Victorian parents stressed absolutes

This article is posted by permission of the Alexandria Gazette.

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Victorian parents stressed absolutes

February 15, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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Child's plate discovered in during King Street Urban Renewal entitled "The Sower" provides an agrarian image of a broader moral--you reap what you sow.
Photo courtesy Alexandria Archaeology.

Raising children is an important societal and family endeavor. Children are enculturated in a variety of ways, some formal, but most quite unconscious. They learn specific ways of speaking, eating, interacting, and meaning which have identity within the group. Childrearing practices include lessons on proper table manners, sleeping arrangements, proximity of child to mother, and a host of other subtle messages. 

In our quite separate households, compared to villages with more communal living arrangements, enculturation does take on individual variations. I will never forget my awe and fear when an elementary school classmate invited me home to dinner. I knew the table manners for cozy dinners in our kitchen where we picked up the chicken. I was not prepared for a formal dining room meal at which the chicken was eaten with fork and knife!

Today, articles frequently examine television's effects on children and teens (Sesame Street, MTV, talk shows, violence). The terms "dysfunctional" family or "adult children of an alcoholic" are applied as a ways to understand why people are missing information for behaving successfully.

The children's morality cups and plates used by Victorians in Alexandria were specifically used to enculturate the young in absolute values. The nouns used, such as Industry and Humility, were easy to portray in images and to remember when linked with catchy phrases and poems. While the last half of the 19th century was one of great change, adults used memorization of 100 year old maxims to create a firm foundation for their children.

For comparison purposes, I looked at books available today on child raising. Although I have used various books for advice in the last 9 years, I frankly had not looked at them in a historical perspective--just for HELP! I was shocked at the difference between now and then. Here are some excerpts from What To Expect; the Toddler Years: "When it comes to parenting, there are few absolutes...there is no one "right way" (with the exception of issues that affect a child's safety and health.)" "Different parenting styles suit different parents and the same parents at different times of life."

The contemporary parent is given little guidance in what to do, only to go on a quest to figure it out--to try and discover what works best: to teach child how to solve problems, think, explore alternative solutions; to help the shy child be assertive; to insure ' self esteem; prevent behaviors that lead to violence and depression. Yet in "The Optimistic Child," Martin Seligman states that even though children are raised to feel good, "they have never been more depressed." Our culture is facing rapid change by raising children to be more relative and responsive to themselves and specific situations.

Today we let kids grab their own meal, eat Happy Meals with cartoon characters, and serve meals on placemats with history or science data. Yet, 175 years ago we would place a dish with this moral message on the table: With steady had the sower throws That seed in which so much depends. Following the plough's deep track he goes and plenty every step attends.