The following essay is adapted from Therese Oneill’s Ungovernable: The Victorian Parent’s Guide to Raising Flawless Children, which is available now from Little, Brown and Company.
I have a son.
I have no idea what to do with him.
I thought I did. I thought my mission was clear: Set him on the path to manhood with the standard accoutrement. The color blue, little green army guys, get him hooked on classic Star Trek and it’s inclusive-ish crew so he can learn logic and nobility and how to use the double-fist hammer punch against the Gorn if ever provoked by one.
But we’re living in strange times. Now the word “masculinity” is paired with the word “toxic,” and it triggers a mental kaleidoscope of bullies, smug sex offenders and Thanksgivings ruined by political rants. We don’t want our sons to be like that, of course, but just how deeply disguised are the influences that turn them beastly? Why do I suddenly suspect the color blue is a forced social construct, army guys promote gun-violence (and are probably sodden with BPAs) and Star Trek…ehh…it’s okay, but every episode will first require a lesson on how women are more than just the attractive, mini-skirted yeoman of society.
Is raising a boy into a good man supposed to be this complicated?
Whenever modern life stops making sense, whenever the current social fashions slip my grasp, I rely on history. I ask myself: WWTVD? What would the Victorians do? What can we learn from the sage experts whose advice shaped the maternal minds that produced Thomas Edison, Winston Churchill and Lord Baden-Powell? (The latter founded Scouting for children. Without him, there would be no Eagle Scouts. Eleven of the twelve men to walk on the moon were Eagle Scouts. Thus, without Lord Baden-Powell, America would not own the moon. No, we do. Finders Keepers.)
The Victorians would argue that guiding a boy to manhood is not complicated. Take for example, the brutish and disruptive behavior a boy exhibits though adolescence, as his under-developed brain begins to seep chemicals to make him ornery and prepare him for life’s endless battle.
The Victorians would have grabbed that behavior by its freshly descended testicles and made use of it.
For wealthy boys, that would have meant fearful regimentation and discipline, usually in the form of boarding school. Up before dawn for prayers, a fine nourishing gruel to start the day and every hour thereafter overseen by schoolmasters who kept specially designed “birching stools” in their classrooms to expedite the whipping of impudent pupils. As writer Lydia Sigourney put it in 1838, “I compare sending a boy to [boarding school], to the act of the Scythian mothers, who threw their new-born children into the sea: the greater part, were of course, drowned, but the few who escaped with life, were uncommonly strong and vigorous.” She probably meant that as a bad thing, but if she had any boys, they were probably of the “sinker” variety.
If they couldn’t afford the cost of employing a Dickensian faculty to break and re-shape their son’s souls, Victorian mothers could do it themselves. They harnessed their sons’ growing strength to help the family thrive, and not through the make-work chores of today, mind you. In 2019, your son knows that if he doesn’t rake the leaves in the front yard, the result will be failed crops and potential starva—ah, wait…no. Sorry.
The result will be that there are some leaves in the yard.
Rather, the Victorian boy was given work that actually mattered to the survival of himself and his family. Muck every stall lest the horses’ feet rot and the family lose their most valued possession. Chop wood for the oven or there will be no way to cook supper, and even if there is supper, Father and I have not yet decided you are worthy of eating it—it will depend on how clean that horse stall is.
Indulgence and tenderness might be our natural impulse. But you’ve seen, perhaps at some point even dated, the grown result of the pampered son. He’s there, soiling your couch in boardshorts and an ironic trucker hat, screaming into his headset at some child in New Zealand who killed his Halo character.
The Victorian version of the man-child was the specter of the “milk-sop” or “mamma’s darling” who, according to Robert Moncrieff, a lifelong schoolmaster of boys, was “not well fitted for this rough world of ours” and whose “degradation is often caused by circumstances over which they have no control, viz., fond and foolish mothers, who will make them wear comforters and galoshes, and keep them in the house when it is cold, and encourage them to cry when they are hurt.”
No one expects you to replicate the ferocity of life as it was lived nearly 150 years ago. Your son (fingers crossed) will not have to conquer malaria through sheer strength of will while colonizing a pre-existing nation. But that doesn’t mean the basic Victorian ideas behind raising sons are wholly inapplicable. Because the core truth hasn’t changed: It is cruel to let your son believe his life will be safe, and that the world will bend to suit his needs. The only freedom from suffering, even the suffering involved in getting off the couch, is the strength to accept it will hurt.
So apply Victorian childrearing theories to your sons wherever you can, within reason and the law. For instance:
A twenty-first century son can still be brought up doing work that matters to the family. He may not have to chop wood for his dinner, but he can be taught even at a young age to skillfully chop potatoes, which has the manifold benefits of teaching him the proper use of dangerous tools while showing him that you find him trustworthy enough to use them. Plus, consequences of failure are immediate, quite memorable and, with a proper tourniquet kept at the ready, seldom fatal.
A boy can still be, as Pye Henry Chavasse, author of several popular Victorian books on motherhood, put it, “made to rough it; to live on plain, simple fare; and to be more than half his time in the open air.” Cream of Wheat, which you’ve taught him to cook on the stove safely (again, imparting a real skill and extending trust), will need to be eaten on the fire-escape in winter. Boom. Done. You’re halfway to a fine young man already.
You might consider that a Victorian mother wouldn’t be so fast to interfere in a boy’s natural tendency toward street-brawling, as suggested by sympathetic Victorian author Margaret Sangster: “A mother hates to see her little man of ten disfigured by a black eye, though there are many worse things that may come to him, and she should not too hastily condemn him if he stand up for himself at need in a fair fight.” Of course, living in an era of Zero Tolerance prohibits me from endorsing fighting because I hate being sued, so perhaps similar effects can be gained in a modern martial arts dojo or a poorly supervised summer camp.
Victorian mothers empowered sons with healthy doses of subjugation, strengthened them through systematic deprivation and taught them responsibility through lovingly administered acts of violence and neglect. In the 19th century there was only one path to success, and by God, it shall be walked straight-backed with cold toes and a sore bottom.
Here in the 21st century, you have the luxury of choice. You can decide whether to adapt some of these old-school methods to your world and your son. It’s okay if your answer, in the end, is similar to mine.
“No. I don’t like that. And besides, then who would I have to play Halo with after work?”