Virtue and Vice
Religion formed the basis of much moral instruction. The Parent’s Best Gift included the Catechism — a dialogue covering doctrines one had to memorize before being confirmed in the Anglican faith — as well as a review of important incidents in the Bible, and prayers suitable for children.
But many recognized that narrative that reflected a child’s own life and behavior could also be used to persuade children to good behavior. The selfish child depicted in the frontispiece of Six Stories for the Nursery learns through mild punishment and reflection to be nicer to her sister.
Other desirable qualities are shown in the story about "The Good Girl"; she is dutiful, busy, studious, and cheerful. As a result she pleases her mother and is happy.
In The Happy Girl the role of religion is reinforced, with Biblical passages quoted as explanation for the protagonist’s good behavior. More specific virtues were taught as well.
How to Enjoy a Happy Christmas, by the popular children’s author Mary Elliott (shown in translation), recounts how two wealthy children learn to give generously, but appropriately, to the less fortunate.
For young audiences, authors simplified their lessons, using direct comparison of good and bad behavior, as well as easy-to-parse names like Jenny Peace and Nanny Fret.
Gender norms were reinforced by stories like “The Forward Little Girl” in Lovechild’s Sketches, whose horrifying fault is following current affairs, having an opinion of them, and expressing it.
The Daisy is a famous example of cautionary verse. Sometimes the bad child is merely rebuked, put to bed without supper, rejected by their playmates, or subjected to corporal punishment. Sometimes, though, the worst-case scenario comes to pass, and they are injured, poisoned, or drowned.
By the mid-century these outrageous outcomes must have seemed extreme. Hoffman’s popular parody of the genre was Struwwelpeter (Shock-headed Peter). His small malefactors starve themselves to death because they do not like their soup, or are burnt to ash when they play with matches.
Still later books, like Goops and How to Be Them, take a humorous tone in condemning naughtiness and encouraging courtesy.