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During the Halloween season, parents face questions about their kids’ fears. Will a haunted house cause nightmares? Should spooky decorations and costumes be avoided? Or is it all a good opportunity for a child to confront scary stuff?

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In a 1991 paper, Peter N. Stearns and Timothy Haggerty considered the way our attitudes toward children’s fears changed in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries by examining advice manuals that middle-class American parents read between 1850 and 1950.

Much of the advice about fear directed toward middle-class mothers in the second half of the nineteenth century was about avoiding scare tactics. This was an era when childrearing was becoming a more central pursuit for middle-class women. Instead of using fear as a crude but effective way to keep children within bounds, mothers were now expected to spend more time and energy supervising them—or supervising the servants who cared for them. Advice writers of this era warned against terrorizing kids with warnings about prowling child-snatchers and urged parents not to lock children in dark closets as a punishment.

Stearns and Haggerty note that this shift reflected a modernizing world in which boys and men could succeed through a fearless willingness to seize opportunities in the world. “A fearful individual was no longer appropriately pious but rather risked being incapable of taking the kinds of initiatives, of displaying the kinds of confidence, desirable in the new world shaped by republican optimism and business dynamism,” the authors write.

Middle-class parents in the Victorian era often provided boys with instruction on bravery by buying them adventure-filled books showing young men confronting fear in dangerous situation. Still, it wasn’t until the 1900s that books began to guide parents in actively responding to young children’s anxieties. In the 1920s and ‘30s, advice books started encouraging mothers to gently help children face darkness or dogs. Instead of ridiculing a child’s fears, they were told to let them talk them out.

Stearns and Haggerty suggest that this shift may have owed something to changes in family life. Children had fewer siblings, and families were less likely to employ servants, so parents were more exposed to children’s fears. Meanwhile, religion was losing its central place in middle-class American life, and providing less solace from fear. And when it came to advice about child-rearing, the “findings from psychology began to enter the picture more strongly.”

So while once behaviorists urged mothers to use tactics like encouraging a child to enter a darkened room with the promise of candy, by the middle of the twentieth century, Dr. Benjamin Spock was urging parents to sit up with their sleepless children and put off travel plans in the face of anxious toddlers. This paved the way for today’s expert parenting advice, which tends to suggest techniques like breathing with your children, helping them with visualizations, and keeping a “Success Journal;” in other words, helping children to work through anxious moments, rather than shaming them for feeling fear. (Sorry, that means no pushing a terrified child through a haunted house this Halloween.)


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The American Historical Review, Vol. 96, No. 1 (Feb., 1991), pp. 63-94
Oxford University Press on behalf of the American Historical Association