Simply put, “the hand that rocks the cradle” is an idiom that refers to women and, more specifically, their influence over children and potentially the world. Traditionally, a woman is the parent who is the closest to her child during his developmental years, and consequently provides a certain level of influence for the child. Therefore, the phrase typically refers to a women’s influence over a certain matter. Sometimes, the saying is used in a positive manner, and sometimes it is used in a negative way. Some assert that “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world,” which is similar to the full title of a William Ross Wallace poem, is the complete saying.
Generally, the saying is used in a positive and favorable way. Some believe that since mothers often have great influence over how their children are raised, they also have influence over the way the world works or develops. The influence a mother might have over her child can extend to everything from morals and manners to work ethics and belief systems. The woman’s influence can be strong, often so strong that the results of her influence can extend well beyond her lifetime. Therefore, the woman, and more specifically the mother, is thought to be quite powerful.
Still, the saying can be used in a negative way, too. For example, people might use the saying if they are referring to the upbringing or childhood of a misbehaving child or criminal adult. If it is thought that the person’s upbringing, or even specifically the person’s mother, contributed to the person’s negative behavior, people might use the saying to express that belief.
Like many idiomatic expressions used in popular culture, “the hand that rocks the cradle” has been used in both movie and song titles. Perhaps the most significant use of this idiom is as the title of the 1865 poem by William Ross Wallace. The full title, which is a version of what some believe to be the full version of the saying, is “The Hand That Rocks The Cradle Is The Hand That Rules The World.” Unlike some of the more negative explanations of the saying, Wallace’s poem generally is viewed as emphasizing mothers in a favorable light. Some believe this poem might be the origin of the saying as we know it today.