A spoonful of salt helps the offal puree go down… and other retro parenting advice

Posted on Dec 5, 2012 in Zookeeping | 8 Comments

I’ve been reading my parents’ parenting manuals recently. It’s astonishing how much has changed in 33 years. Many 1970s child development experts advised the exact opposite to their modern equivalents.

What is this letter 'a' you speak of, mother?

Why can’t my babies read yet? We wear clothes when we look at books.

Haven’t taught your child to read before s/he is three? You’ve missed your chance, bozo, is the message of Teach Your Baby to Read (Glenn Doman, 1965). The book pooh-poohs the synthetic phonics approach that is the focus of current government policy:

“Nothing could be more abstract to the five-year-old brain than the letter A … It is obvious that if only the five-year-old were more capable of reasoned argument he would long since have made this situation clear to adults … The letters of the alphabet are not the units of reading and writing any more than isolated sounds are the units of hearing and speaking.”

We know pedagogical approaches go in and out of fashion (and phonics is already losing favour in some quarters). What about something more basic, like baby food?

I opened my mum’s only baby puree book, hoping to recreate the dishes we had as children. But every savoury recipe includes a teaspoon (a teaspoon!) of salt, and every pudding a teaspoon of honey – up there with soil in the modern parent’s guide to desirable food additives. Plus some very dubious offal purees, which I’m not sure salt or honey could save.


There are other names inside too…

Something to chew on as you read the brilliantly judgmental Name Your Child (Eric Partridge, 1968), with entries like these:

Barbara – the f. of bararous, a stranger – a term scornfully applied by the Greeks to all who did not speak their mellifluous tongue.

Enid – This is one of those names which would entail on its owner a very grave responsibility, if in the Celtic it means ‘spotless purity’.

Hebe – To be avoided, for it is now generic for a barmaid. In any event, dissyllabic.

“By explaining the meaning of the name, [this book] saves the parents from making some very unwise – perhaps ridiculous – choice,” the introduction explains. “Remember: it’s the child who carries the burden of an unsuitable name; he’s saddled with it for life.” I wonder what Eric would have made of baby Hashtag.

The Mother Person (Barber and Skaggs, 1978) is similarly forthright, with this summary of what might drive women to have babies in the first place:


Bookalikes – whoever the mother person was in the 1970s, she was definitely sans clothes

“At the age when most middle-class people begin to have children – often at twenty five or older – they’re faced with a vision of the future which shows them its limitations. Life is no longer the storybook dream in which you can be president. Children prevent you from having to face your own dwindling vision of your potential, and the suspicion of your own death.”

Yes, well. Quite. From that cheerful starting point, it goes on to offer advice on coping with “the many pitfalls of motherhood”. Pitfalls summed up by this quote from one of their interviewees: “Sometimes I wonder what I am besides a mother person.”

Sound familiar? The daily struggle, loss of status and identity, and impossible choices described by mothers in 1975 are strikingly similar to those written and blogged about by so many women today. And the 38-year-old advice is still relevant.

Attitudes on the best way to name, feed and teach children change quickly. But when it comes to the experience of motherhood itself, progress is much, much slower.


  1. Leoarna
    December 5, 2012

    Isabel, every year, not farfrom my home in South Devon, there is a literature festival called Ways With Words. For the quality and humour of your writing, you also deserve the title ‘Isabel has Ways with Words’. Sublime writing and brilliantly original angle on a subject that I ponder minute to minute. Fabulous!

  2. findthedetails
    December 5, 2012

    Hi Isobel, I tried to post an image of a cookbook to this comment but my IT powers have defeated me! It was called Leftover for Tomorrow, and would have shared bookshelf space with many of those above in the ’70s household!

    You have to see the cover photograph…. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Left-Over-Tomorrow-Penguin-handbook/dp/0140461655. Yuk!

    I found a copy still in my mother’s bookshelf recently, and laughed at it – she then threw it out! What a shame. It is a piece of our heritage….as was the parenting styles you write about. Let’s face it, we’re all just trying to do our best, whatever route(s) we go down to get there.

  3. Eleanor
    December 6, 2012

    I love it when you do a new blog post, they always make me burst out laughing. I’d ask you to write more, but I don;t know how you find the time to write the ones you do! Looking fwd to the next one 🙂

  4. Helen
    December 10, 2012

    Hey, you need to write a new manual! The Zookeeper’s Guide to Parenting. 😉 x

    • Isabel Thomas
      December 11, 2012

      Sub-title: 50 ways to raise your children feral

      I’ve certainly got the material!!

  5. Ruth Miller
    December 12, 2012

    I was born in 1973 and fed on apple puree and black pudding puree! Must be why I don’t like black pudding now!

  6. findthedetails
    December 13, 2012

    HI again Isabel, would have tweeted you but too long! Just to say I’ve really enjoyed reading ‘what you wrote’ (!), and so have nominated you for a Liebster Award…. All news to me too when a lovely blogger nominated me, so I looked it up and apparently it’s a kind of ‘we like what you’re doing’ award by other bloggers. So hope you like it! The details are all on the specific page of my blog (http://findthedetails.wordpress.com/liebster-award/).

  7. mobruleblog
    December 18, 2012

    Really interesting. Makes me think I should keep my mothering manuals for future generations rather than passing them on. May try the puree on the boys…they eat pretty much anything… Will let you know how it goes!!