Child Discipline in the 1930s

by Darlena Cunha

    As your preschooler sasses you while your toddler pulls open the "childproofed" cabinet and dumps cereal all over the floor, you may feel like you are the only parent ever to go through such adversity and tribulation before noon. But you're far from alone. There is a rich history of parents ripping their hair out over their children's less-than-desirable behavior. Parenting trends come and go, and they're usually a good reflection of the society around them. Looking back to the discipline techniques of the 1930s shows us where society has been and where it is now, in terms of forming our kids into mindful, responsible adults.

    To understand discipline techniques of the 1930s, we need to be aware of the other constraints at the time, mainly the economic collapse. As parents struggled to feed their families, little thought was given to disobedient children. At the same time, most children were too busy helping their families survive to express the same type of defiance kids often do today. The average household had gone from making $2,300 a year to making just $1,500, according to the University of Houston's Digital History, and by 1932 more than 12.5 million people were out of work. In these bleak times, disciplining children was just an afterthought, says Ruth Shaw, an 88-year-old who chronicles her past in blog and book form. Disciplining was not meant to cultivate the children for who they would grow into but rather to keep them in line so that they wouldn't bother the adults.

    Schoolroom discipline in the 1930s was abrupt and absolute. If a child stepped out of line, so to speak, he would be hit with a ruler, a paddle or a switch, says Shaw, who also noted that the rules for girls seemed to be somewhat different, the punishments slightly less gruesome. The school's authority was backed up in the home, and a child who misbehaved at school would often be subject to further consequences from his parents. According to Shaw, this system was never questioned by parents, and schools came under very little criticism for their techniques.

    Discipline at home in the 1930s was viewed purely in the form of punishment for bad behavior, according to Ted Johnson in his thesis on child-rearing practices up to the 1950s. Parents had little time for fun or family activities, and the prevailing science of the decade heralded children as "self-regulating," meaning that left to their own devices, children would regulate themselves in such a way to perform as necessary in society. Because of this, discipline was harsh and quick, using fear of physical consequences to keep kids on the straight and narrow, with little worry as to how these methods would affect the children as they grew.

    In the 1930s, two parenting experts brought the idea of positive discipline to the United States from Vienna, where they had theorized and tested it. Dr. Alfred Adler and Dr. Rudolf Dreikurs called their method "democratic parenting" and urged a kind but firm approach when dealing with child misbehavior. The techniques are based on treating children with more respect than was commonly seen in that era and focused on parental education in the ways of child rearing to better prepare parents for the sociological impact of their discipline techniques. Although the practices were being introduced in the '30s, they did not gain wide acceptance until the '80s when the definition of "spoiling children" had changed dramatically.

    About the Author

    Darlena Cunha has been a writer and editor since 2003. She has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism and a Bachelor of Science in biology from the University of Connecticut. Cunha is also completing her master's degree in mass communication.

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