You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Good Old Days Of Child-rearing

Over the holiday, my sister-in-law and I were sorting through some family memorabilia, including an April 1934 issue of Parents' magazine, the cover of which featured a portrait of her recently deceased aunt. On the final page of the magazine was a section called "Parental Problems And Ways to Meet Them," a compilation of correspondence from readers sharing not only their child-rearing nightmares but also the ways they had found to resolve them. Some involved issues you still run across in parenting mags today, such as how to cope with a child's shyness, his disinclination to take turns, his general disobedience, and his discovery of "vulgar expressions." Indeed, one rather lengthy missive was about a little girl whose unhappiness stemmed from her envy of a friend's home life. As the girl ostensibly told her parents:

"They get so much living out of every day. Beth's parents are so wonderful. Of course, Mrs. Stockley is not a very good housekeeper and, Mother, you are. And, Daddy, I don't believe Beth's father can earn as much as you; for Beth has much less than I have, but she has so much of her parents. They plan surprises on each other and even if Mrs. Stockley's work is not all done they go places and often Beth's father takes her alone on a shopping trip or a visit to the Art Institute. I would like some of that in my life." 

Now, this letter sounds suspiciously planted to me--What child delivers a soliloquy like this to her mum and dad?--but it's amusing to think that more than 70 years ago, parents were already having these angsty debates about the amount of quality time they spent with their kids--and that even when moms didn't work out side the house, they were being chastised for letting their housewifely duties take precedence over their offspring.     

But my favorite letter of the bunch was of a different sort:

When my son was between three and four years old he loved to make a fire. Once he had a nice blaze going on the floor of the woodshed when he was discovered. After the smoke had cleared away from that incident, he felt the need of greater seculusion for his hobby, so the next time he built a fire it was under the house. Fortunately this, too, was discovered before it caused a major calamity. After that, all legitimate household fires were son's responsibility. In the morning he helped build the fire in the dining room in time for breakfast. In the evening he built the fire in the living room fireplace, under supervision and with help, of course. If trash was to be burned in the incinerator, son was called to "take charge." None of these duties were imposed as punishments. They were merely safe and useful ways in which fires could be made and enjoyed. As he handled these fires he gradually learned the dangers of fire and the necessity for caution. -- Mrs. M.C.L., California

Conservatives like to agonize about the lost glory days of parenting, when tykes frolicked carefree all the livelong day under the ever-watchful eyes of their mums. Liberals, meanwhile, hyperventilate about whether every waking moment of their child's existence is enriching enough. So I find it gratifying to be reminded of a time when parenting may have been tougher but was less emotionally (not to mention politically) fraught--a time when a three-year-old could disappear with a box of matches every few days to build a cheerful fire in some hidden part of his home.  

--Michelle Cottle