Modern and old-fashioned baby-rearing methods
by Sidonie Matzner Gruenberg
Every mother who has but one child realizes how little grandmothers know about the proper care of children, no matter how much experience they may have had. And I have been repeatedly assured that they do not even care to learn. I was therefore somewhat astonished when a woman who had but recently become a grandmother came to me for suggestions on what to read to bring her up-to-date on the subject of “care of infants.” She confessed to a certain fear lest she be considered old-fashioned, and she was also anxious lest she make a nuisance of herself.
Curiosity as to the sources of her fears and anxieties made me question her, and I learned that she had been somewhat upset by the behavior of a young mother she had recently visited. When she held the baby in her lap, the mother explained patiently that we do not hold babies that way any more. When she patted the baby’s cheek, the mother intimated that the stroking might not be good for baby; and several times during the visit she was made to feel that she really did not know the latest thing in these matters. When she was about to leave and waved her hand to the baby in a friendly “bye-bye,” the mother turned the child away to save it from whatever injury the ceremony might inflict.
This baby romped on the floor
The uneasiness resulting from this visit to an up-to-date mother was turned to deep perplexity by a visit to another up-to-date mother whose eighteen-month-old girl was romping about with the older children in a boisterous, old-fashioned way. And when the father came home he romped with her, threw her up into the air and caught her in his arms, made her tumble about on the floor, and otherwise gave evidence that he did not consider the baby a piece of delicate bric-a-brac to be kept under a glass globe.
It is no wonder the good woman was perplexed. She remembered that the hothouse baby, that no one was allowed to handle, did not look as bright as the one that was played with so heartily; but she did not know whether there was any connection between the care of the baby and its apparent intelligence.
Now, it is very certain that if we should place our babies in dark, sound-proof incubators with arrangements for feeding and cleaning them without their noticing anything about them, they would probably grow up to be rather stupid little creatures. The child must have a great deal of stimulation for his sight and hearing and touch senses, as well as for his taste and smell, if he is to develop normally. Moreover, he must have a great deal of opportunity to exercise his muscles if he is ever to acquire the kind of control over his limbs that makes possible purposeful action and higher intelligence.
It is with this in mind that Froebel devised his “mother play,” and it is for the same reason that all educators who have given attention to the developing infant have provided for games that would reach the senses and stimulate the activities.
Danger of overstimulation
But there is also the danger of over-stimulation. A child needs to see and to hear and to do, but he does not need to get excited or worked up to the point of hysterics or sleeplessness. The perplexed grandmother understood this, although she did not say it just that way. She was puzzled simply because she had met two extremists who both thought they were doing just the right thing.
A mother of two children who was solicitous about their health and all the dangers that lurk in ignorant friends and relatives brought her children up on the roof of a private house, where they were safe from all excitement and germs. She never allowed the children to go into the kitchen, or into any other room of the home except the living room and the nursery, until they were four and five years old respectively.
When the children came to kindergarten, they were rather slow to take hold of the activities there provided, and they were considerably behind the other children in their knowledge about common things and about intercourse with other people. The most that the mother could claim for her years of care was the perfect health of the children. Since both parents came of healthy stock, it is probable that she could have attained this without sacrificing the social and intellectual development of the children. The mother had not even permitted her relatives to send gifts to the children, for fear that they might not select suitable things. The result of this isolation was a very ungracious, though healthy, pair of children.
Took baby to visit grandparents
The opposite extreme is illustrated by a couple who took their first child with them to visit the grandparents, going alternate weekends to the two families and exposing the child to new faces and new surroundings constantly.
The admiring cousins and uncles and aunts did their share in providing excitement for their own amusement, of course, and not out of special consideration for the needs of the child. The effects of years of over-stimulation were quite noticeable when the child finally reached the kindergarten.
It is the extremes to which people are likely to go when they get a new idea that so perplexes the grandmother. With her more mature judgment, she is usually quite ready to cooperate in anything intended for the improvement of the child if the plans appear reasonable. It is generally feasible to suggest gifts for the baby to the doting relatives, rather than to reject all advances. It is quite possible to be careful without being ridiculous. And the grandmother will in most cases be “modern” if the mother gets modern ideas, and not merely fashionable formulas.
Top illustration by Mother and baby, by Jessie Willcox Smith (c1895-1915)