How much has parenting actually changed since Shakespeare’s time?

Childhood and early modern parenting
The doll. Ostade, Adriaen van, 1610-1685, printmaker. 1679. Folger Shakespeare Library.

While “parenting” may not have been a word in early modern England—let alone the subject of best-selling books, magazine articles, and the occasional lawsuit—people nonetheless did it, raising generations of children to take their places in society.

In his 1960 work, L’enfant et la vie familial sous l’ancien régime, historian Philippe Ariès made the startling contention that childhood did not exist until the seventeenth century. Before then, he claimed, there was no appreciation for the general state of childhood or any particular feeling for individual children. His conclusion was based in part on the fact that children seldom appeared in contemporary paintings and, on those rare occasions when they did, they were depicted as miniature adults. Further, Ariès and his followers, most notably Lawrence Stone, theorized that prior to this time, parents were guarded in relation to their children, viewing them as property and failing to establish a bond so that they could insulate themselves from potential grief. With infant mortality rates estimated as high as fifty percent, attachment was simply deemed too risky. Stone argued that there was instead a “resigned acceptance of children” by both men and women and even posited a lack of a “maternal instinct” during the early modern period.

Subsequent scholars have vigorously contested these findings. While conceding that childhood may not have been viewed in previous centuries the same way as it is today, historian Linda Pollock contends not only that children in early modern England were recognized as such, but also that their parents were very fond of them. Turning to accounts by sixteenth-century diarists, she found that parents “were aware that children were different from adults, and they also appreciated the ways in which children were different.” Journal entries by Anne Clifford, John Dee, and others often made note of their children’s first words, the need for discipline and guidance, or the fact that baby-sitters had to be lined up when the parents were away. “The diarists were obviously attached to their offspring,” Pollock concludes, “revealing a great deal of anxiety when their children were ill and also a desire to help their children when necessary.” We also have the evidence of moving poems like Ben Jonson’s epitaph to his child. In “On My First Son,” he writes, “Rest in soft peace, and ask’d, say, ‘Here doth lie / Ben Jonson his best piece of poetrie.’”

Other scholars point to Renaissance advice manuals on childrearing to advance the view that, as Naomi J. Miller and Naomi Yavneh write, “a consuming interest in parenting is far from being exclusive to our own modern time period.” Research by Gregory M. Colón Semenza supports this idea, noting that these manuals sound very similar in tone to their modern equivalents: “They reveal that children were perceived as blessings to their parents and as beings with their own unique characteristics and needs.”  Parents were advised to be kind to their children, and to love and nurture them, but not to go too far overboard. “Cockering,” or being overly tender or indulgent, was frowned upon— as was its converse. Parents who were too harsh in their discipline, or who “filthily and shamefully doe abuse their power and authoritie” came in for their own dose of scolding. Physical abuse, chastised one such manual, “is the resort of fools.”

This is an excerpt from an article that appeared in the Fall 2015 issue of Folger Magazine.