Nurture by numbers: an inexpert view of children

These older relatives (c. 1930s) and kids of my generation were pretty much left to their own devices.
These older relatives (c. 1930s) and kids of my generation were pretty much left to their own devices.

Before I get underway, let me say that my childhood shouldn’t be taken as typical for every Australian kid of my generation. I’ll also admit that times have changed since I was fighting against becoming a grown-up. And I suppose I’d better whack in a disclaimer: these are personal views formulated over many years spent in all sorts of places among all sorts of people and not the result of valid scientific yibberda, yibberda, yibberda…

So, in my usual fashion, I’ll start this long-winded – though hopefully not boring – story by approaching it widdershins. Don’t hold your breath while your waiting for me to pick up the thread.

In the social strata occupied by my family, and thousands of other families like us, it was far from uncommon for older relatives to share houses with younger ones who had the space: a spinster aunt, the love of whose life did a perish with the 10th Light Horse in Egypt, a grandparent slipping into dementia or perhaps an eccentric uncle who “went a bit funny because of the Great War”, often living in the “sleepout”, a section of verandah converted into a small bedroom.

As a general rule, most of the rest of the extended family lived inside an hour’s walk from one another or were easily reached, relatively speaking, by public transport. Cars were scarce and any rellies wealthy enough to own one regularly and religiously did the rounds of others in the clan. This sort of family structure provided young mothers with not only a pool of babysitters, but also a vast storehouse of accumulated knowledge and wisdom from which to draw. Doctors were an expensive luxury and an experienced aunt or gran knew the difference between a bad cold, the croup and whooping cough, say, and between the gripe (love that word)) and wind, between need and tantrum. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it was all the good old days and anybody that says it was has a lousy memory. Vaccination wasn’t the norm and babies (and adults) died from things you hardly ever hear of these days. My family copped diphtheria, polio and scarlet fever along with the ‘usual’ mumps, chicken pox, measles, etc. How our parents got us physically through to adulthood in an era when anti-bacterial wipes that kill 99.9 per cent of household green cartoon characters were unknown is a mystery to me.

So when did parents stop raising their own offspring and hand the job over to experts?

I reckon the trend began when home births began to wane, accelerating as families fragmented and moved apart. Delivered by Great-Grandma Ada I was born at home, not unusual for the time but certainly not as common as it had been a generation before. A bit of trivia: I was born with my head sort of scrunched onto a shoulder, so Great-Grandma put me in warm ashes and massaged me for an hour or so. By the time my first sister was born, (conceived when the Old Man was home on leave en route from the battles in the Middle East to the South Pacific campaign) hospitals were angling for a monopoly on the baby business and the experts had the boot of scientific theory firmly planted in the door and Bertie Germ loomed large in life.

Littlies were taken from their mothers almost as soon as they were born – “Don’t want the little chap exposed to nasty germs now, do we, dear?” –  and placed in the nursery where, behind a glass partition, regimented rows of wheeled cribs, like shopping carts from some god-awful baby Woolworths, confined tightly wrapped infants in the process of being conditioned to The Schedule. For about the first week, sires, siblings and relatives were only allowed to peer at the hygienically incarcerated youngsters through the glass, gauze-masked nurses holding them up for inspection at allotted times.

Mothers were told that crying was good for babies, it developed their lungs, and so it wasn’t necessary to pick them up or feed or change them every time they bawled. No indeed, baby must learn The Schedule: eat, pee, poop, sleep and associate with Ma by the clock. Breast-feeding was a bit of a worry, too. Was it hygienic? Could baby catch germs by this too-close association with the mother? Grandmothers and aunts whose experiences led them to contradict these scientific truths were seen as dangerous heretics and, even worse, old-fashioned, and I suppose with a lot of the men away the younger, first-time mums must have felt awfully vulnerable and open to coercion. The experts were gaining ground.

By the 1950s the social structure I grew up with was vanishing as post-war reconstruction saw families split into smaller units, spreading far and wide. Parents lost that pool of knowledge, that back-up, and so began to turn to the experts. Some time around then, the disciples of the experts responsible for The Schedule were telling us that discipline was a Bad Thing, children should be free to express themselves at all times and in all ways. Chucking a deepy on a department-store floor was seen as fulfilling some primal need rather than a leg-weary kid’s reaction to being told no, she couldn’t have the three-storey dolls’ house. “Reason with the child,” they told the parents. Reason with a Tasmanian Devil’s changeling? They had to be joking.  Perhaps the experts should have explained the theory a little better, for its adoption by many parents had far-reaching consequences. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

My youngest son at about 4 years old actually survived exposure to the germs in the post-flood Goulburn River, on whose banks we lived.
My youngest son at about 4 years old actually survived exposure to the germs in the post-flood Goulburn River, on whose banks we lived.

A brief example. When I was growing up (there, I got it in!), kids in rural areas were carted along to all the dances and other functions at The Hall  (Ladies, a plate please, gentlemen a tie), often only a galvanized-iron shed next to an ant-bed tennis court somewhere east of the black stump. When they could no longer stay awake, the kids collapsed on old cushions and blankets stuffed under the wall-benches. At supper time if the hall was big enough, the kids would have a separate buffet, if not they waited till the adults had got their fill of tea, sandwiches and cake and then were allowed in to clean up the rest.

It was beneficial to both parties. Raspberry vinegar and grubby hands were kept away from best dresses and suits and the adults didn’t have to shout to make themselves heard above the feeding frenzy as ravenous kids devoured the queen pudding, cream sponge and fairy bread. For our part we weren’t bombarded with “wipe your mouth, use a serviette, chew your food before you swallow it, don’t rub mock cream in Jennifer’s hair”. It was far more sensible and civilized. Such supper-hall etiquette had all but disappeared by the late 70s. In its turn, the no-discipline theory was replaced by the doctrine of ‘We should be friends with our children who are, after all, adults in miniature and must have their independence’. The experts were tightening their grip.

When I was a nipper, as I think I’ve said before, kids and grown-ups lived on the same planet, but that’s about all you could say of them. Friends be buggered. Both generations lived under a sort of permanent flag of truce, as long as the rules were observed by both sides. Oh you loved you parents and siblings all right, along with your extended family, but that was in that other, private hemisphere reserved for badly cut legs and big disappointments and broken carts that needed fixing and wanting to know how fast crocodiles could run; reserved for when the dog died, or a relative was in a coffin in the best room of their house and you were afraid that the ghost might come and tap you on the shoulder or, worse still, you just might be called on to be the sin-eater (thank my childhood investigation into the folklore of my Welsh great-grandfather for that one). But on the surface at least it was a fragile peace, easily broken by the injustices of adults or rule infringements by kids. Outside school hours, you were expected to stay out of the house and the adults’ hair. Once you’d done your chores they didn’t want to see you until it was time to sit down to a meal.

I’ve heard it said that even young kids are entitled to the privacy of their own room. Yeah? In the 40s and 50s kids didn’t have private lives, even if you didn’t have to share a room with a sibling. You were left pretty much to your own devices but all the time knowing you were under the scrutiny of Big Brother in the person of any adult within earshot. A grown-up didn’t have to know you to chastise you, that was part of the rules. They could threaten the boot in the backside, even to skin you alive or, worst of all, to “…tell your mother, Sonny Jim and don’t think I don’t know her”. Such threats had to be warranted, the rules allowed for juvenile retribution if they weren’t. All in all the system worked pretty well, armistice reigning most of the time.

It was a given that kids on public transport gave their seat up to an adult – even little kids. It was also a given that the beneficiary would offer to sit you on their lap, Mum or aunty’s lap being occupied with babies or parcels, for the duration of the journey.

Again, it wasn’t all it’s often cracked up to be. Teachers were allowed to cane you – I still maintain that too many ‘six of the bests’ contributed to finger-joint problems that are today beginning to affect my guitar playing – and for the most part the law turned a blind eye to domestic violence and maltreated kids.

But as a kid you accepted your lot. Okay, so you’d broken some stupid school rule and you were up for the cane. So you copped it sweet. That was the rules. You were a kid and you knew your place and you could always hope to get bitten by a norn* and die and that’d learn ‘em. Even as a teenager in full-time paid work, as long as you lived at home you paid ‘board’ to your mother and continued to do chores, the younger kids taking over the ones befitting their place in the pecking order. By then you might also have begun to realise that a Grampa had nightmares because he spent the last of his teenage years in the mind-scarring muck of the Western Front and that your mate’s Dad was only 21 when he copped it in the Middle East, leaving him fatherless and his mum a widow, so you’d grudgingly admit they had some sort of right to control you.

But by then the pursuit of dreams had taken over from simpler pleasures, families were strewn across the country and generational gaps appeared into which fell or were thrown the accumulated folk-wisdom and child-raising skills of numberless generations. Parents were now firmly in the grip of the Experts who maintained that children are really adults but without an adult’s responsibilities.

We believed them, and both kids and adults were to suffer the consequences.

*Norn is the Nyungar word we used for the black colour variant of the tiger snake. Unwilling to move when disturbed, they will often strike before they retreat.

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