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Interludes: A Dangerous Indulgence

Sylvia West's mother wes influenced by the heavy-handed advice of Dr Truby King, a New Zealander who believed and taught that babies should be treated and reared on the same strict regime that worked with farm animals, calves in particular.

The result was immeasurably sad. Sylvia says that Dr King's belief that it was a dangerous indulgence to have too close a bond with a baby ensured that she never knew her mother.

For more of Sylvia's unforgetable columns please click on Interludes in the menu on this page.

I wasn’t beaten as a child. I wasn’t starved or bought, I wasn’t abused in any way. I was neither orphan nor foundling, yet I have, like most people, scars that last a lifetime. I was reared under the heavy hand of Dr Truby King - the “notorious Dr King”, as I read in one article. A wave of guilt washes over me as I begin to write this: why should I complain about anything, when there are so many poor and disadvantaged children in the world? This is not a complaint - just a story of how he came to be my mother’s guru, guide and counsellor when I was born.

Dr King was a New Zealander who believed and taught that babies should be treated and reared on the same strict regime that worked with farm animals, calves in particular. He published his book on childcare in 1910, and his teaching was still being followed in the 1940s. “Babies,” he said are “controlling and manipulative from birth, and it is necessary to teach them obedience by making them learn that crying will get them nowhere”. He considered it “a dangerous indulgence” to respond to a baby’s crying: “crying is necessary for health, essential exercise for the lungs”.

Whew! Would you like to cry for eight to ten minutes on full lung pressure? I think not.

Truby King invented baby formula, and advocated feeding this to infants on a rigid, four hour schedule. (He is blamed for the steep post-war decline in breast-feeding.) No night feeds, strict routines of sleep, feeds and fresh air, and it was considered unnecessary to play with your baby. If babies did not sleep when they were supposed to, they were seen as trying to “manipulate and dominate their mothers.” Cuddling and kissing, the whole lovely, instinctive, maternal need to bond with your baby, was considered as “dangerous indulgence” - that same awful phrase again. Many mothers had deep regrets about rearing their babies the Truby King way, but by the time a child was two the damage was done. Aunts and grandparents might have been “hands on” and loving, but the mother-baby relationship would never have been established. Love and warmth were hidden away beneath a blanket of impersonality.

My mother was born in 1900. When she was still at school, in 1917, the headmaster of her school set up a friendship scheme with the headmaster of a New Zealand school, a Mr Tom Bacon. Pen friends were found and allocated for everyone who was interested, but my mum, alas, was the odd one out; there wasn’t a suitable match for her. So Mr Bacon himself offered to be her correspondent, and Edna Kent, seventeen years old, daughter of a lay preacher and kiln manager, began writing to Thomas Bacon, widower, headmaster, and father of two children. By the time she married my father, in 1926, her mother had died and Tom Bacon was well established as someone older and wiser, a good letter writer, someone mum could talk to about all kinds of things. It must have been a case of “anticipation is better than realisation”, for those were the days before airmail. How long did it take for surface mail to come and go? When I was due to be born, it was obvious what advice would come from down under: the childcare book by Truby King was recommended and sent.

I have adult children of my own now. Dr Spock came after Dr King, and when mine were small I kept a well-thumbed copy of his wise and sensible book by my bed. My daughter rushes to the Internet where advice and reassurance are there at the click of a mouse. I was well satisfied with Dr Spock - I was not led astray or told to withhold all warmth and love, and bonds were properly established. It was many years before I could find answers to the empty spaces in my childhood; my mother couldn’t tell me, I suppose it was a matter of sadness and regret, for by the time my sister arrived four years later, she had changed her allegiance. Bonding this time was complete and joyful.

The arrival of Dr King and his theories may have been a disaster, but many wonderful things crossed the seas from New Zealand. My stamp collection burst into life when I was very young because of the lovely stamps that arrived. They were wide and long, dusky pink or sage green, with mountains and fjords, and Maoris having a celebration on a mauve or blue background: much more beautiful and exotic than other stamps were at the time. I think Mr Bacon made a point of always placing a different stamp on the letters, for I had to use spare pages in my album, there were always so many to stick in. I can see them now - colours and scenes that sprang to life only a few weeks ago as I watched the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, filmed in New Zealand. Wonderful.

The stamps, of course, weren’t of much value, but the gifts that crossed the sea in brown paper parcels were. All that way by sea, with good string and a blob of sealing wax, and they never got lost. There were necklaces of amber and agate and jade, a dressing table set fit for a queen, made of the loveliest tortoiseshell; rings and brooches, pictures and books. The girl of seventeen had become a wife and mother, and the friendship went on and on. It came to an end when he died, after the war. I wonder what my father made of it all. He was another Tom - the two most important people in my mother’s life had the same name.

No, of course, that’s a mistake. There was one more, whose name also began with a T. Truby. Truby King. The man who said it was a “dangerous indulgence” to have a close bond with your baby. A man who ensured that I didn’t know my mother; that is one of the saddest things for anyone to say, or for anyone to hear,

As I said, I wasn’t beaten. I wasn’t starved. I wasn’t abused in any way. Nobody made me go up a chimney or work in the mill. My parents loved me and cared for me.

It’s just that I wasn’t allowed to know.


Dedicated to my sister, Pauline. 1934 - 2007.


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