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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. New Times, New Preoccupations
  5. The Distinctiveness of Development
  6. Instinct is not enough: Training the Parent to Train the Child
  7. Training the Sexual Instinct
  8. Theory into Practice 1: The Right Knowledge
  9. Theory into Practice 2: Sex Play
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References

The idea that a child should not have sexual interests and experiences is fast being supplanted by the knowledge that he does have them; that they are an expression of perfectly normal, healthy energies, and that while it is necessary to gain control over them, they should not be forcibly suppressed” (Renz & Renz 1935: 92).


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. New Times, New Preoccupations
  5. The Distinctiveness of Development
  6. Instinct is not enough: Training the Parent to Train the Child
  7. Training the Sexual Instinct
  8. Theory into Practice 1: The Right Knowledge
  9. Theory into Practice 2: Sex Play
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References

Taken from a well-received “parent-training” book in the mid-1930s, the quotation typifies a normative shift in conceptualizing the sexual child from the second decade of the twentieth century. There is a sense that the sexual is only one of many aspects of the child's development and should be no more or no less deserving of special attention than any other aspect of this process. Recognizing that attitudes to childhood sexuality have a history, the authors acknowledge that the past, even the recent past, was to be understood as significantly less enlightened. In identifying former attitudes with “forcible suppression”, the quotation invites recall of the treatment of the topic in the late nineteenth century, where the child was understood as unformed and unreasoned on the one hand, and alive with perilous sexual sensibility on the other.1

Our paper explores the context and features of this historical shift on the background of the wider deployment of “planning” in strategies for managing social order at the height of modernity. Reviewing the professionalization of child-rearing, we argue that it was within this discourse that a new “normalization” of the sexual child took place, one that combined the acknowledgement of a benign and developmentally sanctioned sexual sensibility with the insistence on the need for expert guidance in its management. Drawing on child rearing manuals from England, Australia and the United States in the second and third decades of the twentieth century, we analyze the specificity of this new discourse that rendered it at the same time progressive and restrictive. In identifying two distinct claims about the etiology of the “sexual child” we nevertheless illustrate that both shared many of the same strategies and preoccupations in the child's “management”. In doing so we illustrate the urgency with which the importance of training is conveyed, yet illustrate that the tone of the texts was relentlessly upbeat and optimistic, directing and encouraging rather than restricting and fear-inspiring. We suggest that there was a relationship between the apparently more relaxed and sex positive project of “developing the sexual child” and the legitimating framework offered by the professionalization of parenting.

New Times, New Preoccupations

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. New Times, New Preoccupations
  5. The Distinctiveness of Development
  6. Instinct is not enough: Training the Parent to Train the Child
  7. Training the Sexual Instinct
  8. Theory into Practice 1: The Right Knowledge
  9. Theory into Practice 2: Sex Play
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References

“With a little thoughtful care properly exercised during their formative period our children can be made ever so much more efficient, but also ever so much more capable of finding happiness in life” (Walsh and Foote 1924: 11).

By the end of the first decade of the twentieth century, a new approach to the organization of social life extended its remit as the principles of “scientific management” began to be implemented beyond the factory gates.2 Though more usually associated with industrial production and of the rational management of the labor force, faith in the scientific direction of human activity was evident increasingly in the “reproductive” home. Rationalization of the production of developing minds and bodies rather than inanimate commodities required the input of dispassionate experts who could transcend and thus manage the emotional and affective “messiness” of parent/child interactions.3

Lasch (1977) identified this process with the extension of the division of labor from the productive to the familial and affective sphere. In this context he identifies the “proletarianization of parenthood” (Lasch 1977: 12), in which, as in the sphere of production, deskilling was a necessary central process This deskilling was accomplished through the juxtaposition of expertise and efficiency with parental ignorance and mismanagement. These notions legitimated the unprecedented intervention of professionals into family relationships, and led to a consensus that identified the potential problem of what had hitherto been seen as instinctive behavior.4 In the case of the parent/child relation, this deskilling was accomplished by a discourse of expertise versus ignorance; of efficiency versus amateur mismanagement. Deskilling thus created a gap between nature and culture, in which “the expert emerged as the missing link, the modern parent's modern parent” (Hulbert 2004: 36).5 Australian social historian Kereen Reiger included this shift in her argument that by the interwar years, child welfare and development had become “institutionalized” (Reiger 1985). A key justification for this institutionalization was the insistence on the use of child-rearing experts defined by their scientific rather than affective expertise. The parent (and here, what was meant was the mother) could not be trusted to such an expert task equipped as she was only with maternal instincts, nor could the child be trusted to traverse the risks of its environment or of its internal drives without proper instruction. “All conscious planning is of secondary importance to the environment provided by the parent's own emotional responses, subjective biases and prejudices. Upon their ability to recognize these [.] depends the success of every plan however seemingly wise and rational in conscious intent” (Sharpe 1936: 27–8). The dependent role of the child in the family was reflected in the emerging relationship where the amateur (parent) reconstructed as the child to the adult expert.

The reconstruction of parenting was matched, in the inter-war years, by the recognition of the child's need for emotional as well as physical nurture, and of the social urgency of attending to this need.6“Science now counsels what our tender sympathies long have dictated. Society's ‘acre of diamonds’ lies revealed in the rocking cradle within the door, and social statesmanship finds its task in the heart of a child” (Bossard 1930: 10). These shifts were reflected in the literature of child-rearing advice to parents in which the notion of the irrational childish body in need of constraint was replaced by a more holistic pedagogy that emphasized the reformability of both mind and body (See Cable 1975, Stearns 2003 and Hulbert 2004). At the same time, as we have suggested in relation to the earlier discourses, by the beginning of the twentieth century the developing child and its body became a signifier for the complex and contradictory aspects of the modern condition; full of potential vice and purity and hope for the future (Egan and Hawkes 2007). These double messages provided a space in the child-rearing discourse in which childhood sexuality could be discussed and, as we will argue, normalized.7

The Distinctiveness of Development

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. New Times, New Preoccupations
  5. The Distinctiveness of Development
  6. Instinct is not enough: Training the Parent to Train the Child
  7. Training the Sexual Instinct
  8. Theory into Practice 1: The Right Knowledge
  9. Theory into Practice 2: Sex Play
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References

“As a consequence of professionalization, the romantic view of the child lost ground to the emerging ‘scientific’ view. Children who had formerly been on the pedestal of moral superiority now found themselves beneath the microscope of professional scrutiny” (Hawes 1991: 32).

There were features of this movement that distinguished it from earlier projects of social reform.8 This was not amateur observation and moral guidance, but scientifically grounded direction given by qualified experts in behavioral sciences. The target for this attention was not the child, but the parents – who were seen both as problem (because of their amateur status) and solution (because of the emotional commitment to “do the right thing”) as mothers. While the texts referred constantly to the child, the advice was always directed towards the importance of a well-guided childhood to deliver healthy adults. The attention of the parents was thus assured: guilt and fear about the present and the weight of responsibility for the future. Underlying this ascendance of expertise over emotion was the belief that nature could not be trusted to deliver the desired outcome, either in the sense of maternal instincts or in through the preordained physical and mental development of the child. Leaving it to nature was certainly not enough, especially when it came to child-raising.

Stearns (2003) and Hulbert (2004) have both identified the faith in scientific management as the driving rationale for this detailed intrusion into the mother/child relationship, and Hulbert identified the emergence of a “child-rearing science” as involved with the moral and the social (Hulbert 2004: 106). We want to emphasize the extent to which the child (through the mother) was the vehicle for planned and rational social change, and it was this framing that allowed for the normalization of its sexuality. The notions of child-rearing and child development were both implicitly based upon assumptions that intervention into the life and especially the mind of the child was both possible and necessary.9,10 These dynamics of modernity: secular rational objective “means-to-end” organization – are exemplified in the work of Dr Emmett Holt (1894), whose book remained a stalwart of infant care till well into the twentieth century. Reading his work from the twenty-first century, one is struck by the lack of sentiment, indeed, any emotion, in a text intended to improve mothering and through it the treatment of children. For Holt's commitment was to technical training, to efficacy and outcome, and the care of the child presented a vehicle to demonstrate the effectiveness of taking a dispassionate and moral free approach in this regard. In the preparation of this catechism “everything has been sacrificed to clearness and simplicity. It has been deemed best to emphasize strongly the essentials without going into many minor details[.]” (Holt 1894: 6).

Yet despite the overtly value-neutral approach, there was a contradiction in this project of planning that added urgency to this intervention: on the one hand, women had a “natural” propensity to care for and nurture their children; on the other, that this maternal instinct was unreliable both in execution and outcome without the intervention of expert knowledge and expert direction. This tension is arguably representative of the “discontents” of the rationalizing project of modernity: demanding the proliferation of experts– who variously claim to have the solution, and in doing so perpetuate the “problem”.

Despite the implied distrust in their maternal capacities, mothers were nevertheless willing partners in their “deskilling masked as instruction”. In part, as Reiger has argued, this is because these texts spoke the same class language: “Some evidence does suggest that middle class women were more likely to respond favorably to new styles of infant care, partly because they had much in common in terms of attitudes and values with the scientific, professionally orientated experts” (Reiger 1985: 149). Additionally, the ease with which such anxieties could be manufactured and maintained has been identified in recent years by historians, who argue that this ready market for advice was itself a product of modernity, especially in the US. As Cable pointed out “where infants and young children were concerned, the mothers of the 1910s 1920s and 1930s tended to place the same abiding and implicit faith in science that their grandmothers had placed in God” (Cable 1975: 175–6).

While the condition of childhood offered such hope for the future, the agentic child is absent from this discourse. “The child’ appears instead as an automaton, with the capability of being driven either by its nature or by proper (or improper) adult direction. The only active engagement acknowledged is the contribution a well-trained child can make to a predictable and stable future. In a 1935 book entitled Big Problems on Little Shoulders the authors ask “why is there so much unhappiness in the world? Why do we meet with so many disappointments in life? Is it necessary for there to be so much suffering? What can be done to prevent it?” (Renz and Renz 1935: 5) To this limited extent, the discourse of development was “child positive”, but a child-positive setting was not one devoid of anxieties about corruptibility. Fears were expressed about the sexualized society the children were growing up in – instead of following “seasonal sexuality dictated by nature”, society was now involved in “all the year-round gluttony” (Piddington 1926: 21).11 The stability of the future depended on individuals who were well-adjusted both internally and in their socialized roles. In this sense, the child's experience was an indicator for future stability, so that social order and social adjustment began with the raising of children.

This contextualization has been necessary to provide a foundation for our argument about the normalization of the sexual child in this epoch. But in making this claim we are not suggesting that the process was either direct or uncomplicated. Rather the treatment of the sexual child reflected one of the two theoretical foundations of professional child-rearing methods that prevailed. Those experts who followed John Watson12 and behavioral psychology associated the acquisition of sexual sensibility with education and guidance directed towards properly socialized behavior. For those who accepted Freud's theory of infantile sexuality13 normal childhood sexuality was expressed through the sexual instinct and its gradual suppression and sublimation to social forces. Despite the divergence of their starting positions, both offered similar justifications for and limitations to the normalization of the child's sexual sensibility.

Instinct is not enough: Training the Parent to Train the Child

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. New Times, New Preoccupations
  5. The Distinctiveness of Development
  6. Instinct is not enough: Training the Parent to Train the Child
  7. Training the Sexual Instinct
  8. Theory into Practice 1: The Right Knowledge
  9. Theory into Practice 2: Sex Play
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References

“No one today knows enough to raise a child [.]‘Parenthood, instead of being an instinctive art, is a science, the details of which must be worked out by laboratory methods” (Watson 1978: 12–13).

“Crowded city life” is potentially damaging and parents faced with rearing a child in these circumstances need professional help. The child's “nervousness” is not due to naughtiness and therefore punishment will make things worse. Blaming the child needs to be replaced with training the parent (Evans 1920: 22–23).

The planned and rigid regimes inspired by Taylorism14 were reflected in the theories of behaviorist childrearing professionals.15 Reflecting the precepts of the new science of psychology, the work of Watson was foundational in presenting a blue-print for training the parent to train the (sexual) child. For Watson, as for his followers, the child was a tabula rasa, to be written on by its carers, whosoever took that role. Nature offered no guiding blue-print since “there are no instincts” (Watson 1978: 38). Limitation of emotional involvement and physical contact were central to this project, for these aspects of maternal love were damaging to the child and to the adult it would become. The antidote was male rationality for, “in many ways, with his supreme selfishness, man proves the best mother. Man is not a nurse and the wholesome neglect which he displays is of sound educational value to the growing child [..] Man it is who has sawn the rockers off the cradle and shown that the hand that rocks the cradle can wreck the world” (Lewis 1929: 21).

The sensual stimulation of the child was considered to be especially potent in distorting its acquisition of an independent sense of self, and a petted child would become a bad marriage partner (Watson 1978: 87). Mothers were directed to avoid physical expressions of affection, especially cuddling, and to place their children either in the care of a nurse, or “in the back yard for a large part of the day” (Watson 1978: 84). But this was not a punitive regime, for the key to effective training lay in positive rather than negative encouragement. Good habits must be encouraged rather than bad habits punished (Strain 1934).

Developing the sexual child, for Watson and his followers, was predicated upon the view that sexuality was something that was acquired through experience, for the denial of instincts, logically denied also the existence of a sexual instinct (Watson 1978: 15). Thus it was essential, for proper socialization, that the child was exposed to what were considered to be healthy sensual experiences. Foremost among these was self-learning, for the child must be independent from a very early age: emotional independence from its mother, but also from its own bodily impulses like hunger or thirst. Not just sexual but any sensual experience must become properly socialized in the interests of wider society. Thus, for example, behaviorists valued the concept of repression; understood in terms of setting aside individual wants for the social good (Sachs 1937: 24).

There is a distinction to be made here between training the child and earlier notions of protection of innocence. The Watsonian child at birth can be neither innocent nor ignorant; both imply the lack of something that might inherently be present. But there is a notion of protection, a quality that is acquired by the child as it is provided with the means to gain independence through experience. This strategy of protection differs also from earlier priorities; in which sensual experiences of the body were by definition damaging. Now, in the interests of attaining the required levels of independence, especially from its physical functions,16 the child must be left to its own devices. Knowledge of its and others bodily functions can be acquired through observation rather than experience. Watson encourages parental nudity with the child, but discourages the mother sharing a bath with the child.17 From the outset, correct terms must be used for bodily parts, and parents must “treat naked bodies as a matter of course in bathing, dressing and other natural intimacies of family life” (Wood, Lerrigo, and Rice 1937: 8). Peer experiences are equally important for emotional distance between parent and child: Children, Watson advised, should play together unsupervised by adults for an hour a day. Ideally this interaction would take place in the backyard, with siblings, who, weather permitting, would be naked (Watson 1978: 125–6). There should be no inhibitions about nudity between sexes, either with child or adult, but either sex are not to be bathed together (ibid: 16). The normalization of nudity between children and with adults is a surprising feature, especially from the standpoint of early twenty-first century unease with the idea of child nudity. But it is consistent with the belief that emotional and physical independence were the best antidotes to acquiring bad habits. Thus, the child should not be kept in ignorance, should not be mislead into thinking that there is something special about sex. Rather it must be encouraged to understand the functions of sexual organs and feelings in ways that will immune it to any distorting influences it may encounter. But distortions can happen: given the insistence on the sexual tabula rasa, Watson advises against the children playing exclusively with members of their own sex. “The boy so brought up may shy away from marriage and turn to men for a sex outlet. This is called homosexuality. Exactly the same is true for women” (Watson 1978: 179).18 Parents are warned against older children “a child of six or eight badly brought up associating with your child of four can make a wreck of your most careful efforts” (Watson 1978: 175). Attitudes to masturbation have markedly shifted by this epoch19: now seen by behaviorists at least as nothing more than a bad habit that should be ignored in order that it will “die away”. “The chief inconvenience of it is that as long as the child has this habit he must be kept from other children in order that they may not discuss or imitate it” (Frankenburg 1933: 157).

Parents should be open and honest, but also vigilant about the possibilities of acquiring bad habits, including masturbation and thumb sucking. The problem is not serious, just something that must be handled properly. Children must be “verbally organized” about the purpose of their genitals ((Watson 1978: 175), and distracted from over-reliance on physical self-stimulus, like thumb-sucking. Mothers must talk to their children about sex from around their second year, and the child should have full sex education by eleven years old. But in addition to being the solution, mothers remain in another sense a problem. Watson says over 75% of mothers are incompetent because of ignorance (Watson 1978: 175).20 There is no suggestion that speaking about sex will encourage sexual promiscuity. For behaviorists, since there is no inherent sexual drive, there is nothing there to be encouraged. The justification of this early sex talk is to make the first imprint on the tabula rasa with the proper knowledge.

Training the Sexual Instinct

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. New Times, New Preoccupations
  5. The Distinctiveness of Development
  6. Instinct is not enough: Training the Parent to Train the Child
  7. Training the Sexual Instinct
  8. Theory into Practice 1: The Right Knowledge
  9. Theory into Practice 2: Sex Play
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References

“It is to be remembered that, to a child, its body and sensations are the most real things it encounters. They occupy first place in its interest and no inherent shame opposes their exploitation” (Braithwaite 1939: 60).

“The sexual instinct is very powerful because it is concerned with the preservation of the race. These primitive instincts are neither good nor bad in themselves, they are ‘natural’. Rightly used they will make for happiness; uncontrolled and perverted they are ugly and the source of intense misery” (Sloan Chesser 1927: 10).

The claims of Freud in his Three Essays on Sexuality (1905/1977) about the infantile sexual instinct provided now familiar source for normalizing the sexual child. Given that his ongoing motivation was to understand the role played by childhood sexual experiences in adult neuroses, we argue that Freud's theory was not primarily concerned to normalize the sexually agentic child. Instead, Freudian based child-rearing advice was primarily directed towards avoiding the development of adult neuroses that threatened successful maturation of the sexual instinct to adult (hetero)sexuality. While superficially offering a radical framing, the acknowledgement of the sexual instinct legitimated the same levels of professional advice and supervision as did the denial of this inherent quality.

Briefly, Freud's instinct to pleasure involves somatic stimulation (erotic zones) that is not, initially, associated with genital stimulation or function. He distinguishes the “continuously flowing source of stimulation” from a stimulus which is a single event external in origin,21 and the constant state of the instinct – independent of external stimulus.22 The instinct to pleasure has a number of primary somatic sources in infancy, some to do with the instinct for survival and others to do with the physical relationship between the child and its carer. But the key element is that the manifestations follow the urge to assuage a somatic “irritation” and to recreate the pleasurable sensation that follows. “The quest to re-experience the sensual pleasure from an external source constitutes the sexual aim of the infant and small child23 (Freud 1977: 101). Under the age of four, any part of the body that can offer a stimulus/response represents similar autoerotic potential. Freud says that once we understand the mechanism of instinct and aim, and the satisfaction that follows, we have little more to learn about children's sexuality (ibid.: 102). This comment is especially indicative of the specific features attached to Freud's sexual instinct. First, that it is an instinct – that is, an impulse that is not dependent on reason or choice. Second, that it follows a developmental as well as evolutionary path. Third, this understanding of the nature and role of the instinct coincides with the diagnosis and treatment of neurotic adults.24 Nevertheless, in the decades that followed, the presence of the sexual instinct informed the second approach to “normalizing” the sexual child within the discourse of development.25“Here in the predominance of the more purely sensational drive, the strong body urge, we have sex in its widest aspect.” (Goldsmith 1926: 623).

Freud speaks of instincts, not “an instinct” and this is significant for his definition of sexuality in the child. The Freudian child is born with a range of instincts to pleasure that direct the subject's interaction with its own body. The force that drives these various instincts and their outcomes, he calls libido. The sexuality of the child is experienced through and shaped by the interplay between repression and suppression of the libido. Repression for Freud is the result of unwanted interference in the instinctive use of the libido to attain pleasure. This renders what should have been pleasurable, unpleasant, and results in regression of the libido flow in adulthood to an earlier manifestation. It is these retrogressive manifestations that appear as clinical neuroses, or, as Freud would have it, perversions; among these same sex desires or fetishistic attachments. Whatever the manifestations of the repressed libido, the consequences are negative at both an individual and social level (Gay 1989: 22).

Thus while Freud naturalized the inherent sexual capacity in the child, he did so in the interests of attaining psychical health of the child-as-adult. As significantly the stimulus of this capacity is not of choice but an inherent force. Though deriving from a diametrically opposed premise, Freudian child development nevertheless demanded professional advice and direction to properly train the instinct so that it could be successfully guided in its trajectory from polymorphous autoeroticism through the latency stage to the acquisition of adult heterosexuality. This transition was fraught and Freud identified a number of obstacles to the resolution of the infantile instinct in mature sexuality. Central to these was the imbalance in the imposition of social expectations and norms onto the pleasure seeking activities of the child driven by its infantile libido: placing the balance between repression and suppression at the centre of the logic of “the training of the sexual instinct”.

The balance did not entail choosing suppression over repression; this would exacerbate the conflict the child is already experiencing between “the demands of his own instinctual life and the demands of his social environment” (Clothier 1938: 285). Parents must be taught how to tread the narrow path between socializing behaviors that released bodily tension and avoiding negative judgments or associations that would store up trouble for the future. The libidinous child was seen to be at war with its newly socialized self, and it was the parent's responsibility to redirect the libido into non-erotic activities that would, nevertheless, allow the child the experience of sensual pleasure. The proper management of sensuality was a crucial tool for training the sexual instinct. Infantile sensuality was polymorphous, directed towards “releasing libidinal tension” (Middlemore 1936: 62–69). Parents needed to understand the force of the libido and the degree to which it could be redirected without repression. “The child that ‘represses’ is forcibly purging the conscious in order to free it from sinister and disagreeable impressions” (Wittels 1933: 95). Thus, for example, autoerotic behavior including masturbation is to be accepted. But the child may become too reliant on masturbation, thumb sucking or other source of sensual pleasure, and here the parent must be guided in the delicate balance between increasing anxiety about and fixation on the erotic activity and redirecting the libidinous energy to a difference source of release. This process is summed up by in the phrase “liberal sensual education” (Middlemore 1936) in which the parent encourages sensual stimulation from a wide variety of sources. This redirection of the libidinous drive to pleasure is the dynamic of “suppression”, rather than repression. “Mental health and mature adjustment are to be reached by a pathway midway between allowing and forbidding” (Clothier 1938: 289).

Theory into Practice 1: The Right Knowledge

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. New Times, New Preoccupations
  5. The Distinctiveness of Development
  6. Instinct is not enough: Training the Parent to Train the Child
  7. Training the Sexual Instinct
  8. Theory into Practice 1: The Right Knowledge
  9. Theory into Practice 2: Sex Play
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References

“No one would deny that instruction should be given before unnatural gratifications of this instinct have lead to the formation of habits that undermine the moral stamina of the child by developing a degrading sense of inferiority” (Thom 1927: 263).

“It is natural and normal for children to ask about sex but because they are curious about everything, thus be matter of fact and simple. In these days there is no excuse about the simple facts of sex and the way to accurately convey this to the child should include ‘a healthy attitude’ to sex by information and example (Hurlock 1943: 356).

The issue of sexual curiosity represented a fault line in both discourses. For the behaviorists, curiosity is unexplained within the notion of the child as a blank slate. For Freudian theory, curiosity is not antithetical, but does underline the importance of proper direction of the instinct. For both, sexual curiosity emphasizes the role of the parents and together these factors represent both a challenge and a possible hazard. The antidote is “the right knowledge”. The issue is not whether children have a sex consciousness that drives them to seek out information about the topic; it is who speaks to the child, what they say, and when. Silence is unthinkable as an option. Sexual knowledge gained from other children is unacceptable; the information must come via the parents from the experts. “Sex” here is comprised of biology and reproduction, using animals or plants as examples. “The right knowledge” should be given from 2 years of age and progressively increased before puberty in order to “inoculate” the children with “proper knowledge” to prevent “street corner talk” (Watson 1978: 174). For Freudian child-rearing, the right knowledge requires a balance to be kept. “Everything connected with sex has for so long been under a ban that we must be careful now not to fly to the other extreme and preach sexual indulgence as a cure for repression” (Wickes 1927: 281).

The recurring message in these texts is that conveying a sense of fear shame or embarrassment about sex to the child is to be avoided at all costs, and “the right knowledge” for either school of thought reflects this: “A child is interested in his own body and admires himself. If we object and sneer at what we call conceit, or worse still, if we infer that there is something shameful about the human body we produce inhibitions and complexes which are very harmful in their effect upon character and personality” (Sloan Chesser 1927: 15). The need to eradicate ignorance and avoid imparting negative associations with the child's sensuality appeared to occlude any concerns about age appropriateness of “the right knowledge”. There is a sense of urgency about sex instruction for leaving it too late risks a distorted outcome.26Piddington (1926: 17) says that 12 years is too old for instruction – by 12 years old many young children are already involved with “vice”.

The infant will discover its sex organs in the same spirit of curiosity as it does its fingers and toes. But the parallel cannot be stretched too far:

It is important to realize that while the infant usually experiences no conscious sex sensations or impulses, he possesses a sex mechanism normally highly sensitive to stimulation [.] Intense satisfaction may be experienced by the baby through stimulation of the sensitive zones related to sex such as the sex organs, and sometimes other skin regions' (Wood, Lerrigo and Rice 1937: 9).

Once the child has reached four years of age, attention shifts to developing the ways in which the child thinks about sex, rather than just dealing with accidental discovery. Indeed the attitude appears more important than the sensual experience itself, for everything depends on developing a “wholesome objective attitude towards sex and reproduction, [.] and to forestall the unwholesome influences of his general environment” (Wood, Lerrigo and Rice 1937: 12). Since for the behaviorists there is no inherent sexual instinct, the earlier the information is given the better. And it is not just the age but the approach that is crucial. Though it is not directly stated, the implication in the focus on animal reproduction and the production of babies is that “the wrong knowledge” is that which identifies the subjectivity of sex.

This “desexualization” of knowledge offers a resolution to the tensions inherent in the whole project, behaviorist or Freudian. For the latter, treading the fine line between repression (harmful to the acquisition of healthy adult sexuality) and suppression (necessary for healthy development to adult sexuality) was rendered less fraught if the information given identified no distinctive sexual elements or sexual sensations. Desexualizing and sanitizing the information also made its communication less stressful for parents. This “right knowledge” was not their creation but its communication was their duty – made necessary by the consensus about the sex-consciousness displayed in the child's curiosity. And, of course, to do this successfully, parents themselves should have no difficulty with such openness.

Giving children sexual knowledge before adolescence is crucial for avoiding the dangers of the future: “we cannot leave the building of the road until it is time to embark upon the journey and then expect to find it safe and easy going” (Wickes 1927: 288). But there is another element in the sex consciousness of the child identified in both discourses that calls into question the issues of latency, of sexual subjectivity and of, perhaps, the success of “training the sexual child”: sex play.

Theory into Practice 2: Sex Play

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. New Times, New Preoccupations
  5. The Distinctiveness of Development
  6. Instinct is not enough: Training the Parent to Train the Child
  7. Training the Sexual Instinct
  8. Theory into Practice 1: The Right Knowledge
  9. Theory into Practice 2: Sex Play
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References

“As children grow older they are aware of a kind of forbidden sex play that goes on more or less secretly among their schoolmates and are swept into it or repulsed by it according to their standards of conduct and inclination. To the uninitiated it is something that ‘bad boys do to girls’ (Strain 1934: 84).

The issue of “sex play” raises an element that has only been implicit thus far: namely the degree to which the sexuality of the child manifests itself in conscious and directed expression. Whether the stimulus is taught behavior and environment or the direction by inherent instinct, sex-play suggests the active translation of these constructions into the sensual world of the child. The texts we reviewed do not all use the term; it is addressed more directly in the post-Freudian literature. A number of questions are raised by the concept of “sex play” that are not resolved in our sources. First, there is the question of whether this “play” be attributed to instinct driven rehearsal for adulthood (like other play games, and like the animal world). The second concerns whether or not these activities can be designated “sexual”. The third and related issue is about the conscious element – is this consciously experienced and planned erotic activity?

The topic of sex play is acknowledged but treated with composure – even trivialized:

‘The boy who has had a ‘full sex training from birth’‘sees the fun in sex, just as he sees it in everything else, if he has a sense of humor, without experiencing physical excitement in response to the mental action. HIS TRAINING RENDERS HIS OUTLOOK ON THE WHOLE QUESTION OBJECTIVE, NOT SUBJECTIVE [original emphasis] (Piddington 1926: 51).

Attitude effectively inoculates not just against “the wrong knowledge and attitudes” but against unwanted “physical excitement”. Once again, dealing with sex play demands the right attitudes from the parents. “Dealing with it properly” entails is defusing the “seriousness” and, at the same time, its reality. One text recommend the approach that “sex play is silly”, since “ridicule is one of the surest methods of hurrying a thing to oblivion” (Renz and Renz 1935: 114). The imperative to avoid alarm and negative associations is taken to extremes, from a 21st century perspective. In the same text the authors use an example of a four year old child who as was left alone with her nurse:

“Returning home [..] the little girl, shocked and frightened, told her mother about an offense that the nurse had committed [..] The mother simply said' well, dear, that was not a polite thing for Nurse to do. Nurse evidently does not know what is polite and what is not. I am sorry you were frightened (sympathy should not be denied, but it should not encourage self-pity). [. . .] Nurse doesn't always have nice manners” (Renz and Renz 1935: 116).

The nurse left but no connection was made between this and the assault. The mother is advised not to let the matter drop but to return to it in order to underline the triviality of the event and the necessity that the child does not see this as a serious or damaging experience.

But at the same time, care must be taken to avoid unwanted stimulation. In addressing this rather older dilemma, there is another anomaly evident: namely, that in addition to trivializing and thus “desexualizing” sex play, activities that are not overtly sexual are sexualized, for example, tree-climbing, sliding down banisters or sitting astride the father's leg. To what extent the sex play is trivialized or acknowledged as potentially problematic depends, it seems, on adult perceptions rather than any sense of the experience of the child. Indeed, there is, in a later text, a sense that sex play is misnamed: “much of the sex play of children takes place in the context where, while manual manipulation may result, the erotic implications of the acts might be unrecognized. A game of ‘Doctor and Nurse’, where there might be touching of the genitalia, or simulated coitus, where the genitals touch, can be without erotic implications or arousal” (Ellis and Abarbanel 1961: 264).

But there does not appear to be a consensus about the degree to which sex play is consciously initiated sexual activity. Here the texts illustrate the level of differences between the discourses of the interwar years and those that currently prevail. Here is a discussion about this in the mid-1930s, from a Freudian writer:

“In some instances the play goes on quite openly, as in the case of two boys who one summer ran a popcorn and cool drink stand on a side street of their town. Every afternoon at about 4 o'clock a little girl sauntered down the street, disappeared beneath the bunting of the ‘pop’ stand with one of the boys while the other unconcernedly continued to serve the trade” (Strain 1934: 85).

This anecdote is related without comment as an example of “openness” (as opposed to secrecy) but not as consciously sought sexual experience. Strain goes on to recognize incestual sexual activity between cousins with a sense of amused tolerance but here recognizes a conscious purpose. “The object was to obtain the ‘lowdown’ on anything pertaining to sexual knowledge or experience. When they finally discovered the phenomenon known as coitus, they realized they had reached the goal of their researches”. The children in this example did not achieve the “grand finale” because “training or conscience intervened” (Strain 1934: 85). There is no suggestion of judgment here, or anxieties about precocious sexuality: the only consideration in both examples was the frequency of the activity and the age of the participants.

While these remain accounts under the heading of “sex-play” concerns are not expressed about their significance or consequence because the participants are not physically mature. This connection makes explicit the epistemological foundation at work. The activities are not sexualized or desexualized with reference to the subjective meaning given to them by the children but by the adult observer. Yet it is still not that simple. If these activities are designated as non-sexual because of the lack of physical maturity, they remain defined as pleasurable. Any concerns about this are muted by this pleasure being understood as “of a general nature” rather than being directly identified as sexual. Through both channels any conscious intention of the activity and its relationship to a childish version of “sexual” appears muted.

The level of tolerance about sex-play is more evident in the Freudian texts, where the balance of suppression and repression is so delicate, but for behaviorists as well, trivialization of sex play is a key component in instilling “the right knowledge”. Unenlightened or mislead parents may unwittingly distort the direction of the child's future sexual development if they misinterpret the manifestations of the sexual instinct or show too much anxiety about sex play. The use of the term sex-play appears to complicate rather than simplify the development of the sexual child. The twinning of the two terms allows for explication and simplification of neither. Sexual experience, either from autoeroticism or through interaction with another, even with an adult, is at the same time trivialized and understood as highly significant. “Sex-play” simultaneously acknowledges and defuses autonomous sexuality by its inclusion into a developmental framework. On the one hand, the developmental framework conceptualizes the sexual child as the to-be-adult; a characterization that ensures the continued surveillance and training of the child's body and mind. On the other, “sex-play” conjures images of innocent exploration that speaks of a specific childhood sensibility and consciousness. We are arguing that this possibility is closed down in the child-rearing advice: play sex is “pretend” sex and is not, in this understanding, sex at all.

Conclusion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. New Times, New Preoccupations
  5. The Distinctiveness of Development
  6. Instinct is not enough: Training the Parent to Train the Child
  7. Training the Sexual Instinct
  8. Theory into Practice 1: The Right Knowledge
  9. Theory into Practice 2: Sex Play
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References

We can no longer blind ourselves to the truth that native innocence is a chimera, and that these [sexual] organs are invested with mystery and uneasiness of mind” (Wittels 1933: 129–130)

The discourse of scientific child-rearing, founded as it was in the wider rationalizing project of modernity, provided the legitimating framework with which childhood sexuality could be normalized. But it was a conditional process, one that relied on the persuasive view that a child well versed in its sexual function produced a sexually proficient and stable adult. It was conditional also on the presence of professional expertise and guidance, and on compliant parents who took their duty to raise a “well-developed” child seriously. Despite the optimism about the outcome and the conviction of the necessity to “sexualise” the children in this manner, the task was complex and often contradictory. In both senses, the intended outcome was not assured.

This instability is expressed in the dilemma of the parents and of the professionals who provided the instructions: how to convey proper instruction without perpetuating shame and ignorance, or encouraging inappropriate or premature development of sexual consciousness. The dangers of ignorance and sex negativity coexisted with the expressed faith, on which the whole movement of the time was based – that the parent (properly trained) was the best person to effect the necessary changes and to protect the mental health of the child (Holt 1894: 28). The literature of the day maintained the levels of anxiety through the primary focus on the parents.27 The mother – for the father is always a shadowy figure – was thus both the problem and the solution. As Nancy Pottisham Weiss points out; “In one serious sense child rearing manuals might be renamed mother rearing tracts (Pottisham Weiss 1977: 520).

But this was neither a coherent nor a linear discourse. Holt's simplistic equation of “well-trained mothering equals well-trained child” was by the 1920s challenged by the emergence of behaviorism. John Watson took a far less optimistic view of the impact the mother – well-trained or not. Mothers posed a direct danger to their children through indiscriminate expression of motherly love and affection which they were not, in Watson's view, able to control. The view that emotions posed an obstacle to healthy development was consistent with the rational scientific approach that characterized the interwar years. Here a more covert anxiety about enlisting the parents in this important task become more explicit, articulated through familiar constructs of gendered tendencies towards irrationality and hyper emotionalism. “It would have been better if nature had equipped the mother so that she could control her affection by her reason when her child needs social training” (O'Shea 1920: 128).

The marginalization of maternal affection was matched by the “desexualization” of the permissible sexual discourse. Reduced to the right knowledge or trivialized as sex play, the absence of the agentic sexual child speaks to the unresolved (and irresolvable?) dilemma that was never directly addressed in the literature we analyzed. In our data, the sexuality of the child was characterized as either inherently present or inherently absent. The identification of the sexual instinct as in need of proper training directed attention away from the possibility of addressing an independent sexual consciousness. Similarly, the insistence on training good habits for the acquisition of healthy sexual ideas and on the lack of an inherent sexual capacity rendered erotic independence unattainable in both theory and practice. Yet despite this, both theoretical approaches were committed to a level of sexual enlightenment of the child from a very young age, much younger than is generally thought necessary today.

These interwar texts were also very open about the importance of encouraging children to acquire the proper knowledge about theirs and others bodies. The attitude to childhood nudity is illustrative of the positive attitude to sexual curiosity in the child that was anodized as it was normalized. Yet the commitment to avoiding the child acquiring a negative attitude to sex legitimated what through modern eyes are practices that would be considered distinctly problematic. But in the prevailing beliefs of the time, leaving curiosity about the body unsatisfied was deemed to have the most damaging and distorting impact upon the acquisition of healthy adult sexuality. Satiated curiosity is the antidote to the child acquiring not just the wrong knowledge but the wrong attitude. We would argue especially in relation to sex play, that curiosity becomes the means by which childish eroticism is rendered asexual; reduced to a “hunger for knowledge” or “sex play”.

What are we to conclude from this complex brew? Despite the fundamental differences between the two interpretative frameworks represented in the texts we examined, the striking feature was that they both agreed on the endpoint and the means by which this should be achieved. Both recognized implicitly in their formulation of the problem and the solution, that shaping the direction of – developing – the child's sexuality was an essential precursor to sexual stability in the future. In the process, “the sexuality of the child” was silenced in favor of “childhood sexuality”. In both cases the possibility of an inherent and specifically childish sexuality was nullified. At the same time, and paradoxically, the issue of the child's sexuality, actual or potential, could neither be left to chance nor nature. In both cases, the consequences would be catastrophic for the child-as-adult. In both cases, this sexual potentiality with all its perils was effectively defused and rewritten through a range of strategies, while at the same time avoiding assiduously any negative associations with ignorance or shame. Despite, or perhaps because of, the commitment to scientific training of the child; and to effective translation of expert advice into amateur practice, the child was marginalized; acknowledged only as the passive receptor, not the active agent. Nevertheless, the child's educability and malleability was central in the “cure” for the perceived problems. Knowledge is the key to a healthier future and knowledge here is equated simultaneously with freedom and obligation.

In the discourse of development, the normalization of the sexual child we suggest was both conditional and limited. It was conditional on the boundaries of two opposed theoretical assumptions that variously accepted or denied the presence of an inherent force that required direction. It was conditional also on the view that the future adult could be planned through the present child. Finally, it was conditional on the primary justification for “speaking about sex”; the scientifically sourced advice and the “sacred role” of rearing healthy children for the future. We have used the term desexualization above and argue that this process represents the conditional limitation both in extent and means. Throughout the texts there was a consistent argument that would appear to contradict our claim. After all, the texts insisted that speaking about sex was a duty, indeed, a necessity. It was not dangers that were warned of, but nor were pleasures promoted. The sex that was spoken of was mechanical, rationalized and ordered – a means to end process, the terms of whose promotion paralleled that of the importance of a balanced diet. It was a “sex” with a purpose but without erotic presence. It was a sex that was serious but at the same time trivialized. And it was, in retrospect, a profoundly frustrating methodology and philosophy. On the one hand, there was sexual enthusiasm evident in the commitment to the eradication of ignorance and fear. There was a sense that sexual prudery was backward and damaging and the child should be free to follow its impulses. But these potentialities were sacrificed at the altar of purpose and outcome. Additionally, behind the rhetoric of education and training there lurked a doubt; that if left untouched, the child had inherent chaotic tendencies and that therefore parental inaction is not an alternative. “One omission, one neglected occasion or one unconscious act by the parents is sufficient to encourage a ‘weed’ to grow in the child, which can then be uprooted only by unremitting effort” (Metraux 1955: 214). We suggest that the potential for an open acknowledgement of the sexual child was truncated by the very conditions that allowed it to be spoken of as a positive not a negative social phenomenon. The sexual child was discussable only in the context of the pathway to the properly sexual adult, its subjectivity muted and marginalized. Normalization was articulated through the prism of purpose and of the role of the child in the formation of a healthy and well-socialized reproductive heterosexual adult.

Acknowledgments

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. New Times, New Preoccupations
  5. The Distinctiveness of Development
  6. Instinct is not enough: Training the Parent to Train the Child
  7. Training the Sexual Instinct
  8. Theory into Practice 1: The Right Knowledge
  9. Theory into Practice 2: Sex Play
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References

We would like to the University of New England and St. Lawrence University for their generous research support which helped to make this article possible. We also want to note that we consciously move away from alphabetical ordering in our publications so that we may equally share positions as “first author,” but that our work is always equally collaborative.

Notes
  • 1

    This instability was clearly articulated in anxiety verging on phobia about childhood autoeroticism in general and masturbation in particular. See, for this Spitz 1952, Neuman 1975, Hamowy 1977, Gillis 1996, Stengers and Neck 2001, Laqueur 2003, Singy 2004, Hodges 2005, Darby 2005.

  • 2

    Here, as Hulbert reminds us, the success of Taylorism – scientific management of production, was the legitimating framework (Hulbert 2004: 36) Following the work of Frederick Taylor in The Principles of Scientific Management (1911), this approach recommended the following of precise regimes laid down in steps that were detailed and timed in every aspect of their execution.

  • 3

    The mechanistic dynamic of modernization is exemplified in the work of Emmett Holt, whose book remained a stalwart of infant care for decades. Reading his work a century later one is struck by the lack of sentiment, indeed, any emotion, in a work intended as a direct support for mother and child. Holt's commitment was to technical training, to efficacy and outcome, and the child presented a vehicle for this (Holt 1894: 6).

  • 4

    Matters once left to the individual, the family or to a local authority were now becoming more and more, matters concerning the state and its institutions (Gittins 1982: 48).

  • 5

    Peter Stearns (2003) argues that the new approach to children dealt with more than health issues while Hulbert identified the emergence of a “child-rearing science” as involved with the moral and the social (Hulbert 2004: 106).

  • 6

    See for example, Zelizer 1985, Clement 1997, Sterns 2003, Sanchez-Eppler 2005.

  • 7

    We suggest that the unit of analysis (or the unit of correction, in this case), was here building the capacity of the individual child as the conduit for it future adult health. This stands in contrast to the discourse of sexual hygiene, in which the unit of analysis was the population. Both approaches offered the legitimation for speaking of sex and the child, but with different ideological foundations.

  • 8

    See, for example, Keating: The Social Explorers , Stedman Jones, G, Outcast London (Oxford, 1971 Clementina Black (ed) Married Women's Work Virago 1983; Margery Spring Rice Working Class Wives Virago 1981).

  • 9
  • 10

    To exemplify, Jones (1983) illustrates how scientific management of the child's body deskilled the mothers and instigated another level of professionalization of child-rearing – the nursery nurse, trained in baby management by the medical profession. For those mothers who could not afford a maid, Dr Emmet Holt's book, (The Care and Feeding of Children New York D Appleton and Company 1894) – the precursor to the child-rearing manuals of the first half of the twentieth century, provided an adequate substitute.

  • 11

    As Ellen Warne (Warne:1999)has illustrated, anxieties about the sexualization of the child are not an early 21st century phenomenon, but were clearly articulated in the first decades of the twentieth century.

  • 12

    Watson, JB (1928, 1978) The Psychological Care of the Infant and Child WW Norton and Co Inc: NY.

  • 13

    Freud, S. (1977) On Sexuality: Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality and Other Works The Pelican Freud Library ed. Angela Richards Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

  • 14

    See note ii above.

  • 15

    A term referring to the school of psychology founded by John Watson based on the belief that behaviors can be measured, trained, and changed. Behaviorism was established with the publication of John Watson's classic paper Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It (1913) http://psychology.about.com/od/bindex/g/behaviorism.htm accessed 010208.

  • 16

    Watson recommends the child be toilet trained by nine months and be able to feed itself by eighteen months. At two the child should be able to dress itself and at four be able to prepare its own food (Watson 1978: 87).

  • 17

    We speculate, given his theoretical framing, that the problem with sharing a nude bath is not that of inappropriate sexual touching but of excessive physical intimacy between mother and child.

  • 18

    Watson actually claims that this possibility is greater for women, given the cultural acceptance of closer physical intimacy between girls.

  • 19

    Hermann Rohleder, a German physician, who had urged that masturbating children should be given corporal punishment in 1899, counseled patience and understanding in 1925” (Fishman 1982: 279).

  • 20

    Resistance to talking about sex to their children on the grounds of destroying their innocence is mistaken “their innocent lambs have been learning about sex – using the term broadly – from the time their wavering footsteps at two yeas took them into the groups of four to six year olds” (Watson 1978: 155).

  • 21

    These terms are important as they identify: the pioneering nature of this theory; its location within the early discipline of psychoanalysis that as he puts it lies “on the frontier between the mental and the physical” (Freud 1905/1977).

  • 22

    Here Freud's theory confronts directly the pre-existing characterizations of childhood sexuality as either the outcome of “degeneracy” or as pathological manifestations in response to external stimulus, either accidental from the environment or intentional stimulation from adults (ibid., and f/n1 Freud 1977: 89).

  • 23

    Freud uses the example of thumb-sucking, citing the work Hungarian pediatrician, Lindner 1879 who “clearly recognized the sexual nature of this activity and emphasized it without qualification. In the nursery, sucking is classed along with other kinds of “sexual naughtiness” in children (Freud 1977: 96).

  • 24

    Albert Moll (1912:14) suggested that Freud is not really interested in identifying the sexual life of the child, but to identify “manifestations of the sexual instinct for therapeutic reasons”.

  • 25

    Tobin has argued that from 1927 to roughly 1940, psychoanalytic theory informed the dominant view in development discourses that repression of the sex instinct in childhood had profound negative consequences for healthy development, both present and future” (Tobin 2001: 184).

  • 26

    The “development of an unhealthy sexual appetite’ will result from not speaking frankly about sex”. (August Forel, The Sexual Question: A Scientific, psychological, hygienic and sociological study for the cultured classes London: Rebman Ltd 1908: 475).

  • 27

    The mental hygiene and child guidance literature of the 1920s clearly traced the source of the child's problems to parents and the family” (Horn 1984: 27).

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  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. New Times, New Preoccupations
  5. The Distinctiveness of Development
  6. Instinct is not enough: Training the Parent to Train the Child
  7. Training the Sexual Instinct
  8. Theory into Practice 1: The Right Knowledge
  9. Theory into Practice 2: Sex Play
  10. Conclusion
  11. Acknowledgments
  12. References
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