Parenting through History: A Look at Childrearing in Five Historic Societies

Perhaps your parents or grandparents had different approaches to raising children than you are using in bringing up your own children. These weren't necessarily bad means of parenting -- but different because they reflected cultural values that have changed over the generations.

Much has changed in the long human history of parenting. And a lot hasn't changed at all. I think that you'll see that as we explore how children were raised in five historical societies.

Ancient Rome: In theory, under the law and principle of patria potestas -- the power of the father -- the male head of household held absolute power over his children. He could discipline them as he wished, or even kill them or sell them into slavery. In practice, however, there were many formal and informal limitations to this practice. Exposure at birth was common for unwanted children -- provided that it was the father who made the decision -- although this infanticide was legally considered murder during the last centuries of the western empire. Valued children were given a bulla or bag of magical charms worn around the neck to protect them from harm.

Childhood lasted until about thirteen for girls, when they were married off, or fourteen for boys, when their medallion of childhood was replaced with the toga of adulthood. Girls were educated in domestic skills at home, and sufficiently wealthy boys attended local schools. Discipline could be harsh, but many Romans realized that the rod was counterproductive. Quintilian, in a text on rhetoric and pedagogy, wrote:

But that boys should suffer corporal punishment, though it be a received custom, and Chrysippus makes no objection to it, I by no means approve; first, because it is a disgrace and a punishment for slaves, and in reality (as will be evident if you imagine the age changed) an affront; secondly, because, if a boy's disposition be so abject as not to be amended by reproof, he will be hardened, like the worst of slaves, even to stripes; and lastly, because, if one who regularly exacts his tasks be with him, there will not be the least need of any such chastisement. (Institutes of Rhetoric, 1.3.14)


Ancient Greece: In classical Greece, it was legal and fairly common to abort or expose unwanted babies. Those that were kept and survived early infancy were nursed by mothers or wet nurses, commonly slaves devoted to the task. Children were often given toys at sacred festivals, such as balls, miniature chariots, or dolls made from clay and rags. Upon reaching adulthood, the children would dedicate their toys to various gods as a rite of passage.

Girls were kept at home until they married, but boys were able to go out and acquire an education -- a task that Greek intellectuals took very seriously. Here’s a passage from the works of Plutarch, a 1st Century A.D. Greek writer, about how Spartans tried to teach their boys ideas and manners by immersing them in the adult social world:

The children would also come to the public messes, and were taken there as though to schools of modesty. The would listen to political discussions and would see amusements worthy of free men. They themselves would learn to play and joke without rudeness, and not get angry when being joked at. For it was thought to be a specifically [Spartan] virtue to put up with jokes, but if one found this intolerable, one could simply ask the jester to stop and he would comply. (Lycurgus, 12)


Mesopotamia: In some of the ancient Semitic cultures of Mesopotamia, babies were named for the emotional response of the family upon the child’s birth. Exposure was common, particularly for girls, but selling a child into slavery was rare and an act of financial desperation. Children were nursed for two to three years, in part for the activity's birth control effects on the mother. Mothers sang incantations as lullabies to their children, fearing that the noise of their crying would irritate the gods. Children played with miniature weapons and household implements as they role-played adult activities.

Sons were particularly valued and discipline was moderated, as one proverb expresses “A poor man does not strike his son a single blow; he treasures him forever.” (Proverbs from Ki-en-gir, 17) Nonetheless, the bonds of parent to child could be broken by a delinquent child, as one law states:

Be it enacted forever and for all future days: If a son says to his father, "You are not my father," he [the father] can cut off his [the son's] locks, make him a slave and sell him for money. If a son say to his mother, "You are not my mother," she can cut off his locks, turn him out of town, or (at least) drive him away from home, deprive him of citizenship and of inheritance, but his liberty he loses not. If a father say to his son, "You are not my son," the latter has to leave house and field and he loses everything. If a mother says to her son, "You are not my son," he shall leave house and furniture. (A Collection of Mesopotamian Laws, 1)


Medieval Scandinavia: Viking women gave birth only in the company of other women. Laws against the exposure of newborns except in case of birth defects indicated that the practice was known, but not fully socially acceptable. Again, girls were more likely to suffer this fate than boys. Even before the Christian period, babies were sprinkled with water and given names in a public ceremony. Finely crafted toys indicate that children were often deeply loved by their parents.

Girls were educated in the household arts, but boys typically learned farming and herding, except for the higher classes, who learned the arts of war. It was common for children to be fostered by other families in order to strengthen bonds between different kinship groups. Such children could be highly esteemed, as one runic inscription at Kirk Michael on the Isle of Man says “It is better to leave a good foster son than a bad son.” Fostering another man’s child could be an honor, or it could be an expression of dominance, as one Norse king expressed when he was presented with the child of another king:

Then Athenalstan said, “Whose child is this?”

“A servant girl’s in Norway,” answered Huak. “King Herald said you should foster up her child.”

King Athenalstan said, “This lad’s eyes are not those of a servant.”

Huak answered “The mother is a servant-girl. She says King Herald is the father. Now you have taken the lad on your knee, you must treat him just as he were you own son.”

The king replied, “Why should I foster up Harald’s child, even if he were legitimate? Much less his servant-girl’s child.” With one hand he reached for the sword that lay nearby, with the other, the child. Then Huak said, “You have taken King Harald’s child on your knee as your foster-son. You can slaughter him now if you want, but for all that you won’t be able to destroy all of King Harald’s sons like that. And from now on, everyone will say, as they have always done, that a man who fosters another’s child is less noble than him.” (“Noregs Tununga Tal”, part of the Flateyjarbók.)


Imperial China: In China of the imperial restoration (6th-13th centuries A.D.), children were highly valued and parents used various treatments and practices to increase fertility. Rearing was largely the responsibility of the mother, or in a wealthy family, nurses. A father might throw a grand feast for his community to celebrate the birth of an heir on the third day after the child’s birth and take the child into his arms for the first time. After three months, fathers gave boys special, sacred names that were not spoken in public. Children, even as adults, did not refer to their parents by their given names on pain of imprisonment under certain circumstances.

Rituals marked a formal entry into adulthood for children of both genders. At fourteen, a girl’s hair was pinned on top of her head by her mother and she given a new name signifying adulthood and eligibility for marriage. Similarly, wealthy boys received a cap on their heads from their fathers in a ceremony before the spirits of the family ancestors, and took an adult name.

Approaches to discipline and character formation leading to this fulfilled adulthood were widely debated. Some, such as the influential Yan Zhitui (531-591), proposed a middle ground between harshness and laxity:

But as soon as a baby can recognize facial expressions and understand approval and disapproval, training should be begun so that he will do what he is told to do and stop when so ordered. After a few years of this, punishment with the bamboo can be minimized, as parental strictness and dignity mingled with parental love will lead the boys and girls to a feeling of respect and caution and give rise to filial piety. I have noticed about me that wherever there is love without training this result is never achieved. Children eat, drink, speak, and act as they please. Instead of needed prohibitions, they receive praise; instead of urgent reprimands, they receive smiles. Even when children are old enough to learn, such treatment is still regarded at the proper method. Only after the child has formed proud and arrogant habits do they try to control him. But one may whip the child to death, and he will still not be respectful, while the growing anger of the parents only increases his resentment. After he grows up, such a child at last becomes nothing but a scoundrel. (Household Instructions.)


Images: Flickr user David Paul Olmer used under Creative Commons license, leoncillo sabino used under Creative Commons license, Minnesota State University - Mankato, Flickr user ~Duncan~ used under Creative Commons license, and George Mason University, respectively.

NB: These are generalizations of diverse societies over long periods of time. They should not be taken as universal statements of historical realities.

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