Rocking the cradle, Kath Bennett

The Discovery of Early Childhood
Helen May
Auckland University Press with Bridget Williams Books co-published with the New Zealand Council for Educational Research $39.95
ISBN 1 86940 166 2

The Next Generation: Childrearing in New Zealand
Jane & James Ritchie
Penguin Books $24.95
ISBN 0 140 26604 6

Teachers Talk Teaching 1915-1995: Early Childhood, Schools and Teachers Colleges
Sue Middleton and Helen May
Dunmore Press $49.95
ISBN 0 86469 301 X

In A Canterbury Tale my father, F O Bennett, wrote of his early school years at the beginning of this century: “Education in those days was a desirable acquisition but, like butter on the bread, was not essential.” The same sentiment could reflect the prevailing views about early childhood care and education throughout this century. The right of young children to have their needs and interests adequately met with the support of high-quality services remains an unmet goal in most parts of the world, including New Zealand. Therefore, when an academic adds a substantial contribution to the literature on this topic, we can take another step forward in the long journey towards the proper recognition and valuing of our youngest citizens.

So it is all the more valuable to see Helen May’s years of experience and investigation into the historical, political, social and educational fabric of early childhood education brought together in The Discovery of Early Childhood. Beginning with the mid-eighteenth century, the saga stops tantalisingly with a description of the 1947 Bailey Report and hints of things to come. The author indicates that another book will take up the story from then on. It seems particularly appropriate that the first New Zealand university professor of early childhood education should be the one to look to her “professional ancestors” and trace the historical development of what many of us know is the most important stage in people’s lives but to which our society generally gives only lip-service, and that is early childhood.

Beginning with the influences of early European educators and thinkers such as Rousseau, Wollstonecraft and Pestalozzi, May presents a sympathetic account of a struggle, mainly though not exclusively by mothers, to provide for the physical, emotional and educational needs of very young children through group efforts of one sort or another as support for families. As she says in her insightful introduction, it is not sufficient to make sense of the struggles that early childhood services had “for establishment, funding, survival and recognition. What must also be considered is how various services and organisations challenged mainstream ideas on education, welfare, childhood or motherhood, while at the same time pragmatically adapting their ideals and public rhetoric to the accepted codes of the day.”

Heaven-sent for students of early childhood education, May’s synopses of key contributors to the development of ideas about early childhood care and education incline towards a necessarily simplified view of history. Nevertheless, each portrait is set skilfully against the backdrop of the historical and social contexts, with a focus on the gender roles of the time, as these were pivotal to an understanding of the place of children in the scheme of family and community life. As May astutely observes, “the tensions between ‘rocking the boat’ whilst ‘rocking the cradle’ characterises the gender politics of early childhood history.”

May contrasts the “free child” prescribed by Rousseau with the childrearing advice given by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and his mother, Susannah: “Break their wills betimes, begin this work before they can run alone, before they can speak plain, perhaps before they can speak at all. Whatever pain it costs, break the will, if you would not damn the child.” Both paradigms continued to be rationales for later institutions for children, as the reader is clearly shown.

Twenty-six pages of notes and references support the 213 pages of a succinct, intelligent and sometimes shocking account of the way very young children have been “dealt with”. We know that more recent history will not tell a kinder story.

Amidst May’s almost reserved accounting of the facts are the graphic and colourful accounts of the day, such as the details and context of Thomas Coram’s Foundling Hospital (where many of us who’ve stayed next door at William Goodenough House have seen the “turntable” at the gate where infants were placed to enter the hospital anonymously, up to 100 of them a day at times). It opened in 1741 and continued its efforts to care for abandoned or illegitimate children until 1920, against the moral outrage of many who found it hard to believe that such lives could have value.

The horrors of infanticide, baby-farming, the parish workhouse (mortality of young children 100%) and some orphanages are also described in a way that enables the reader to understand at least a little how such things came about. But, far from taking any moral high ground about how far we’ve come as a civilised society, May makes uncompromising links with the New Zealand scene. The Infant Life Protection Act was introduced two years before Minnie Dean was convicted and hanged for the murder of one of the infants she traded in. A scandal in Auckland led in 1960 to the first government regulations relating to the provision of childcare services, regulations that were not revised for a further 25 years.

In order to inform us properly about the direction in which the history of early childhood has led us, May carefully and clearly educates us with the fascinating stories of the people and their vision, pedagogy and practice, who were so influential in formulating the services, organisations and philosophies of early childhood up to the middle of this century. Froebel’s kindergarten, spread around the world to New Zealand, was apparently unsuccessful at Christchurch’s normal school. Yet when I was taught there at the age of 5 by Miss Jean Hay – “Froebel-trained”, as I was later told – I remember playing, singing, playing percussion instruments, performing A A Milne poems, painting and loving her dearly. Miss Hay led the longest running “Broadcast to Schools” programme, “Rhythm for Juniors”, for which I sang the nursery rhymes for a year or two. But I digress.

This is an important book. As May acknowledges, there are other accounts of various periods of the history than those she has included. But I have not read anywhere such a comprehensive and well-researched history of early childhood and one that is so strongly grounded in the experiences of real people – most of them women, though Freud, Dewey, Truby King, Apirana Ngata and Dr Clarence Beeby are a few of the male players in the drama. The roots of the playcentre and kindergarten movements recognise the vision and energies of people like Susan Isaacs, Gwen Somerset, Beatrice Beeby, Doreen Dolton, etc. May has articulated dispassionately the odds against the advocates of support services outside the family for the health, well-being and learning of very young children.


In contrast to May’s style are the passionate pleas for human kindness in Jane and James Ritchie’s latest book The Next Generation: Child Rearing in New Zealand.

The eight chapters of part 1 amount to a recap on their earlier research, described in their publications of the 1970s and 1980s. Interviews with mothers and, in the later years, with fathers as well, provided rich data for commentary on the state of childrearing practices and of parenting. I was reminded again of my surprise at the sampling procedures they have consistently used, from which they say “the demographics of the [1980s] sample matched national figures reasonably well”. What does “reasonably well” mean here? Kindergarten lists could not at any time be considered to reflect accurately the demography of New Zealand communities. But this is nitpicking, because the book goes beyond an account of the Ritchies’ research over the years, to try in essence to persuade the world that children must not be hit or hurt.

The introduction to the book describes the authors’ commitment to being advocates for change: “The time came to leave behind the detached and disinterested stance of the social scientist and come out to confront the damage that smacking does to the children, and then, indeed, the total fabric of society. We will now set down the evidence for the damage and show why we so passionately believe that this is a practice that New Zealanders can and must drop.”

In fact the authors go further. They also propose alternative ways for parents to handle children’s unacceptable behaviour. But amidst the sound advice I am left with an uneasy feeling. The section advocating time out gives scant attention to the fact that this practice, if it isolates the child, is illegal in children’s other environments, such as kindergarten and childcare centres. When the authors make the suggestion (using the same words that they used 16 years earlier) to “remove the child totally from the situation in which they are misbehaving and put them in another situation where nothing is happening”, did they just forget to state that locking children up, even for one minute, is unacceptable?

In their earlier book, Spare the Rod (1981), the Ritchies said: “We do not claim to have any pre-ordained recipe for successful child rearing . . . It is impossible to give simple-minded directions about how to be a successful parent.” There is a sense of desperation in their message this time. In The Next Generation they now believe there is a recipe and that simple-minded directions are possible: “… the prescription for good parenting … arises from the accumulated body of information on child development. The recipe is really very simple, indeed obvious; the problem is not in the principles but in the practice.” They then list 13 one-liners of what good parents should do. The ecological systems theorist, Urie Bronfenbrenner, would argue convincingly that there are multiple levels of environment, so it is not only the immediate family circumstances that determine a child’s experiences. Thus families who are socially isolated or who are affected by unemployment show increased rates of conflict and child abuse. Likewise the values, laws and customs of the particular culture will affect the support which children receive from parents, school and community.

Parents who find the ideas in this book to be new may be motivated to change their childrearing practices. But that is a tall order as long as they and we are deluged with daily images of and the reality of violence and physical retribution as a way of dealing with unmet needs.

The Ritchies candidly admit that Spare the Rod “was not popular at the bookstores”. Why then does so much of the content in this 1997 volume consist of direct excerpts from the earlier book? And why does bullying, which has been a focus of recent research and new prevention programmed in schools, as well as a priority for the Commissioner for Children, get barely a passing mention? They also let off too lightly the organised thuggery on the rugby field, which is curious given that they pulled no punches, so to speak, in their earlier book condemning the “boys will be boys” attitude to gouged eyes, fist fights, concussions and innumerable injuries in this soon.

Did political correctness dictate the omission of a glossary of Maori terms? Sentences such as “The play gang out the back behind the cookhouse was as important to the functioning of the marae as the cooks inside or the kaumatua and kuia at the paepae” can’t have been written with an overseas readership in mind; some Pakeha might be guessing a bit too.

The authors cannot be blamed for “having another go” at this extremely important topic of childrearing without violence. The Next Generation is an interesting read for those unfamiliar with the Ritchies’ personal writings. It is well-intentioned, but the title leads to disappointment for those expecting new material.


The theme of punishment also crops up in Sue Middleton and Helen May’s Teachers Talking Teaching 1915-1995, which is hardly surprising given the pervasiveness of corporal punishment in New Zealand schools until quite recently. But this unique volume, rich in personal anecdote, sprinkled with commentary and concise explanation of the political and educational context of the teachers’ reflections, is also a wonderful unfolding of 80 years of teaching from the teachers’ perspectives, both as teachers and as pupils themselves. These 342 pages of colour and life draw on life-history interviews with 150 teachers born between 1899 and 1973, including primary, secondary and tertiary. The Pakeha writers have ensured that Maori voices are heard narrating their struggles, issues and achievements on their long journey towards tino rangatiratanga. The glossary of Maori terms is a sensible addition.

Helen May’s stamp is evident in the significant documentation of the history of early childhood education in all its diversity. The authors do not shy away from the complexities of the evolution of this sector – kindergarten, playcentre, childcare, kohanga reo, Pacific Island early childhood centres, training initiatives, all born and growing out of parental concerns, union activism, government reviews, cultural commitment and individual passion. Family day care is neglected, however, and it too has an important history and an optimistic future. As a sensitive South Islander, I am also left with the feeling that we should believe that the real action has occurred in the North Island and mostly in Wellington and Hamilton.

In the educational turmoil of today, this book reminds us of where we have come from. We can learn from it.

Kath Bennett is Director of Early Childhood Education at Canterbury College of Education.

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Posted in Education, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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