Nineteenth Century Child Guidance and the Only Child: An Attempt at Synthesis

So, I’ve been reading nineteenth century child guidance manuals for a little while now, and next Tuesday I need to give my supervisor some sort of idea of where I’m getting with them.  This blog post is an attempt to knit them all together, benefitting myself, but hopefully other people will find it an interesting read!  This is very much preliminary, so hopefully I won’t accidentally plagiarise myself when it comes to writing this up for real.  Anyway, the real thing will have better-considered language and some stuff about the popularity of the books.

When it comes to direct references to only children, there weren’t really all that many - meaning I’ve had to read between the lines a bit and look for why attitributes contemporary psychologists like E. W. Bohannon gave to only children were seen as such a bad thing at this time.[1]  Of the four references there are, though, three were resoundingly negative.  The positive one was infant school reformer Samuel Wilderspin’s account of his own childhood, ~50 years before my period of study, though even that didn’t sound 100% great.  He put his successful career down to this:

> > 'Born an only child, under peculiar circumstances, and living in an isolated neighbourhood, I had no childish companions from infancy; I was, consequently, thrown much on my own resources, and early became a _thinker_, and in some measure a contriver too … other children were strange to me, and they were not nigh either to help or to thwart me'.[2] > >

He didn’t make the isolation sound like an ideal circumstance in the first instance, but on the other hand it seemed to have benefitted him enormously.  He described an idyllic first few years where he spent a lot of time out in nature and was ‘gently’ educated at home.  But then:

> > 'Unfortunately, through very peculiar circumstances, I was removed from the immediate care and superintendance of both parents rather early in life; and, at an age the most dangerous, was left to grapple nearly alone with the wide world and the beings in it, with little of either parental guidance'.[3] > >

Doesn’t sound like he was exactly happy at the time - he hated school when he finally went - even if he did become successful as a long-term result.  Shows the complexity of the subject I’m studying, though!

The other three examples are: John S. C. Abbott’s cautionary tale of an ‘only son’ whose mother indulged him to the point where he had control over her, burned her house down in a fit of rage, and in prison ‘became a maniac, if he was not such before, and madly dug out his own eyes’. Lovely![4]  In a not-dissimilar vein, Samuel Smiles referenced Mary Anne Schimmelpennick’s encounter with a couple who inspected asylums, finding that:

> > 'The most numerous class of patients was almost always composed of those who had been only children, and whose wills had therefore rarely been thwarted or disciplined in early life; whilst those who were members of large families, and who had been trained in self discipline, were far less frequent victims of the malady'.[5] > >

When they don’t end up incarcerated, only children end up suffering the unfortunate Victorian fate of never marrying.  In How I Managed my Children from Infancy to Marriage, Eliza Warren Francis’ protagonist discussed a family friend, Fanny Mavor, who ‘was the only child and, of course, idolised child of her parents’.  Her father scared off every potential suitor she had because he wanted her to stay at home and look after him and her mother, which she did as she ‘always set duty above inclination’.  This is how Fanny ended up totally alone when her parent die, past the age for marrying and wondering what might have been.[6]

‘Mrs Warren’ describes Fanny’s parents as selfish, and indeed, that’s a word that came up a lot in these books, as one of the worst things a person can be - and it’s a characteristic you regularly see attributed to only children.  Wilderspin was especially vocal on the subject:

> > 'The great defect in the human character is _selfishness_, and to remove or lessen this is the great desideratum of moral culture.  How happy were mankind if, instead of each one living for himself, they lived really for one another!  The perfection of moral excellence cannot be better described than as the attainment of that state in which we should "love our neighbour as ourselves."  The prevalence of self-love will be very obvious to the observant master or mistress, in the conduct of the children under their care, and it is this feeling that they must be ever stiving to check or eradicate'.[7] > >

Strong words indeed.  Samuel Smiles also returned to the subject throughout Character, most notably when he says

> > 'The life that rejoices in solitude may be only rejoicing in selfishness.  Seclusion may indicate contempt for ithers, though more usually it means indolence, cowardice, or self-indulgence'.[8] > >

Being overly-indulged, of course, was another crime only children stood accused of, as we’ve already seen above and will also see below.  Felix Adler’s The Moral Instruction of Children, meanwhile, was full of examples of stories whose moral is ‘don’t be selfish’.[9]

Another thing Victorians didn’t like was social ineptitude, and as only children didn’t have siblings in the home they could learn the rules of social interaction from, they were seem as at a disadvantage (people were still saying this in the 1940s, and today.  Same with ‘spoilt’ and ‘selfish’, come to that!)  Once again, Felix Adler provided numerous examples of stories about siblings.  He also emphasised the importance of such social training:

> > 'A child that has learned to respect the rights of its brothers and sisters, and to be lovingly helpful to them, will in school take the right attitude toward its companions.  The fraternal duties are typical of the duties which we owe to all our companions, and, indeed, to all human beings'.[10] > >

Similarly, Elizabeth Blackwell spoke of the importance of the companionship of brothers and sisters as it knocked down the walls of ‘isolation, mystery, obstacles’ between the sexes, making them behave more naturally and less dangerously around each other.[11]  More generally on the subject of companionship, Smiles quoted Schimmelpennick again, on regret of spending so much time alone when she was younger:

> > 'Association with others … may be considered as furnishing to an individual a rich multiplied experience; and sympathy so drawn forth, though, unlike charity, it begins abroad, never fails to bring back rich treasures home.  Association with others is useful also in strengthening the character, and in enabling us, while we never lose sight of our main object, to thread our way wisely and well'.[12] > >

And so, onto the subject of spoiling.  As I’ve read in many a book, the Victorians couldn’t tolerate spoilt children.  A while ago now, I blogged about Jacob Abbott and how he thought children could be indulged more - but he meant in play and childish whims, not materially, and not without firm discipline, either.  In _Gentle Measures,_he described children who were indulged without good governance as ‘petulant’ and ‘irritable’ creatures who would become tyrannous, self-indulgent adults.[13]  Florence Hull Winterburn also weighed in on the subject by referring to the appreciation and enjoyment unspoilt children had for well thought-out gifts.[14]

Finally, precocity was commonly attributed to only children, and this was regarded as unpleasant as well as injurious to the child’s mental and physical health.  The cause of precocity, according to Winterburn, was spending too much time in the company of adults:

> > 'It is not good for children to by much alone, nor chiefly with grown persons.  There is almost sure to be thus developed precocity of intellect at the expense of the character.  It is wise for a parent to mingle with the sports of her child, but perit him to bring in other children'.[15] > >

Again, I’ve read in quite a few books, old and new, that only children become/became like ‘little adults’ because they spend so much time in adult company.  They mimicked what they heard around them, yet were not as mentally ‘grown-up’ as they sounded, and didn’t benefit from being expected to act older than they really were.  Herbert Spencer put this a lot better than I have, of course.  He peppered Education; Intellectual, Moral, and _Physical _with examples of children who suffered from mental and physical problems because their parents pushed them towards intellectual and moral learning before they were ready; one child succumbed to scarlet fever but ‘would have recovered had not its system been enfeebled by over-study’.[16]  Smiles, Blackwell and Jacob Abbott all support this idea.[17]

So that’s where I’m up to so far.  Another couple of things that keep popping up as a result of these attributes are vanity and lack of self-control, and while I don’t think I’ve seen them listed as faults of only children, they might still be something I should look at.

[1] Bohannon, E. W., ‘The Only Child in a Family’, Pedagogical Seminary, _5 (1897-1898), pp. 475-96.
[2] Wilderspin, Samuel, _The Infant System for Developing the Intellectual and Moral Powers of Children, from One to Seven Years of Age, _(London, 8th edition, 1852),, (accessed 14/3/2014), no page numbers.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Abbott, John S. C., _The Child At Home: The Principles of Filial Duty, Familiarly Illustrated
(New York, 1833),, (accessed 26/1/2014), p. 25.
[5] Smiles, Samuel, Character, _(London, 1871),, (accessed 14/3/2014), no page numbers.
[6] ‘Mrs Warren’ (Eliza Warren Francis), _How I Managed my Children from Infancy to Marriage, _(London, 1865),, (accessed 5/3/2014), pp. 61-3.
[7] Wilderspin, _The Infant System,_no page numbers.
[8] Smiles, _Character
, no page numbers.
[9] Adler, Felix, The Moral Instruction of Children, _(New York, 1892),, accessed 14/3/2014).
[10] Ibid., p. 46.
[11] Blackwell, Elizabeth, _Counsel to Parents on the Moral Education of Children, in Relation to Sex
(Seventh Edition, Revised, London, 1884),, (accessed 5/3/2014), pp. 96-7.
[12] Smiles, Character, no page numbers.
[13] Abbott, Jacob, Gentle Measures in the Management and Training of the Young, (New York, 1872),, (accessed 26/1/2014), no page numbers.
[14] Winterburn, Florence Hull, Nursery Ethics, (New York, 1895),, (accessed 14/3/2014), pp. 47-8.
[15] Ibid., p. 153.
[16] Spencer, Herbert, _Education; Intellectual, Moral and Physical, _(London, 1861),,%20Moral,%20and%20Physical.pdf, (accessed 14/3/2014), pp. 54-5.
[17] Smiles, Samuel, _Physical Education, or, the Education and Management of Children, founded on the study of their nature and constitution, _(Edinburgh, 1838),, (accessed 14/3/2014), p. 27; Blackwell, _Counsel To Parents, _pp. 10-11; Jacob Abbott, _Gentle Measures, _no page numbers.

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About Alice Violett

Reader of books, player of board games, lover of cats, editor of web content, haver of PhD.

Colchester, UK