Positive Relationships: Behaviour - Wise Words

A snippet of Nursery World history and years of sound advice to parents are revealed in a new book about Susan Isaacs

As the saying goes, ‘some things never change’, and Wise Words: How Susan Isaacs Changed Parenting reveals how the same patterns of child behaviour have perplexed parents for generations. The parenting advice too will appear reassuringly familiar to readers today, but for its time it was seen as radical, both in its content and style of writing.

Isaacs was an eminent psychoanalyst and educationalist, yet her pioneering of both play-based education and child-sensitive approaches to parenting goes largely unrecognised today. Wise Words, by psychoanalyst and Nursery World contributor Caroline Vollans, will do much to resurrect Isaacs’ reputation.

The book is a collection of Isaacs’ agony aunt columns, which she wrote for The Nursery World from 1929 to 1936 under the pseudonym Ursula Wise. In the columns, Isaacs’ writing is innovative for its calm, thoughtful and empathetic style, while her parenting advice is centred on child development and the need to be sensitive to the child’s feelings and emotions.

The replies, informed by theories in education, psychology and psychoanalysis, were in absolute contrast to those advocated by Truby King, the parenting guru of the day. His behavioural methods were all about strict routines, to toughen the baby and condition the infant to fit the world – sometimes referred to as ‘breaking the baby’.

A normal occurrence

Isaacs’ continuing importance and relevance is evident in every column. In August 1930, for example, LJR writes seeking advice on her daughter, aged two years and two months. ‘Until recently,’ writes the mother, ‘she has been fairly easy to manage, although very self-willed and inclined to be disobedient. Now, however, when told to do anything, or told NOT to do anything, she immediately starts screaming as loudly as possible, and ends by crying bitterly.’

In reply, Isaacs writes, ‘Your little girl gives us another example of what has been brought out in a large number of the letters I have had recently – that is, of the way in which a child who may have been very easy and placid and docile as a baby will often become difficult and defiant in her third year.

‘A period of rebelliousness and temper seems to be quite a normal occurrence round about two to four years of age. In part, it must be taken as a sign of healthy development towards independence and self-reliance, and when, as seems to be the case with your little girl, there is practically no sign of nervousness or neurosis, the problem is fairly straight forward. That is to say, there is nothing to be distressed about.’wise-words

The quality and relevance of Isaacs’ advice makes this an enjoyable and informative read for parents and practitioners alike. Fascinating too are the insights into the changing lives of children and their families, with nurses, housemaids and parents’ ‘occasional visits’ to their children.

  • Wise Words: How Susan Isaacs Changed Parenting by Caroline Vollans (David Fulton, £16.99) To order a copy, and receive a 20 per cent discount, visit: www.routledge.com

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