Childhood for most people was brutal. The notion of children as innocent and sacred and especially valuable is recent. From Pinkers "The Better Angels of our Nature":
Biblical Judaism prohibited filicide, though it didn’t go the whole hog: killing an infant younger than a month did not count as murder, and loopholes were claimed by Abraham, King Solomon, and Yahweh himself for Plague. The prohibition became clearer in Talmudic Judaism and in Christianity, from which it was absorbed into the late Roman Empire. The prohibition came from an ideology that held that lives are owned by God, to be given and taken at his pleasure, so the lives of children no longer belonged to their parents. The upshot was a taboo in Western moral codes and legal systems on taking an identifiable human life: one could not deliberate on the value of the life of an individual in one’s midst. (Exceptions were exuberantly made, of course, for heretics, infidels, uncivilized tribes, enemy peoples, and transgressors of any of several hundred laws. And we continue to deliberate on the value of statistical lives, as opposed to identifiable lives, every time we send soldiers or police into harm’s way, or scrimp on expensive health and safety measures.)
For almost a millennium and a half the Judeo-Christian prohibition against infanticide coexisted with massive infanticide in practice. According to one historian, exposure of infants during the Middle Ages “was practiced on a gigantic scale with absolute impunity, noticed by writers with most frigid indifference.” Milner cites birth records showing an average of 5.1 births among wealthy families, among the middle class, and 1.8 among the poor, adding, “There was no evidence that the number of pregnancies followed similar lines.” In 1527 a French priest wrote that “the latrines resound with the cries of children who have been plunged into them.”
Various fig leaves were procured. The phenomenon of “overlying,” in which a mother would accidentally smother an infant by rolling over it in her sleep, at times became an epidemic. Women were invited to drop off their unwanted babies at foundling homes, some of them equipped with turntables and trapdoors to ensure anonymity. The mortality rates for the inhabitants of these homes ranged from 50 percent to more than 99 percent. Women handed over their infants to wet nurses or “baby farmers” who were known to have similar rates of success. Elixirs of opium, alcohol, and treacle were readily obtainable by mothers and wet nurses to becalm a cranky infant, and at the right dosage it could becalm them very effectively indeed. Many a child who survived infancy was sent to a workhouse, “without the inconvenience of too much food or too much clothing,” as Dickens described them in Oliver Twist, and where “it did perversely happen in eight and a half cases out of ten, either that it sickened from want and cold, or fell into the fire from neglect, or got half-smothered by accident; in any one of which cases, the miserable little being was usually summoned into another world, and there gathered to the fathers it had never known in this.” Even with these contrivances, tiny corpses were a frequent sight in parks, under bridges, and in ditches. According to a British coroner in 1862, “The police seemed to think no more of finding a dead child than they did of finding a dead cat or a dead dog.” The several-thousandfold reduction in infanticide enjoyed in the Western world today is partly a gift of affluence, which leaves fewer mothers in desperate straits, and partly a gift of technology, in the form of safe and reliable contraception and abortion that has reduced the number of unwanted newborns. But it also reflects a change in the valuation of children. Rather than leaving it a pious aspiration, societies finally made good on the doctrine that the lives of infants are sacred—regardless of who bore them, regardless of how shapeless and foul they were at birth, regardless of how noticeable a gap their loss would leave in a family circle, regardless of how expensive they were to feed and care for. In the 20th century, even before abortions were widely available, a girl who got pregnant was less likely to give birth alone and secretly kill her newborn, because other people had set up alternatives, such as homes for unwed mothers, orphanages that were not death camps, and agencies that found adoptive and foster parents for motherless children. Why did governments, charities, and religions start putting money into these lifesavers? One gets a sense that children became more highly valued, and that our collective circle of concern has widened to embrace their interests, beginning with their interest in staying alive. A look at other aspects of the treatment of children confirms that the recent changes have been sweeping.
That children with devils in them had to be beaten goes without saying. A panoply of beating instruments existed for that purpose, from cat-o’-nine tails and whips to shovels, canes, iron rods, bundles of sticks, the discipline (a whip made of small chains), the goad (shaped like a cobbler’s knife, used to prick the child on the head or hands) and special school instruments like the flapper, which had a pear-shaped end and a round hole to raise blisters. The beatings described in the sources were almost always severe, involved bruising and bloodying of the body, began in infancy, were usually erotically tinged by being inflicted on bare parts of the body near the genitals and were a regular part of the child’s daily life.
Severe corporal punishment was common for centuries. One survey found that in the second half of the 18th century, 100 percent of American children were beaten with a stick, whip, or other weapon. Children were also liable to punishment by the legal system; a recent biography of Samuel Johnson remarks in passing that a seven-year-old girl in 18th-century England was hanged for stealing a petticoat. Even at the turn of the 20th century, German children “were regularly placed on a red-hot iron stove if obstinate, tied to their bedposts for days, thrown into cold water or snow to ‘harden’ them, [and] forced to kneel for hours every day against the wall on a log while the parents ate and read.”160 During toilet training many children were tormented with enemas, and at school they were “beaten until [their] skin smoked.” The harsh treatment was not unique to Europe. The beating of children has been recorded in ancient Egypt, Sumeria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, Rome, China, and Aztec Mexico, whose punishments included “sticking the child with thorns, having their hands tied and then being stuck with pointed agave leaves, whippings, and even being held over a fire of dried axi peppers and being made to inhale the acrid smoke.”161 DeMause notes that well into the 20th century, Japanese children were subjected to “beating and burning of incense on the skin as routine punishments, cruel bowel training with constant enemas, … kicking, hanging by the feet, giving cold showers, strangling, driving a needle into the body, cutting off a finger joint.” (A psychoanalyst as well as a historian, deMause had plenty of material with which to explain the atrocities of World War II.) Children were subjected to psychological torture as well. Much of their entertainment was filled with reminders that they might be abandoned by parents, abused by stepparents, or mutilated by ogres and wild animals. Grimm’s fairy tales were just a few of the advisories that may be found in children’s literature of the misfortunes that can befall a careless or disobedient child. English babies, for example, were soothed to sleep with a lullaby about Napoleon: Baby, baby, if he hears you, As he gallops past the house, Limb from limb at once he’ll tear you, Just as pussy tears a mouse. And he’ll beat you, beat you, beat you, And he’ll beat you all to pap, And he’ll eat you, eat you, eat you, Every morsel, snap, snap, snap.163 A recurring archetype in children’s verse is the child who commits a minor slipup or is unjustly blamed for one, whereupon his stepmother butchers him and serves him for dinner to his unwitting father. In a Yiddish version, the victim of one such injustice sings posthumously to his sister: Murdered by my mother, Eaten by my father. And Sheyndele, when they were done Sucked the marrow from my bones And threw them out the window.