Struwwelpeter and Parenting Tactics From Days Past

Last night, I received an email from D’s mom, with a strange picture attached:

Disturbing, no?

Turns out, this was a baby bowl from Czechoslavakia that D’s grandfather owned as a child. But no one in the family knew who the strange character in the center was, so D’s mom emailed us to see if we had any ideas.

I did a couple of google searches and tracked it down — it’s Struwwelpeter. What’s that? You don’t know who Struwwelpeter is? Well, he is apparently a character in a children’s book of rhymes, originally published in 1844. Each rhyme seeks to teach a moral through rather disturbing tales of the consequences of children’s misbehavior.

You can read the English translation of the book over at Project Gutenberg. Here’s the rhyme that is paired with the image featured on the baby bowl:

Just look at him! there he stands,
With his nasty hair and hands.
See! his nails are never cut;
They are grimed as black as soot;
And the sloven, I declare,
Never once has combed his hair;
Anything to me is sweeter
Than to see Shock-headed Peter.

So the object of this rhyme is (obviously) to scare kids into practicing good hygiene. Definitely a theme in the book — frightening kids into obeying their parents’ rules. Other stories include a cruel boy who is eventually is mauled by a dog; a girl who burns to death while playing with fire; a thumbsucker whose thumb is cut off by a scissor-man; and a picky eater who dies from starvation.

Makes J’s Dr. Seuss books look pretty darn tame.

By the way, this book was originally written in German. No big surprise! Germany also produced the infamous Grimm Brothers and their gruesome tales. Read them if you haven’t before — not much like their Disney counterparts. (And don’t get me wrong — I actually own the Grimm collection! But I will not be reading the stories to J for many, many years…) It also reminded me of another scare tactic used in German tradition: the Krampus. I don’t know a whole lot about them, but I visited my sister in Austria during Christmas season one year and got to experience these demons first-hand. They’re pretty terrifying!

There’s me being whipped by a Krampus four years ago. I think the (unintentional) blur makes this picture even more disturbing.

Those are teenage boys (or so I’m told) dressed in furry costumes and homemade masks. They have big bells on their butts, and they carry switches. And yes, they use those switches! (I know from experience!) Obviously it’s all in fun (or at least these days it is), but what an odd Christmastime tradition. The way I understand it, the Krampus is the “dark companion” to St. Nicholas. He/they whip the bad little boys and girls, whereas St. Nicholas gives out candy and toys to the good children. (We got the pleasure of receiving both whips and candy since it was really just for show.)

I think it’s so interesting how different parenting techniques can be — especially over time. The way our ancestors treated their children might be horrifying to us today. In fact, ideals about parenting can change dramatically in just one or two generations. For example, I’m shocked that in the fifties (when my grandmothers were having babies), doctors often advised new mothers not to breastfeed, and many women gave birth in “twilight sleep,” lending them no recollection of the birth. (This video from the film “The Business of Being Born” shows clips of women under the effects of twilight sleep. Disclaimer: The film’s a little anti-hospital propaganda-y.) It’s the polar opposite of what we’re told these days — “breast is best!” — and while planned c-sections and epidurals are common fare, few modern women would want to be in a sedated state when their children are born.

It fascinates me that my husband’s grandfather (just two generations back) owned a baby bowl that featured Struwwelpeter. Surely someone in the family must have known the origins of the story (why else would they have purchased and used the bowl?), and they likely passed on the tale to D’s grandfather (even if he no longer remembers it). But can you imagine walking into Babies R Us today and putting a bowl featuring a character as gross and horrifying as Struwwelpeter on your baby registry? I wonder what sort of friend would buy that for baby-on-the-way. Probably your best/worst frenemy.

Are there any parenting tips and techniques that your parents or grandparents followed that shock you today?


3 thoughts on “Struwwelpeter and Parenting Tactics From Days Past

  1. Reading the rhymes made me think of forms of punishment common during my childhood: whippings with belts, brushes or switches; the ol’ slap in the palm with a wooden ruler from an angry teacher; a slap across the face as a reaction to sassing. D’s dad and I agreed early on that we would not engage in corporal punishment, and we didn’t except for a rare pop on the bottom when he was little. Time outs and loss of privileges as punishment for disobeying worked pretty well for us.

  2. Pingback: J’s Sleep Habits (or… Secrets I Keep From My Pediatrician) « This is Sesame.

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