1942 • Wollstonecraft

On surfaces (floors, walls) small lumps and smears of congealed food. The kids let free, no discipline, no bourgeois rules to make a proletariat of childhood, better give them risk with rights. Their mothers’ talk is running off with dangerous ideas. Who will vindicate the rights of children? Kit and Joy have thought it out. They have a plan. Or it’s perhaps a joke, but still worth saying, to see where the idea might go. Why not fight for their equality? Why not divvy up our rights with kids, to be dispensed with toast and milk? [RED, page 209]

“Kit and Joy” are Kit Parkes, married to Adrienne’s brother Warwick, and Joy Wilson, who (like Kit) wrote about bringing up children in the Communist Party newspaper Tribune just after the war (1946). Their ideas were rather novel (and controversial) in the 1940s.

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Joy Wilson started the column, but after some months Kit Parkes took it over. Both were influenced by “child-centred” approaches to parenting. In one of her pieces, Parkes explained that she had “joined a group of young mothers who were studying modern methods of child care” when “my first baby was small” (that is, 1940–43). This was the time of the Wollstonecraft and Communardes episodes in RED. “Lesson one was: try to see things from the baby’s angle, and remember his job is to learn, yours is to help.” (Tribune, 9 August 1946)

Parkes doesn’t list any of the authors she was reading, but her ideas appear to be very similar to those of the Nursery School in Belmore Road, Mosman NSW, and possibly the New Education movement which had a decisive influence on Janet Nield. Mosman’s nursery school was one of Australia’s first when it opened in 1936.  “At the parents’ insistence the school evacuated to Blackheath in 1942 during the war. There we had a large cottage with ample grounds.” (J. C. Hutchinson, the school’s founder)

This “large cottage” was Rostherne (owned by Madeline Wood), the destination of the evacuating mothers in this Wollstonecraft episode.

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Kit Parkes with children from Mosman’s Nursery School, while staying at Rostherne in 1942. (Photograph by Warwick Parkes)

In the 1940s, most advice on child development in popular magazines and newspapers was couched in scientific language. This advice was given by experts (psychologists, doctors and nurses). Children (particularly those under 12 months) were to be the subject of fixed routines. Although these experts’ approach was called “modern”, their recommended practices were not always new; some went back to the 1870s. Parkes and Wilson were reacting against this attitude to raising children.

If we compare articles written in the same year in the Australian Women’s Weekly (AWW) and the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) with those that Joy Wilson and Kit Parkes wrote for the Tribune, we might glimpse how progressive their ideas were—and also how controversial they would have seemed.

First, let’s consider the more traditional Herald’s column “Modern Motherhood”, in which Sister Norma Chancellor proposed a 16-hour routine for mothers called Baby’s Daily Programme: “Babies should be trained from birth,” she explains. If “unremitting attention and firmness” is given, then “in due course discipline is accepted automatically.” This discipline is needed because “Baby senses any weakness in his parents”.

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From SMH, 29 October 1946

Chancellor’s “unremitting attention” starts at 6 a.m. “Baby is wakened, changed, fed and wind brought up after his meal. He is held out [that is, held naked in the air, to urinate] at about 6.30 a.m. … [At] 9.00 a.m. Baby is placed outside for his ‘kicks’. … [At] 9.30 a.m. Baby is bathed, then held out. [At] 10. a.m. Baby is fed, his wind brought up, held out and put to sleep in the open air.” And so on until “10 p.m. Once more mother wakens, changes and feeds him, brings up his wind, holds him out. He is then put to bed, to sleep until morning, when the day’s routine begins again.” (SMH, 29 October 1946, p. S14)

The practice of “holding out” the baby is described by its inventor: “If from the first a baby is ‘held out’ always after being nursed, it learns to urinate at that time” so that “diapers can be dispensed with,” wrote Professor Kirk, a champion of this optimistic procedure, in Papers on Health, Edinburgh, in 1875. (babel.hathitrust.org, rev. ed., 1904, p. 68)

The Herald’s columnist offered similarly decisive “firmness” for older children. Discipline was paramount. For example, the best way to deal with a child who wouldn’t eat was to stop serving meals: “To let a child go without [food] for two, or even three days, makes him realise that if he does not eat, no one but himself suffers.” Affection should be sparing and delivered at a fixed time each day. The “mothering hour” occurs at 4 p.m. If a child “hears many fond but unwise remarks” they will only give him “very fixed ideas of his self-importance.” (SMH, 29 October 1946, p. S14; 12 November 1946, p. S13)

Above all, Sister Chancellor says, “plan your work” and “work your plan”. (SMH, 30 December 1946, p. S9) The child’s home is to be run rather like a hospital ward. “About noon pick Baby up for a short play… . Any time after 3 p.m. he should be roused from sleep for games …. He should be held out for a few minutes before and after each meal and just before mother goes to bed. She should not turn on the light or talk to him. He quickly becomes accustomed to this nightly drill …”. (SMH, 30 December 1946, p. S9)

This Herald column was started in June 1946 (four months after Joy Wilson’s first “Your children” column in Tribune). Chancellor had been for a decade with the NSW Health Department and “for four years … attached to Baby Health Centres.” (SMH, 4 June 1946, p. S13). Her advice appears to represent the NSW Health Department’s thinking at the time.

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A new Baby Health Centre (in Sydney’s south-west), opened in 1945. (Photograph from Building and Engineering journal, July 1948)

Chancellor was not alone in offering this kind of advice about children. In the Australian Women’s Weekly in the 1940s many experts on children (a Sister Mary Jacob, a doctor who signed himself “Medico” and several other regular columnists) all used similar “scientific” language. Lawrence K. Frank, an influential “US authority on child development,” wrote in the Weekly that “babies … are young mammals and should be treated as such …. They are ‘brainless’—their centres of coordination, judgment and voluntary activity are not functioning. … The infant whose basic mammalian functions and impulses have been recognised and fulfilled is well started as an organism and a personality.” (AWW, 7 June 1947, pp. 22, 23)

It seems that much of this expert advice is about control. In the Herald another kind of expert who signs himself “A Teacher” blames a perceived rise in “delinquency” on “new” psychologists who say “you mustn’t belt your son on the ear and shout ‘Do as you’re told before I murder you.’” This new laxity, the teacher adds, only causes children “to grow up selfish and self-important” and is the true cause of delinquency. (SMH, 8 June 1946, p. 7)

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From Tribune, 5 July 1946

On the other hand, Wilson and Parkes offer their advice not as authorities but as parents in the midst of things. They have a cheerful, unflappable manner, their articles a mix of practical common sense and domestic comedy. Children are a source of enjoyment; mothers are generally competent and resourceful. Both writers show patience and good humour, even when describing some “expert” practices with astonishment. Most of their advice might seem commonplace now; in the 1940s it seemed new and to many parents (and experts) disturbingly “lax”. Underlying their advice is the assumption that parent and child have equal needs—they’re equal in rights if not in power. This is the detail that makes their advice sound very different from the professional instructors of the 1940s.

Here are some comments from Kit and Joy in their Tribune columns:

On patronising children. Baby-talk “curdles your blood, doesn’t it!” Joy Wilson exclaims. She hopes that this manner of talking down to children, “slimy with patronising playfulness,” is at last “going out of fashion”. Her remedy is “simply a matter of applying the same principles of thoughtfulness to our conversation with children as we should with grown-ups. … Of course one can’t talk to a child exactly the same way as to an adult. To a small child, learning to talk, it is polite to speak very clearly, using only simple but correct words …” Wilson compares a child’s learning to talk with an adult learning a foreign language, asking the reader, “Wouldn’t you be glad of this consideration …?” Once a child can talk, “Why can’t we say, ‘Hello, Mary,’ just as unaffectedly to a friend aged two as we would to a friend aged twenty?” (Tribune, 15 March 1946) As an antidote to this “patronising playfulness”, Wilson suggests someone should write a novel in which the roles of children and adults are reversed: “How sweet our father looks,” says one child to another, “with his beautiful blue eyes and that dear little bald patch on the back of his head.” And so on. (Tribune, 19 April 1946)

On reading to young children. Wilson proposes telling stories of the day’s events to very young children and then making books cheaply with “bright pictures of simple things such as a ball, a dog, an apple, pasted on cardboard and strung together. When [a friend’s child] was quite ready for bed, out would come the book and for ten minutes she got the undivided attention of either father or mother as they looked at it together.” Wilson goes on to make a point that has since become common knowledge to literacy teachers: “At school, children who like books and feel familiar with them have an advantage over children who come from bookless homes.” (Tribune, 29 March 1946) Wilson is here giving away a middle-class secret to the working-class readers of Tribune. A few months later Sister Chancellor in the Herald will advise her readers that, when putting an infant to bed, you “should not turn on the light or talk to him.” (SMH, 30 December 1946)

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From Tribune, 26 April 1946

On religion at school. Wilson asks, should we prevent our children attending “scripture” lessons? After all, “a number of parents today” are not religious. Children need to live “in the world as it is”, and that goes for all those influences that a parent reading Tribune may not care for like commercial advertising, cowboy movies, and religious classes at school. “To ask a child to be the only one in class who doesn’t go to scripture … may well be too much to ask.” He should not be alienated from his friends and “The little child needs the protection of conformity.” He can re-assess what he is taught as he grows older and it’s the task of his parents, if they are “sympathetic, intelligent and generous-minded,” to help their children to see the world “critically, to appeal to their reason, their love of justice and the love of humanity which is so easily aroused in any child.” (Tribune, 26 April 1946)

On toys. Instead of buying commercial toys, Kit Parkes suggests making your own. For young children, simple items such as cotton reels, large buttons and “odd-shaped pieces of smooth wood begged from carpenter-friends” are a start. Her suggestions are for creative uses of commonplace items, such as “Pieces of coloured felt, cut into geometrical shapes, and arranged on a sheet of sandpaper (the sandpaper keeps the felt from slipping)” and “that invaluable old stand-by, dough. Mixed with a good dash of salt and made fairly stiff, it won’t stick to small fingers.” (Tribune, 28 June 1946) In fact there is no need to buy toys at all: Parkes believes her own children “prefer real things to toys. They were given toy gardening sets but discarded them” in favour of the trowel she had bought for herself. (Tribune, 19 April 1946) In another piece a child who keeps pulling up the flowers is given a small part of the garden to be a gardener in. (Tribune, 29 November 1946) This might be thought of as Parkes’ reply to the experts concerned about discipline and delinquency.

On drawing. A child’s drawings are “his own, his creation, an expression of himself” Parkes explains. “So when your son shows you a weird scribble and says it’s a picture of you in your new dress, don’t laugh or scoff or show him how to ‘really’ draw.” Her advice is as much about behaviour as about drawing: “Newspaper has a variety of uses, and should always be included in the paper pile. Most children like to tear paper and many a bad mood has been worked off in our house by the sufferer tearing his way through a pile of newsprint. The torn-up pieces go to the papier-mâché box …”.  (Tribune, 5 July 1946)

On lying. “Truthfulness can’t be ‘taught’ to children. … A child hears his mother lie to trades people and hawkers, yet should he be detected in the most innocent of fibs she goes to town and lectures him on the enormity of his sins.” There’s also the difference between fantasy and lying. “The little boy who comes home with a tall story of driving a double-decker bus round the block is not lying.” (Parkes in Tribune, 26 July 1946).

What makes these Tribune pieces so unlike the official and conventional child-care advice in the Herald and Women’s Weekly of the time is the casual assumption that children are equals and interesting to be with. This is what made their advice sound (at the time it was written) like a challenge to authority. Allowing your child to let rip with a sheet of newspaper would have alarmed those postwar experts concerned about control. In the same week that Parkes was writing about the arrogance and condescension of some parents, the Weekly readers were being told that “Obedience to the authority of the parent is the basic rule.” (AWW, 23 August 1946)

Women and Tribune

Tribune printed few articles by women in the 1940s. Betty Searle (author of Silk & Calico: class, gender & the vote, 1988) remarked in an interview in 1995 that although many women supported the Communist Party’s paper in the forties, few wrote for it. She herself did not consider doing so; “it was very hard for women to get into party publications [in the 1940s]. … I used to help with postage and collate stuff and go and do messages and things like that; I just thought I was being useful, you see.” (Betty Searle interviewed by Ann Turner [sound recording], Bib ID 769010, 1995-6; uncorrected transcript, National Library of Australia) Searle wasn’t writing for the Tribune until the 1960s; she travelled to Moscow as its correspondent in 1968. Until the 1970s, most editors of newspapers and magazines (including women’s magazines) were men.

Tribune did not fully address feminism until the 1960s (though the paper always advocated equal pay). So Joy Wilson’s “Silent Strike” article, which put a case for mothers as exploited workers, was unusual for its time. This wasn’t one of the “Our children” items, but a more extended opinion piece, in which women are seen through the language of worker protest:

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From Tribune, 8 October 1946

Wilson suggests that the falling birthrate (from 1901 to 1938) was a sign that mothers were “engaging in a long-term go-slow policy”. “As producers and as workers, women feel that their conditions are not good enough. Without meeting together to make a decision which can be reported in the newspapers, most women have silently agreed that two children are enough.” Wilson then asks why tobacco companies are given government subsidies while no financial aid is given mothers in the form of crèches, nursery schools, free hospitals, subsidised child minding or a trained housekeeper service. (Tribune, 8 October 1946, p. 4)