- But were the methods genuinely effective?
- Did they truly reflect traditional values?
- Where did those methods really come from?
- And most of all, are those really the methods used "shel pa'am"...or are they, too, simply the same flawed science used today?
I want to go through a brief history of chinuch/parenting methods, both in the Jewish and the non-Jewish worlds. (I’m focusing on the non-Jewish world in America because I don’t know enough about any other place to do it any justice.)
So let's start off with the non-Jewish world of parenting.
(The Jewish world of parenting and chinuch appears in its own post HERE.
Once Upon a Time in America
The goal was to inculcate children with morals and Biblical values.
In other words, you wanted your child to be a morally upright person. So parents tried to both uphold in themselves and imbue their children with values such as loyalty, modesty, patience, independence, trustworthiness, honesty, responsibility, reliability, industriousness, neighborliness, and inner resilience.
From the other end, parents strove to distance their children from negative traits like vanity (yes, can you believe that vanity used to be despised?), selfishness, miserliness, duplicity, lying, fragility, and pansiness among others.
In fact, earlier in American history, the most popular names for the colonial settlers were either Biblical names (especially specifically Tanach names) or names like Reason, Constant, and Truth for boys and names like Chastity, Patience, Charity, and Modesty for girls.
Books and treatises on proper parenting existed, but a lot of it was Bible-based and self-evident.
And sure, those early Americans got stuff wrong because in order to understand "the Bible," you really need a knowledgeable, Hebrew-proficient Jew to explain it to you.
But they meant well and did the best they could.
In fact, the morality of that Bible-based American culture shines through its literature, particular its children’s literature.
For example, American literature tended to reflect morals and virtues while in comparison, British literature reflected more fantasy and pagan mythology. (Although American fantasy did exist and British literature, like The Jungle Book, contained morals.)
Compare popular American books of that time, like Little Women and Huckleberry Finn, to popular British books of that time, like The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland and The Princess and the Goblin. And ever since, the most popular children’s fantasies usually come from Great Britain.
Black Americans, freshly freed from slavery (but not from discrimination), also held firm to Biblical values and displayed admirable faith in God and heartfelt prayer.
The Beginning of the End for Parents and Children
In 1894, eugenicist and head physician at New York's Babies Hospital (the leading hospital of its time) Dr. Luther Emmett Holt published the Care and Feeding of Children, which instructed mothers toward a rigid schedule of feeding, bathing, sleeping, and bowel movements, saying,
"Babies under six months should never be played with: and the less of it at anytime the better for the infant.”
(While it’s hard to make a diagnosis decades later, descriptions of Dr. Holt sound like Aspergers: “he rarely smiled or laughed and appeared to be driven by a stern sense of duty… He expected the highest standards from his assistants but never gave praise or formed close friendships. Nor was he ever unkind.” Sometimes, those on the autistic spectrum recoil from physical touch and I can’t help wondering whether the doctor was projecting his own disposition onto all children. Furthermore - and in no connection to Aspergers - while he led the movement of the pasteurization of milk to prevent typhus and other epidemics, he was also was accused of conducting 1,000 tuberculin tests on sick and dying babies at the hospital.)
Using Holt as his inspiration, the father of behavioral psychology, Dr. John B. Watson, advised mothers regarding their children in his 1928 book Psychological Care of Infant and Child:
"Never hug and kiss them, 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. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task."
Infant Care pamphlets based on these notions were distributed by the US government, which warned against “excessive” parental affection, advising parents to kiss their child only on the forehead and to limit hugs.
A lot of this was supposed to prevent disease and weakness.
This was the beginning of the end.
If you’ve met mothers from that generation, you’ll notice that many possess an absolute phobia of giving a child “attention” or “spoiling” them. In the compelling true story The Mountain Family, the author remembers her mother rebuking the delight she and her siblings were showing in the toddler’s antics by saying, “Don’t laugh, it just feeds the need for attention.”
I’m nauseatingly familiar with that attitude. It was incredibly prevalent with older people from that time period.
I also had an older relative who was obsessed about this. Though I had a plane ticket to visit her as she lay on her deathbed, I called her for fear I would arrive too late. She immediately asked about my baby, my beloved first. Forgetting who I was talking to, I started gushing, “Oh, he’s just fabulous! I can’t stop kissing and hugging him, he's just so wonderful!”
She chuckled knowingly, then said, “Oh, don’t do that—you’ll spoil him.”
“But he’s only five months old!” I protested.
“You’ll spoil him,” she gasped.
Until then, I hadn’t really realized how deeply ingrained this fear of “spoiling” was. I knew it was a major issue for that generation, but this was extreme. The lady was on her last legs, hooked up to machines, and all she could do was worry that I shouldn’t kiss and hug my infant? It’s profoundly disturbing.
(But after I read about Holt’s and Watson’s fear-mongering advice, I understood. Can you imagine if you were constantly warned by leading “experts” that showing your child affection would weaken the child, make him ill—perhaps even fatally so!—and cause him to become a bad person? That is pretty heavy stuff.)
Freudian concepts also twisted their way through all this.
Then Philip Wylie’s 1942 best-seller A Generation of Vipers stressed that overly protective dominant mothers and passive or absent fathers were the source of society’s ills.
So we see that at first, mothers were scared into being disease-obsessed, cold, rigid masters over their children. But 20 years later, being an overprotective and domineering mother was suddenly bad. (Although Wylie got the problem with passive/absent fathers right.)
Let’s also not forget the discouragement of breastfeeding, trending since the 1890s. By the 1950s, breastfeeding was discouraged by both doctors and the media. One frum woman told me that doctors in the hospital who saw her trying to nurse her newborn compared her to a cow. But she ignored them and kept on going. “I just somehow knew that if Hashem gave this to mothers, it must be the right thing to do,” she said. “And I didn’t feel like a cow at all!”
Then along came Dr. Spock with Baby and Child Care in 1946, which encouraged mothers to trust themselves more and introduced a more relaxed (but not too relaxed) way of parenting that okayed physical affection, too.
While people like to blame Dr. Spock for the chinuch revolution of the Sixties, the truth is that the earlier parenting methods sparked it.
Amid Holt’s and Watson’s movements, other healthier advice popped up—such Dr. C Anderson Aldrich and Mary M. Aldrich’s 1938 Babies are Human Beings with the idea that:
“The degree to which we are considerate of our baby's early needs, however, may be the measure of his later ability to feel secure in a world of change and to adapt himself to the necessities of circumstance."
If you meet people from that generation, you’ll notice they are obsessed with children “manipulating” people. They even consider infants capable of manipulating fully grown adults. These people will accuse a kindergartner of “pushing” their “buttons” and “testing limits”—as if the kindergartner is behaving with full awareness of his or her behavior and the possible consequences. Muwahahaha! the devious 5-year-old must be thinking!
In reality, I’ve spoken with or read about many people who remember staring at the terrifying adult and thinking—or even saying aloud—“What buttons?! I didn’t touch any buttons, I promise! Just tell me what buttons and I’ll stop!” Because children are literal like that and not as devious and capable of complex thought as that generation was taught to see them.
Inner anger at the constant accusations of behavior they couldn’t possibly be cognitively capable of and being treated like demons obsessed with evil intent, in addition to the very real touch-deprivation—THIS is what probably sparked a rebellion in their descendents.
I’m going to harp on this a bit.
The Sixties Revolution was the Reaction, Not the Cause
However, I strongly disagree with this as it never made sense to me.
The narrative goes something like this:
Everything was fine, everyone was happy—and then all of the sudden, normal intelligent decent people were incited to upend everything into a big stressful irrational mess?
No, it makes more sense that the deprivation and rigidity preceding the Sixties led to the insistence of many that “all we need is love!” and “peace, man!” and indulging children, thinking that letting children “be free” and “express themselves” without reserve, over-validating children’s opinions, and so on, are the battle-cries of people who feel severely wounded by the cold, rigid ways in which they grew up.
Especially for children who are born with a more deeply sensitive nature, cold and rigid parenting can make them feel dead inside. It can also make them extremely self-absorbed in an effort to give themselves what they so desperately need, but never received.
(The corrupting influences of radio, movies, and TV - yes, even the earliest and seemingly "innocent" movies - played an unseen yet powerful part in all this.)
Furthermore, if a child experienced abuse, they often received no support or validation, and hence, no healing. Now, I know that people today like to say that people didn’t know better back then about abuse OR healing, but the truth is that abuse of every kind has existed in every culture since time immemorial—tragically.
Prior to the Hollywood-influenced America, people were a lot more pragmatic and aware than people today like to think they were.
Furthermore, Freud really messed things up by insisting that stories of abuse were actually fantasies put forth by the victims (whom he obviously and wrongly saw as fixated tale-spinners).
So if you throw it all together, you have a lot of repressed pain and trauma just bursting for expression and healing.
A Decent Society, Not Necessarily a Decent Chinuch
Even though TV and movies were already horribly corrupt, the corruption and promotion of indecent values was extremely subtle and had not yet transformed American society into the iridescent and perfumed cesspool it is today.
So it just never occurred to most people to act out in a way that many people act out today. In addition, “acting out” in those times carried severe penalties, both social and legal.
Yes, of course some of the child-rearing methods were genuinely effective and beneficial. And of course, there were also parents who genuinely cared about their children and possessed a lot of common-sense wisdom, good values, and effective parenting techniques.
But it’s a mistake to think that the child-rearing methods worked, when it was really society as a whole that “worked,” and that if we only went back to the child-rearing methods of the Fifties, everything would work out.
Based on everything written here, I honestly do not see much truth in that idea.
So next time someone insists that they are teaching or learning a chinuch method from the olden days or “shel pa’am,” you might be better off taking a moment to ponder what that really means before getting caught up in their enthusiasm.