“What will the child say when he has grown up? For his good we do this; will he live to thank us?”: Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century Concerns about Adult Only Children
Guest Post, by Alice Violett, PhD Candidate, University of Essex
Most people are aware of persistent stereotypes of only children: that they are spoilt, selfish, precocious, and socially inept. My doctoral research into the public perceptions and personal experiences of only children between 1850 and 1950 shows that such attitudes date back to at least the mid-nineteenth century, possibly as a result of increasing concerns about declining middle-class family sizes and the role of nurture, as opposed to nature, in determining how children turned out. However, British and American child guidance writers and psychologists who wrote on the subject during this period did not confine the effects of only-childness to childhood, and claimed that one’s upbringing as an only child had a direct effect on adulthood, fitting nicely with the ‘Agents of Future Promise’ agenda. According to these writers, only children were at risk of becoming mad, immoral, lonely, and anti-social adults.
Madness was a particular concern of nineteenth-century writers about only children. Child guidance writer John S. C. Abbott, and physician Henry Maudsley, both provided examples to illustrate the harm that could result from an only child being brought up without due care and attention. Abbott described in his 1852 book, The Mother At Home, an ‘only son’ whose widowed mother was overly-generous with her love and indulgence towards him. As a result, the son became tyrannical, ‘ungovernable’, ‘self-willed, turbulent and revengeful.’ This culminated in his setting fire to her house in a rage, leaving her impoverished while:
‘He was imprisoned as an incendiary, and, in his cell, he became a maniac, if he was not such before, and madly dug out his own eyes. He now lies in perpetual darkness, confined by the stone walls and grated bars of his dungeon, an infuriated madman.’
A child’s upbringing, then, was clearly linked to their adult destiny. It seems that Maudsley, writing in 1867, also had the influence of childhood in mind when he felt it necessary to mention that a 38-year-old patient ‘was the only child of indulgent parents’. While her father was ‘harmlessly insane’, the woman in question’s upbringing apparently took her madness this point. According to Maudsley, she was unable to restrain herself, ‘extremely violent in conduct’, and a pathological liar. When she could not obtain drink, she was ‘abusive, mischievous, quarrelsome, full of complaints of the injustice done to her, and truly intolerable.’ Her irredeemable character meant she was constantly in and out of various asylums. Perhaps here we can see childhood spoiltness reaching what seems to be its logical conclusion. Certainly, Victorian self-help guru Samuel Smiles made such a connection when he referred to writer Mary Anne Schimmelpennick’s observations that the asylums her friends had visited contained a disproportionate number of only children as their ‘wills had therefore rarely been thwarted or disciplined in early life.’
Immorality was a more minor theme that was nonetheless connected with adult only children at various points over the course of this period. Like his nineteenth-century contemporaries Abbott and Maudsley, in an 1851 parenting manual W. C. Todd used a vignette to illustrate the risks involved in raising an only child. He wrote about a boy called John, whose initial promise was ruined by his parents’ practices of granting all of his requests, failing to punish his bad behaviour, and always letting him have his own way. John was thereby transformed into a ‘vicious’, ‘headstrong’ and ‘depraved’ truant, eventually running away to sea where he distinguished himself in ‘bold wickedness and daring’ and ultimately ‘fell in a drunken quarrel with a fellow sailor’. The moral of this tale, according to Todd, was ‘guard early tendencies’, again creating a link between poor parenting and anti-social adults. This link was reinforced by physician Cecil Willett Cunnington, who in 1913 proclaimed that only children would not thank their parents for, among other things, their immoral characters, and by nurse Mary Scharlieb, who in 1927 connected only-childness to violence and even murder by adults.
Loneliness was also associated with adult only children throughout the period. Once again, we are treated to an example by a nineteenth-century writer: ‘Mrs Warren’, aka domestic advice writer Eliza Warren Francis. In her 1865 child-rearing book How I Managed My Children From Infancy To Marriage, the fictional narrator recounts the sad story of Fanny Mavor, a 60-year-old only-child spinster who was prevented from getting married in her prime by her overly-possessive parents, who died when Fanny was 38. The narrator blames Fanny’s subsequent solitude and reduced standard of living on her ‘selfish’ parents, who wished for her to nurse them in their old age instead of having own family. At least, unlike the other children in this blog post, Fanny is portrayed as a stoic and a dutiful daughter. As before, Cunnington and Scharlieb repeated the idea that adult only children were lonely, though both associated this more explicitly with misery.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given contemporary concerns with mental health and ‘fitting in’ with others, anti-social tendencies among adult only children were a particular concern of the twentieth-century writers in this study. Nurse Mary Chadwick described in 1925 how only children’s difficulties attaining a ‘spirit of comradeship’ at school persisted even in ‘early professional life’. Only children were a particular concern of the Individual Psychology movement of the 1930s; in 1930, Alexandra Adler, daughter of the movement’s founder Alfred Adler, particularly described how the only child’s assumed autocracy in the home and lack of early practice in sociability’ led to ‘difficulties in later life’. Once again, Scharlieb supported such ideas by describing only children as ‘square pegs in round holes’ as adults, partly due to the jealousy and self-interest formulated by their upbringings.
We have seen, then, how throughout the period of 1850-1950, only children were seen as ‘bad future adults’, whose parents needed to take special precautions not to overindulge them or make them feel special compared with others. While only children were viewed overwhelmingly negatively, however, middle-class parents did reduce their families to 2-4 children, and the reason for this appears to have had some basis in consideration of their children’s future as adults. In an 1872 treatise (published in 1878) extolling the virtues of small families, radical thinker Austin Holyoake reasoned that having a smaller family meant that the eldest son might be sent to a school that turned him into a ‘bright man’, and that, despite popular thought, being ‘dragged up’ and forced into early independence as a member of a large family did not necessarily produce especially ‘industrious and useful citizens.’ Consideration of their children’s adult lives might not have been the sole influence for parents who restricted their families, but they seem likely to have had the future in mind nonetheless.
 Cecil Willett Cunnington, Nursery Notes for Mothers, (London, 1913), p. 20.
 John S. C. Abbott, The Mother at Home; or, the Principles of Maternal Duty Familiarly Illustrated, (New York, 1852), p. 25.
 Henry Maudsley, The Physiology and Pathology of the Mind, (London, 1867), pp. 313-4.
 Samuel Smiles, Character, (London, 1871), p. 180.
 W. C. Todd, ‘Guard Early Tendencies’, in Mrs H. B. Pratt, Rev. C. Stone, WM. C. Brown, and Rev. H. G. Park (eds.), The Mother’s Assistant, Young Lady’s Friend and Family Manual, (Boston, Stone & Pratt, 1851), pp. 116-8.
 Cunnington, Nursery Notes for Mothers, pp. 19-20; Mary Scharlieb, The Psychology of Childhood: Normal and Abnormal, (London, 1927), p. 91.
 ‘Mrs Warren’ (Eliza Warren Francis), How I Managed my Children from Infancy to Marriage, (London, 1865), pp. 62-3.
 Cunnington, Nursery Notes for Mothers, pp. 19-20; Scharlieb, The Psychology of Childhood, p. 91.
 Mary Chadwick, Psychology for Nurses, (London, 1925), p. 32.
 Alexandra Adler, ‘The Only Child’, in Alfred Adler and associates, Guiding the Child on the Principles of Individual Psychology, (London, 1930), p.195.
 Scharlieb, The Psychology of Childhood, pp. 88, 91.
 Austin Holyoake, ‘Large or Small Families? On which side lies the balance of comfort?’ in What does Christian Theism Teach? Verbatim report of the two nights’ discussion between the Rev. A. J. Harrison and C. Bradlaugh, January 9th and 10th 1872, (London, 1878), pp. 3, 5.