Some of the parenting fads of the past were so laughably ridiculous and downright dangerous that you have to wonder how any parent in their right mind could have seriously followed them. We’d like to think we’ve learned from our mistakes and we’re in a more sensible era now. But we can count on the fact that in a few decades, some of the parenting practices we hold close to our hearts today will one day end up on a list just like this one.
For most of the 20th century, drinking alcohol was considered safe at any gestational stage. Up until fairly recently in Great Britain and Ireland, there was a widely-held belief that drinking Guinness during pregnancy was good for the baby because it contained iron. Doctors even prescribed it! We now know that drinking alcohol during pregnancy can cause birth defects, and there is a warning label on every alcoholic beverage container stating just that.
Obstetrics textbooks as late as the 1960s claimed that expectant mothers could safely continue to smoke cigarettes, just as long as they kept it to under half a pack a day. It wasn’t until the 1970s that people finally began to look into whether smoking was harmful to the developing fetus. Newsflash: it is.
The dangers of secondhand smoke were not widely acknowledged until the 1990s, so many parents thought nothing of smoking cigarettes with babies in their arms, children on their laps, or in their cars as they drove their kids around. Thankfully, we now know that passive smoking causes smoking-related illnesses in children, and might even shorten their lifespan.
If you’ve ever taken a good look at your parents’ or grandparents’ teeth, chances are you were met with a mouthful of fillings. Kids used to get a lot more cavities, and that was because parents had no idea how bad sugar was for them. All they knew was that candy and sugary drinks were cheap, and kids liked them. So, most kids grew up with no limit on the sweets they snacked on throughout the day, as long as they promised to clean their plate later. Kids will never stop loving sweet treats—but at least we’re more aware of the health risks now.
In this day and age of strictly enforced car seat regulations, it’s hard to believe there was once a time when there weren’t any car seats at all. The earliest “car seats” were used to keep kids in their seats, not necessarily for their safety. New parents thought nothing of bringing their newborns home from the hospital in their laps. The first car seat safety laws weren’t passed until 1985.
Throughout most of the 20th century, doctors typically didn’t want fathers present during childbirth, so women were often left laboring on their own. Meanwhile, the dads-to-be would be confined to the waiting room—also known as the “stork club”—which was often close enough to the labor and delivery ward to hear every agonizing cry and terrified scream their wives made. This unpleasant introduction to parenthood for both the mother and father has thankfully been left in the past.
These days, parents wouldn’t dream of not listening to what their children have to say. But up until the Victorian era, kids didn’t have much say about anything—literally. While children were allowed to listen to conversations, they were not allowed to join in or speak at all unless an adult spoke to them first.
In the 1920s, parenting “expert” John Watson advised that parents should never hug or kiss their kids, or even let them sit on their laps. Children should be greeted in the morning with a firm handshake. At most, they could maybe expect a quick pat them on the head, but only if they had accomplished something extraordinary. The logic was that any physical affection at all would spoil children—even babies.
“There are starving children in Africa.” If you ever heard this line from your parents or your grandparents, you know all about guilt trips at the dinner table. There was a time when children had to eat everything they were served, whether they liked it or not. Not finishing good food was seen as almost unforgivably wasteful. But now that childhood obesity rates are rising worldwide, forcing kids to finish every bite does more harm than good. It encourages unhealthy eating habits by training kids to disregard their hunger signals and eat when they’re not hungry.
It wasn’t so long ago that corporal punishment was normal and widely accepted as a necessary disciplinary technique for children. Physical punishment was used by both parents and teachers to correct undesirable behavior and reinforce authority. We now know that this type of discipline is linked to antisocial behavior in kids, which can follow them into adulthood.
While the debate still rages on about the right age to start babies on solids, a doctor in the 1960s took the biscuit when he proclaimed that newborns could start eating cereal at just two days old. For two week olds, vegetables got the green light, and at three months old, fried bacon and eggs should be on the menu. At six months old, he claimed, your baby was ready for a daily coffee.
We all know somebody who writes with their left hand. Nowadays, left-handedness is seen as a unique trait. Up until the early 1920s, however, using your “sinister” hand—another word for left—was frowned upon. Teachers would try to convert left-handed children to right-handedness using special braces and other instruments.
It’s considered practical these days not to plan any big trips for the last few weeks of pregnancy, just in case. Many airlines won’t permit a woman to fly after 36 weeks for the same reason. In the 1930s, however, experts took this caution to a new level. They recommended that women avoid any travel whatsoever at any stage of pregnancy—including riding in a car.
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