From the wisdom of family to doctors’ advice from the late 19th century, trends in parenting have waxed and waned.
110 AD: Plutarch
The Greek historian and essayist wrote about importance of education, insisting that anyone charged with raising children should have impeccable manners and be free from scandal. Both he and Plato believed that the stories read to children should also be carefully selected, “lest haply their minds be filled at the outset with foolishness and corruption”. But the ancient Greeks were also physically close to their children: Plutarch wrote about the pleasure he derived from playing with and cuddling his daughter, Timoxena, although sadly she died at the age of two.
1693: John Locke
In Some Thoughts Concerning Education, British philosopher John Locke suggested that children be exposed to harsh physical conditions when young – wearing thin shoes that let in water, for instance – as this would strengthen their constitutions in later life. He also proposed treating children as reasoning beings from a young age and to create a habit of rational thinking, rather than simply issuing lists of things they shouldn’t do, and argued that discipline should be founded on esteem and disgrace rather than on rewards and punishments.
1878: George Henry Napheys
“The first seven years of life should be one grand holiday for all sports and amusements which will bring into play the muscles, and divert at the same time the mind,” wrote Napheys, a British physician, in The Physical Life of Woman (published in 1878). Besides games and sport, other suitable pursuits for young children included “visiting workshops and factories where familiar objects are made” and “cultivating a sense of the beautiful in nature and art”. Formal schooling shouldn’t start until children were at least seven.
Napheys believed that discipline was important, arguing that “there is no surer way of making a child miserable than by accustoming it to obtain all it wishes, and to encounter no will but its own,” but he also said children shouldn’t be harassed by “needless restrictions or excessive management”.
Other advice included ensuring that children’s heads always point north during sleep, to align their nervous systems with the Earth’s electrical currents.
1928: John B Watson
By the 1920s, parents were looking to the new science of psychology for advice about how to raise their children. In his book Psychological Care of Infant and Child, published in 1928, Watson warned against showering infants with excessive love and affection, as this would condition them to expect the same degree of attention throughout their life. Neither should they be allowed to get too close to any one person – including their mother – as this might interfere with their future ability to form stable marital relationships. Instead, he wrote, children should follow rigid schedules and be encouraged to become independent from an early age.
1946: Benjamin Spock
Challenging the prevailing wisdom that children should be kept at arm’s length, Spock encouraged parents to shower their offspring with love and affection, and to tell each child they’re special, loved and unique. He said parents should feed children when they seemed hungry and discipline with words, not physical punishment. His mantra “Trust yourself, you know more than you think you do” was embraced by parents and his book, Baby and Child Care, remains one of the bestselling books of all time.
He didn’t get everything right, though. Early editions of his book told mothers to put babies to sleep on their stomachs; later research revealed this is a risk factor for sudden infant death syndrome.
1992: William Sears
‘Attachment parenting’ is a phrase coined by the American paediatrician William Sears to describe his parenting philosophy. This is based on the idea that the emotional bond a child forms with his caregivers has lifelong consequences for his mental health and ability to form relationships with others.
In The Baby Book, published in 1992, Sears outlined the seven baby Bs of attachment parenting: bonding in the first few hours after birth; breastfeeding; baby wearing (in a sling or other carrier); bedding close to baby; belief in the language value of your baby’s cry; beware baby trainers with rigid scheduling and advice about ‘crying it out’; and balance, or not neglecting your own needs.
1999: Gina Ford
The Contented Little Baby Book by Gina Ford, a former maternity nurse, saw a return towards rigid scheduling for infants. Ford advocates leaving babies to cry for specified periods, saying this teaches them to self-soothe and fall asleep by themselves.