There was a time when children were thought of merely as possessions. Parents could do what they wanted with them, as could teachers and factory bosses, with complete impunity. It wasn't until 1938 that a law prohibiting children as young as five from working in factories was enacted in the United States. (It had failed to pass in Congress twice before that, just in case you think the present Congress is the worst one you've ever heard of.)
Today, corporal punishment in schools is prohibited in 30 of the 50 United States, and corporal punishment by parents in their own home is even prohibited in countries and regions as diverse as Spain, Scandinavia, Kenya, New Zealand, Uruguay, Greece, Israel, Germany, Iceland and many other places around the world.
Our attitudes about children and child rearing have been changing -- for good reasons. As therapy became more common, people grew increasingly aware that the erratic behaviors that controlled them -- the things they become irrationally upset about -- were not really the issue before them but a flashback to earlier trauma. It became evident that how they were raised, and by extension how they raise their children eventuates into how emotionally healthy, or not, people become as adults.
The positive steps included beginning to notice the needs of our children; recognizing that they had feelings and ideas, creativity we had lost somehow, innocence that needed to be protected, questions that needed to be answered. And that was all for good. I exhaled.
So it was with horror that I watched the child rearing techniques that fill the hit show "Mad Men." Yes, I understand this is a send-up to '60s behavior, the drinking and smoking while pregnant, the littering and rampant sexism. As a person who was there a few years later, in fact in advertising -- a copywriter at Ogilvy & Mather -- I can testify that many of that era's quirks are accurately portrayed by the series.
And it might have been that some mothers at that time were like Betty Draper, whose only interactions with her children are the dismissive ("Go watch television") and the accusatory. When daughter Sally is seen by the housekeeper breaking the lock on Don's suitcase, it never occurs to Betty to find out what motivated the little girl. Betty just wants a confession. "Sally has something to say to you," Betty says to Don. "I got it out of her." And even Don, who has a subtle way with the females of the species, doesn't ask the child why she did it, what was bothering her. At first he simply tells her she'll have to pay for the broken suitcase out of her allowance. When it finally comes out that Sally's done it because she doesn't want her daddy to leave, he parents up and reassures her that he'll always come back. But as for Betty/Mommy, there isn't a trace of human kindness or interaction. She's just not the least bit interested in those kids. (Kids? Oh, yes, there's a son, too. Who noticed?)
And it was with equal horror that I heard about Betty's inverse, Amy Chua and her book "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother." What is a Tiger Mother? She is a woman who over-manages her children's lives, monitoring their every waking moment in order to ensure that they perform in such a way as to reflect brilliantly on their parents. So overwhelming does such a demand become that tooth marks on the piano are evidence of the child's frustration at being made to practice to exhaustion. Calling her children "garbage" and letting threats fly -- of burning their stuffed animals and even locking a three-year-old outside in the freezing cold for not playing the piano the way she wanted the child to -- Chua's over-involvement with her kids is the opposite of Betty Draper's disinterest.
Too involved or too uninterested parents can claim all they like that they "love" their children, but harm is being done. Neither of the exaggerated parents on either end of the spectrum has any interest at all in the inner life of their children -- their hopes, desires, dreams. And without nourishing those aspects, we starve them of everything from imagination to hope.
Children come into the world at the mercy of their caregivers. Parents, even before birth and for years after, are brain architects. They are helping build new people. In every interaction, parents have the opportunity to include the ingredients of kindness, care, respect, awe, gratitude, creativity and joy, which are not old-fashioned slogans but magic tools for future happiness.
We know better now than people did in the days when child labor (still a sad fact in some parts of the world) and corporal punishment were acceptable. We know that, just as we are products of our upbringings and the traumas that scared and scarred us, our children will grow up as good or as wounded as the upbringing we offer them.
Let us always watch what we say to our children and how we treat them.
Let us parent as if every little heart and the future of this fragile earth depended upon it, because it does.
Judith Simon Prager is co-author of "Verbal First Aid: Help Your Kids Heal From Fear and Pain and Come Out Strong" and author of "Owie-Cadabra's Verbal First Aid for Kids: A Somewhat Magical Way to Help Heal Yourself and Your Friends."