How my generation was brought up: the facts

Growing up in a house crammed with books, there were a few perhaps unexpected ones I discovered for myself, and came to love. Among these were the works of John and Elizabeth Newson, an enterprising couple who set out to discover how ordinary mothers brought up their children – by asking them. The work was ground-breaking: to quote from the Guardian’s obituary of Elizabeth in 2014, “they pioneered a naturalistic approach of using semi-structured interviews and entering into dialogue with participants… Their works became standard texts for students of social work and psychology.”

A group of 700 Nottingham children was selected and their mothers interviewed at the (child’s) ages of 1, 4, 7, 11 and 16. Although I believe all the interviews were completed, the results were not published past the age of 7 (to my lasting disappointment). However,“Patterns of Infant Care”, “Four Years Old in an Urban Community” and “Seven Years Old in the Home Environment” made it to the public domain via Pelican Books (still available on Amazon!) The fact that these children would have been about my age, ie born 1960-2 added to the attraction.

They are serious scholarly books, full of tables comparing (say) “Mother’s strategy in dealing with peer group quarrels between social classes I and II, IIIwc (white collar), IIIman (manual), IV and V.”

I did not read these bits.

But as “dip-in-and-out-books” they are a lasting delight, containing as they do hosts of quotations from the mothers (always, alas, categorised by husband’s occupation, as “Miner’s wife”, “Teacher’s wife”, etc), discussed by the authors with scientific rigour, but also with warmth and humour. As an immigrant to Nottingham myself, there is now an added charm in footnotes explaining the word “mardy”, and pointing out that certain threats are empty, because “every Nottingham child regards a visit to Goose Fair at Michaelmas as his inalienable right, so that ‘no Goose Fair’ is a threat of the same order as ‘no Christmas presents.’”

Most of what follows is from the book on four-year-olds, which for some reason is my favourite, so the child-rearing would have been taking place in about 1965.

1965 is a long time ago. Not all the families had bathrooms; not all the children had their own bed; over three-quarters were at home with mother or playing on the street all day every day; three-quarters were smacked once a week or oftener, in some cases with a stick or other implement; and no one had heard of “emotional abuse.”

It’s a long time ago in other ways: apparently aiming at a sample of “normal” children, the following were excluded automatically from the survey: children whose parents weren’t married; children of families who’d lived in England for less than ten years; significantly disabled children; children not in the care of their mother. These days one wonders how many of Sneinton’s children would be left (Sneinton was one of the areas included.) The endless classifications by class grates.

But how different and fascinating these mothers are: often how thoughtful; how vivid the families!

For example:

On imaginary friends: Publisher’s wife: He’s got a Mr Ghost, and a little rabbit, and a cat – it’s Cat mostly. He asked me to smack Cat this morning, because it had scratched him, so I smacked it.

On fussy eaters: Lathe engineer’s wife: One thing she loves, and that’s pork pie. If we go out to tea anywhere, I usually have to take some pork pie in case they haven’t got it, I mean everybody doesn’t buy it. Oh dear -she takes a lot of suiting, really!

On talking at table: Lorry-driver’s wife: Well, you don’t like them rattling on, do you? I say ‘Oh, shurrup and gerrit down yer!’ but Miner’s wife: When it’s a big family, they do talk more than anything else then, don’t they? I think really teatime is the time when they do have the most fun…

On role-play: Cycle-worker’s wife: Just before you [interviewer] came, she was you. She went out and knocked on the door, and she says, ‘I’m the lady with the tape recorder.’

On bedtime rituals: Shoe repairer’s wife: When I’ve got him out and dried him and got his pyjamas on and that, I don’t know why, but he’s done it for a long time, you have to clap your hands and say ‘The Roaring Twenties!’ – and he takes a dive into the air and you have to catch him. And you have to do that every night – I don’t know why!

(There were many other examples of bedtime rituals.)

On bed-wetting: Company director’s wife: I’ve said to him, ‘Well, Giles, I do think it’s time you finished wetting the bed, you’re four after all.’ He says, ‘yes, well, somebody’s got to wet the bed!’

On where babies come from: Labourer’s wife bought Edna from Woolworth’s: she’s always thought that, and I don’t think she’d take it into her head that we got her from anywhere else.

On answering back: Greengrocer’s wife: They mustn’t shout at their Mummy and Daddy, ever; that’s a very firm rule.

On making threats to improve behaviour: (Do you ever tell him you won’t love him if he behaves like that?) Often, yes… when he’s being cheeky… often I threaten to leave him and go back to Ireland, and he doesn’t like it, it worries him, you know. And I say, ‘Well, be a good boy and I’ll not leave you.’ I often put on my coat to leave them, I often do. And they’ll be quite quiet for a bit, you know.

Those who, like me (and most of the mothers in the survey!) find the above threats horrifying, should read the comments of the interviewer who observed the family: “This mother has in fact an exceptionally warm and happy relationship with her two little boys… a delightful companion to them… the love in that house is almost tangible.” Which makes you think.

I apologise for the length of this post, but I can’t resist ending with this quote from children playing (book published in 1968):

Don’t push me, daleks don’t push people!” “Well, but they exterminate people!” – and the helpful explanatory footnote:

Daleks were (sic) robot-like characters in a very popular children’s television serial. Their easily imitated droning chant of ‘We-shall-exterminate-you!’ with which they advanced on their captives, combined with an oddly attractive shape, made them quite irresistible to small children, some of whom were known to say ‘I-am-a-dalek’ as their earliest sentence.

Fifty years later, we are obviously overrun by daleks in disguise.

Love from the PPI Blogger


  • Stephen Sheridan

    24th September 2018 at 8:22 am Reply

    Thank you so much for sharing PW, I can see why you like this study so much. Is there much in there on corporal punishment or observation on families that seem to have relationship problems? A comparative update would be fascinating.
    Modern families come under very different and more insidious pressure, such as materialist/technological distractions and the real-life Daleks you mention. The ‘so-and-so’s wife’ description makes me think of my mum, who was from a simple farming background in Cornwall, but classified herself as leaping up a class by marrying an RAF Officer and loved describing herself as “an RAF Officer’s wife” with great pride. She also altered her accent very deliberately with the heavy Cornish one only coming out in moments of anger; while my aunt and uncle’s very strong Cornish accent remained. My father, being Polish, never understood her class-conscious attitude and he found it a very bizarre and annoying. He may have become an officer, but his father was a coal miner, who later became a teacher.
    It is very puzzling why some people seem to want to keep dividing themselves up in to different groups, rather than concentrating on what they have in common – a good discussion about how to keep your children well behaved is a great way to unite parents for instance. I guess that by emphasising difference, people are trying to give themselves more status, importance and respect. Yet in my experience, real respect is only earned by your actions towards others, not because you just happen to be in certain group. Maybe that is why almost no modern politician appears to deserve respect – they sound like Daleks most of the time anyway. Although the Daleks are more honest about their intentions and work together better as a team; and aside from the Dalek Supreme, the Emperor Dalek or their creator Davros being leaders, they don’t have a class system either! Check out on YouTube – Dalek – Would you care for some tea?

    • Penelope Wallace

      27th September 2018 at 5:07 pm Reply

      I think there’s some scope for respecting title and position, especially earned or appointed position, such as that of a teacher. But yes, real respect is earned by behaviour.
      There are pages on smacking and other punishments in the Newson book (chapter title: Patterns of Compulsion), but not much about any relationships other than that of the child and mother (a little about the child and father or the child and siblings or friends.)

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