Babies haven’t changed much in about a million years.
But how we view them, what we expect of them, and how we raise them is changing all the time and, in the process, changing us, says Janet Golden, a professor of history at Rutgers and author of the new book, “Babies Made Us Modern: How Infants Brought America into the 20th Century.”
At the dawn of the 1900s, infant mortality was still so common that photographers routinely took pictures of babies in their coffins — eyes open — as a keepsake for the parents. It was only as mortality rates fell (and Kodak’s Brownie camera brought photography to the masses) that another kind of picture became popular: Snapshots of babies very much alive, even giggly.
This was such a new notion that Kodak actually had to tell parents: “It makes no difference how often the baby goes to the photographer … the record of his days is incomplete unless there are home pictures to supplement the more formal studio photographs.”
And that, my friends, is the first dawning of our Facebook culture. You’ll find it in baby books — diaries for moms to fill in with baby’s word, first tooth, etc . — which started including a page where parents were told to paste a baby photo.
These baby books proved a treasure trove for Golden, who pored over hundreds of them (strangely enough, collected by one obsessed librarian at UCLA) to see what parents considered good childrearing.
“I really didn’t know what I was going to find,” Golden said in a phone interview. “But the thing that jumped out at me was that they used to have places where you wrote down, ‘Baby’s first accident.’ ”
One such book from Red Bud, Ill., recorded the early life of a boy named Charlie Flood, born in 1914. At 4 months old, he suffered a burn to his face. Four months later he pulled off part of his tongue with a button hook — a common device in the days before zippers. By toddlerhood he’d gotten a nail in his foot and, later, glass in his hand from holding a bottle while he fell.
“Charlie’s mother dutifully recorded each accident … and he was hardly the only infant to have his calamities written down,” writes Golden. “Babies fell down stairs, out of high chairs and cribs. Some baby books even had places designed for writing down ‘First Tumble.’ ”
Today, babies still take tumbles, “But the standard of parental expectations have changed,” Golden says. Accidents have gone from an ordinary part of childhood to something almost too shameful to admit. “And the same thing happened with discipline,” says Golden. Some of the baby books have a page for “Baby’s First Discipline,” with moms filling in, “I spanked baby for ________.” You wouldn’t find a page like that today.
In fact, you wouldn’t find a lot of the practices considered prudent 100 years ago. The U.S. Children’s Bureau, a department of the government roughly akin to the Dept. of Agriculture, in that it instructed Americans on how to raise a healthy crop (of kids), published pamphlets giving parents “good” advice including:
“Don’t kiss babies. Let them cry. Make sure they get a healthy tan. Don’t give them pacifiers. Don’t get them in the habit of being held,” Golden synopsizes. Some of these strange-sounding tips made sense back then. Kissing spread germs which, before antibiotics, could have proven deadly. It was an era of tuberculosis, too. If crying possibly made lungs stronger, let those babies wail! And a tan? Before industry started adding Vitamin D to foods, kids got the bone-softening ailment called rickets. Sunshine prevented it.
In that era, too, moms routinely started toilet training their babies before age 1. Why? No washing machines! How many dirty diapers did anyone want to scrub against a washboard? I’d have hurried up and trained my kids, too.
Parental norms started changing after World War II. Not only were there more home conveniences, this was also a more permissive era. Parents turned to Dr. Spock who famously told moms, “You know more than you think you do” — so just trust your gut.
But as loosey-goosey as the parenting style became, the standards of safety kept going up. The more babies that survived, the more Americans began to believe they must obliterate any childhood adversity.
Which brings us to today: the safest times in human history, when parents are nonetheless encouraged to buy devices that can monitor their babies’ heart rate every second, as if they’re in constant peril. As safety has reached a new level, so has fear.
It doesn’t get more modern than that.
Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, and founder of Free-Range Kids.