Well, for one thing, she just went about her business--hanging wallpaper or canning cherries--while the children played unsupervised. She relates a funny story about her three-year-old son losing his only pair of shoes in a vacant lot full of tall grass. He had been playing outside all by himself at age 3. This is presented as a perfectly normal situation, which I assume it was at the time. Today, you could probably be arrested for negligence.
When the family went to the zoo (all 12 of the kids, plus several friends), they piled into one station wagon. You'd definitely get arrested for that today. Let's see, how many minivans would you need for that many child safety seats?
Today's mother has a lot of rules to follow. A whole bunch of experts have provided us with a whole bunch of information. To prevent choking, cut grapes and hot dogs into little pieces for kids less than 3. No nuts at all before age 3. Never allow children to play with uninflated balloons. To reduce the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, put babies to sleep on their backs. To cut down on food allergies, don't give a baby less than 10 months old plain cow's milk. To cut the risk of sun cancer, apply sunscreen daily (but never on a baby less than 6 months old). To prevent rotten teeth, never put a baby to bed with a bottle. Take the bottle away by 12 months. To keep kids safer in cars, use rear-facing infant seats for babies less than 20 pounds, toddler seats for kids less than 40 pounds, and booster seats for kids up to 60 pounds. To prevent food poisoning, don't give honey or Karo syrup to babies less than one year old. To reduce death by drowning, don't leave kids unattended in the bath and don't leave buckets around the house or yard with more than one inch of water in them. Are your kids at risk for lead poisoning? Test the paints in your house and your child's day-care, and have the kids themselves tested once a year. If you want to avoid a trip to the emergency room, don't let your babies use walkers. To promote socialization and language skills, don't let kids under 2 watch TV. Read to your children daily! Cook their hamburgers all the way through! Don't let them eat raw cookie dough!
Lest you think I am the kind of person who would ever give whole grapes to a one-year-old, let me say that I have nothing against the rules themselves. I memorize them, follow them, write about them, and tell other people about them whenever I get the chance because these rules save lives. At the same time, I have noticed that it causes a certain amount of stress to have so many rules to follow. Maybe it's just me and my rule-following nature. I once actually gasped when my friend said she was putting apple juice in her baby's rice cereal. ("Didn't you read in What to Expect the First Year where they said not to use juice in cereal because it will make your baby crave sweets?") I felt guilty that my daughter was still drinking one bottle each morning when she was 18 months old. Luckily, I had the kind of pediatrician who said, "If you're not putting her to bed with a bottle, don't worry about it." A friend of mine, who didn't have that sort of pediatrician, lied to him when he asked if her 15-month-old was weaned from the bottle.
Once you get used to paying attention to these numerous safety rules, it's easy to allow lots of other stuff to pile onto the Bandwagon of Child-Rearing Do's and Don'ts. Stimulate your baby's developing brain with mobiles of black-and-white patterns. Play tapes of Mozart to improve her intelligence. Switch to skim milk when your child turns 2 so he won't be overweight or have high cholesterol as an adult. Want your child to learn a foreign language? Better start teaching her when she's 3, when her brain is wired for language acquisition. Start your first-grader on piano lessons to improve his math. Make sure your girl is involved in team sports to boost her self-esteem.
Our parents had fewer child-rearing rules, but they paid for it with more rules about how adults were allowed to behave. Day-care wasn't even a word. Women stayed home and had kids whether they wanted to or not. And they had to wear dresses and heels while cooking supper and feeding the baby. Men didn't change diapers, and had to wear ties and hats not only to work, but also to their kids' class plays. You weren't supposed to be black or gay or Jewish or poor or atheist or deviate in any other way from the Dick and Jane model of life.
I once came across an old book at my uncle's house wherein the author (a woman) advised each new mother to prepare for her husband's homecoming at day's end by putting the baby to bed, storing the playpen, hiding all the toys, and getting dressed up. I hope no one ever followed that advice, but the fact that it got printed in a book probably means that there were some women out there who felt guilty for not doing it. I guess I'd rather have to cut grapes in half than wear hose while waxing the floor and raising four children with no help from hubby. Even if I could let them play outside unsupervised.