Childcare during..., History

The 1950s: The Age of Permissive Childcare

permissive parenting

In today’s hyper-vigilant, overly cynical world, a world which doesn’t involve allowances for and indoctrination against the constant fog of economic and geopolitical instability, terrorism threats, or the ever-present monolith of technology seems distant. The events of September 11, 2001 drew a sharp, clear line of demarcation between the relatively innocent and prosperous twentieth century and the roller coaster of the new millennium.

It shouldn’t come as too much of a shock, then, to note that the overwhelming parental strategy nowadays seems to be the crossing of fingers and the burial of our youth’s collective nose in the comforting glow of the latest smartphone. After all, perhaps there’s some chance, however remote, that if little Johnny or Susan is busy with Candy Crush IV, their parents can insulate them from the outside world. It’s a helicopter-esque strategy born out of fear and uncertainty, but things weren’t always this way. In fact, in the halcyon days of the 1950s, permissive parenting was all the rage. To learn what permissive parenting is and why it was so popular (and some would say, so much better and more effective than the current paradigm), just keep reading.

Permissive Parenting: A Brief Overview

Whatever the reason, in the 1950s, permissive childcare was all the rage. Somewhat paradoxically, it involved a high level of trust granted from parent to child along with the simultaneous enforcement of a rigid, top down rule structure. For instance, parents would often send their sons to the market to buy Dad a pack of smokes or give their children free reign of the neighborhood with relatively few questions about what they did, where they did it, or with whom, but kids in violation of their no questions asked curfew could expect punishments that today’s child psychologists would deem to be downright barbarous.

In its essence, permissive parenting is a child rearing style based upon trust – trust of one’s children (and of their good judgement and senses of morality & self-preservation) and trust of the community as a whole. In those days, after all, it wasn’t uncommon for everyone to know everyone, and for folks to spend a lot more time in community interaction than is common nowadays. In other words, this style of upbringing was quite laissez-faire and communal in the “it takes a village” sense of things.

Factors Contributing to the Rise and Maintenance of Permissive Parenting

The 1950s were a very unique time in world history, especially with regard to the people and culture of the United States of America. It is the confluence of post-war values, affluence, and cultural mores that allowed for the parenting style discussed in this article, and as such, it may not be something that’s possible to duplicate in modern times, no matter how much some people might wish it. In any case, the mainstays of permissive parenting aren’t hard to pin down; a brief list follows.

Patriarchal Family Structure

In the 1950s, a man’s word was law as far as most things were concerned. This isn’t to say that women had no role or voice – the opposite is actually true – but with very limited exceptions, men were in charge, and what they said was the way things went. That such a philosophy would permeate the home was only natural.

Husbands and wives each had clearly defined roles, responsibilities, and spheres of influence. Men were the strong, silent, bread-winning leaders of the family while women were the sensitive, nurturing soil in which the children of the household were left to grow and thrive. Indeed, the only time a father would actively parent would be during the passage of / instruction in explicitly masculine traits to his sons, in matters of discipline (which usually took the form of corporal punishment), or under exceptional circumstances on the order of single fatherhood. While this might seem counterproductive or wrongheaded, children raised in this atmosphere were often quite mature and well-adjusted, a factor which no doubt contributed to the levels of parental confidence which allowed for such permissive childcare.

Generational Self Sufficiency

One thing that many people investigating the phenomenon of permissive parenting tend to gloss over, if not overlook altogether, is the fact that the people raising children in the 1950s had lived through some of the most remarkable, most turbulent times in history. In America, for example, the average 1950s parent would’ve been born around 1920, +/- two years. That means they would’ve been brought up during the stark privation of the Great Depression, given a brief respite of a year or two as a sort of cosmically macabre coming of age present, then hurled bodily into the meat grinder of World War Two. It wasn’t that the parents of the Greatest Generation were cruel or unfeeling in how they raised their own children, rather, they expected their offspring to embody the same virtues with which they themselves were instilled: Common sense. Virtue. Self-reliance. In other words, to be a so-called “helicopter parent” would’ve been, in the eyes of the 1950s parent, an insult and a hobble to their children. Their jobs, as these new fathers and mothers saw it, was to raise their kids to be capable, worthy adults, not to necessarily protect them from every bump, scrape, and eventuality of life.

Pseudoscience vs Modern Thinking

The final constituent factor in this parental style might be the fact that Freudian thought and similar schools of socio-medical belief were still relatively common. Modern medicine was largely unknown; back then, your doctor was quite likely a two pack a day smoker. Psychiatry was regarded as quackery, and much of the overprotective softness that marks today’s youth simply wasn’t present in those days – to have displayed or employed it would’ve been deemed to be a disorder on the part of the parents.

While the pros, cons, and overall efficacy of permissive parenting is still debated to this day, there’s no doubting its one-time popularity. Will it ever see a resurgence? Who can say? Maybe one day. In the meantime, hopefully you understand a little more about the parenting ethos of the 50s and are better for the knowledge.

permissive parenting

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