From International Socialism, No.21, Summer 1965, p.31.
Transcribed & marked up by by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.
Infant Care in an Urban Community
John & Elizabeth Newson
George Allen & Unwin, 42s.
Mothers in every society have no doubt been bombarded by advice on how to deal with the problems of pregnancy, childbirth and early infancy. In our society this has attained an enormous and still growing volume, because the traditional wisdom of female relatives is now augmented by the writings of Grantley Dick Read and Dr Spock and a hundred others. Even if a mother avoids the written word, a benevolent society provides a Health Visitor armed with up-to-date knowledge and methods to help her through the early months of her baby’s life. The Newsons’ book is a report of a survey, carried out in Nottingham, aimed at discovering how mothers actually treat their babies up to the age of one year. In many ways, of course, actual behaviour falls short of what books and health visitors recommend. Only 41 per cent of mothers expecting their first baby attended relaxation classes (for subsequent babies the percentage is lower): the disapproved-of dummy is much in evidence and most mothers would prefer to feed their baby by bottle, not breast. But in the more obviously important things babies were treated satisfactorily. Few diets were deficient in Vitamin C or protein and only 0.5 per cent were simultaneously deficient in both.
A sizeable part of the book deals with social class differences in infant care. It is clear that one cannot make generalisations about class differences in patterns of socialisation to the effect that this class or that is authoritarian or permissive. The differences lie in the values subscribed to by working- and middle-class members. So the working class is less rigorous about dummies, bed-times and toilet training, but much more insistent on checking genital play and using physical punishment. In social class V especially (unskilled manual workers) the father would ’be much less likely to participate much in infant care, and in 32 per cent of such homes the child’s diet was inadequate. This was not due to economic hardship, because such a diet was often at least as expensive as a balanced one.
Differences like this last are of course rather more than interesting variations in value systems between certain social classes. They are serious in that they provide a handicap to the child as compared with one from a middle-class home because his development, physical and mental, may be impaired. Similarly the habit prevalent In Class V, of using an infant as a source of adult amusement by teasing it, is productive of temper tantrums in the short run and (if carried far enough) of personality damage in later life. In many cases there are other practices which will cancel out the potential harm done, but in others there must be a reduction in the capacity of a person of this class to deal effectively with the world. But practice based on the latest psychological theory may come to be rejected (examples are given from child-care manuals of the twenties that make your hair curl, and one recalls the horrific chapter concerned with infant feeding in Mary McCarthy’s The Group). So perhaps those innovations that have stood the test of time, added to the old wives’ lore still retained by Granny, may level out the disadvantages of a working-class upbringing.
And if the child of unskilled working-class parents is handicapped by his upbringing, there is no doubt that his situation is better than that of his parents, if their recollections reported in the chapter called Then and Now are a reliable guide.
Last updated on 11.9.2007