Terrible parenting advice from the 1920s

Parenting advice has changed dramatically in the last 100 years.
Parenting advice has changed dramatically in the last 100 years.  

Parenting advice has been around forever in some form or other. However, it's only in the last 100 years or so that it has become a huge industry.

It ranges from helping overwhelmed parents cope during the first confusing, sleep-deprived years, to making mums and dads feel incompetent because their kids don't behave like the model children in the books.

Some modern parenting advice may not be that great, but it's nothing compared to the quite frankly terrible advice of yesteryear, mostly doled out by men mansplaining to mums about how they're doing it all wrong. Here are some highlights from the last century.

"Pregnant mothers should avoid thinking of ugly people, or those marked by any deformity or disease; avoid injury, fright and disease of any kind." as recommended by BG Jefferis and JL Nichols in Searchlights on Health: The Science of Eugenics, published in the 1920s.

Lena and William Sadler's The Mother and her Child, published in 1916 sounds awfully cruel to our modern ears.

"Handle the baby as little as possible. Turn it occasionally from side to side, feed it, change it, keep it warm, and let it alone; crying is absolutely essential to the development of good strong lungs. A baby should cry vigorously several times each day."


The husband-and-wife doctors also blamed "angry" mothers for causing their babies to have colic. They also said that breastfeeding mums could run dry by engaging in "worry, grief, or nagging".

In the 1920s and 30s behaviourism was en vogue with our self-appointed child rearing experts. They raged a war on soft mothers, believing that babies and children treated without strict rewards and punishments would quickly spiral out of control.



American psychologist John B. Watson warned parents of giving children too much love and affection in his book Psychological Care of Infant and Child, released in 1928.

"Never hug and kiss [children], never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say good night. Shake hands with them in the morning… Try it out. In a week's time you will find how easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time kind. You will be utterly ashamed of the mawkish, sentimental way you have been handling it."

He believed that in the nature vs nurture debate it all came down to the latter and proposed to extinguish pregnancies for twenty years while enough data was gathered to ensure an efficient child-rearing process. It shall be mentioned though that all his children suffered from physical as well as serious mental health problems.

Not far off was Sir Frederick Truby King. The Kiwi health reformer is credited with radical improvements in childhood nutrition and therefore drastically reducing infant mortality. But he was also the spokesman for so called enforcement parenting. The "Gina Ford of his day" advised feeding children every four hours and never at night, and leaving them outside in the garden to toughen them up. He also believed that daily cuddles should be capped at 10 minutes.

If babies didn't play ball with precisely timed routines, mums would "sit in misery listening to their hungry infants screaming for anything from 10 minutes to a couple of hours until the wretched clock reached the appointed time" according to an editorial in Childhood, a magazine launched in 1947.

A little later on but still worth mentioning is pediatrician Walter W Sackett Jr, who published a book in 1962 which suggested that parents who weren't strict with children were unpatriotic as it turned their children into socialists. "If we teach our offspring to expect everything to be provided on demand, we must admit the possibility that we are sowing the seeds of socialism" Sackett warned, likening overindulgent parents to Hitler and Stalin.

He also deemed himself an expert on infant nutrition, writing that breast milk and formula were "deficient," and therefore babies should be started on cereal when two days old.


At 10 days old they could have strained vegetables, cod liver oil at four weeks, and by nine weeks old the little one would be eating "bacon and eggs, just like Dad!" Sackett also recommended giving babies black coffee starting at six months to get them used to "the normal eating habits of the family".

When we read dated advice like this most of us either laugh or shudder that these were once seen as the most advanced, scientific recommendations on child-rearing.

But perhaps in 100 years time mothers, fathers and experts might be aghast at our parenting styles. They might shake their heads in disbelief at our lack of knowledge about neurological processes, the way we use nappies or how we feed our babies.

- Stuff.co.nz