200 years of parenting advice

vintage photos of children showing the change of parenting advice over 200 years

We no longer feed condensed milk to babies, or rub whiskey into their gums to ease teething pain, says Yvonne Walus. Here’s how parenting advice has changed over the years.


“Use the rod sparingly; it is better and easier to command from their love and respect than by fear,” was the guidance given to parents in the 19th century. Meanwhile, The American Frugal Housewife, published in 1832, advised that “a child
of six years old can be made useful; and should be taught to consider every day lost in which some little thing has not been done to assist others.”

There weren’t very many parenting tips on offer back in the 1800s. Religion took care of moral values. Wealthy parents hired staff to look after their children and didn’t bother to get involved. Poor parents had to send their children off to work, so there was no opportunity to do much parenting.

“Oatmeal porridge is excellent food for children of any age. Owing, however, to the flinty particles of the husk of the grain, which have an irritating effect on the bowels of most young children, oatmeal is less generally used than wheaten flour. Oatmeal, to be easily digested, requires to be well boiled. If made with milk, oatmeal porridge is a highly nutritious meal, and is well adapted for a school-boy’s breakfast.” ~ “The Rearing and Management of Children”, Cassells Household Guide, 1880s


In 1916, psychologist John B Watson advised mothers not to give their children too much affection in order to prepare them for the real world, where they wouldn’t be the centre of attention. And telling breastfeeding mothers that “a moderate quantity of fresh mild ale or porter is the best beverage for dinner” would definitely not find favour with today’s Plunket nurses. (Of course, the beer advice was not without merit, because 200 years ago
water was often unsafe to drink.)

Other pointers seems even less palatable. To cure croup, for example, Canadian physician BG Jefferis recommended ingesting a teaspoon of kerosene (with sugar, to disguise the taste). When the First World War ended, the idea of raising babies on a strict schedule gained momentum. Mothers expected to adhere to feeding times and sleeping times, and not to “pick up the baby every time he cries. This is the way to teach him to cry every time he wants amusement.” This advice was built on the notion that children were a necessary nuisance, and that the parents’ lives shouldn’t revolve around the
children’s needs. Food on a schedule also made perfect sense in the food-poor years of the 1920 and 1930s.

In 1937, however, the tide began to turn. The editor of New Zealand Woman’s Weekly encouraged parents to stay calm, laugh at whatever annoyances life may bring, and stay committed in their own relationships – all for the sake of their offspring. After the Second World War, with birth rates skyrocketing in the Baby Boom, a new parenting style emerged, revolutionising the family scene: Suddenly it was all right to offer love, praise, and food on demand. In 1946, American paediatrician Benjamin Spock published Baby and Child Care. “You know more than you think you do,” the good doctor told parents, urging them to rely on their instincts. “Better to make a few mistakes from being natural than to do everything letter-perfect out of a feeling of worry.”

Parenting tips in the 1960s concentrated on how to wash and fold nappies and prepare baby bottles. Breastfeeding was seen as oldfashioned and preventing women from regaining their pre-baby figure. One-size-fits-all advice was fading away, and by the 1980s, parents were so into recognising their children as individuals and satisfying their needs that they forgot to take care of themselves. “The tendency is for parents to consider the child at least as important as themselves – perhaps even potentially more important,” Spock cautioned.

“If you stand in awe of blood noses, war cries, worms in bottles, white mice, dirty faces, and pockets filled with all the dear-to-theheart impediments of children, and small boys in particular, never become a parent.” ~ Lillian Murfit, 1954


The new millennium brought us both the joys and the problems of the digital age. Computer games, mobile phones, the Internet – there were no rules, no grandparents to turn to for advice, and parents had to decide for themselves how to tame technology in their households. Some embraced technology for its educational and convenience potential,
while others saw the risks and restricted their children’s access. With worldwide coverage of child abuse and abduction cases, parents became concerned for their children’s safety. Baby monitors, nanny cams, child leashes, and home surveillance became topics for parenting magazines and websites. This led to the rise of helicopter parents, and parenting advice latched onto schoolyard bullying, cyber-bullying, and whether private schools were worth the fees. In addition, alternative family units became acceptable: Single-parent households, blended families, the LGBTQI+ community. Someone in the industry also remembered the fathers, and dad-centric advice became more and more common. The latest trend is health: Fighting childhood obesity, staying fit, eating right, practicing mindfulness, and monitoring children’s mental well-being. What will the future of parenting advice hold? Only time will tell!

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