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This Is What Raising a Child Was Like in the 20th Century



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This Is What Raising a Child Was Like in the 20th Century

New years always get us nostalgic for the past. We start thinking of a simpler time – you know, the kind when kids played outdoors, using nothing more than their imagination.

But we’re pretty certain we’re just struck down with a serious case of grass-is-greener. Because childhoods in the early 20 th century weren’t just different. In most cases, they were far more difficult too. Let’s face it, kids have it much easier in this millennium.

Kids had it hard, and so did their parents! Weird parenting advice, strict teachers, child labour, and absent fathers made childhood a century ago a bizarre and challenging experience for all those involved.

two babies crying in pram

Parenting Advice Was Pretty Crazy

Bringing home a newborn can be an overwhelming experience for any new parent. You can only be so prepared. These days, through the power of Google, we can look up the answers to any of our concerns – and get a bit of the right advice too!

As long as you are critical of where you’re getting advice (Hint: Yahoo Answers is not a good source!) you should be able to last sometime between visits to the GP and the grandparents.

But back in the day, new parents weren’t exactly wired up. They often lived away from their parents and family, and doctor’s visits could be expensive. So many parents relied on old wives’ tales.

Old wives’ tales could be hit or miss. While it’s true that a longer, more arduous labour often means a baby boy , taking a bath while pregnant will most certainly not drown your unborn child!

But it wasn’t just the old wives’ tales getting it wrong; science was also all over the place. Advice from doctors and “scientists” included avoiding the sight of ugly people lest your unborn child turn ugly , and crazy theories about electrical currents and pointing baby’s head north.

Crying was said to be good for the baby’s lungs. In 1916, Doctors Lena and William Sadler even stated :

“[A baby] will sometimes cry so hard that it will get black in the face and may even have a convulsion; occasionally a small blood vessel may be ruptured on some part of the body, usually the face. When you see the little one approaching this point, turn it over and administer a sound spanking and it will instantly catch its breath.”


Mums Stayed at Home

mother ironing clothes from 1990s

As a society, we can’t quite get it right. These days, stay-at-home mums are often the ones taking a hit and finding they have to justify their choices. About a century ago, mothers were expected to do all the homemaking.

So how much has really changed? Well, in the 1950s, just 19% of American mothers worked outside the home. By 2008, that figure sat at 60% for those with kids under 6 and 80% for those with children aged 6-17.

For many, that outside work is welcome relief – a chance to get away from the baby talk for a while each day or week! And it’s an opportunity many women 100 years ago were denied. But it also means that in some ways, respect has diminished for those who choose to stay home – and many people have forgotten just what a full-time job child-rearing and homemaking can be!

Dad Did the Discipline – and Little Else

Back when gender roles were firmly binary, fathers found themselves living in completely separate worlds to mothers and children.

Being the man of the house meant breadwinning. Work was the father’s priority. They had to maintain the class status of the family and make sure the family had enough money for all the family expenses.

The role men had in their children’s lives was often limited. They were the decision-makers and the disciplinarians , mostly interacting with the kids in this capacity (think that familiar admonishment: ‘Wait ‘til your father gets home!’).

This began to change in the early 20th century, as advice from the experts began to encourage fathers to take a more active role in the lives of their children. The experts encouraged fathers to start listening to the child-rearing experts in their homes … their partners!

Teachers Could Hit Your Kids

When you think of schooling today, sometimes it seems the kids coast through it far too easily. Think of the kid-friendly playgrounds, the tech-based learning, and some of the subjects on offer…!

Yeah, it really didn’t used to be like that. In the late 19 th century, schooling became available to people of all economic backgrounds. While it had always been available to the wealthy, public schools began cropping up everywhere.

As school became compulsory, teachers were now seen as guardians to kids in their care. This meant they had a legal right to discipline children in the manner they saw fit.

Corporal punishment was common; teachers could use canes, paddles, and leather straps to hit misbehaving children on the hands or bums. Fortunately (for the kids at least!) this was outlawed in most places in the eighties and nineties.

You Could Send the Kids Out to Work

child standing in cotton factory

These days, kids are freeloaders! They eat all your food, make you buy them clothes and shoes, and expect a ton of Christmas presents because of “tradition”.

Not too long ago, they would have been expected to contribute to the family income, even from as young as ten years old. A hundred years ago, it was common for the kids from poorer families to supplement the household income by working.

Of course, we don’t wish this kind of work on our children these days (at least, not all the time). In urban areas children often worked crazy hours in dangerous conditions in factories, mills and mines. While in rural areas, children were expected to help their parents run the family farm.

Your kids today have benefitted from the hard work of activists over the course of the 20th century. Let’s be honest, today they barely do any household chores and all and will kick up a stink if you ask them to pick up their Lego.

For some more 21st century-appropriate parenting advice and stories, make sure you check out our other resources on the Bobux blog!