As a general rule, I don’t read parenting books.
The tone of most is of superiority and one-upmanship. Recent research indicates that parents spend more time than ever parenting their kids and yet feel more insecure than ever about how well they do it. We look to our elders for advice because they know how to cut through the faddish nonsense, but what could history tell us about what it looked like hundreds or thousands of years ago?
In her new book, Act Natural, Jennifer Traig has some bad news about the state of parenting through human history. Humanity’s survival looks to be less the result of parenting strategy than merciful act of God.
The ideal cesarean section rate is around 10 percent because about 10 percent of pregnancies ended in less-than-ideal ways before the advent of modern medicine. A short stroll through a cemetery can tell you what mortality rates looked like for babies and children in a time before general anesthesia and antibiotics.
Even beyond the plague, measles, and infections making parenting more difficult, how did parents juggle the everyday needs of babies before supermarkets and Amazon Prime? It turns out that they managed mostly through neglect. While attachment-parenting proponents would have you believe we kept babies within “kissing distance” throughout history, that’s not how it actually was. There was, instead, a shockingly low level of supervision, let alone contact.
“Infants,” Traig explains, “were basically bubble-wrapped, bundled into swaddling so tight and thorough they could be (and sometimes were) thrown like a football from room to room. They were also occasionally hung from hooks, like purses in a bathroom stall. More often the swaddled bundle was strapped into a cradle as though readying for a space shuttle launch.”
If that sounds bad, consider the frequency with which cradles were placed near the open fire: “Nearly a third of the infant deaths in medieval England were caused when a baby was burned in its cradle.”
That should make you feel better about the minor neglect of letting your baby cry in its crib for a few minutes while you finish your shower.
Despite what older parents may lead you to believe, one of the most important lessons is that nobody has any idea what they’re doing. Traig makes it clear that they never did. This is comforting, once you get over the shock of just how little we knew about child-rearing and the basics of keeping a defenseless human being alive from one day to the next. In the 15th century, Giovanni Dominici wrote a book on raising children that probably had the opposite of its intended effect. He recommended a “regimen of toughening beginning when the child is small,” Traig explains. The infant was to be dressed in rough clothing, forced to go without food or wine, put to sleep in the cold without a bed, and, later, given laxatives to get used to feeling sick.
Some parents took Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s allegorical novel Emile to be an advice book, which resulted in the deaths of at least five girls in a single family. The advice included that children should “discontinue all formal education and ban all books so that the young’uns might spend all their time scantily clothed outdoors in all weather.”
All of this makes later books seem tame, even while they advocated avoidance of fruits and vegetables or, in one 1962 book, feeding two-day-old babies cereal, 10-day-olds strained vegetables, and two-week-olds strained meat, and permitting children to enjoy minestrone soup before they’re three weeks old. Before you find yourself thinking, “Well, at least the book advocated feeding the baby,” just wait until you get to the part about how parents should be feeding babies coffee instead of milk because the latter is just far too unhealthy.
The point of all parenting books seems to be, as Traig says herself, “You’re Doing It Wrong” (the title of her chapter on the history of parenting advice throughout the ages). And yes, we probably are. What is comforting about Act Natural is that nobody ever has done it particularly well. You are already a better parent than most other parents in history.
Perhaps that’s a low bar. But for modern parents used to being lectured by their parenting betters, we should just take a win when we’re offered one.
Bethany Mandel is a part-time editor at Ricochet and a stay-at-home mother.
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