Notes and thoughts: Children and Childhood in Western Society Since 1500, by Hugh Cunningham (Introduction) part 4

Hi folks, I’m back! I’ve been away from here for a week or so because I went to Norfolk with my family:


I’ve also got a little challenge on the horizon. When I started this UMA, my husband was on his 6 week break from school (he’s a secondary school teacher), which means I had much more available time in the day to focus on reading and writing. However, as of today, he goes back . So I’m attempting a mega disciplined approach in order to get time for this beautiful work, which is to get up at 7am and work for two hours first thing in the morning, so that I can make progress whilst still having the day clear for home ed life with the children. So here’s to day one of that plan!

I’m going to carry on from where I left off in the last post, which is the end of the Introduction chapter of Hugh Cunningham’s ‘Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500’. Bold text marks direct quotations, all the rest is my is my own thoughts.

So no we are considering Edward Shorter (The Making of the Modern Family, 1976), who claimed that ‘Good mothering is an invention of modernisation. In traditional society, mothers viewed the development of and happiness of infants younger than two with indifference. In modern society, they place the welfare of their small children above all else.’ (p9). 

Sheesh, this is a problematic sentence isn’t it. Firstly, I’m no expert, but I from what I do know I would really challenge the idea that this is true of ‘traditional society’ unless you are taking a particularly white/European/’Western’ view of what ‘traditional society’ is.

For example, if we consider the history of re-European traditional Maori parenting culture and philosophy, we find this:

“The fundamental principle for raising children was the underlying belief that children were favoured as gifts from the atua (spiritual beings), from the tipuna (ancestors) and preceded those unborn, which meant that they were tapu (under special rules and restrictions). Any negativity expressed to them was breaking the tapu by offending the atua and the tipuna gone before. Because of their intrinsic relationship to these spiritual worlds, the children inherited their mana (power, prestige). They were treated with loving care (aroha) and indulgence. Punitive discipline in whatever degree, as a method of socialising children, was an anathema to the tipuna.”

Again, apologies for generalised statements, but lets consider as well the traditional parenting culture and practice of indigenous American peoples, quote from here:

European observers, hardened to INFANT MORTALITY, were impressed by the fondness shown toward and good care taken of Indian children by their mothers. This quality was nowhere better demonstrated than in the feeding of the infant. Unlike European upper-class parents, Indians did not put their children out to be nursed. If the mother happened to die before the child was weaned the father might fill his mouth with water in which corn had been boiled and pass the liquid on to the infant. Nursing went on for several years. During this time the child stayed close to its mother, usually transported on a cradleboard tied to the mother’s back. As the child grew and was allowed to crawl it was carried without a board, again on the back of the mother, who grasped it by one leg and the opposite arm. Weaned at approximately three years, the young Indian who had been so carefully attended was suddenly left to his or her own devices, unconfined and now learning from the example of elders. Still, young children must have remained under the watchful eyes of their parents and, probably, the entire village community.

Children were considered to be specially linked to the spiritual world, and in general were indulged rather than punished. Nothing shocked the Europeans more than the absence of physical punishment as a means to DISCIPLINE Indian children

I know I have a lot to learn about the impact of colonialism on this, and I am looking forward to exploring the work of indigenous scholars on this subject. What I have read so far gives me the feeling that learning more is very important, in order to understand our history, and also to help identify what European/colonial behaviours and practices that still act to damage the parent child relationship in contemporary culture. I’m thinking here of early forced separation, attitudes towards respectful parenting, and more.

Another issue I am going to take with Shorter’s statement is in regards to the idea that ‘in modern society, they (mothers) place the welfare of their children above all else.’ So firstly, I need to find out what he means by ‘modern’, but lets say what me means is current. His book was published in 1976, so his modern is I guess the 60s and 70s. Granted, at this time, the majority of children were still being cared for by a parent – it is most accurate to say mother here because it was the mother – at the age of one year. I know that in 1981 76% of 1 year olds were still being cared for by a parent. However, if we talk about the ‘newl’ modern, by 2010 that figure had dropped to 24%. I imagine in the USA it is even lower, seeing as there is no entitlement to paid maternity leave there.

Does this tell us anything in regards to Shorter’s statement? Surely this is the most sticky of subjects. I don’t believe for a second, that intellectually parents don’t care about, don’t love their children. To suggest such would be traumatic and rejected by probably every parent. However, what I think needs thinking about here is not whether a parent loves a child, but the experience of the child of that love. What does the behaviour of love look like to a child. How is it learned, how is it internalised. How does the theory of parental love translate in practice.

When we start thinking about it in these terms, I would argue that we are far from a place where the welfare of children is put above all else, as proposed by Shorter.

I am yet to understand how institutionalised settings and ‘care’ is in the best interests of babies or young children. All of the evidence as far as I can tell points to the contrary. So the social norm of almost all children in British society living within these settings directly contradicts Shorter’s opinion. When he wrote his book, this wasn’t the social norm, but it is now. How did parental love manifest in the 60s and 70s? Hopefully in these studies I will get to learn more about that.

There are also still many parenting practices, which again, I would say contradict what Shorter proposes. These are informed I believe by internalised childism/adultism, that informs and influences most thinking and behaviour by parents/adults that effects the environment and experience of love by children, and normalises authoritarianism to varying degrees.

That domestic violence against children within the home is still legal in this country, and strongly defended by people in positions of power, is of course a big issue. However, I am encouraged to have come across this research by IPSOS MORI that indicates a shift in parental attitudes towards hitting children. It seems that regardless of the law, parental attitudes are shifting away from believing that hitting a child is acceptable – this follows the complex trend I believe that exists between women’s rights and children’s rights. It is grassroots change that is really interesting to me, and I’m going to do some follow up work on this in my blog.

The question of mothers putting the ‘welfare of their children above all else’ is so a fraught one, which draws us to consider I think the social, economic, and political experience of motherhood. I would argue what we even mean when we say ‘above all else’? Children’s status in society is so subjugated, that treating a child as an actual person, as equally important to people considered adult, gives the illusion of placing them ‘above all else’. Our social structures are built on a foundation that depends on children not being placed ‘above all else’ – in fact it transforms them into a burden and problem to be put somewhere ‘else’. Despite this, there is still parental will I believe to address this social injustice, and I anticipate a tipping point in this regard, evidenced by the seeming generational diminishment of authoritarian views.

So back to Shorter. Perhaps there is some meaning in Shorter’s view, given his framework and the historical context that he is considering. I am looking forward to exploring historical parenting guides, to look more into his statement regarding mothers viewing the development of and happiness of infants younger than two with indifference. There is still legacy of this visible in current parenting and educational practices, perhaps mainly in terms of a sense of personhood and agency being deprived of babies and young children, and the negation of the voice and emotional communication of young children.

Interesting to note that in Cunningham’s references about Shorter, he highlights that Shorter used “maternal breastfeeding and an end to the system of sending children off to a wet-nurse…the abdonement of swaddling, allowing a freer interaction between other and baby” as indicators of a “surge of sentiment amongst the middle classes in the mid-eighteenth century” (p9). Perhaps this can be summarised as the idea of the importance of parents being close to and responsive to their children’s needs? How does that compare to the experience of babies and young children today? To be continued…


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