Childcare during..., History

Instinctive motherhood and how to educate in the 17th century


“I think I may say that of all the men we meet with, nine parts of ten are what they are, good or evil, useful or not, by their education.”

wrote  John Locke (1632 – 1704), the English philosopher in his outline on education, Some Thoughts Concerning Education. The philosophy of the Enlightenment had affectionate and tender-hearted ideas of what a household was and had warm, chummy thoughts on children. This was new. Guidelines on how to educate were absent in philosophy or sociology books. They never had  very much attention for children in literature. But John Locke in the 17th century and Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the next century changed all that.

John Locke  expresses the belief that “education maketh the man”, or, more fundamentally, that

the mind is an empty cabinet”.

Locke wrote also on infants and helped mothers to take care and educate,

“the little and almost insensible impressions on our tender infancies have very important and lasting consequences.”

And children’s education came into being. He believed that the associations of ideas that a young person makes is not only more important that those made later but only defines the person. These associations of ideas are the foundation of the self: they are written at an early stage on the tabula rasa. “Associationism” had quite an influence throughout this period particularly educational theory and children’s education.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712 – 1778) was firstly a philosopher, but he influenced political, sociological, and educational thought. To educate was a central theme. He was himself greatly influenced by Locke. His educational thought is explained through his novel Emile, or On Education, a treatise on how to educate a whole person for citizenship. He exemplified the late 18th-century movement known as the Age of Sensibility, that had a bigger focus on subjectivity and introspection that later characterized modern writing.

Locke’s and Rousseau’s impact on mothers and how to educate children

Locke and Rousseau were popularized in this period and were read by teachers, parents and doctors. For the first time intelligent people could get interested and not only in the end process but enjoy also the process. The idea was that a child had tremendous possibilities if taken care of in the proper way. A child was also absolutely positive and good-natured at the start and society could corrupt him later but he is born with a good nature. To bring up babies with ‘rational tenderness’ would the only thing necessary.

Rousseau was also known for his plea to mothers to nurse their own children and not to send them of to wet-nurses. Both men believed in instinct of the caregiver and the baby and also in the individuality of the baby. Mothers were encouraged to seek the pleasures of running a nursery and to educate themselves rather than attending again the same and boring social activities. Fathers were encouraged to have a genuine and heartfelt relationship and interest in the development.

Already in 1798 mothers were told (source – Sir Eardley Holland, J. Obst. Gynae. Brit. Emp. 1951. 58.905ff.) that

the first object in the education of a child should be to acquire its affection and the second to obtain its confidence…. The most likely thing to expand a youthful mind … is praise.

Despite Locke’s continuing influence  today on motherhood and children’s education, the current “nature vs. nurture” debates are more present then it was the case in Locke’s century. Philosophers believed indeed in a more rosy and promising environmentalism, now less supported by science.

If you want to know more about motherhood and childhood during the 18th century, head over here.

Giovanni Segantini Two Mothers upload by Adrian Michael, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Previous ArticleNext Article

Leave a Reply