I Had Six Theories About Bringing Up Children

Lord Rochester? John Wilmot? James A. Magner? Mrs. John McLauchlan? Leonard Lyons? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: A very funny comment about child-rearing has implausibly been attributed to John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester:

Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children and no theories.

Wilmot died in 1680, and I do not think this quotation was crafted in the 17th century because the language is too modern. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence of a close match found by QI appeared in a 1946 pamphlet titled “Parent Education Through Home and School”. The document was released by the Family Life Bureau, a Catholic Church organization. A section written by Reverend James A. Magner began with the following passage. Boldface has been added to excerpts:[ref] Date: 1946, Pamphlet Title: Parent Education Through Home and School, Catalog Description from Preface: [Addresses] originally presented at the fourteenth annual meeting of the National Catholic conference on family life, held at the Catholic University of America, February 5-8, 1946, Article Title: The Social Values of the Home, Article Author: Rev. James A. Magner, Start Page 11, Quote Page 11, Publisher: N.C.W.C. Family Life Bureau, Washington, D.C. (Verified with scans; great thanks to the librarians at Logue Library of Chestnut Hill College, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania)[/ref]

“Before I got married,” wrote Lord Rochester, “I had six theories about bringing up children. Now I have six children—and no theories.”

Historically, the designation “Lord Rochester” has been used for John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, but it was very unlikely that a joke Wilmot wrote or spoke before his death in 1680 was somehow hidden for 266 years and only emerged in 1946. To date QI has located no substantive linkage between Wilmot and the quotation.

An interesting precursor to the quip was circulating by 1916. Detailed information is given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1904 “The Chicago Daily Tribune” published an article about an address delivered at the Ravenswood Women’s club. The speaker presented guidelines for mothers, but she also humbly noted the limitations of her pre-existing knowledge:[ref] Date: 1904 October 11, Newspaper: Chicago Daily Tribune, Article: Get List of Don’ts: Ravenswood Woman’s Club Mothers Are Given a Warning, Quote Page 1, Column 4, (The speaker was identified as “Mrs. John McLauchlan”), Newspaper location: Chicago, Illinois.[/ref]

Six Children Can Upset Theories

“Six children can upset all the theories one ever dared to obtain,” said Mrs. McLauchlan. “Humility comes with years of motherhood. We have too narrow a conception of what motherhood means.”

The above remark displayed some points of similarity with the jest under investigation. Six children were mentioned, and the flustered parent found that all her former theories were mistaken. However, the tone of the comment did not stress humor.

In 1916 a joke with the title “What She Has” was published in multiple newspapers including the “Iowa City Citizen” of Iowa City, Iowa; “The Daily Alaska Dispatch” of Juneau, Alaska; and the “San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram” of San Luis Obispo, California:[ref] 1916 January 7, Iowa City Citizen (Iowa City Press-Citizen), What She Has, Quote Page 8, Column 2, Iowa City, Iowa. (Newspapers_com)[/ref][ref] 1916 January 16, The Daily Alaska Dispatch, What She Has, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Juneau, Alaska. (GenealogyBank)[/ref][ref] 1916 January 21, San Luis Obispo Daily Telegram, What She Has, Quote Page 4, Column 6, San Luis Obispo, California. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

“I have many splendid theories on the art of bringing up children.”
“Have you, indeed?” said she. “I have no theories.”
“No theories on the proper way of training little ones?”
“No theories,” was the reply. “Just three children.”
—Detroit Free Press.

The playfulness in the passage above was comparable to that of the 1946 joke. Here the phrase “no theories” was emphasized by multiple appearances. In the compact 1946 quip, “no theories” was used only in the punchline as the final phrase. Also, three children were mentioned instead of six. Interestingly, variants of the 1946 joke have also referred to three children.

In 1946 the quip with an ascription to Lord Rochester was printed in a pamphlet titled “Parent Education Through Home and School”. This citation was given at the beginning of this article:

“Before I got married,” wrote Lord Rochester, “I had six theories about bringing up children. Now I have six children—and no theories.”

In November 1946 a trade publication called “The Oil Weekly” printed an instance, but the words were not attributed to Lord Rochester; instead, an unnamed quipster spoke the line:[ref] Date: 1946 November 11, Periodical: The Oil Weekly: For the Drilling, Producing, Pipe Line Industry, Volume 123, Number 11, Article: Squeaks from the Bull Wheel, Sub-section: This Curious World, Quote Page 123, Publisher: The Gulf Publishing Company, Houston, Texas. (Verified with scans; great thanks Bonnie Taylor-Blake and the University of North Carolina library system)[/ref]

A veteran in the marriage game says: “Before I married I had six theories about bringing up children. Now I have six children and no theories.”

In June 1947 an instance was printed in the mass-circulation “Reader’s Digest”. This periodical was an important locus for the dissemination of quotations:[ref] 1947 June, Reader’s Digest, Volume 50, Quotable Quotes, Quote Page 90, The Reader’s Digest Association, Inc. (Verified on paper)[/ref]

Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children. Now I have six children — and no theories. —Lord Rochester

In 1949 the “Kentucky New Era” newspaper of Hopkinsville, Kentucky reported that a Scout leader had added the joke to his repertoire of humor:[ref] 1949 November 19, Kentucky New Era, Scout Program Of Community Outlined At Meet Last Night, Quote Page 1, Column 3, Hopkinsville, Kentucky. (Google News Archive)[/ref]

Three stories told by the regional Scout leader brought continuous laughs from the group. The stories follow:

“The men who claim they are boss at home will lie about other things also.”

“The father of six children said that he had six theories about rearing children before he married but now he has six children and no theories.”

In 1949 the industrious compiler Evan Esar published “The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations”. Esar presented an identity for Lord Rochester with specified years of birth and death:[ref] 1949, The Dictionary of Humorous Quotations, Edited by Evan Esar, Section: Lord Rochester, Quote Page 167, Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper in 1989 reprint edition from Dorset Press, New York) [/ref]

ROCHESTER, Lord, 1647-1680, English poet.
Before I got married I had six theories about bringing up children; now I have six children, and no theories.

In 1955 Jacob M. Braude published an interesting variant in his compilation titled “Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Stories, Quotations, and Anecdotes”. This instance used three children instead of six, and a well-known gossip columnist named Leonard Lyons received credit instead of Lord Rochester:[ref] 1955, Speaker’s Encyclopedia of Stories, Quotations, and Anecdotes by Jacob M. Braude, Topic: Youth, Quote Page 421, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. (Verified on paper in third Printing of May 1956)[/ref]

Following the birth of his third son, Leonard Lyons, columnist mused: “Before I got married I had three theories about bringing up kids. Now I have three kids — and no theories.”
—IRVING HOFFMAN, Hollywood Reporter

In 1962 the columnist Marjorie Mills presented a version of the quip with three children, and followed it with a caustic remark about Jean-Jacques Rousseau:[ref] 1962 January 10, Boston Herald, MARGE by Marjorie Mills, Quote Page 30, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)[/ref]

REMEMBER THAT OLDIE, “Before I got married I had three theories about bringing up children. Now I have three children and no theories.” Just read an article about Jean-Jacques Rousseau who achieved fame with “Emile,” a guide on the proper education of children. Know how Jean-Jacques solved his own problems? When each of his five children was born he sent it to a foundling home.

In conclusion, there is no substantive support for ascribing the joke to John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester. Perhaps some other Lord Rochester or some other John Wilmot employed the quip, but QI has not yet found evidence for this.

The 1946 instance may have evolved from the 1916 joke, but this possibility is conjectural. Currently, the creator is anonymous. Future researchers may help to clarify the matter.

Image Notes: Six children in silhouette from geralt (Gerd Altmann) on Pixabay. Detail of a portrait showing the face of John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester from the National Portrait Gallery, London via Wikimedia Commons. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Joel Berson and Mark Snegg whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Joel Berson was relaying a question that Russ Hunt posed on a mailing list concerned with 18th-century studies. Special thanks to the librarians at Logue Library of Chestnut Hill College for help in verifying the 1946 “Parent Education Through Home and School” citation, and special thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake for help in verifying the “The Oil Weekly” citation. Also, thanks to the other ADS discussants.)

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