Parenting Throughout History – A peek into the past

Five eras spanning almost 1500 years were researched in order to put this article together. Here are general overviews, parenting trends, and bizarre facts about raising children back when.

Medieval (476 AD-1300)

This was an era characterized by harsh discipline and a general uncertainty about parents’ roles are parents.

  1. Children were sent away from home before the age of 14

Children in Medieval England were sent away from home before they were 14 to work in someone else’s household. This was true for the rich and the poor.  Parents did not keep their own children at home, but instead had a sort of “trade off”, where each set of parents received someone else’s children to finish raising.

  1. Parents were criticized for being too lenient

As opposed to the social commentary of today, where parents are often criticized for spanking or yelling at children, parents of medieval societies were criticized if they were seen as being too lax in their discipline.

  1. Young children ate a very bland diet

After they were weaned around age 1 or 2, toddlers through preschool age children ate two meals. Pap, which was made up of flour, milk, and egg yolk probably mixed into some kind of porridge form. Panada, which was bread and butter served in broth to soften it for young teeth.

  1. Medieval children experienced less early tooth decay than children today

Despite the assumption that medieval children must have had rotting teeth due to the lack of hygiene knowledge, scientists have found that they actually appear to have less early tooth decay. This is because children today eat far more processed sugars, which rot teeth quicker.

  1. Infants in medieval times were severely swaddled

Severe swaddling was thought to help them grow straighter. Sometimes they were even wrapped up against a board. They were kept like this until 8 or 9 months of age. Oof, talk about hip dysplasia. :/


Renaissance (1350s to 1650)

The Renaissance was a continuation of the Medieval Era parenting, but it began to take more note of children in general.

  1. Children were in need of moral guidance

During the Renaissance Era, society accepted that children were weak morally and were in need of severe discipline and guidance to shape them into moral adults. Corporal punishment and hard labor were frequently administered to children of all economic statuses in hopes of molding them to society’s standards of morality.

  1. Children were kept closer to home

The medieval practice of sending children off to live or apprentice with another family was curbed by the idea that parents are responsible for their children’s morality. With that sense of responsibility, parents chose to have their children educated in a school or at home rather than having them raised by others who may or may not have their children’s best interests at heart.

  1. Children drank alcohol medicinally

Ale was a common drink throughout the middle ages, and the renaissance was no exception. While it was viewed during the middle ages as a meal (many families had ale for breakfast) due to its filling nature, it came to be seen in the 1400s as having healing properties. Mothers gave ale to children to keep them healthy.

  1. Gazing upon beautiful images yielded beautiful children

People in the renaissance era believed that pregnant women should gaze upon pictures of handsome boys or men to help them give birth to a handsome baby boy. Images were brought before the pregnant women, or even painted within her birthing chamber, so that she would be sure to look at them before giving birth. 

  1. Girls’ education was important

Unlike during many other eras, and in other parts of the world, Renaissance Italy believed in educating girls from a young age as it often fell on the mother to homeschool the children while their father was working.


Victorian (1837-1901)

Victorian parenting was all about raising prim and proper children.

  1. Parents were encouraged to distance themselves from children

Due to some poorly founded parenting manuals which were published just before the turn of the century, mothers were urged to impose strict habits upon children from infancy including sleeping and eating. They were also discouraged from indulging children by showing them affection and picking them up when they cried.

  1. Infants were given medication to help them sleep

Don’t tell me you’ve never been tempted. 🙂 In Victorian England, infants who had trouble sleeping were given medicine to help them. It was not considered bad parenting to drug your baby; on the contrary, it was most likely seen as responsible! What’s worse, most of these concoctions contained opiates.

  1. Children were expected to work and help provide for the family

As soon as they were able, children from working class families who needed the income were expected to get out of the house and help support the family. They did factory work, street peddling, chimney sweeping, and a variety of other tasks. Often special tasks were assigned to children because of their small size. Many of these jobs were dangerous, but children were probably less likely to refuse than adults.

  1. School was made compulsory for children in the late 1800s

Although many poor families still chose to send their children to work instead of school, technically the law stated that children up until age 10 had to be in school during the week.

  1. Parents did not have much part in raising the children

Parents of better-off families hired nannies or governesses to care for the children. They may have had scheduled times to visit with them and make sure they were learning manners and societal values, but most of the child rearing was left to the nanny or governess.

Great Depression (1929-33)

Everything about parenting during the Depression Era seems stiff and distant. Take a look at some of these bizarre parenting trends.

  1. Baby cages

In crowded urban areas, baby cages were attached to windows of high rise apartments like a modern day air conditioning unit. Infants and toddlers would be placed in the cage to get fresh air, sunshine, and nap.

  1. Children’s posture and left-handedness were of great concern

Of all the things to be concerned about, bad posture and left handedness were considered two things that must be corrected, lest they shine a bad light on the child’s upbringing.

  1. Children were encouraged to work

Despite child labor laws in place, because of the poverty created by the Great Depression and the general work ethic of the era, parents encouraged children to work and help provide for the family. It was thought to help develop character and keep them out of trouble.

  1. Fat children were seen as healthier

Plumpness in children was encouraged, unlike today, because it meant that the children were not starving. With many families struggling to provide food for their little ones, those who were more rotund were considered healthier and better off. This is still the case in many societies where food is scarce.

  1. Thumb sucking was discouraged

Devices were invented to discourage infants from sucking their thumbs, ranging from hand coverings to bad tasting thumb treatments and even splints to keep hands away from mouths.


This is the first hint we get at modern-day parenting, with its more lenient approach to children.

  1. Women worried about their role as mothers

On the tail of World War II, more women than ever were working outside of the home. This raised questions, for themselves as well as society, about their role as a mother. They were concerned about the rightness of leaving their children at daycare or with a babysitter while they went off to work.

  1. Instinctive parenting

Instead of the harsh schedule-driven parenting of the 19th and early 20th century, several significant psychologists and pediatricians began encouraging the idea of a gentler approach to parenting guided by the mother’s instincts. This was a reversal of everything that had been taught concerning showing affection and discipline to children.

  1. More babies were bottle fed than breast fed

With the improvements in bottles and formula, the high birth rates, and many mothers working outside of the home, breast-feeding lost popularity. Most infants were bottle fed during the middle of the 20th century.

  1. Permissive Parenting

There are three main parenting styles – authoritarian, authoritative, and permissive. The idea is that the first and last are two extremes (too harsh and too lenient) and parents should strive for authoritative parenting (firm but loving). Children of the 1950s experienced permissive parenting, in sharp contrast to the almost exclusive authoritarian style which had existed beforehand.

  1. Pregnant women were encouraged to smoke

Since we didn’t have the benefit of research showing the negative effects smoking has on anybody, especially children, cigarette smoking was rampant. Not only was second-hand smoke not a thing yet, but pregnant women were even encouraged by doctors to smoke in order to relax.



Additional References


If you enjoyed this post, read Parenting Throughout History part II here

Parenting Throughout History - A peek into the past with some bizarre and interesting facts about the history of parenting | Mom but not a Mom

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