected by a clump on the head. There are rather too many head-clumpers,” wrote one of our medical correspondents noted in 1931.
The causes of naughty behaviour could be physical, a reaction to the arrival of a new sibling, or the result of over-indulgent parenting, opined our writer.
“He may have adenoids and tonsils; he may be a little deaf and fail to catch what the teacher says; perhaps his ears are full of wax. He may have a defect in vision which gives him headaches when he reads his school books or does his sums. Perhaps he is anaemic and in need of more fresh air; he may stay up too late and be suffering from a tired brain; he may need circumcising; he may drink too much tea.
“But if his body is in good health, then he may have some mental peculiarity. The parents may have been too indulgent; the little boy has always had his own way until one day he meets some of the childish problems of life and discovers that he cannot always have what he wants; a normal child will react normally and accommodate himself to the extraordinary idea that he does not own the world after all; but the abnormal child may be fiercely resentful at being opposed.”
“Head clumping” remained a popular parenting approach, though another writer in 1947 advocated praise as the best discipline.
“If a child gets a lot of disapproval his natural reaction will be bad behaviour. Much better results will be achieved by praising him for little things he has done well. Children are sensitive creatures and if they hear constantly that they are ‘naughty’ well it is very likely that they will believe it and act accordingly.”
- This is part of a series looking at the archives of The Irish Times concerning health.
1) Sleeping secrets: undress in the dark
2) Cooking for invalids: wine and champagne
3) Eat fat, no milk: 19 rules of long living
4) Bloody cures for women’s periods
5) Electrical cures to revive sluggish functions
6) Your ‘flatulence’ explain your ‘noises’
7) Curing psoriasis with nude sunbathing
8) Weight-loss: Obesity soap and fat massage
9) Institution Dubliners hoped they'd never enter
10) Cocaine Tooth Powder
11) ‘Sun-ray’ therapy
12) Men’s hair products
13) A history of Irish lunacy
14) Prescribing clothes for women
15) Dublin in 1886
17) Parsing ‘painless dentistry’