Even Abraham Lincoln was parent-shamed

Even Abraham Lincoln was parent-shamed

Guilt trips about sleeping arrangements with your baby. “Well-meaning advice” about the right time to feed or sleep.Criticism about breast-feeding choices. Parents are no strangers to being shamed about their decisions regarding how they chose to raise their children. But this is not a modern day phenomenon. This kind of second-guessing and criticality has existed toward parents since antiquity. Even Abraham Lincoln, old Honest Abe, was no stranger to it.

An affectionate father of four boys, only one of which made it to adulthood, Lincoln was not known to be a strict authoritarian father. His tenderness toward his boys was well noted by contemporaries, as was his leniency in dealing with them. The deaths of three of their four sons before the age of 18 – Edward at 4 of tuberculosis, Willie at 12 of a fever, and Thomas at 17 of heart failure – had a profound effect on both Abraham and Mary. Mary, his wife, was temporarily admitted to an asylum for mental health while Abraham was noted to suffer from strong bouts of “melancholy”, or what is now referred to as clinical depression. During their parenthood though, both parents were remarkedly tender and affectionate with their children.


For this affection, the Lincolns, notably Abe, were criticized for being too lax, too coddling, and not demonstrating enough control of their children.


Harsh whispers made the rounds in those dreadful days, intimating that all that would have been needed to spare the boy’s life was the basic restraining influence of a parent.

In “The Prairie Torment: Lincoln’s Psychology,” by James Spicer.


Any parent of a toddler may be be familiar with such criticism, or at least judmental looks in public places. How many times are parents of young children judged harshly by other adults when their child throws a tantrum or does anything even remotely demonstrating bad behavior at a restaurant.


The Lincolns were also criticized after the death of Willie for allowing him to play with his favorite “toy”, a pony. In hindsight, others felt that exposure to the elements while riding this pony caused the fever that eventually took his life. How easy to say then.


Willie was so delighted with a little pony, that he insisted on riding it every day. The weather was changeable, and exposure resulted in a severe cold, which deepened into fever.

Keckley, op. cit.


Why, some asked, was a child riding a pony about in the pouring rain, without a coat?

Spicer, op. cit.


Others were even stronger in their criticism, referring to the Lincoln children as savages who were barely controlled. How familiar does this type of criticism sound to parents even today? Though my children aren’t even mobile yet, I’ve received harsh looks, just-audible-enough-whispers of criticality, and outright criticism for how I interact with and treat my boys. Lincoln must have felt the same.


Those of us who knew the Lincoln children personally, and saw them running around the White House like a pair of wild savages, will attest to the fact that this was a household in a state of perpetual bedlam, where indiscriminate permission was confused with filial love.

In “Accidental Jehovah: Will, Focus, and the Great Deed,” by Kristen Toles, account of B. Milbank.


[Lincoln] exercised no government of any kind over his household. His children did much as they pleased. Many of their antics he approved, and he restrained them in nothing. He never reproved them or gave them a fatherly frown.

In “Life of Lincoln,” by William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik.


He always said “It [is my] pleasure that my children are free—happy & unrestrained by parental tyranny. Love is the chain whereby to Lock a child to its parents.”

In “Herndon’s Informants,” edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, account of Mary Lincoln.


These children would take down the books—Empty ash buckets—coal ashes—inkstand—papers—gold pens—letters &c. &c in a pile and then dance on the pile. Lincoln would say nothing, so abstracted was he and so blinded to his children’s faults. Had they s—–t in Lincoln’s hat and rubbed it on his boots, he would have laughed and thought it smart.

In “Herndon on Lincoln: Letters,” edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, letter to Jesse K. Weik.


They could have raced past him into a shooting match and he would not have glanced up from his work. For Lincoln (all subsequent hagiography aside) was an ambitious man––nearly monomaniacally so.

In “They Knew Him,” edited by Leonora Morehouse, account of Theodore Blasgen.


As a parent of two boys myself, I can only find sympathy, not fault with Lincoln. A flawed man who struggled to find inner peace in his private life while leading an extremely challenging and difficult public one, it’s easy to see why he may have struggled. It’s easy to see how others found fault in his parenting style, especially as it was on display so openly during his presidency and public service life. I’ve been guilty of judging others parents as well, but it’s time we end this practice. Parents have enough to deal with in raising kids the way they believe in without others second-guessing them and adding to their stress and anxiety. Parents need to be supportive of each other and lend a helping hand rather than casting a disparaging eye.


And for all his faults, Lincoln’s parenting appears to have resulted in success. Robert Todd, the only of his children to live to adulthood, became an active politician, ran a successful company, headed a large large firm, and even flirted with a run for the presidency, all after serving on Ulysses S. Grant’s staff during the civil war. Successful in public service and the private sector, he even became a successful parent himself, raising two daughters who led quiet but happy private lives into the 1900s.

So maybe old Honest Abe actually knew what he was doing after all. Let’s judge the results, not the man. Or as Abe always said, just shake it off. 

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