Sunday, 1 December 2013

Daddy Cool Part 1

My dear friends,

It has been nearly one year since I became a parent. It has been a rewarding and emotional experience for me and my wife. I'm sure that many of you who have children can relate to that. 

Ever since I've been a parent though, one thing has struck me as unusual. I don't know why I didn't expect it, perhaps I never really thought about it until I was made to. Why is there still so much disagreement on how to raise children? I was genuinely astonished. Think of any aspect of child rearing and I can find you at least two if not more, conflicting ways to do it. From breast-feeding to schooling and everything in between. It is a source of continued and sometimes quite vicious debate.

Surely, I thought, there must be some consensus? Something we must all agree on? I suppose it depends how you define "all." As nation states we have laws governing the minimum standard we expect for our children's treatment, but I don't need to tell you that the "minimum standard" is also highly variable across the globe.

As someone who is very much interested in history, I thought I'd delve there and see if I could make at least some sense of it. Not an easy task, because there is a genuine dearth of information re children in history, when compared to adult men and women. Children genuinely are the silent players in history, rarely mentioned but just as effected by historical events.

I feel it is important at this point to warn you. Some of what I will be presenting in this weblog post is uncomfortable in the very least and downright sickening at it's worst. That is my experience at least and I have a strong stomach and a healthy perspective. I will try and leave out the gratuitousness as much as I can. Yet I feel it is important that we examine our history fully, including the truly perturbing aspects, if we are to understand where we are today and the direction we are heading in the future.

There is a professor of history in an American University, that each year challenges his students to find him evidence of parenting techniques prior to 1850, that if practiced today, would NOT end in prosecution for the parent. To date not one student has managed this. Quite remarkable when you first hear it, but as soon as anyone picks up a book relating the story of children throughout human history, it becomes evident to see why. 

Let's start near the beginning...

Anthropologists that study the very earliest modern humans have been quite forthright about their findings and theories about how children were treated by their palaeolithic and neolithic elders. Infanticide was a common practice. Sometimes the tribe could not sustain another one of their number due to environmental reasons and usually the children were the first to suffer rejection from the collective. The youngest would go first and if necessary the next youngest and so on until the tribe was left with only sexually mature adults. It made sense to them. Children weren't useful and actually reduced overall survival, in times of hardship. It was a brutish, harsh existence.

Cannibalism seems to feature quite a lot also in the fossil record. People ate people. Kids are people too and easier to catch from opposing tribes. And it would seem that the vast majority of those eaten would have been children.

Fast forward to the ancient Mediterranean. It is a matter of historical fact that the civilisations of and around the Mediterranean used children for sexual gratification, some younger than my son is now. Reading the primary sources for this era makes one question the humanity of these people. It's easier to see them as somehow alien and unrelated to us today. It's much more difficult to try and understand their reasoning and psychology. It makes one ask deeply disturbing questions about themselves and humankind in general. It's also easy to forget that the adults that would do these things to children, were once children themselves and almost certainly were treated in a similar fashion.

There was no religion that prohibited such behaviour, no damnation culturally for it. To all at the time, it was normal. So normal in fact that when one reads the primary sources describing these behaviours it's as if they are talking about the weather. The history of General, then later Emperor Tiberius is full of sickeningly graphic accounts of what today would be considered paedophilia of the worst kind, but in the history is related as if he's a mild alcoholic. Or the works of Petronius Arbiter, a friend to Emperor Nero and satirist whose "Satyricon" is a romance featuring young boys.

I'm not picking on the Romans either, because there is plenty of evidence that such practices were widespread, from Carthage to Iona, Assyria and Greece. 

So what of the the Christian world? Surely the introduction of an increasingly moralistic world view coupled with a fear of eternal damnation if not at least being a pariah, would stem the suffering of children?

Then were there brought unto him little children, that he should put his hands on them, and pray: and the disciples rebuked them. But Jesus said, "Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven."
Matthew 19:14
So Christ was for children being included in society and taught that one must be innocent and childlike in the presence of God to understand and be incorporated into the Kingdom of Heaven. That's my interpretation anyway, based on this and several other aspects of Christ's words as recorded in the New Testament. But the realities of Christian Europe in the Dark to Middle Ages, much as some would argue today, were far removed from Christ's message.

From around 300 - 1300 AD the spread of the Christian message did little to dissuade the practice of infanticide. It did however make vogue the custom of abandonment, often at the steps to a church or monastery. Children became subject to new dogmas and so in addition to the murders and rapes and regular beatings, came religiously inspired violence. 

Children were described as "changelings" if they were somehow physically deformed or mentally deficient. Physical and mental disability aside, St. Augustine said some children as "suffer a demon," and are "changelings" if they merely cried too much and needed to have "the devil beaten out of them." Death was not an uncommon occurrence during these of demonic exorcisms

Babies were swaddled and bound for years. The belief being that children's limbs could potentially become evil-shaped if left loose, or they could tear off their ears, scratch out their eyes, break their limbs or touch their genitals. The infants were often tied to chairs all day, lest they crawl on the floor "like an animal."

Aside from the physical aspect of the children's treatment at the hands of their guardians, is the plethora of psychological tricks and strategies for creating the kind of behaviour deemed necessary for the development of a good person. Stories from eastern Europe to the colonies in the Americas are abound with such practices. Children were sometimes literally scared to death.

In Europe, when a public execution was to occur, a special area right at the front of the crowd watching, was reserved specifically for children. They were made to stand and watch the condemned as the various charges were read and the appropriate punishment meted out. Once the execution was ended, the children were then beaten, severely. This was not a punishment, but a lesson. That lesson was, "Remember this day."

This sort behaviour, as well as countless other forms of what can only today be described as torture, persisted as necessary for well over a thousand years. Generation upon generation meeting out the same brutal judgements upon the next.

From 1500 AD until 1750 AD, children were given a slight reprieve from the physical punishments, but sexual exploitation was still rife. To understand how widespread this was, one must know that even the royal princes and princesses, heirs to the throne, were not exempt from this. The practices that occured are so utterly repellent I don't want to describe them here, but for those who are curious what makes me so squeamish, I will link to various historical source websites at the end.

Around 1750 came the newly formed study of Child Psychology. One of the earliest proponents of this new field was a German writer called J. Sulzer wrote in one of the first books dedicated to child-rearing,

These first years have, among other things, the advantage that one can use force and compulsion. With age children forget everything they encountrerd in their early childhood. Thus if one can take away children’s will, they will not remember afterward that they had a will…[sic]
[it is necessary] to drive out willfullness from the very beginning by means of scoding and the rod…
[it must begin] in the child’s first year.
Versuch von der Erziehung und Unerweising der Kinder (Attempt at the education and instruction of children) 1748

This was generally the mindset for most of the child psychologist that were adhered to by parents from across Europe. Even today there are high profile proponents of such forms of child-rearing, maybe not so much the physical aspect, but the psychological aspect certainly.

Change in attitudes on how to raise children has been exceedingly slow over the past few thousand years. The idea of parental "love" for the child seems to really be an invention of modern times and not in ingrained, hard-wired, immutable and inalienable feeling that I and many others today experience.

But before we start judging our ancestors too harshly, we must remember that context is easily lost with hindsight. Not that I'm making excuses, but it is important to keep context in mind whenever history is discussed, especially such a bleak and sinister aspect of it. We must never forget that these people, in the most part, did not consider their behaviour as abhorrent, but actually beneficial.

It should also be considered that, despite the deaths meted out by adults on children, for whatever reason, the greatest killer of children, even today, is disease. Thousands of pathogens, unchecked by antimicrobials and immunisations, took the vast majority of infants and children before they were five years old. The average ages of our ancestors is so low, not because people died at 25, it's because so many died before 5. If you were one of the lucky ones to survive up to your fifth birthday, chances were you'd live a good few decades after that.

Imagine the psychological strain that would put on a parent. There are many stories recounting the devastation that disease wrought on individual families. One that always wrenches my soul when I think of it, is the story of a pilgrim family in Maine, late 17th Century, where a husband and wife had thirteen children, not one of which survived beyond adolescence. Imagine having to bury every child. Imagine thirteen pregnancies, thirteen labours, thirteen illnesses, thirteen last rites and thirteen funerals, all for your own children.

That is just one family, in the history of humanity there are many more whose stories go untold.

Is it any wonder that perhaps parents didn't attach too strongly to their children? It is considered today that one of the most soul-destroying events for a parent, is the loss of a child. Imagine if almost every parent you knew had lost one if not multiple children to death and disease. How different would your outlook be then?

It is also worth remembering that all of the terrible things done to children throughout history, still occur to this day. Rape, torture, kidnapping, slavery and murder. We may be much more advanced technologically speaking, but there are those who are still very much mired in the darkest corners of the human psyche.

So, the fact that there is no concensus on child-rearing is because raising children without fear of death and with genuine parental love, is a relatively new phenomenon in the human experience. And it is still not universal amongst humans, the reasons for which we will discuss in Part 2 of Daddy Cool. It won't be the next blog post I do. I think I'll need a little breather after this one.

I'd love to hear what you think on this and any other subject,

Yours in thought,

the Filosofer


Thank you for making it through that, I commend your sticktoitivness. Here are some links for you, should you wish to look deeper into todays subject matter.

  1. History of Children
  2. Children and Youth in History
  3. The Association for Psychohistory - the science of historical motivation

Suggested reading:

  1. The History of Childhood by Lloyd deMause (Can be found in HTML format on link 3)
  2. A History of Childhood by Colin Heywood
  3. Childhood in the Middle Ages by Shulamith Shahar
You can contact the Filosofer at: or twitter @xmphilosophy


  1. Hi,

    Interesting read, and quite relevant as modern child upbringing is really very new. If you would like to read up on it a bit more, I can recommend 'The world until yesterday' by Jared Diamond. His anthropological approach to child raising in small-scale societies brings up some of the things you touch upon, but he provides clear reasoning and factors why people had/have these customs. And it's not only negative: in the range of various customs there are surely some things we could consider, e.g. don't let them cry too long, have them invent their toys rather than all the plastic stuff etc. My best to your family, cheers, Micha

  2. Thank you Misha, for the inaugural comment on this blog. I am delighted that it is such an articulate and thoughtful comment too.

    I will look into reading what you have suggested.

    I hope to comment on the more positive side of child-rearing techniques from modern to the ancient and their prevailing philosophies in Part 2 of Daddy Cool. I'll try to have it out in the new year, if not sooner.

    In the meantime, I hope you will continue to read my other xtra-medium musings.

    the Filosofer