A newly proposed “Cinderella law” seeks to make parents’ “emotional abuse” of their children a criminal offence in England and Wales. Under it, parents who deliberately ignore children, subject them to distressing sights like spousal violence or withhold love over long periods would be prosecuted.
On the face of it, this is a praiseworthy attempt to prevent all forms of parental abuse against children, and not just those that cause physical harm. Although it seems that English society has taken until the 21st century to criminalise such behaviours, we have in fact long recognised that parents who did not show love to their offspring were bad parents.
The Georgians, for example, who elevated feelings to a new high in the fashion for sensibility, understood that cruelty was not only physical in form. Indeed, Samuel Johnson defined severity as “cruel treatment; sharpness of treatment” and “rigour; austerity; harshness; want of mildness; want of indulgence”. Parents were warned not to be severe with their children and tender, loving mothers and fathers were praised. Those considered bad parents were described as “unfeeling”. They had no compassion for their offspring and displayed no affection.
As the nickname “Cinderella law” suggests, wicked step-mothers have long been the target of criticism. The Lady’s Magazine published a story in 1810 in which one woman became the “cold, nay frequently the rigid mother” when she took on the role. But the unfeeling biological mother was held in far worse regard; she was seen as “unnatural” precisely because she showed no love for her children, and was deemed an inhuman monster.
Another recognised form of emotional neglect was to favour one child over another. In his 1792 pamphlet Parental duties illustrated from the word of God“, William Braidwood condemned favouritism, since it led to "one neglected child in a family” and was against the word of God. His description of the consequences clearly show an understanding of the suffering felt by emotionally neglected children. To him, they were:
overlooked, despised, and maltreated, perhaps merely for the want of personal accomplishments, or a deficiency in bright and shining talents … For these things, in which they are not in the least degree blameable, they are sunk below the level of their brothers and sisters, kept at a distance, and scarce allowed in any respect to appear as children of the same family.
A little tenderness
The “unfeeling” father was equally deficient. Such a man was insensible; he simply did not feel the required paternal emotions. In a story serialised in 1785 in the Lady’s Magazine, the author, “The Man of Sorrows”, explained that he was born a year after his parents’ marriage “not to the great joy of either parent”. Thus he “escaped being spoiled, by the many too foolish indulgences which fond parents are apt to bestow on their children. I was, soon after my entrance into life, neglected by both father and mother.”
This was not physical abuse or general neglect; it was specifically lack of due attention. Similarly, in 1781 one fictional youth complained that his father possessed no “real tenderness” for him, despite admitting he provided him with wealth and a good education.
This concept of parental emotional neglect was widely circulated, and its consequences were understood to be dire. For instance, W. Turnbull MD’s The Ladies Physician was serialised in a popular women’s magazine in 1785. Under The Management of Infants, he explained:
Nature requires that the parents exert themselves to the utmost to take proper care of their children; and where a child dies from any neglect, or want of attention of the parent, it is as possitively [sic] murder, although not so directly, as by the hand of violence, yet more frequent.
This idea of emotional neglect was not confined to advice and fiction. Memoirists also used it to condemn their own parents. The Birmingham printer and antiquarian William Hutton, writing at the turn of the eighteenth century, observed
My Father had no violent love for any of his children, but the least of all for the last, although deprived of the tenderness of a mother, which ought to have excited compassion. I have reason to believe he never gave him a kiss during his whole life, and I have the same inducement to believe he never gave me one, till I was 23 years of age, nor should I have been favoured with that, though the favourite son, had he been sober, but we all know liquor inspires the man.
Georgians knew that parents needed to show love for their children if they were to develop into emotionally secure adults. The autobiographer Eliza Fletcher wrote, “As I was an object of much tenderness and affection, so nature and education gave me an affectionate and grateful disposition.”
Yet Georgian emotional neglect of children was measured by the emotional standards of the day, which encouraged the demonstrative show of affection. The display of emotions changed over time and Victorian fathers, for example, might be far more praised for their ability to show their love through providing for their children rather than by showering them with kisses.
As such, measuring emotional neglect will need to be based on more than just how demonstrative parents are, since this differs over time and place – and as the contemporary UK prepares to jail parents for “emotional neglect”, we should remember that this anything but uncharted territory.