Fundamentals, Psychology

Nurturing reactions to a child: from past to present


According to psychologists, the parent and child relationship has evolved dramatically over time. Lloyd Demause claims,

“The further back in history one goes, the lower level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused”

Basic three mothering or nurturing reactions

Children have generally provoked three responses from adults throughout history: projective, reversal, and empathetic reactions. Mothering or Nurturing has gone from protecting the parent from the evils of the child to protecting the child and preparing him for modern life. It is important for modern mothers to understand how viewing childhood over several generations has drastically changed the way in which we parent. While you are up five times during the night with your 4-month old you may wonder how mothers have coped with this over time.

Projective Reaction

In the past when responding to a child’s demands an adult would project themselves and their own unconscious onto the child. Instead of identifying the baby as its own separate being mothers would see their children as a part of them. Because of this the children were essentially an extension of their parents which needed to be controlled.

This type of reaction makes guilt impossible when disciplining the children because the parents see it as punishing themselves. When the child was beaten the parent was actually beating himself and felt no guilt at controlling this evil. This thought process made child abuse and beatings common even for trivial offenses. Children and especially infants were believed to be very susceptible to turning totally evil and were often tied up, swaddled, and scared into behaving appropriately. Some churches even insisted,

“that if a baby merely cried it was committing a sin,”

This type of parenting causes a limited sense of responsibility for caring for the children and a complete lack of empathy which often leads to such abuses or abandoned. There is no nurturing mother here. Projection mothering also leads to a lack of guilt when the children are involved in an accident. Injuries suffered by the children were seen as injuries or punishment for something the parent did wrong. Without any guilt there was no need to take action to prevent future accidents and children were often left home alone.

Reversal Reaction

The reversal reaction occurs when the parents view the children as existing in order to satisfy the adult’s needs. In other words the adult and child roles are reversed and the child is expected to provide the parent with love, nourishment, and protection. The nurturing is reversed. According to the International Child and Youth Care Network this reversal reaction often involves the adult using the child as a substitute for an adult figure from the parent’s past.

This type of mothering or nurturing often results in child abuse when the child is unable to fulfill this parental role expectation. Children of the past were commonly expected to meet financial, sexual, or emotional needs of the parents making child labor and sexual abuse much more frequent. It was common in the Middle Ages and Roman times for children to wait on their parents at meal times and live the life of a servant and literally be nurturing the parents.

Empathetic Reaction

The evolution of mothering has brought us to the final reaction, an empathetic one. Without projections this reaction occurs when the adult is able to correctly identify the child’s need by regressing to the level of the child. The complete focus is turned onto the child rather than an adult-centered reaction like projection and reversal.

There are two main points about this reaction which differ from the previous two. The first factor is that adults began to believe that children possessed souls. This in turn meant that the children were considered individual beings with individual needs. Physically controlling and beating children turned into being involved in the child’s upbringing and training the child. The modern mother experiences extreme empathetic and nurturing reactions and today’s view on parenting explains that the child knows their needs better than the parent. Parent and child work together to ensure all the needs are fulfilled. The parent has become the child’s servant and the parent is nurturing the child.

It can make you feel inadequate at mothering assuming that during the past people held children and babies in the same high regard that we do today and managed to pull off significantly more chores. The real truth is that mothers were able to get so many other things done because they felt little responsibility for caring for their children and mostly left them to play alone.

It is important for us modern mothers to give ourselves a break and remind ourselves that our children are growing up in a time period where they are getting their needs satisfied and receiving the best care that we can give them. Relax…

Baby’s Back, Mary Cassatt, 1890, Credit Line H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929. Metropolitan Museum of Art
Previous ArticleNext Article