When I was in the hospital room after giving birth to my daughter, Ava, a nurse came in the room and screeched, “Why is she sleeping on her back? That’s not safe!” She briskly wrapped up poor little Ava and flipped her over onto her stomach. About 40 minutes later another nurse came in, looked at Ava and screeched, “The baby shouldn’t be on her stomach!” Poor Ava was flipped again. I didn’t make note of it in her baby book, but it was a milestone: baby’s first time being a victim of poor parenting advice.
For the record, the current wisdom is that babies should sleep on their backs. But that could change. Over the years, many self-proclaimed experts have doled out all kinds of wrong-headed, if not openly dangerous, advice.
Lately I’ve been browsing through old parenting advice books (many of them are available for free online because they’re not just old, they’re public-domain old) and finding myself fascinated – not only by the odd advice they offer, but by the peek into the mores of the times and, often, the psyche of the author.
“The danger of too much mother love” was of dire concern to John Watson, the founder of behaviorism. In his 1928 book “Psychological Care of Infant and Child,” he advised mothers to treat children as little adults. “Never hug or kiss them. Never let them sit on your lap,” said Watson, a man who might have had some mommy issues of his own.
“If you must, kiss them once on the forehead at bedtime, but shake hands with them in the morning,” he added darkly, implying that giving a kid a hug was a weakness akin to sneaking into the alley for a smoke.
There was a whole chapter on the scourge of “The Puny Child” in 1916’s “The Mother and Her Child” by Drs. William S. and Lena K. Sadler. The doctors had a whole regime for the puny child – “an underweight little creature with pale skin” – and the thing that gets me is how specific it all is.
First the poor kid’s adenoids and tonsils were removed, then the child was put on a strict dietary regime.
“There should be served him for breakfast a generous bowl of dextrinized grains with a good portion of diluted cream, a glass of rich milk, a baked potato, and fruit,” the book advises. “For lunch at twelve o’clock he should be given a glass of malted milk with egg, or eggnog, six or eight dates or three or four figs, a handful of pecan kernels, and perhaps a lettuce sandwich. For dinner at half past five, another nourishing…