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.
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.
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:
“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.