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More About Middle Class Children

In the 19th century, middle class parents in Paris became sharply focused on their children’s development; future parents avoided any risk of conception during sickness, drunkenness, fatigue or sadness. Children’s primary teachers and protectors were their own mothers. Infants and small children often slept, napped and nursed in their mother’s beds. It was seen as the proper duty of parents to nurture and instruct their children. Mothers helped and taught their children to read, bathe, and dress. Most children were taught basic subjects in their homes by their parents; many were given art or music instruction by visiting teachers.

Public Schooling
Formal public education became the hallmark of middle class status. In 1881, public education was made compulsory for all children ages six to thirteen. Secular elementary school teachers were employed by the state to teach reading, writing, mathematics, and the sciences. In 1816, elementary students began to be separated by skill level, with backwards individuals taught in special classes. Historical geography was promoted as a field of study for both boys and girls during the Napoleonic era; this subject was demanding and challenging for students as the territories under the control of French troops were subject to frequent changes as result of new conquests. Boarding schools for boys far away from home were considered ideal for secondary education. They were also helpful in resolving family difficulties with teenage boys while preparing them for advanced education including Latin studies, college or the professions. Until 1870, over 80% of the students in lycees (schools) were boarders; the remaining students were called day-boys, as they commuted from their homes each morning. By the end of the century, travel became easier and 60% of the students were day-boys. Respectable families objected to their children mixing with the lower class in school and proposed a mutual education system which divided students into two adjoining classrooms (one for middle class students and one for working class students) taught by the same teacher. Formal education for girls developed slowly and late. Daughters were also taught to sew, garden, care for younger children, and appropriately receive guests.

Church Schooling
Religious instruction was carefully provide by parents and local clergy, often in private church-run schools. First communion in the Roman Catholic church was seen as a visible manifestation of childhood. It required a special costume and celebrated the innocence of young children while encouraging spiritual and moral maturity.

Playing Games
Middle class children and young people played parlor games which had been played by adults in centuries past. Some are still played in the 21st century, while others are unfamiliar: hot cockles, the whistle game, the knife in the water jug, hide-and-seek, forfeits, sweet knight, blind man’s bluff, the little man who doesn’t laugh, the love-pot, the sulker, the stool of repentance, the kiss under the chandelier, and the cradle of love. Children were particularly fond of the lower-middle class charlatans (storytellers). Tennis had been a popular pastime, but had been first abandoned by the upper class, then by the middle class adults, then by their children.

Masturbation and Marriage
Parents were strict regarding their children’s sexual behavior; many mothers closely supervised and protected their daughters’ virginity. Priests, parents, doctors and teachers lectured on the evils of masturbation. Young people were told that it would drain their strength, make them degenerate, turn them into homosexuals, make their hair fall out, or make their future children crippled weaklings. Operations were performed on chronic masturbators of both sexes to permanently correct their behavior. Young women were discouraged from riding horses and bicycles as these activities were thought to encourage masturbation. Young girls and unmarried women usually lived at home with their parents, siblings and other female companions; they were seldom permitted to be alone, and never permitted to travel solo. Most marriages were conducted as business transactions. Parents often determined choices of children’s potential marriage partners. Property arrangements were an important part of the marriage plans; in middle class bourgeoisie f amilies, the bride’s dowry was added to the groom’s savings to fund a new business enterprise.

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