History, Topic of the Past

How Imagined Baby Care Guides Can Improve Parenting Perspectives

187.W Draped Reclining Mother and Baby, sculpture by Henry Moore at the NY Botanical Garden, picture by Peter Rivera, Flickr CC

“I was born in ancient times, at the end of the world, in a patriarchal Catholic and conservative family. No wonder that by age five I was a raging feminist – although the term had not reached Chile yet, so nobody knew what the heck was wrong with me.”

–Isabel Allende

Childhood in ancient societies was far different than childhood today. In fact, the concept of childhood as we know it today didn’t exist until the late 18th Century. The policies of potentates often had more power to determine the fate of children than the power of parents. Children were often subjected to slavery and in some societies, were even used as a form of payment for debts.

The Code of Hammurabi is one example of the power of political leaders to influence the course of baby care history. It is one of the earliest surviving examples of government regulation of family life. The consequences of breaking a law were harsh indeed, the most common being that of being put to death. The baby care history of ancient civilizations is a bleak one.

The Code of Hammurabi granted fathers a great deal of power in Mesopotamian family life. It also legislated female sexuality, making it the property of husbands in order to ensure paternity. Teen-aged rebellion was not tolerated. In fact, according to the code, “if a son strikes his father, his hands shall be hewn off”. An example of what this ancient society would consider “liberal” would a change in the law that limited the amount of time that a father was permitted to sell a child into slavery to three years.

Similar patriarchal laws were made and enforced throughout much of baby care history. In the ancient Roman Empire, under the law of patria potestas, translated as “the power of the father” men had absolute power over children. Under this law, they were even permitted to sell them into slavery or kill them. It was not uncommon for fathers to decide to allow newborns to die of exposure to the elements and he was within his legal rights to do so.

Girls as young as 13 were given in marriage. That may seem young, but at the time, approximately one third of all children died by the age of 10. The average life expectancy of men was only twenty-two, and only twenty for women. That meant that only the most fortunate girls even lived long enough to have a child, and few lived long enough to raise a child to adulthood. Consequently, many laws allowing adoption and the inheritance of property to adopted children were passed.

In ancient Greek society, physical perfection was highly valued. Babies that were born with any kind of physical abnormality or perceived frailty were often abandoned and left to die. Sometimes such babies were rescued by slavers and later sold for a profit. The male head of the household had the right to either accept or reject an infant based on its gender and physical condition, as well as other criteria such as questions of legitimacy and economic considerations.

Baby care history in ancient Mayan culture included the practice of child slavery. Some children were born into slavery, while others were sold by their parents. Orphaned children were often purchased for use in religious sacrifices. Mayan babies were nursed by their mothers three times a day until they were old enough to walk. To keep them safe, toddlers were often placed in holes in the ground that served the same purpose as that of modern playpens.

Child Advocates in Ancient Civilization

There were a few child advocates throughout baby care history, such as the philosopher Quintilian who spoke out against corporal punishment, saying

“… it is a disgrace and a punishment for slaves… if a boy’s disposition be so abject as not to be amended by reproof, he will be hardened, like the worst of slaves, even to stripes; and lastly, because, if one who regularly exacts his tasks be with him, there will not be the least need of any such chastisement.”

Slavery was such an integral part of ancient societies that even most philosophers did not speak out against it.

Baby Care History in Greece

In ancient Greek society, the philosopher Plato spoke out against the family structure, saying that collective child rearing made for a stronger society. He was also against the harsh punishment of children and was quoted as saying

“Do not train a child to learn by force or harshness; but direct them to it by what amuses their minds, so that you may be better able to discover with accuracy the peculiar bent of the genius of each.”

Christianity, which taught that children were gifts from heaven, was a welcome development in baby care history, especially for children. Roman emperors who had converted to Christianity imposed penalties for abandoning children and limited the practice of child slavery. However, it took three hundred years of Christianity to end child slavery, which had been practiced for 600 years. Sadly, the history of baby care contains very little care for babies. Happily, future accounts of modern baby care history will be far less bleak.

Draped Reclining Mother and Baby, sculpture by Henry Moore at the NY Botanical Garden, picture by Peter Rivera, Flickr CC
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