Influences on Affection and Discipline in Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth century Parent-Child Relationships.

The period of 1850-1950 is associated with a shift from strict, authoritarian parenting to more affectionate, companionable parenting.  At the turn of the century, parents could choose from old or new methods, or a mixture of the two.  Middle class mothers in particular reportedly became more involved with childcare, especially as servitude declined.  Upper class parents supposedly remained formal towards, distant from, and controlling of their children.  Meanwhile, working class parents were apparently slower to change their methods, as for some time they continued to be burdened with more children than resources, creating a need for strong discipline.  However many showed love and affection towards their children despite the challenges they faced.  The only children in my research had a variety of experience of parental affection, for many possible reasons.

Paul Thompson’s ‘Edwardians’ oral history interviews, from the 1970s, are a good source for this topic, as all participants were asked whether their parents were affectionate.  Furthermore, they were all of the same generation and were asked questions about their social and geographical background and parents’ ages.  The following examples come from working class interviewees unless otherwise specified.

For joiner Adam Robinson Aird, born in 1893, affection was not only present, but expected:

Interviewer: How did your parents expect you to behave towards them?
Adam: Oh well – you had to show all affection.  Oh yes, all right, you just all liked each other.’[1]

Aird implied that his parents were not strict, unlike those of teacher Lilian Pool, born in 1902.  Pool’s parents were affectionate towards her, but her mother was very displeased when her daughter got dirty, and would send her to bed if she misbehaved, demonstrating a blend of old and new ideas about raising children.[2]

On the other hand, dressmaker Amelia Southern, born in 1887, found that although her father was affectionate, her mother was more reserved, though she was kind to her daughter nonetheless.[3]  Similarly, Stanley Harley, a civil engineer born in 1905, described his lower middle-class parents as friendly people who spent a lot of time with him, but were not particularly affectionate towards him.[4]

So, why might some children during this period experience more affection than others?  With such a small sample, it is difficult to determine the influence of class, though it is notable that affectionate working class parents have come to light so easily.  Thompson himself noted that smaller working-class families had more time for affection and less need for severe discipline[5], so perhaps the one thing these interviewees had in common – being only children – had some influence.  Certainly, a couple of interviewees attributed their parents’ levels of love and affection towards them to being ‘only’.  Aird discussed this in relation to parental expectations:

Interviewer: No special [behaviours] that they insisted on?
Adam: No, there wasn’t anything – no. I might have been get – well with being an only one probably inclined to be spoiled I think. Aye. Only one generally is aren’t they. Aren’t they, so they say.[6]

Housewife Hilda Ogden, born in 1902, brought up only-childness in direct response to the question about affection:

Interviewer: Did they actually show their affection for you?
Hilda: Oh yes. Well with being only one you know they – they only – they’d only me to give all their love to hadn’t they.[7]

These responses demonstrate the power of the stereotype that only children receive unusual levels of love and attention from their parents.  Aird and Ogden may not have regarded their experiences as unusual at the time, but awareness of how only children were ‘supposed’ to be may have coloured their views of their childhoods.  Of course, we cannot know whether they would have received just as much affection if they had had siblings as they did not have that comparative experience.  However, plenty of sibling children in my ‘control group’ reported having affectionate parents, so it is questionable having a small number of siblings would have made much difference to these only children’s experiences.

Another possible influence is locality.  Again, the sample is too small to draw conclusions from, but I found Ogden’s experience interesting in comparison with that of public servant John Wolfenden, born four years later, in 1906.  Both were born and bred in Yorkshire, yet Ogden’s parents seemed quite different from Ogden’s characterisation of ‘Yorkshire folk’:

‘My parents didn’t say much, that night [when he received a scholarship to Oxford] or ever.  We were, after all, taciturn Yorkshire folk, not given to facile expression of our feelings.  In fact, the deeper the feelings the less there were spoken.  There might be a momentary trembling of a lip, or a sudden start of tears to the eye, or a quick pressure of the hand; but there were very few words, either in joy or in sorrow.’[8]

Surprisingly, parental age also seemed unrelated to levels of affection shown to children.  Unfortunately, although we know that Wolfenden was Ogden’s junior, his parents’ ages could not be discovered, so we cannot know whether his parents were of a different generation to Ogden’s, but in any case, the birthdates of all the parents of the Thompson interviewees mentioned here formed no particular pattern.  Southern’s undemonstrative parents were the eldest, both born around 1855, but Aird’s affectionate parents and Harley’s more aloof mother were all born in the mid-1860s.  Ogden’s and Pool’s openly loving parents were born around 1871 and 1879 respectively, but Harley’s more closed-off father was born between them, in 1875.

Perhaps we should tentatively conclude that parental affection at the turn of the century had less to do with class, family size, geography, and age, and more to do with parents’ individual personalities.  My thesis shows that only children showed huge differences from one another, and therefore from the stereotype.  Similarly, parental personalities and attitudes varied widely, as one might expect, and these majorly influenced children’s experiences.  Of course, a fuller examination of the interviews could show that the other factors had more general influence than in these isolated cases.

Alice Violett is a PhD student at the University of Essex.  Her AHRC-funded research aims to break down the only-child stereotype by comparing late nineteenth and early twentieth century perceptions of only children with the lived experiences of only children born in the period, through autobiographies and oral histories. @pokesqueak; aliceinacademia.tumblr.com 

[1] P. Thompson and T. Lummis, Family life and work experience before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file], 7th edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009, SN: 2000 (hereafter FLWE1870-1918), interview 185.
[2] FLWE1870-1918, interview 431.
[3] FLWE1870-1918, interview 115.
[4] P. Thompson, Family Life and Work Experience before 1918, Middle and Upper Class Families in the Early 20th Century, 1870-1977 [computer file]. 2nd Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2008. SN: 5404 (hereafter FLWE 1870-1918: Middle and Upper Class), interview ID 2053.
[5] Paul Thompson, cited in Harry Hendrick, Children, Childhood and English Society 1880-1990, (Cambridge, 1997), p. 18.
[6] FLWE1870-1918, interview 431.
[7] FLWE1870-1918, interview 128.
[8] Lord John Wolfenden, Turning Points, (London, 1976), p. 26.

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