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.
Until the late 1970s, many children's toys and household paints contained dangerous levels of lead. Unaware of the risk, parents unknowingly exposed their children to lead particles. When ingested or inhaled, these could cause developmental delays, behavioral issues, and serious health problems. These toxic effects were often irreversible, reflecting the severe implications of this outdated practice.
Before the advent of childproofing, homes were filled with hazards. Cleaning chemicals, sharp objects, and open electrical outlets were all too accessible to curious children. Without the now-commonplace childproof locks and gates, many childhood injuries could and did occur, underlining the necessity of today's more cautious approach.
During earlier decades, the harmful effects of UV radiation were not well-understood. Children would frequently spend hours under the sun, lacking the protection of sunscreen or suitable clothing. This significant sun exposure increased their lifetime risk of developing skin cancer, emphasizing the importance of our current understanding of sun safety.
Many toys from the early 20th century would fail to meet today's stringent safety standards. Small parts posing choking hazards, sharp edges, and even toxic materials were common features of playthings. These dangers often led to preventable accidents and poisonings, demonstrating the progress made in toy safety regulations.
Before the 1980s and 1990s, biking without a helmet was the norm for children. The potential for serious head injuries during a cycling mishap was dramatically higher, leading to tragic consequences in some cases. The widespread adoption of bike helmets has significantly reduced such risks, marking an essential advancement in child safety.
Before the 1990s, it was standard to put babies to sleep on their stomachs. Research later showed this practice increased the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). The shift to back-sleeping has been a significant evolution in infant care, highlighting the vital role of research in forming safer parenting practices.
In earlier decades, food allergies were poorly understood. Children with undiagnosed allergies were at risk of serious, potentially life-threatening reactions. With increased awareness and diagnostic techniques, these risks are now more effectively managed, although challenges persist.
During the early 20th century, many children lacked access to regular dental check-ups and fluoride toothpaste. This neglect resulted in a higher prevalence of dental issues, such as cavities and gum disease. Modern dental care standards and education have dramatically improved oral health for today's children.
Mental health in children was often overlooked or misunderstood in the past. A lack of understanding and resources meant many children suffered in silence. The growing recognition of children's mental health issues in recent years has heralded important changes in societal attitudes and support systems.
In the digital age, children have unprecedented access to electronic devices. While these tools offer educational and recreational benefits, their overuse can lead to various problems. Extended screen time may cause physical issues like eye strain and obesity due to sedentary behavior. It can also impact social skills, cognitive development, and sleep quality, as children might opt for digital interaction over real-world experiences and responsibilities. As such, it's crucial for parents to establish boundaries and encourage a balanced lifestyle.
Helicopter parenting is a style characterized by over-involvement in a child's life. Parents may hover over their children's academic, social, and personal activities, intervening even when it's unnecessary. While well-intentioned, this behavior can hinder a child's development of independence, problem-solving skills, and resilience. It may also result in elevated stress and anxiety in children, as they might feel pressured to meet their parents' high expectations. This trend underscores the importance of fostering autonomy in a supportive environment.
Sharenting refers to the over-sharing of a child's life on social media by parents. While this practice may seem harmless, it raises serious concerns about a child's privacy and safety. The digital footprint created by sharenting could potentially be misused by identity thieves or malicious individuals. Additionally, as children grow older, they may resent the public documentation of their early lives without their consent. This modern trend calls for a careful reconsideration of children's digital privacy rights.
In an increasingly competitive world, there's a growing trend of imposing academic pressures on children at a very young age. While a focus on academics can encourage a love for learning, an excess of pressure may lead to stress, anxiety, and burnout. Moreover, it may deprive children of their time for play, creativity, and social interaction, which are crucial for holistic development. This trend highlights the importance of a balanced and age-appropriate approach to education.
Child beauty pageants, while gaining popularity in some circles, have been met with widespread criticism. Critics argue that they promote the early sexualization of children, encourage an unhealthy emphasis on physical appearance, and may lead to self-esteem and body image issues. Moreover, the competitive environment can potentially induce stress and rob children of their childhood innocence. These concerns highlight the importance of prioritizing children's mental and emotional well-being over societal beauty standards.
Despite the clear scientific consensus on the safety and effectiveness of vaccines, a trend of vaccine hesitancy has emerged. Some parents, influenced by misinformation, opt not to vaccinate their children, posing a significant threat to public health. Unvaccinated children are at risk of contracting and spreading preventable diseases, endangering themselves and those around them, particularly immunocompromised individuals. This trend underscores the importance of reliable health information and the role of community immunity in protecting public health.
In many societies, children are still expected to conform to traditional gender roles. This gender stereotyping can limit their personal growth, exploration of interests, and self-expression. Children subjected to rigid gender norms may feel pressure to suppress their true selves and could develop low self-esteem or mental health issues. The fight against gender stereotyping is part of a larger movement advocating for children's rights to explore their identities freely and without judgment.
In some parenting styles, children's emotions may be ignored or dismissed, which can be detrimental to their emotional development and mental health. When children feel that their emotions are invalid or unwelcome, they may struggle to develop emotional intelligence, experience difficulties in social relationships, and have a higher risk of mental health issues. Recognizing and validating children's emotions are increasingly seen as key aspects of nurturing parenting, highlighting the shift towards more empathetic child-rearing practices.
While good nutrition is essential for children's health and development, the recent trend of imposing fad diets on children without a medical reason is concerning. These restrictive diets can deprive children of necessary nutrients, impede their growth, and potentially lead to eating disorders. Additionally, these diets can contribute to an unhealthy relationship with food. This trend emphasizes the importance of balanced, age-appropriate nutrition and caution against subscribing to unproven dietary trends.
Time-outs can be an effective disciplinary strategy when used appropriately. However, when employed excessively or inappropriately, they can have negative effects. Overuse of time-outs can make children feel rejected, fostering feelings of resentment and damaging their self-esteem. Moreover, excessive time-outs might not teach children the skills needed to manage their behavior better. This trend emphasizes the need for positive discipline strategies that focus on teaching rather than punishing.