Margaret L King. New Dictionary of the History of Ideas. Editor: Maryanne Cline Horowitz. Volume 2. Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005.
During the last two centuries, even amid poverty and war, more children have had the opportunity for successful lives than ever before. The modern concern for child health, education, and well-being, however, emerged only after long millennia in which children’s welfare was subordinated to the needs and goals of caretakers and communities—a pattern also encountered today in developing regions of the world. In recent decades, scholars have gained considerable understanding of the experience of children, as well as attitudes toward childhood in the premodern world.
The Child-Centered Modern Age
Since the nineteenth century, scholars, scientists, and writers, along with lawyers, statesmen, and philanthropists, have concerned themselves with the nature and welfare of the child as at no previous time. Triggering that interest were the ideas of John Locke (1632-1704), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778), and later authors of the Romantic movement.
Elaborated in his Essay on Human Understanding (1690), Locke’s notion that the human infant’s brain is a tabula rasa, free of innate ideas but subject to the formative stresses of the environment, made the earliest stage of human development seem critical. In his Émile (1762), Rousseau understood the child as a noble savage, best able to gather knowledge as he pursued his natural interests and instincts long before he needed to master the artificial skills of the schoolroom. Soon afterwards, Romantic writers and artists idealized childhood innocence and empathized with childhood experience, as did William Blake (1757-1827) in his Songs of Innocence (1789) and William Wordsworth (1770-1850) in his Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood (1807).
The exploration of childhood proceeded as new “social sciences” of the human condition developed. Charles Darwin’s (1809-1882) theory of evolution by the process of natural selection, described in his seminal works The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), envisioned the creation of new species as the product of individual acts of procreation by millions of genetically privileged individuals—a vision of biological change, that is, centered on the birth of new infant generations. In a series of works published from the 1890s through the 1930s, the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) explored the role of childhood trauma on later adulthood and mapped the struggles toward autonomy of the developing infant personality. In The School and Society (1899), among other works, the American philosopher John Dewey (1859-1952) redefined the purpose of education: its aim was not to instill the accumulation of adult learning but to prepare future citizens and workers.
Practitioners of the new science of anthropology traveled the globe to study pre-state human societies, including their child-rearing concepts and practices, an interest exhibited in, among others, Margaret Mead’s (1901-1978) Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). Sociologists investigated the situation of youth in modern societies, looking at peer groups, youth gangs, adolescent drug use, and teen pregnancy, among many other topics. Psychologists explored early childhood learning and development, a topic they share more recently with biologists, philosophers, and linguists in the interdisciplinary pursuit of “cognitive science.”
Social reformers, philanthropists, and journalists, meanwhile, took up the cause of child welfare, as did Danish-born Jacob Riis (1849-1914) and Lewis Hine (1874-1940), for instance, who depicted in photographs and prose the condition of “street Arabs” and child workers at the turn of the twentieth century in America. While advocating women’s civil rights, the early feminist movement highlighted women’s maternal capacities and duties, an orientation that culminated in the publication in 1900 of the Swedish feminist Ellen Key’s (1849-1926) influential book, The Century of the Child.
In the twentieth century, both communist and fascist governments targeted the child. Soviet Communism promoted collective childcare so as to free women to become workers, while Italian Fascists and German Nazis adopted maternalist and pro-natalist policies. Totalitarian states of both persuasions promoted youth societies that indoctrinated adolescents in official ideology. Reeling from the slaughter of World War I, meanwhile, democratic states instituted welfare policies that supported mothers, families, and children. Among the free and the unfree, twentieth century wars and genocidal projects resulted in the slaughter, starvation, displacement, and militarization of children. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) addresses these, among other abuses of children that have survived in the modern world.
At the same time, the twentieth century has also seen great progress in the medical care of the child. The modern practice of childbirth put traditional midwives out of business by about 1900. Whereas vaccination for smallpox had been known since the eighteenth century, the twentieth century brought new vaccinations against diseases dangerous specifically for children, such as diphtheria. In addition, the availability of pasteurization, refrigeration, and devices for artificial feeding dramatically improved survival rates of abandoned and orphaned children. Funded by public and private monies, social workers tended to the needs of the children of the poor and immigrant populations. Experts on child rearing flooded the market with advice books for middle-class readers, a flood epitomized by the popular work of Dr. Benjamin Spock (1903-1998), whose Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, first published in 1946, reached its seventh edition before the author’s death in 1998.
A generation before Spock’s death, however, a new book appeared in France that shook the scholarly world: Philippe Ariès’s Centuries of Childhood (1960; English trans., 1962). So careful of children had citizens of the modern West become that they had forgotten the lost world of not so very long ago:
the premodern world, where children perhaps counted not so much as in the present era, or at least not in the same way.
The Historicity of Childhood
Centuries of Childhood presents the thesis that the “concept of childhood” itself is modern: a creation of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This thesis has been disputed and defended by later scholars. As a product of that controversy, the historicity of childhood has been established indisputably. The concept of childhood, along with childhood itself, is subject to change in changing historical circumstances.
In earlier times, Ariès argued, children were perceived as participants in adult society. They shared the same amusements as adults and did not have distinctive occupations or adornments. Even at school, children, adolescents, and adults intermingled, without distinction of age. The important boundary was not between child and elder, but dependent and master. Sentimental relations between parents and children were weakened, moreover, by the frequency of child death. Attitudes began to shift in the seventeenth century as smaller, coherent family groups supported the experience of individual children. Literary works evinced a new found affection for children, while families willingly invested in child accessories and education and grieved at child deaths. Ariès based his arguments mainly on literary texts and artistic representations, mostly from France and England between 1500 and 1750.
Ariès’s work evoked responses that critiqued and confirmed his hypotheses. In 1965 the British historian Peter Laslett published The World We Have Lost echoing some of Ariès’s conclusions. Laslett was reporting on the project of empirical research on the history of the family centered at Cambridge University, which studied such archival sources as baptismal records for evidence of family structure, ages of baptism, marriage, and death. Using different sources, Laslett, like Ariès, concluded that the experience of past childhood was unlike that in the modern age: such children lived in a world we have lost.
Also affirming Ariès’s hypothesis, Lawrence Stone’s massive Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (1977) focused on elite households and utilized literary evidence such as diaries, autobiographies, and letters. Over three stages of development ranging from large, authoritarian households to smaller, more egalitarian ones, the family became increasingly “affective,” Stone argued, characterized by strong sentimental ties and abundant investment in child welfare.
The American psychohistorian Lloyd de Mause, agreeing with Ariès and Stone on the greater importance of the child in modern times, proposed a model of the history of childhood that unfolded in five stages from the horrors of antiquity to the enlightened childrearing practices of the present day. Declaring in his seminal 1973 essay “The Evolution of Childhood” that the history of childhood was a “nightmare from which we have just begun to awaken,” de Mause credited modern psychoanalytic theory with persuading adults to abandon age-old practices of abuse and consciously to further the child’s autonomy and creativity. Also highlighting recent shifts in child-rearing attitudes, Edward Shorter’s Making of the Modern Family (1975) argued that warmer, sentimental relations between men and women encouraged a stronger bond between mother and child.
Historians of the Italian Renaissance, examining a period (principally the fifteenth century) well before the kind of turning point in perceptions of children identified by Ariès, Stone, de Mause, or Shorter, found a trove of empirical data that permitted the mapping of household structures of Florence and its surrounding countryside. The work of David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, first published in 1978, yielded important insights about family size and ethos in different social groups. In essays collected and republished in 1993, Richard Trexler further explored both the dependency of children in Florence and their capacity as innocents as agents of salvation. Turning from Florence, Margaret King studied childhood death and adult bereavement in a noble Venetian family (1994).
While not aligning themselves as supporters or opponents of Ariès, Renaissance historians added to the evidence pointing to the difference between modern and past childhoods. In the wake of Stone’s study, however, historians of England plunged into the controversy, generally to defend past parents and childhoods. Clarissa Atkinson’s study of medieval motherhood, and Barbara Hanawalt’s of children in fourteenth-century London, pointed to the complexity of past family relationships in contradiction to Ariès’s notion of a premodern “indifference.” More heatedly, Linda Pollock plowed through hundreds of diaries (mostly seventeenth century) to support her claim that parents cared deeply about their children. Alan Macfarlane, in studies of the origins of English individualism (1978) and of love and marriage in the early modern era (1986), proposed that familial relationships in England had long exhibited supposedly “modern” qualities of profound sentiment.
Examining Puritan communities in England and colonial Anglo-America, John Sommerville and John Demos each found attitudes toward children that were surprisingly modern. Examining family documents from Reformation-era Germany in several studies between 1983 and 2001, Steven Ozment argued (as had Macfarlane for England) that modern sentiments of family intimacy were well-established long before the modern age. Historians of ancient Greece and Rome such as Mark Golden and Suzanne Dixon, similarly, did not detect, as Ariès had suggested, any lack of a “concept” of childhood. Anthropologists note that in the Americas, early documents about the Aztec and Inca civilizations reveal a very structured picture of the life course, in which phases of childhood play an important role; in tribal societies of Africa and the Americas, too, initiation rituals divide a life into discrete phases associated with childhood, adolescence, parenthood, and grandparenthood. Hugh Cunningham, finally, focusing on children in the industrial era, placed the break between older and modern perceptions of children not in the early modern era, as had Ariès and Stone, but in the nineteenth century.
This brief overview shows that Ariès’s pioneering hypothesis did not win universal acceptance from scholars. On one point agreement has been general: childhood is not the unchanging phenomenon contemporary experts often assume it is, but it varies according to time, setting, social context, gender, and culture. Ariès’s great achievement was to establish the historicity of childhood as something no longer capable of refutation.
That established, it is clear that scholars have moved beyond the issues of the Ariès debate to explore a broader range of issues. These include issues concerning the child in the context of the mother-child relationship; those concerning the child in the context of the father-headed household; and those related to the training and education of children. This survey concludes with a consideration of the impact of industrialization on childhood, ushering us into the modern world.
Mother and Child: The First Dyad
Women alone give birth to children, although in the simplest band-level societies, child rearing is a more collective enterprise than among later agriculturalists, and even among agricultural peoples, social structures such as kin groups (clans and lineages) and polygynous marriages often lead to families in which children acknowledge multiple adults who raise them, and adults correspondingly recognize their responsibilities toward children other than their own birth children. In history, those children who survived were reared by mothers or mother surrogates. Even in advanced societies, the most powerful of human bonds has been that between mother and child, and the metaphor of motherhood is often used by other adults in expressing their bond with a child, as Gracia Clark has shown in her studies of West African motherhood. The dependency of the child on the mother, and the implication of the mother in the life of the child, is expressed in artistic representations of the mother-child dyad that appear in many different cultural settings—most famously, for Western civilization, in the image of Mary, the virgin mother, and the child Jesus. In recent years, however, African-American and Chicana scholars, while emphasizing the significance of motherhood within their cultural traditions, have used concepts such as “Othermothering” to underscore that mothering is typically a task shared among kinswomen, in contrast to the isolated white mother of the middle-class Euro-American nuclear family.
The importance of motherhood is further expressed in mythologies and cult objects: mother goddesses, fierce and gentle, the consorts of their sons, the guarantors of the fertility of the fields or of safety in childbirth, conspirators at times against the power of men. The fantasies of maternal power are also expressed in fantasies of matriarchal societies—although scholars now generally agree that there were none truly such—such as that of the Amazons.
Although anthropologists, linguists, and literary critics have been the primary observers of the ancient figure of the mother, real and mythic, historians have also examined the circles of women who surround the mother. These were the women who, across cultures, gathered to assist mothers in childbirth—female kin, friends, servants, and neighbors—while the skilled expert among them, the midwife, took charge. (Male physicians retained control of the theoretical literature about childbirth until the eighteenth century, when they took on the obstetrical role as well.) The same communities of women gathered to mourn the dead, or to provide advice at times of crisis and illness. John Riddle has shown in his works on abortion and herbalism that these informal women’s groups wordlessly transmitted medical and physiological information across generations.
In some societies, such female communities lived in physical isolation within larger households, as in the gynaeceum of the ancient Greeks, or the “inner quarters” of elite Chinese families. Here children of both sexes were raised until about age seven, and girls remained until they were wed. The harems of the Chinese emperors and Ottoman sultans constituted more formalized versions of such female communities. In these separate worlds, women gave birth, raised children, tended the sick, spun thread, and mourned the dead.
Supported by female networks, mothers faced that first essential task after childbirth itself: breastfeeding. The health and survival chances of all children before modern times depended on the availability of a lactating mother or mother-surrogate, as Valerie Fildes has shown in her comprehensive history of nursing. The alternatives that were attempted, including artificial feeding of nonhuman milk and nursing from animal teats, often resulted in infant death. In societies such as ancient Rome and the Americas, slave nurses nourished and reared the children of their masters. In the premodern West and later colonial and postcolonial settings, paid wetnurses were hired to feed the children of the nobility, and later of urban, colonial, and racial elites. Gilberto Freye’s classic psychosocial analysis of Brazilian society, The Masters and the Slaves (English trans., 1947), dissects the effects of this infantile closeness with the black female body, and concomitant distance from the white mother, on the sexual development of Brazil’s upper classes. This practice was commonplace in pre-modern Europe despite the universal advice of expert physicians, theologians, and philosophers. In the West, as in China and the Islamic world, injunctions to mothers to nurse their children account for a large part of all advice literature pertaining to children.
Mothers regularly experienced the deaths of their offspring in childbirth, in infancy, and in early childhood, an experience that is still common today for the world’s poor, as documented in Nancy Scheper-Hughes’s penetrating analysis of motherhood in urban Brazil, Death without Weeping (1992). The toll of infant death prior to modernization was in the range of 20 to 50 percent of live births, statistics that remain all too common in impoverished areas of the developing world. In the near-absence of birth control, fertility was high, and women commonly gave birth to many children, with totals of more than twenty not uncommon; yet mothers often saw only a few children reach adulthood. The high rate of infant and child mortality is the single most important fact to be culled from the history of childhood; as Scheper-Hughes documents, childhood signifies differently when few children reach adulthood.
Most babies died of disease or malnutrition, from which perils their mothers could not protect them, as they still cannot today. Others died also from accidents, neglect, or infanticide, the last of these an act most often perpetrated by mothers—and sometimes by salaried or servile nurses. Impoverished mothers, often servants, slaves, or prostitutes, or others whose conception and parturition was deemed “illegitimate,” were often, and disproportionately, infanticidal. Enslaved Africans and American Indian mothers often chose to terminate their infants’ lives rather than see them grow up under the tragic circumstances in which their mothers lived; for slave women, this horror was compounded by the knowledge that the children belonged to the master, and not to their own parents.
Mothering varies, of course, according to economic status. Among working families, the labor of absent mothers earning cash to support their children counted as material symbols of maternal love, whereas in middle-class, mid-twentieth-century American families, it was the presence of the mother inside the home rather than in the workplace that demonstrated her commitment to her children. In wealthy households, mothers are often freed from the constant demands of children by the services provided by hired help—nannies, babysitters, and tutors. In contemporary American and European societies, this labor is provided by immigrant women whose own children are often a continent away, cared for by grandparents or other female kin.
In Western society, the profound detestation of maternal, and more broadly female, endangerment of children is witnessed by the condemnation and, sporadically, prosecution of abortion and infanticide. The idea of the evil mother appears to have triggered profound passions expressed in the fantasies of the evil deeds done by witches (in Europe, especially the fifteenth to seventeenth centuries); by Christians (as perceived by the Romans during the late-ancient era of persecution); or by Jews (as perceived by Christians during anti-Semitic outbursts). All of these persecuted malefactors were believed to have sickened, killed, and cannibalized children.
The vulnerability of children was thus a source of great anxiety to the adults who, nevertheless, sacrificed children to divine forces in a practice that was once nearly universal—as Martin Bergmann, among others, informs us. Although mothers were not the only agents of child sacrifice, the connection already seen of women with death and mourning, with the often fatal event of childbirth, and with frequent child death, indicates that connection.
Successful mothers of child survivors were, in addition, the primary educators of children. Modern social science has established that mothers and mother substitutes are the first teachers of language—in the Western world, a fact reflected in the term used for the natal language as the “mother tongue” (lingua materna, Muttersprache). In the United States, the notion of “mother language” took on special poignancy for the young children of immigrants. Warm childhood memories of the smells and sounds of their monolingual mother’s kitchens contrasted with life at school and workplaces, where they struggled to master the language and customs of an alien and sometimes racially and ethnically hostile world. Throughout history, male suspicion of mothers and nurses as shapers of language also testifies to their important role: the ancient Roman statesman and author Cato the Elder (234-149 B.C.E.) would not have his children spoken to by nurses, and the Dutch humanist Desiderius Erasmus (1466?-1536) disdained the linguistic environment of the nursery and urged the swift conveyance of the child to a qualified tutor. In contrast, Chinese theorists celebrated those heroic mothers who prepared their sons from infancy to study for the civil service examinations.
The maternal role was probably more potent than these experts feared. Before written texts, the values and traditions of a culture were probably transmitted in story and, even more likely, in song, sung by mothers and nurses to generations of infants. In more developed societies, mothers and mother-surrogates were the first agents of religious instruction, a powerful welder of civilizational loyalties.
The Household: The Father’s Domain
In premodern times, a child’s chances of survival depended on her mother’s availability to nurture; but so, too, on her father’s benevolence. For once human beings joined together in sedentary communities to engage in agricultural production, the father-headed household made an appearance. Fathers were the gatekeepers of households, and the guardians of the children he admitted to them. Those fortunate children were generally the offspring of approved women: those considered to be “legitimate.” A bright line divided the spheres of legitimacy and illegitimacy, with great consequence for the lives of children (even though, in many societies, the illegitimate children of concubines lived under the same roof as their preferred half-siblings).
In Greek and Roman society, the master of the household had the power to welcome or reject a newborn child. Children not so welcomed would be “exposed,” or placed outside the household in a place where they might perhaps perish, or possibly be retrieved by other families seeking a servant or by slavedealers interested in exploiting the child as a laborer or prostitute. As John Boswell carefully noted, exposure was not necessarily coterminous with infanticide; but certainly, a child’s destiny was more assured if he remained in the household into which he was born.
The “exposure,” abandonment, or killing of unwanted infants was commonplace in ancient civilizations, including China as well as those of the Mediterranean world. The aim was to limit population and conserve household resources, purposes achieved in modern times by contraception and abortion. Another form of abandonment practiced in medieval Europe, which may also have been caused by demographic factors, had at least superficially a religious motivation as well. Children given to a monastery, as “oblates” (offerings), would not only disburden a family of too many children, but would enhance their parents’ chances of salvation. Yet the oblation of a child had ancient roots as well and approaches the phenomenon of child sacrifice as much as that of abandonment.
When fathers kept or exposed children, gender issues came into play. Boys were generally preferred to girls, as skewed sex ratios in different communities of the ancient world inform us; indeed, they still do so inform us, as sex preference by abortion is widely practiced today in Asia. When girls were raised in the household, the status of males remained higher. In ancient Rome, for instance, when boys received distinctive personal names at birth, girls bore their fathers’ name with a feminine ending: the daughter of Julius, for instance, was Julia. In Italian Renaissance genealogies, daughters were often anonymous, designated only as “filia” (daughter). In contrast, in some pre-state societies, such as those of the American Iroquois or Hopi, the birth of a female child was celebrated.
In Western and Asian civilizations, boys were generally preferred to girls as heirs, whether they were valued as the keepers of the family rites, as in China and Rome, or as the inheritors of property, as they were nearly everywhere. The dowry was a common device—prevalent among the Hebrews and Babylonians, the Chinese and Indians, the Greeks and Romans, and premodern Europeans—used to give a limited portion of a patrimony to daughters upon marriage (or entry to a convent, in Christendom) so that the bulk of it was preserved for one or more sons.
The concern with inheritance, resulting in the devaluation of daughters relative to sons, characterizes societies organized by father-dominated households. The organization of those households, however, varies enormously according to region, era, and social rank. In China, India, and Islamic society, the young tended to marry early and remain within or closely related to the bridegroom’s male kin. In Islam, endogamous marriage, principally to first cousins, was and remains common, and polygamy, although never universal, is permitted. In China, young brides often suffered under the hand of their powerful mothers-in-law.
European society, in a pattern especially characteristic of northwestern Europe, tended toward late marriage and the establishment of autonomous households, and truly nuclear families, by the newly married. As Alan Macfarlane has argued (1978, and again in 1985), the latter pattern, which prevailed in England, was conducive to the development of behavioral autonomy and the sense of individualism that was to manifest itself in the theoretical products of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Certainly, in monogamous, nuclear families, it may be assumed that individual children received greater parental attention, with a consequent enhancement of their life chances.
The iron reality of high mortality meant that, whether the family was more or less extended, all children in premodern times experienced a different type of household than is common in contemporary society. Women generally gave birth to children over the whole span of their fertile years. Their first-born children might be twenty or more years older than their last. Sibling relationships would be greatly complicated by this fact: late-born children would find themselves subject to the authority of early children, if those remained at home; or early-born children might be ejected early from the household in favor of late-born dependents. As women’s lives were often cut short by death in childbirth, moreover, husbands tended to re-marry, and more than once. Their second and subsequent wives continued to bear children, who were half-children of the first wife, occasioning even more intense sibling rivalries and the often-hostile presence of the stepmother.
When the father of the household died, patterns of widow remarriage differed. In China, India, and the West, the preference was that they should not remarry—and in traditional India, some widows died on their husbands’ funeral pyres, in the Hindu custom of suttee. In Europe, although chaste widowhood was theoretically preferred, widow remarriage was common. Young widows who remarried might surrender their children to their husband’s kin. Widows who did not remarry might continue to rear their children in the households of their husbands, or form one of the few woman-headed households.
A child’s life chances in history depended even more than today on the nature of her mother, her father, and her household. So too did the kind of training or education that children received.
Training and Education: The Circulation of Children
Maternal rearing lasted until the age of seven, approximately, in most societies. Thereafter, although some girls continued under their mothers’ care until marriage, most children learned the tasks of adulthood elsewhere: from tutors, at work, in school, or by apprenticeship.
Almost universally, the age of seven (sometimes six or eight) is the point at which children were thought to reach an age of competence. At that point, they could perform tasks responsibly, understand religious instruction, or begin formal education. At this point, too, boys were generally transferred from maternal to paternal oversight. In some tribal societies, as in such settings as ancient Sparta, the Ottoman Janissary Corps, and the nineteenth-century English public school, boys have been removed from the care of their mothers at an early age and raised in exclusively male groups—a kind of collective extension of paternal care.
If there was general agreement on the approximate age of seven as demarcating a stage of childhood, other demarcations were variable. Weaning (around eighteen months to two years was typical in the Western world) marked for some the boundary between infancy and early childhood. Later childhood was often seen to begin somewhere after age ten, when children were seen working outside the home, although some did so as early as age eight or nine as well. Some societies, like the Jews and the Romans, ritually marked the entry of boys into adulthood at age thirteen or fourteen. Minimum ages of marriage for girls clustered around age twelve.
No consensus, therefore, existed on the stages of childhood after age seven, or about the length of childhood. The child who was trained to peasant labor, or apprenticed to a master, or sent into service, or swept up in the experience of war, had only a brief childhood. In those peasant societies where household structures were extended, as in China, sons lived in the natal household even after marriage, still subordinate to paternal authority, while girls often married young, to be raised by the parents of their young husbands. In Western society, where it was common for young couples to begin their own separate households, adulthood began with marriage.
After regional and cultural factors, the boundaries of childhood depended most on the social standing of the child. In Western society, many children were in a process of circulation from ages as young as eight or nine. The poor were sent from home to labor as servants; nobles to acquire the skills of knighthood (if male) or household management (if female); those of artisan origin to apprenticeships lasting five, seven, or even ten years. Children circulated for purposes other than work or training. Wealthy households took in the surplus or orphaned children of their kin, while the children of an unwed or widowed mother would follow her on a tedious journey in search of shelter or employment.
In contrast, those children privileged enough to remain at home, supported by their bourgeois or aristocratic parents, were the real prototype of modern children. Dressed in special clothing, and endowed with specialized objects—known to us as toys—to enhance their play, they would be perceived as uniquely innocent. They would be protected from exposure to adult sexuality and violence; they would be tended in illness and mourned in death; and they might be given tutors and teachers and provided a liberal education. An interesting comparison is provided by Bronislaw Malinowski’s famous description of childhood in the Trobriand Islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea, where children spent their days in a separate “nation of children,” similarly freed from adult responsibility, but also from adult supervision to a degree unthinkable in the upper-and middle-class West.
Until recent times, schooling has been an opportunity limited to the fortunate few. One of the hallmarks of civilization, literacy was initially the property of an esoteric elite of priests and scribes. In Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China, writing consisted of numerous and intricate characters that were learned with difficulty and reproduced slowly. That pattern persisted in imperial China, where the literary arts were highly esteemed, and families sacrificed so that their sons could be educated and compete, and sometimes qualify for office, in strenuous state-run examinations. In tribal societies, sex-specific education could last for years, but usually took place in sex-segregated contexts and depended upon the oral and ritual transmission of knowledge.
Alphabetic writing systems made literacy easier to achieve. As merchants and artisans gained access to writing skills, schooling became more generalized. In Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman society, literacy was relatively widespread among urban elites. Islamic civilization, as well, esteemed literacy. Significant numbers of Muslims from the straits of Gibraltar into south Asia and Oceania learned to read Arabic, the language of the Koran.
In the wake of the Germanic invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries, the level of civilization in Europe dropped dramatically from Roman days. For centuries, literacy was limited to members of the Christian church hierarchy: priests and monks. Schools were appendages of monasteries and cathedrals, their prime purpose to supply the minimal knowledge of Latin necessary to perform the liturgy. As scholastic (school-based) learning developed in the twelfth and thirteenth century, stimulated by the incorporation of ancient Greek (especially Aristotelian) texts, universities took form. In these institutions of higher learning—the world’s first—students in their teens and twenties gained degrees in philosophy, theology, medicine, and law. In the Americas, Aztec and Inca noble youth entered priest-run schools where they received education in the forms of knowledge; only among the Maya, however, would this include literacy in the Western sense.
The humanists of the Italian Renaissance created a form of schooling beyond the church-based system, whose purpose was to enlighten and develop the individual rather than to instill specific systems of knowledge. The Protestant and Catholic Reformations each adopted the Renaissance notion of elementary and secondary schools that now proliferated, serving to prepare not only a priestly class, but male elites from the middle classes and the nobility, and even girls at elementary levels. These educational initiatives, together with revolutions in economics and science that made backward Europe the dominant world power, greatly enhanced the chances children would have for their own advancement.
Schooling came at a cost for young students—the cost of corporal punishment. From antiquity, the symbol of a teacher was the rod that he wielded to “correct” the unruly or unresponsive student. In medieval Europe, it was understood that Latin was literally to be beaten into the young. Although humanist pedagogues deplored the use of the rod, corporal punishment remained a feature of the schoolroom into modern times. Such abuse was only an extension of norms outside the classroom. Those with power could visit physical chastisement on their dependents: masters over apprentices, householders over servants, the state over malefactors, and fathers over children. Perhaps the world has seen, over the last century, along with those consumed by Holocaust, world war, and state-sponsored famine, the first children to escape the rod.
The Advent of Modernity: School and Work
The twin processes of Enlightenment and industrialization mark the division between premodern and modern for childhood and concepts of childhood. Whereas the Enlightenment introduced the ideas with which this article began, leading to the modern disciplines that specialize in the condition and care of the child, industrialization introduced new forms of exploitation of children, but also, in time, new opportunities for family life as standards of living eventually rose. In the two areas of work and schooling, the lives of children changed most dramatically during the industrial era.
Industrialization meant, above all, the factory organization of labor. Children, notoriously, labored in the early factories, to the great detriment of their health and well-being. As industrialization progressed, an inquest into the welfare of children workers resulted in Britain’s Factory Act of 1833, which set hour limits for child workdays. Following suit, most advanced nations introduced the regulation of child labor, beginning with France in 1841, and culminating in the first decades of the next century with Japan, Russia, and the United States. Today, child labor is found in developing regions of the world and is the subject of investigation and censure by many activists and policy-makers in the developed world.
As policy-makers, employers, and parents came to understand that children must not spend their lives in factory labor, they established instead the goal of sending all children to school. Beginning with France by 1878 and Britain by 1891, secular, free, and compulsory mass public education was the norm for the wealthiest nations of Europe and the Americas, as well as rapidly modernized Japan. At the same time, the kindergarten movement created by central European pedagogical theorists Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827) and Friedrich W. A. Froebel (1782-1852) swept the Western world, encouraging the establishment of kindergartens supported by fee-paying elite parents and charitable institutions. In the early twentieth century, Maria Montessori (1870-1952) introduced the concept of a nursery school for the very young, featuring child-friendly spaces and materials and a structured but individualized and child-appropriate curriculum. In the more privileged countries, these opportunities for young children have become increasingly commonplace. In poor countries, in contrast, even children over age seven, especially girls, lack the opportunity for a basic education.
Laslett’s depiction of The World We Have Lost poignantly alerted modern readers to the unbridgeable distance between their own reality and that of children of premodern times. More recently, we have learned that the distance is not so very great. In the developing nations of the modern world, millions of children live in conditions strikingly like those of the times we thought we had left behind: among them, continual maternal childbearing without possibility of contraception; high rates of infant and child mortality; abandonment, infanticide, and abuse; absent or tyrannical fathers; child labor; and the cataclysm of war.