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Patterns of child-rearing

Specialist paediatrician Neil McKerrow reviews how adults have historically understood children and their upbringing.

Thomas Carlyle correctly noted “The history of the world is but the biography of great men”. The ordinary man is seldom featured in the pages of history, and the child virtually never.

History is the record of public, not private, events and the “crowds and crowds of little children are strangely absent from the written record”. The net result of this fact is a noticeable absence of detail about childrearing practices of the past. The pattern of childrearing provides the basis for adult personality and therefore has a vital influence on public events and world history, yet very little is known about it. No-one really knows whether childrearing depends on cultural traits or vice-versa. Recent research has begun to shed some light on conditions of childhood through the ages. Anna Burr, in her 1909 review of 250 autobiographies, noted that not one contained happy memories of childhood, whilst Valentine, reading letters covering a 600-year period, was unable to find a father who wasn’t insensitive, moralistic and self-centered. A summary of this and other research shows that the further back into history one goes, the lower the level of child care and the more likely children were to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized and sexually abused.

Alternately, with the passage of time childrearing practices and the quality of childhood have shown a sustained improvement. This begs the question — Why? It has been suggested that the major force for change in parent-child relations is not technology or economics but rather the psychogenic changes in personality occurring because of successive generations of parent-child interactions. This ‘psychogenic theory of history’ proposes that when parenting, each successive generation of adults regresses to the psychic age of their children and in parenting they re-experience childhood. Having already experienced their own childhood, this second encounter is more successful with fewer anxieties and improved parenting. The net result is that each generation improves on the preceding one. This pressure for change results from spontaneous regressing, independent of social and technological change.

Parent-child reactions
If we accept this theory, then in viewing childhood over generations it is important to look at factors which may influence the psyche of the next generation. That is, what happens when an adult is faced with a dependent child. There are three possible reactions:

1. The projective reaction. Here the child is used by the adult as a vehicle for the projection of the contents of his own unconscious. This results in the child being seen as part of the parent, reflecting their unacceptable subconscious thoughts, emotions and beliefs. Because these subconscious feelings, and by projection the child, are unacceptable to the parent the child is seen as something evil which needs to be disposed of or controlled. This led to practices such as infanticide and abandonment and later to various actions aimed at suppressing the evil within the child. Initially these took a physical form such as the swaddling of babies, leading strings to restrain infants, and severe beatings for older children. Physical restraint was often accompanied and later replaced by mental restraints achieved through terrorising children with stories of ghost-like figures, corpses and witches.

Projective reactions are well illustrated by two common phenomena of the past. The extreme beatings commonly given to children and the frequency of severe and fatal accidents involving children. Beatings were an easy way of controlling the evil in the child and because the parent viewed himself and the child as the same person, when the child was being beaten the parent was actually beating himself and therefore felt no guilt. Hence the frequency and severity of the beatings for relatively trivial offences. Similarly because the parent sees the child as so full of portions of himself, accidents to the child are seen as injuries to the parent. “Alas, for my sins the just God throws my child into the fire.” Once again it is the parent who is being punished for some presumed offence or oversight, not the child, so there is no feeling of guilt for the child’s hurt and no steps are deemed necessary to prevent further accidents. The mortality from accidents was high and the type of accident repetitive, with drownings and burns being particularly common.

2. The reversal reaction. In this interaction the roles of adult and child become reversed. The child is used by the adult as a substitute for an adult figure who was important in his own childhood. Here the child exists to satisfy parental needs and is seen as a source of love, protection and nourishment. This view of children as parents paves the way for a variety of excesses in which the child is misused to fulfill the needs — physical emotional, sexual and economic — of the parent. Foremost amongst these excesses are sexual misuse and child labour. An additional and interesting consequence of this interaction was infant deaths following "overlaying". Here the parent was unable to part from the child so the two slept together with the parent clutching the child like a security blanket, eventually smothering him. More recently the failure of the child to fulfill this parental role often triggers child abuse. As one abusing parent has commented, “I have never felt loved all my life. When the baby was born I thought he would love me. When he cried it meant he didn’t love me. So I hit him.”

Projective and reversal reactions often occurred simultaneously in parents of the past, producing an effective double image where the child is seen as both full of the adult’s unacceptable projected needs and desires, and at the same time as a mother or father figure. That is, the child is both bad and loving.

3. The empathic reaction reflects a more recent interaction in which the adult empathises with the child. Basically this means that the adult is able to regress to the level of a child’s need, correctly identify it and without imposing adult projections, satisfy it.

Both the projective and the reversal reactions are adult-centered with the child existing as either an extension of the adult or to provide for the needs of the adult. In contrast the empathic reaction shifts the focus of attention from the adult to the child. Children of the past were most commonly subject to the projective reaction where they were seen as evil or a combination of projective and reversal reactions where they were both bad and loving. It is only recently, in historical terms, that the empathic reaction has played a significant role in parent-child relations. The first two reactions do not indicate lack of love for their children by historical parents but rather an inability to accept the child as an individual separate from themselves. Children were viewed as bad and loving, hated and loved; rewarded and punished.

Modes of parenting have evolved from practices dominated by projective reactions, through reversal reactions to the most recent modes encompassing empathic reactions. Whilst these forms of parent-child reactions form the basis for each mode of child rearing they have been influenced to a varying degree by a number of external factors. The two most significant factors being

The above interactions between adult and child have, singly or in combination, evolved over time to produce six modes of childrearing practices. It is difficult to place these modes into a time sequence as rates of evolution vary from society to society and show class and regional differences. Therefore any mode may have prevailed at a time, though periods can be recognised during which each mode was the dominant pattern of childrearing.

Modes of childrearing
1. The infanticidal mode. This mode, characterized by both projective and reversal reactions, dominated the period from antiquity to the fourth century A.D. As a consequence of projective reactions children were perceived as representative of evil and as such had to be controlled. The easiest way to do this was to remove the source of evil permanently by killing the child. It is well known that infanticide of both legitimate and illegitimate children was a regular practice of antiquity. The killing of legitimate children slowly reduced during the Middle ages, and illegitimate children continued to be killed up into the nineteenth century. Until the fourth century neither law nor public opinion found infanticide wrong; indeed Grecian and Roman scholars promoted the practice as a means for coping with abnormal or excessive children. It was only in 374 A.D. that the law and the Church first began to consider the killing of an infant to be murder. Prior to this it was justified in the belief that a child had no soul. Despite the changed attitude, parents in the Middle Ages were seldom punished for practising infanticide.

Illegitimate children were killed routinely, girls frequently, the third or later boy invariably, and abnormal children always. Child sacrifice was common in the years B.C. and drowning, starving or exposure of unwanted babies, the practice in the years A.D. Although infanticide was the dominant mode of child-rearing up to the fourth century it persisted in various forms well into the nineteenth century. One good example was the central European practice of sealing infants in the walls or foundations of buildings and bridges to strengthen the structure. This persisted as late as the mid 1800’s.

The presence of the reversal reaction during this period is evident in the extreme sexual abuse of all children from infancy to adolescence.

2. The abandonment mode. This mode stretched from the fourth to the thirteenth century and was also dominated by both projective and reversal reactions, although the latter reaction diminished considerably towards the end of the period. Once parents accepted that children had souls it was no longer possible to escape the evil projections they represented by killing them. The solution was to distance themselves from these dangerous projections by abandoning their children. This was done in a variety of ways. Children were sold into slavery, sent to a wet nurse, the monastery or convent, to foster families, to the homes of nobles as servants or hostages or by extreme emotional abandonment at home. Severe beatings and child labour were very common but with the reduction in reversal reactions sexual abuse became a little less widespread.
The sale of children was the first form of abandonment to be tackled when, in the seventh century, the Church ruled that a man could not sell his son into slavery after the age of seven. It is known that well into the twelfth century the English were selling their children to the Irish as slaves. Elsewhere child sale continued sporadically into modern times and was only outlawed in Russia in the last century.

The use of children as political hostages and security for debts was common in the middle ages, even though invariably unsuccessful.

The fostering of children persisted into the 1600’s whereby children were sent to other families to be reared. They stayed there until the age of 17 and in return for their keep worked for the foster family. This was common in all classes and was equivalent to an apprenticeship or the practice in the upper classes of sending children to monasteries nunneries or to act as clerks or ladies-in-waiting. Many historians feel this represented a form of kindness — the parents being unwilling to make their own children work within the home.

Up until the eighteenth century the average child of wealthy parents spent his first three to five years with a wet nurse, returned to the care of other servants until being sent out to service, apprenticeship or school by the age of seven. The amount of contact between parent and child was minimal. Justifications for these practices have included: to teach the child to speak; to cure timidness; to improve the child’s health; as payment of debts; or simply because the child was unwanted.

3. The ambivalent mode. Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries both projective and reversal reactions persisted but to lessening degrees. As the empathic reaction emerged conflict arose leading to an ambivalence towards children. The child was still seen as a container of dangerous projections but, as long as he was restrained, was allowed near his parents resulting in improved physical contact and the beginnings of positive emotional responses towards the child. The role of the parents was to accept responsibility for their children and to physically mould each child into shape.

This was achieved through physical beatings and various restraints. In infancy swaddling was essential to protect the infant from the dangerous adult projections within him. If left unswaddled infants were supposedly at risk of blinding themselves, tearing off their ears, scratching themselves, breaking limbs or crawling about on all fours like an animal. Swaddling consisted of depriving the infant of total use of his limbs by enveloping them in an endless length of bandage and compressing the trunk and head to whatever shape one desired. It took about two hours to apply and resulted in excoriated skin, pressure sores, brachycardia, lethargy and drowsiness. A swaddled infant was extremely passive and undemanding. This favoured the child-minders who could leave their infants, like a parcel, in any convenient corner. Total swaddling continued for about four months at which stage the arms were left free whilst the legs and trunk remained swaddled for a further six to nine months.

Once swaddling was discontinued children were controlled by beatings, by being tied to furniture, by the use of leading strings and other such devices. It is interesting to note that in 70 biographies of children who lived before the seventeenth century all were subject to severe beatings. One last practice common during this and earlier periods was that of giving children enemas. Children have apparently always been identified with their excrement. In French newborns are called ecreme, and merdeux (or ‘little child’) is derived from the Latin merde, excrement. It was common belief during this period that the inner state of the child could be determined by examining his urine and faeces. Consequently purges, suppositories and enemas were the rule of the day. The fact that the child’s faeces looked and smelled unpleasant supported the belief that the child was possessed of an inner demon which spoke to the adult world insolently, threateningly and with malice.

4. The intrusive mode. The eighteenth century saw the disappearance of reversal reactions, a reduction in projection and the emergence of empathic reactions. This accompanied major changes in parent-child relations. The child was no longer seen as being full of dangerous projections and was therefore so much less threatening to the parents that true empathy was possible. Parents became more involved in their children’s upbringing and rather than physically controlling the child tried to conquer their minds, thereby controlling the child’s insides, his anger, his needs and his will. Children raised by intrusive parents were nursed by the mother, not swaddled, given fewer enemas. They were toilet trained but neiter played with nor beaten. They were made to obey promptly with threats, guilt and other punishments such as being shut up in dark closets for hours.

This period saw a decline in the universal practice of giving enemas and with the decline in projective reactions true toilet training became increasingly more important.

As empathic reactions emerged, paediatrics was born and child rearing manuals, which first appeared in the previous period, became increasingly common. The general trend was towards improved child care and reduced infant mortality.

5. The socialising mode. Since the nineteenth century this mode, reflecting an empathic reaction between parent and child, has dominated. With the shift from projective to empathic reactions, child-rearing became less a matter of conquering the child and more a process of training the child, guiding him into the right direction and socialising him. This mode is thought by many as the only mode within which discussions of child care can proceed and it is the source of all psychological modes from Freud’s channelling of impulses to Skinner’s behaviourism.

Of note is that it is during this period that the father at last began to participate positively in child rearing.

6. The helping mode. Since the mid twentieth century this mode, in which the empathic reaction is taken to the extreme, has began to emerge. This mode proposes that the child knows better than the parent what his needs are at each stage of his development. Parent and child supposedly empathise and work together to fulfil these needs. Discipline is unnecessary as the parent functions as the child’s servant, playing with him, tolerating regressions, interpreting emotional conflicts and providing objects specific to his evolving interests. This involves an enormous amount of time, energy and patience from the parent and few parents have tried it. The result is reportedly a gentle, sincere, independent child with a strong will and little fear of authority.

The overall pattern in the evolution of childrearing has been from protecting the parent from the evil embodied in the child to protecting the child and preparing him for adult life. This has entailed a shift from infanticide to abandonment, then physical and mental restraint to reach a point of support and protection.

Many of these modes of childrearing are to be found in such a diverse country as this with no clear definition as to what determines which mode will dominate in a particular community. Similar modes occur within different social groups whilst different modes are found within a single culture. Improved communications have brought the problems of the world into individual households, and this assisted by violence, cultural and social breakdown, economic ills, poverty and a health crisis are sufficiently disruptive to undermine the general trend towards improved childhood. As a result, we are experiencing increasing abuse, neglect and abandonment of our children. Although these problems are minor in comparison to those of the past, it is important to take note of Peter Townsend’s comment that “since the beginning of recorded history down to the present day the harm that men do to children has not changed.” It is even more important to realise that “children are not a pressure group; they seldom get a chance to speak and when they do they are not often heard.” It is therefore up to us not only to care for these children but to act as their advocates, seeking recognition of their rights and the fulfillment of their needs.


Carlyle, T, The Hero as Divinity, in Heroes and Hero-worship.

Laslett P. The World We Have Lost. New York, 1965.

Burr A R, The Autobiography: A Critical and Comparative Study. Boston, 1909.

Valentine A, ed. Fathers to Sons: Advice Without Consent. Norman. Oklahoma, 1963.

de Mause L, The Evolution of Childhood. In de Mause L. (ed) The History of Childhood. The Psychohistory Press. New York 1974.

Townsend P. The Smallest Pawns in the Game. Granada Publishing. London, 1980.

This feature: McKerrow, N. (1994). Patterns of Child-rearing, in Gannon, B. (ed.) Children and youth at risk: HIV/AIDS issues, residential care and community perspectives. Cape Town: NACCW