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Childhood is usually defined in relation to adulthood: the condition of being an immature person, of having not yet become an adult. In some societies, physical or reproductive maturity marks the transition to adulthood, but in modern Western societies full adult status is not usually achieved until several years after puberty. Childhood is legally defined here as a state of dependency on adults or as the status of those excluded from citizenship on the grounds of their youth. Dependence and exclusion from citizenship are in turn justified in terms of young people's incapacity to look after themselves or their emotional and cognitive unfitness for adult rights and responsibilities. Hence, psychological immaturity becomes a further criterion for deciding who counts as a child. The definition of childhood, then, involves complex cultural judgments about maturity and immaturity, children's assumed capabilities, and their difference from adults. Therefore, childhood is a social category, not merely a natural one.

Modern legal systems institutionalize childhood by setting an age of majority at which persons become legal subjects responsible for their own affairs and able to exercise citizenship rights. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child defines a child as anyone under the age of eighteen unless, under the laws of his or her country, the age of majority comes sooner. Even with such legalistic dividing lines, there are still areas of ambiguity. Within any one country there may be various markers of adult status, so that one ceases to be a child for some purposes while remaining one for others. For example, the right to vote and the right to marry without parental consent may be acquired at different times.

Modern Western Conception of Childhood

Childhood has not been defined and experienced in the same ways in all societies at all times. The modern Western conception of childhood is historically and culturally specific. Philippe Ariès (1962) was one of the first to suggest that childhood is a modern discovery. He argued that in medieval times children, once past infancy, were regarded as miniature adults; they dressed like adults and shared adult's work and leisure. Children were not assumed to have needs distinct from those of adults, nor were they shielded from any aspects of adult life. Knowledge of sexual relations was not considered harmful to them and public executions were a spectacle attended by people of all ages. In claiming that there was no concept of childhood prior to modern times, however, Ariès overstated his case (see Pollock 1983; Archard 1993). Shulamith Shahar (1990) suggests that medieval thinkers did see young children as being less developed in their mental and moral capacities than adults. It is clear from Ariès's own evidence that children did not always do the same work as adults and that they occupied a distinct place within society.

David Archard (1993) makes a useful distinction here between a concept of childhood and a conception of childhood. A concept of childhood requires only that children are in some way distinguished from adults; a conception entails more specific ideas about children's distinctiveness. The existence of a concept of childhood in the past does not mean that those people shared the modern conception of childhood. Medieval writers thought of childhood rather differently from how it is viewed today. They dwelt on the status and duties of children and on the rights accorded them at various stages of maturity (Shahar 1990). Childhood was defined primarily as a social status rather than as a psychological, developmental stage. Attitudes toward children began to change, very slowly, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, affecting upper-class boys first, then their sisters (Ariès 1962; Pinchbeck and Hewitt 1969). By the nineteenth century, middle-class children were confined to home and school, but many working-class children continued to work and contribute to the support of their families (see Davin 1990; Pinchbeck and Hewitt 1973). Gradually, however, children as a whole were excluded from the adult world of work and the period of dependent childhood lengthened.

Both historians and anthropologists have argued that modern Western societies make an unusually sharp distinction between childhood and adulthood (Ariès 1962; Benedict: 1938; Mead and Wolfenstein 1955). Western children are excluded by law and convention from many aspects of adult social life. They spend most of their time either within their families or within institutions designed to care for, educate, or entertain them separately from adults. They therefore have little contact with adults outside the circle of family and friends apart from childcare professionals. Many of the special arrangements made for children serve to emphasize their difference from adults: their clothes, toys, games, songs and books, even the colors of their bedrooms. Children are treated not simply as inexperienced members of society, but as qualitatively different from adults.

Childhood is also conceptualized as a process of development toward adulthood. In the nineteenth century, childhood began to be mapped out as a series of developmental stages that determined the character of the adult individual. Both Archard (1993) and Nikolas Rose (1989) accord a decisive role at this time to the emerging discipline of psychology. Rose argues that, in making it the object of scientific inquiry, psychology constructed or invented childhood and claimed a particular expertise in categorizing children, measuring their aptitudes, managing and disciplining them—and has done so ever since (Rose 1989).

Living in a society where childhood is thought of as a series of developmental stages has specific effects on children. For example, schooling is organized as a series of age-graded progressions, which means that children are not only relatively segregated from adults but also from children of different ages. Children themselves acquire ideas about what is appropriate for people of their own age and may try to negotiate specific freedoms or privileges on this basis. Ordering children's lives in this way also influences what they are capable of achieving. It has been argued that the restriction of children to age-graded institutions may help to construct the very developmental stages that are seen as universal features of childhood (Skolnick 1980; Archard 1993). For a child to behave in the manner of someone older is often thought inappropriate, so the term precocious has become an insult. Age-grading may help to keep children childish. Historical and anthropological evidence suggests that children in other societies and in the past were far more independent and capable of taking care of themselves than Western children are today ( Jackson 1982).

The idea of childhood as a developmental phase means that childhood is usually seen as important largely in terms of its consequences for adulthood. This is, as a number of researchers have pointed out, a very adult-centered view (Leonard 1990; Thorne 1987; Waksler 1986). Children are thought of as incomplete adults whose experiences are not worth investigating in their own right, but only insofar as they constitute learning for adulthood. Developmental theories presuppose that children have different capacities at different ages, yet children are frequently characterized as the polar opposites of adults: children are dependent, adults are independent; children play, adults work; children are emotional, adults are rational. The definitions of both childhood and adulthood are, moreover, gendered. Models of ideal adulthood are frequently in effect models of manhood, so that there is often a correspondence between attributes deemed childish and those deemed feminine— such as emotionality—and conversely those deemed adult and masculine—such as rationality ( Jackson 1982; Thorne 1987).

The definition of childhood as a developmental stage and psychological state masks the fact that it is still a social status. Because childhood is defined as a stage or state of incapacity, children are thought to be incapable of exercising adult rights. There is considerable debate about whether this assumption is justified or not and about what rights are appropriate to children (see Thorne 1987; Archard 1993). Childhood is an exclusionary status (Hood-Williams 1990) in that children are neither citizens nor legal subjects and are under the jurisdiction of their parents. Their subordinate position is also evident in their interaction with adults. A child is expected to be deferential and obedient; a "naughty" child is one who defies adult authority.

Children Within Families

Within families, children are defined as dependents, subject to parental authority. Economic dependence is a crucial, and often neglected, aspect of children's status within families (see Leonard 1990; Hood-Williams 1990; Delphy and Leonard 1992). Children's lifestyles are dependent on their parents' income and their parents' decisions about how that income should be spent. The goods children receive come in the form of gifts or maintenance; they have things bought for them rather than buying them for themselves. Children can exercise choice over these purchases only if their parents allow them to choose. A child may well receive pocket money, or money as gifts, but this too is given at adults' discretion and adults may seek to influence how it is spent. Dependent, adult-mediated consumption is one facet of the power that parents have over children.

It has been argued that parents today have less power and autonomy than in the past because childrearing is now policed and regulated by experts and state agencies (Donzalot 1980; Ehrenreich and English 1978). Nonetheless, parents have a great deal of latitude in rearing their children as they wish, in setting acceptable standards of behavior, and in deciding what their children should eat and wear and how they should be educated and disciplined. Others' interference in these matters is regarded as violation of family privacy and an assault on parents' rights. Because modern families are seen as private institutions, state or public regulation generally only intrudes where parents are deemed to have abused their power or not exercised it effectively enough—where children are abused, neglected, or delinquent. As Barrie Thorne (1987) points out, the situation of children enters the public domain only when they are seen as victims of adults or a threat to adult society. Children also come into public view if their parents separate and contest custody, asserting the primacy of his or her rights over those of the other. Only during the late twentieth century have children been accorded any rights in deciding with which parent they prefer to live.

John Hood-Williams (1990) argues that children's lives within families are regulated in unique ways. Confinement to highly localized, restricted social spaces is part of the everyday parameters of childhood, as is the ordering of children's time by others. Childhood is also remarkable, says Hood-Williams, for the degree of control exercised over the body by others. Children's deportment, posture, movement, and appearance are regulated; they are touched, kissed, and fussed over to a degree unparalleled in any other social relationship. Children are also the people most likely to be subject to corporal punishment; many U.S. and U.K. parents hit their children on occasion (Gelles 1979; Newsom and Newsom 1965, 1968).

Styles of childrearing, however, have become undoubtedly less authoritarian than they were in the late nineteenth century. Increased concern about children's special needs has resulted in more emphasis on the quality of childcare, and each new model of child development has involved changes in standards of ideal parenting, especially mothering (see Hardyment 1983). Families are often described as child-centered. Certainly children's needs are given a high priority, but these are defined for them by adults, tied in part to the responsibility placed on parents to raise children who will conform to wider social norms. It is widely recognized that socialization, or the social construction of subjectivity, of identities, desires, and aptitudes begins with early experience of family life.

An important aspect of this process is the reproduction of family members, of each new generation of adults who will marry and have children. Although family structures are changing, the majority of the Western population still fulfills these expectations. To take up positions as husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, individuals are required to be identifiably masculine or feminine and to be predominantly heterosexual. Despite opposition from feminist, lesbian, and gay activists, the family remains a heterosexual institution founded on hierarchies of age and gender (see Delphy and Leonard 1992).

This raises questions about how childhood experiences influence sexual and romantic desires and expectations of marriage and family life. Much of what children learn derives from their experience of family life and the sense they make of it. This is evident, for example, in the way young children play house, recreating the patterns of relationships they see around them. The single most important factor in the shaping of future sexual and familial identities and experiences is gender. To enter into any social relationships whatsoever, children must be defined, and must position themselves, as girls or boys; there is no gender-neutral option. Gender then becomes an organizing principle around which sexual, emotional, and romantic desires are ordered ( Jackson 1982; Davies 1989; Crawford et al. 1992).

Sexual learning in early childhood, for both sexes, is limited by adults' concealment of sexual knowledge from children. Children usually first learn about sexual relations as a reproductive, heterosexual act, but this does not mean that children learn nothing else of sexual significance. They learn, for instance, about bodily attractiveness, deportment, and modesty in a way that is shaped by adult sexual assumptions and impinges particularly on girls ( Jackson 1982; Haug 1987). They become acquainted with codes of romance from such sources as fairy tales (Davies 1989). This is true of both sexes, but again it is girls who are encouraged to take part in feminine romantic rituals and to become more fluent in discourses of love and emotion ( Jackson 1993). Numerous researchers suggest that romantic ideals profoundly affect the way in which young women later come to terms with their sexuality (Lees 1993; Thompson 1989; Thomson and Scott 1991). Boys, on the whole, become less emotionally fluent, find intimacy problematic, and make sense of sexuality through a language of masculine bravado (Seidler 1989; Wood 1984). This may help set the pattern, so often observed in studies of marriage, where women seek forms of emotional closeness that men are unable to provide (Cancian 1989).

Nancy Chodorow (1978) argues, from a psychoanalytic perspective, that this pattern of heterosexual incompatibility is reproduced because women care for children. Girls grow up in a close identificatory relationship with their mothers and so develop the desire to nurture and be nurtured. Boys can establish their masculinity only by distancing themselves from the feminine, becoming more autonomous and less able to establish emotional closeness with others. This process is envisaged as occurring largely at an unconscious level. Other perspectives suggest that children's emotional and sexual desires develop through their active negotiation of gendered positions within the social world (Davies 1989; Haug 1987; Jackson 1993; Crawford et al. 1992). In either case, the experiences of children have an effect on their later lives and on the expectations they bring to adult sexual, marital, and family relationships.

See also:Adulthood; Child Abuse: Physical Abuse and Neglect; Child Abuse: Psychological Maltreatment; Child Abuse: Sexual Abuse; Childcare; Child Custody; Childhood, Stages of: Adolescence; Childhood, Stages of: Infancy; Childhood, Stages of: Middle Childhood; Childhood, Stages of: Preschool; Childhood, Stages of: Toddlerhood; Children's Rights; Development: Cognitive; Development: Emotional; Development: Moral; Development: Self; Discipline; Family Development Theory; Family, History of; Family Policy; Family Roles; Gender; Gender Identity; Only Children; Oppositionality; Play; Sexuality in Childhood; School; Socialization


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CHILDHOOD. Childhood as a historical construct can be defined as a constantly evolving series of steps toward adulthood shaped by a vast array of forces and ideas, ranging from ethnicity to class, from region to religion, and from gender to politics. Historians have tended to focus on two fairly distinct, if imprecise, phases of "growing up": childhood and youth. The former suggests a time of innocence, freedom from responsibility, and vulnerability. The latter includes but is not necessarily restricted to adolescence and is normally characterized as a period of "coming of age," when young people begin taking on the responsibilities and privileges of adulthood. Childhood suggests a period of shared expectations and closeness between parents and children, while youth, at least in the twentieth century, connotes a period of conflict between the generations, as hormonal changes and the new generation's drive for independence spark intense emotions and competition.

Changing Patterns of Childhood

In general terms, the historical arc of childhood in the United States shows several long, gradual, and not necessarily linear shifts. The "typical" free child in the British colonies of seventeenth-century North America belonged to a relatively homogeneous society—with similar values, religious faith, expectations, and opportunities—characterized by rural settlement patterns, informal education, and little contact with institutions outside the family. By the twentieth century, the "typical" child might encounter a bewildering variety of institutions, rules, and choices in a society characterized by wider differences in wealth, increasingly complex contacts with governments at all levels, and greater concentration in cities and suburbs.

Another shift, which began in the middle classes by the mid-nineteenth century but ultimately reached all ethnic and economic groups, was the "extension" of childhood. Although early Americans had distinguished between adults and children in legal terms (certain crimes carried lighter penalties for those under certain ages), on the farms and in the workshops of the British colonies in North America the transition from child to adult could take place as soon as the little available formal schooling was completed and a skill was learned. This gradual extension of childhood—actually, a stretching of adolescence, a term popularized at the turn of the twentieth century by child-psychologist G. Stanley Hall—occurred in several ways. Schooling touched more children for longer periods of time, as states began mandating minimum lengths for school years and cities began to create high schools. (The first high school appeared in Boston in 1821, but even as late as 1940, less than 20 percent of all Americans and 5 percent of African Americans had completed high school. By the 1960s, however, over 90 percent of all youth were in high school.) Lawmakers recognized the lengthening childhood of girls by raising the age of consent, even as the average age at which young women married fell during the nineteenth century from twenty-seven to twenty-two. Reformers in the 1910s and 1920s attempted to strengthen weak nineteenth-century child labor laws, which had generally simply established ten-hour work days for young people; in the 1930s further reforms were incorporated into New Deal programs. The dramatic expansion of colleges and universities after World War II added another layer to coming-of-age experiences, and by the 1990s, nearly two-thirds of high-school graduates attended institutions of higher learning, although the percentages for minorities were much lower (11 percent for African Americans and less than 1 percent for Native Americans).

Changes in the health and welfare of children were among the most striking transformations in childhood, especially in the twentieth century. Scientists developed vaccinations for such childhood scourges as diphtheria, smallpox, polio, and measles. Combined with government funding and public school requirements that students be vaccinated, these discoveries dramatically extended the average life expectancy. Not all children shared equally in these developments, however, as infant mortality in poor black families and on Indian reservations remained shockingly above average, even in the early twenty-first century. Prescriptions for "good" child care shifted from an emphasis on discipline among New England Puritans to the more relaxed standards of the child-centered Victorian middle classes to the confident, commonsense approach of the twentieth century's favorite dispenser of child-rearing advice, Dr. Benjamin Spock, whose Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care first appeared in 1946.

Of course, there were children living in every era of American history who did not fit into the mainstream society of the United States. Native American and African American children, whether slave or free, enemies or wards of the state, were faced, by turns, it seems, with ostracism and hostility or with forced assimilation and overbearing "reformers." Children of immigrants from Ireland in the mid-nineteenth century and from eastern and southern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century encountered similar responses; their lives tended to veer away from the typical lives led by middle-class, native-born, Protestant American children. Immigrant children were crowded into shabby classrooms where teachers demanded rote memorization and forbade them to speak their native languages. Segregation—de jure in the South, de facto in much of the rest of the country—characterized most school systems. Despite the transparent racism of the "separate but equal" philosophy, segregated schools were not equal. Spending for public schools serving black students was often a tenth of the amount spent on white schools, black teachers earned a fraction of their white colleagues' salaries, and black children, especially in the rural South, attended school for fewer days per year than white students. Asian American children were often placed into segregated schools in the West. Hispanic young people found that in some communities they were "white" and in others "colored," which understandably engendered confusion about their legal and social status. Native American children were sometimes forced to attend boarding schools—the most famous of which, the Carlisle Indian School in Pennsylvania and Hampton Institute in Virginia, were located half a country away from the students' homes—where they were stripped of traditional ways, given English names, and often subjected to harsh living conditions.

The Common Experiences of American Childhoods

Despite great differences in child-rearing customs, material and ethnic cultures, economic standing, and family size, there were important similarities in the ways that children grew up. For instance, all children were educated to meet the expectations and needs of their communities. Farm boys in New England or Georgia or Ohio were raised to become farmers, girls to perform the chores required of farmwives. The sons and daughters of southern planters were raised to fill their niches in plantation society, even as the children of slaves were educated informally to meet their responsibilities but also to protect their meager sense of self under the crushing burdens of the "peculiar institution." Native American children were taught to be hunters and warriors, wives and mothers, by instructors who were sometimes family members and other times teachers assigned to train large groups of children.

Members of every cultural group raised children to understand their particular traditions, including religious faiths, assumptions about proper use of resources, the importance of family, and appreciation for the larger culture. Each group developed and passed along to the next generation beliefs to sustain them and rituals to remind them of their heritages. Protestants and Catholics from Europe and, later, Latin America, sustained traditions of religious training culminating in first communion, confirmation, and other rites of passage; Jewish adolescents became members of their religious communities through Bar Mitzvahs and Bat Mitzvahs; Native American children participated in equivalent training and ceremonies designed to pass on their own origin myths and spirituality.

Despite the vast differences in cultures among the various ethnic and racial groups in the United States, the relatively steady decline in family size and the idealization of the family and of children—which proceeded at different rates among different groups and in different regions—affected children in a number of ways. For instance, as family size among the white, urban, middle class dwindled, children became the center of the family's universe. They were given more room—literally and figuratively—and enjoyed greater privacy and opportunities to develop their own interests. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, the commercial publishing and toy industries began to take over the play and leisure time of children; nurseries and children's rooms filled with mass-produced toys and with books and magazines published exclusively for children. Although children continued to draw on their imaginations, as the decades passed, the sheer volume of commercially produced toys grew, their prices dropped, and more and more American children could have them. By the 1980s and 1990s, electronic toys, videotaped movies, and computer games, along with the still-burgeoning glut of television programming for children, had deeply altered play patterns; for instance, children tended to stay inside far more than in the past.

Some children and youth took advantage of the environments and the opportunities found in the West and in the cities of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Children of migrants and of immigrants differed from their parents in that, while the older generation was leaving behind former lives, children were, in effect, starting from scratch. Although they had to work on the farms and ranches of rural America and on the streets and in the sweatshops of the cities, young people managed to shape their lives to the environments in which they lived, which was reflected in their work and play. City streets became play grounds where organized activities like stickball and more obscure, improvised street games were played, while intersections, theater districts, and saloons provided opportunities to earn money selling newspapers and other consumer items. Such jobs allowed children—mainly boys, but also a few girls—to contribute to the family economy and to establish a very real measure of independence from their parents. Similarly, life on farms and on ranches in the developing West, even as it forced children into heavy responsibilities and grinding labor, offered wide open spaces and a sense of freedom few of their parents could enjoy. Of course, in both of these scenarios, boys tended to enjoy more freedom than girls, who were often needed at home to care for younger siblings or married while still adolescents. The stereotype of the "little mother," a common image in the popular culture of the cities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was an equally accurate description of the childhood work performed by rural girls.

Children and Childhood as Social and Political Issues

Even as children in different eras tried to assert themselves and to create their own worlds, a growing number of private and public institutions attempted to extend, improve, and standardize childhood. Motivated by morality, politics, economics, and compassion, reformers and politicians constructed a jungle of laws regulating the lives of children, founded organizations and institutions to train and to protect them, and fashioned a model childhood against which all Americans measured their own efforts to raise and nurture young people.

The middle class that formed in the crucible of nineteenth-century urbanization and industrialization set standards in many facets of American life, including the family. Bolstered by the "domestic ideal," a renewed evangelical religious faith, and a confidence in middle-class American values, the growing middle class established myriad reform movements affecting all aspects of society, including children. Orphanages increasingly replaced extended families; Children's Aid Societies pioneered the "placing out" of needy city children with foster parents living on farms or in small towns. Educational institutions and schoolbooks were designed to instill citizenship and patriotism, create responsible voters, and teach useful vocational skills during the first wave of educational reform early in the nineteenth century.

Children and youth were also the subjects of numerous reforms and social movements in the twentieth century. Settlement houses helped educate, assimilate, and nurture urban children with kindergartens, nurseries, art and other special classes, and rural outings. Juvenile courts, which originated in Chicago in 1899 and quickly spread to other urban areas, separated young offenders from experienced criminals and offered counseling and education rather than incarceration. By the 1910s, child labor reformers began attacking more aggressively than their predecessors the practice of hiring youngsters to work in mines and factories and in the "street trades." The 1930s New Deal included provisions prohibiting the employment of individuals under fourteen years of age and regulating the employment of young people less than eighteen. The modest origins of the U.S. Children's Bureau in 1912 paved the way for greater government advocacy for the health and welfare of children. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s centered partly on children, as the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka (1954) Supreme Court decision inspired hundreds of individual lawsuits aimed at desegregating the public schools of the South, and, by the 1970s and 1980s, northern school districts. The 1935 Social Security Act included programs like Aid to Dependent Children, which were expanded during the Great Society of the mid-1960s in the form of Head Start, Medicaid, school lunch programs, and need-based college scholarships. Finally, late-twentieth-century campaigns to reform welfare obviously affected the children of mothers moved from welfare rolls into the minimum-wage job market, while pupils at public and private schools alike were touched by efforts to improve education through school vouchers and other educational reforms.

The "Discovery of Childhood" and American Children

One of the most controversial elements of the study of children's history is the degree to which children were "miniature adults" in the colonial period, "discovered" only as family size dwindled and the expanding middle class embraced the concept of the child-centered family. Most historians of American children and youth believe children were always treated as a special class of people, emotionally, politically, and spiritually. Even in the large families of colonial New England or in late-nineteenth-century immigrant ghettos, the high mortality rate did not mean individual children were not cherished.

But Americans' attitudes toward their children have changed from time to time. Because of their necessary labor on the farms and in the shops of early America, children were often considered vital contributors to their families' economies. Public policy regarding poor or orphaned children balanced the cost of maintaining them with the benefits of their labor. For instance, most orphanages, in addition to providing a basic education, also required children to work in the institutions' shops and gardens. Lawsuits and settlements for injuries and deaths of children due to accidents often hinged on the value to parents of the child's future labor, similarly, up through the mid-to late-nineteenth century child-custody cases were normally settled in favor of fathers, at least partly because they were believed to be entitled to the product of their offspring's labor, both girls and boys. The child-nurturing attitudes of the twentieth century, however, recognized the value of children more for their emotional than their economic contributions. Lawsuits and custody settlements came to focus more on the loss of companionship and affection and on the psychological and emotional health of the children and parents than on the youngsters' economic value.

Childhood at the Turn of the Twenty-first Century

Many of the issues that have characterized children's experiences since the colonial period continue to shape their lives nearly four hundred years later. Youth still work, but their jobs tend to be part time and their earnings tend to be their own. For girls, smaller families have eliminated the need for the "little mothers" who had helped maintain immigrant and working-class households generations earlier. The educational attainment and health of minority children, while improving, still lags behind that of white children, with one shocking twist: the most serious health threat facing male, African American teenagers is homicide. Yet, however much the demographics, economics, politics, and ethics of childhood have changed, the basic markers for becoming an adult—completing one's schooling, finding an occupation, marriage—remained the same.


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Hawes, Joseph M., and N. Ray Hiner. American Childhood: A Research Guide and Historical Handbook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Mason, Mary Ann. From Father's Property to Children's Rights: The History of Child Custody in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Nasaw, David. Children of the City: At Work & At Play. Garden City, N.J.: Anchor Press, 1985.

Szasz, Margaret. Education and the American Indian: The Road to Self-Determination Since 1928. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1974.

West, Elliott. Growing Up in Twentieth-Century America: A History and Reference Guide. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1996.

Youcha, Geraldine. Minding the Children: Child Care in America from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Scribner, 1995.

Zelizer, Viviana A. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. New York: Basic Books, 1985; repr. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994.


See alsoChild Abuse ; Child Care ; Child Labor ; Education .

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The period between birth and adulthood, during which a person develops physically, intellectually, and socially.

History of childhood

Childhood has been defined differently across the ages. The Greek philosopher Plato (427?-347 b.c.) believed children were born with certain dispositions that could be changed by their environment . Ancient Romans expressed great affection for their children in letters and on tombstones. During the Middle Ages, little distinction was made between adults and children, who worked from a very young age. The Renaissance saw the beginning of the nuclear family in Europe, with an increased focus on childhood as a time for education and training. John Locke (1632-1704), founder of the empirical school of philosophy, believed the child enters the world as a tabula rasa or blank slate, and learns through experience. Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) took the opposite tack, recommending that education should follow nature since infants automatically prefer goodness. According to Sigmund Freud 's (1856-1939) psychoanalytic theory, children must pass through five psychosexual stages to achieve healthy adulthood. In contrast behaviorist John Watson (1878-1935) asserted that, given a controlled environment, he could train a child to be anything from doctor to thief. The emphasis on environment, particularly the behavior of parents, continued through the twentieth century until studies of identical and fraternal twins , reared together or apart, began to show the effect of genes on the journey from infancy to adulthood.

Prenatal development

The future adult begins not at birth but at conception, with the creation of a unique set of genes, half from the mother, half from the father. This genetic blueprint is called the genotype ; its outward manifestation is the phenotype. Sometimes the phenotype is controlled directly by the genotype, for example, eye color. More often, the phenotype represents the interaction of the genotype and the environment. It is even possible for the genotype to be altered by the environment, as happens when men exposed to certain toxins suffer an increased risk of fathering children with genetic abnormalities.

Fewer than half of fertilized eggs, called zygotes, survive the first two weeks during which the zygote moves from the fallopian tube where it was fertilized to the uterus where it is implanted. During the next six weeks, the zygote differentiates into an embryo with internal organs, skin, nerves, and rudimentary limbs, fingers, and toes. In the final seven months of gestation, the maturing skeletal, muscular, and nervous systems of what is now called the fetus make movement possible. Babies born at 28 weeks can survive, although often with chronic health problems.

As each system undergoes its most rapid growth, it is especially vulnerable to damage. In addition to genetic abnormalities like Down syndrome , environmental agents called teratogens can affect the fetus. These might be maternal viruses such as rubella (German measles) or chemicals such as nicotine, alcohol, and cocaine. Exposure to nicotine is linked to premature birth, low birth weight, and cleft (malformed) palate and lips, while exposure to alcohol is linked to intellectual and behavioral impairments. An inadequate maternal diet also puts the fetus at risk, especially its brain and nervous system . Prenatal teratogens can cause lifelong problems or even death. The vast majority of babies, however, are born healthy and normal .


Newborns enter the world with many skills. In addition to a range of adaptive reflexes such as grasping, sucking, and rooting (turning the head when the cheek is touched), they are able to recognize their mothers' face, voice, and smell . Even more impressive, less than one hour after birth, babies can imitate gestures such as sticking out the tongue.

Physical development

The average healthy newborn is 7.5 pounds (3.4 kg) and 20 inches (52 cm). It triples its weight and grows 10 to 12 inches (24-30 cm) its first year. By age two for girls and two-and-a-half for boys, babies reach half their adult height. Physical development is largely programmed by a genetically determined timetable called maturation, which proceeds in predictable stages. For healthy, well-nourished babies, progress is influenced only slightly by environment, although they need opportunities to practice new skills.

The rate of physical growth slows after the second year, not accelerating again until puberty . Both size and rate of growth are genetically determined. In industrialized societies, puberty begins at 10 for girls and 12 for boys, ages that have declined significantly over the past 150 years due to improved health and nutrition.

Intellectual development

The Swiss researcher Jean Piaget (1896-1980) pioneered the field of cognitive, or intellectual, development. On the basis of his observations and ingenious questions, he divided children's thinking into four qualitatively distinct stages, moving from a direct sensory understanding of the world, to the symbolic representation of objects, to mental manipulation of objects, to logical thinking about abstract concepts. Using new techniques such as changes in sucking and heart-rate, contemporary researchers have found that, contrary to Piaget's theory, even babies seem to understand basic principles like object permanence, the concept that objects continue to exist when hidden. And although his middle stages of development have been confirmed, far fewer people attain Piaget's final stage of logical reasoning than he predicted.

Other theories of learning attribute cognitive development not to the child's own construction of knowledge, but to conditioning, the effect of environment on the child. Conditioning works by encouraging behavior through reinforcement or discouraging it through punishment . Social learning theory adds another mechanism, modeling , or learning by observation.


The measurement of intelligence , psychometrics, began with Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911). Although his measures of vision , reaction time , and grip strength proved poor predictors of academic success, his model of multiple indicators of intelligence has remained useful. IQ, or intelligence quotient , was originally a way to identify children who needed remedial teaching. It compares mental age to chronological age, with average intelligence set at 100. Modern IQ tests are quite successful in predicting school success, but have been criticized as culturally biased and limited in scope. IQ tends to remain the same when measured after the age of 4, an indication of its reliability.

Language learning

Perhaps the most crucial task of childhood is learning to communicate. Researchers have found that humans are attuned to language even before birth. Following a universal sequence, even deaf babies first cry, then coo, then babble. Around eight months, babies begin to copy the sounds and intonations of their native language and speak their first words around one year of age. Vocabulary expands to over 200 words by age two, expressed in phrases such as "want cookie." The speech of three-year-olds reflects knowledge of plurals, past tense, negatives, and questions, along with an increased vocabulary. Grammatical complexity and vocabulary continue to expand throughout the school years. Children who are spoken and read to more are linguistically advanced, although late talkers tend to catch up with early talkers in the absence of other problems. Children who are read to also have less trouble learning to read.

Personality development

Personality is what makes each person unique. Where do individual differences come from and how stable are they from birth to adulthood? There is strong evidence for a biological component to personality dimensions like sociability, irritability, neuroticism, and conscientiousness, but environmental effects are also present. A baby's innate sociability, for example, can be squelched by a depressed mother, or a child's innate irritability increased by a punitive teacher. In general, however, personality characteristics remain stable from infancy to adolescence .

Social development

Children grow up in a web of social relationships. The first and most important is the bond between infant and mother called attachment . Attachment is crucial because securely attached babies tend to become sociable, confident, independent, and emotionally mature children. Adolescents who feel close to their parents also enjoy more friendships and higher self-esteem . Another predictor of social success is physical attractiveness. Even infants prefer attractive faces, as do older children. Boys who physically mature early are also more popular. Not surprisingly, aggressive, disruptive, and uncooperative behaviors are predictors of social rejection. A cycle of aggression and rejection often persists into adulthood.

Nature and nurture

The most contentious issue in the study of childhood is the relative importance of genetics (nature) and environment (nurture). Purely environmental models such as behaviorism have been contradicted by numerous studies showing a strong genetic influence for everything from intelligence to shyness to sexual orientation. On the other hand, even clearly genetic traits interact with environment. Tall children, for example, are often treated as more mature. Intelligence is even more complicated. Twin studies show that between 50 and 60 percent of IQ is determined by genes. A child's genetic intellectual potential, then, is actually a range that can be maximized by a rich environment or minimized by a deprived one. In general, a child's development follows a genetic blueprint, but the final result is constrained by the building materials of the environment.

Cultural differences

Most research on childhood is conducted in Western, industrial cultures. However, there is a growing body of cross-cultural studies highlighting both similarities and differences in childhood around the world. Secure maternal attachment, for example, is less common in Germany, a culture that values autonomy, than in Japan, a culture that values community. Guatemalan mothers always sleep with their babies, who fall asleep without the rituals and problems typical among American babies. Attitudes toward school achievement also vary. Japanese and Chinese mothers expect more from their children than do American mothers, and their children outperform Americans. Some children spend their first years in constant proximity to their mother, some in day care centers. Some children watch younger siblings or work in factories, some attend school. Some children live in extended families, an increasing number live with a single parent. Despite these differences, however, children everywhere show a zest for learning, play , and friendship , and a drive to make sense out of their ever changing world.

Lindsay Evans

Further Reading

Bee, Helen. The Developing Child. Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers, Inc., 1997.

Casey, James. The History of the Family. Basil Blackwell Inc., 1989.

Harris, Judith Rich. The Nurture Assumption. The Free Press, 1998.

Kagan, Jerome. The Nature of the Child. Basic Books, Inc., 1984.

Kalat, James W. Introduction to Psychology, 5th ed. Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999.

"Linking Cleft Palates and Smoking Moms." New York Times, (11 April 2000): D8.

Monastersky, Richard. "A New Round of Research Rattles Old Ideas of How Infants Interpret the World." The Chronical of Higher Education, (24 March 2000): A22.

Nairne, James S. The Adaptive Mind. Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, 1997.

Rawson, Beryl, ed. Marriage, Divorce, and Children in Ancient Rome. Oxford University Press, Inc., 1996.

Wood, Samuel E. and Ellen Green Wood. The World of Psychology. Allyn and Bacon, 1996. Home page of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. Last modified: April 12, 2000.

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Childhood is not a Freudian concept. A large part of psychoanalytic theory concerns the early years of life and childhood but, in a certain sense, we can say along with Donald Winnicott that "Freud neglected childhood as a state in itself" (1961).

Only after a wrenching period of revision (1895-1901) could Sigmund Freud come to acknowledge the active role of the child in sexual seduction and to abandon his earlier view of children as innocent victims of the incestuous desires of adults; this reversal, moreover, led him to theorize childhood sexuality for the first time. "In the beginning," he would later write, "my statements about infantile sexuality were founded almost exclusively on the findings of analysis in adults which led back into the past. I had no opportunity of direct observations on children. It was therefore a very great triumph when it became possible years later to confirm almost all my inferences by direct observations and the analysis of very young children" (1914d).

It was in connection with the treatment of adults that Freud became interested in observing small children. As he wrote apropos of the case of "Little Hans," "I have for years encouraged my pupils and friends to collect observations on the sexual life of children, which is normally either skillfully overlooked or deliberately denied" (1909b). Freud indeed never abandoned this line of enquiry, as witness his celebrated account of the "Fort/Da " game played with a cotton reel by one of his grandsons, the personal observation of which he used to support his theoretical conclusions. As related in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g), the fact that an act provoking unpleasure would be repeated, coupled with clinical findings from his treatment of traumatic neuroses, was what led Freud to formulate the concept of the death instinct.

After the publication of the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality (1905d), the first generation of analysts began observing and reporting on the behavior of their own children in reference to infantile sexuality, the Oedipus complex, and castration anxiety. Anna Freud shared in this activity (Geissmann and Geissmann, 1992). Soon these analysts were joined by specialists on child behavior who had themselves been analyzed. They began to observe specific populations of disturbed children, such as delinquents, then certain periods of childhood, notably that of the earliest mother-child relations, and finally certain types of problems encountered (feeding, thumb-sucking, attempts at separation, etc.). In so doing they were "systematically constructing a psychoanalytic psychology of the child, integrating two kinds of data: data based on direct observation and data based on reconstructions with adults" (Freud, 1968).

It is important to note, along with Anna Freud, that psychoanalysts at first showed considerable reluctance to undertake such direct observation of children. The pioneers were more concerned to underscore the differences between observable behavior and hidden drives than they were to point up the similarities. Their chief aim was still to show that manifest behavior concealed unconscious processes. Anna Freud was initially interested in the defense mechanisms, which became accessible to an observational approach; she then turned her attention to children's behavior, to what they produced, and, lastly to the child's ego. She sought to include a psychology of the ego within the analytic framework, an effort further developed later by her friend Heinz Hartmann, whom she never completely disavowed.

On a practical level she created institutions for young children, the first in Vienna in 1924-1925, the last and most complex, which was established after the war in London, being the Hampstead Clinic, an extension of Hampstead Nurseries. At the end of her life she trained child specialists at Hampstead Clinic who worked within the framework of a psychoanalytic psychology of childhood. This work involved treating the childnot only with analysisto prevent further disturbances, conducting research, and training future specialists in children's education and pedagogy by applying previously acquired knowledge.

During this same period, Melanie Klein also became interested in childhood. She did not base her theories on direct observation, however. Starting from the psychoanalysis of young children, she constructed a detailed picture of the internal world of the young child. She pioneered the use of play in analysis. Like dream interpretation for Freud, the free play of the child was for Klein the royal road to the unconscious and to the fantasy life. In The Psychoanalysis of Children (1932), she argued forcefully that play translated the child's fantasies, desires, and lived experience into a symbolic mode. Her technique consisted in analyzing play just as one would analyze dreams and free association in adults, that is, by interpreting fantasies, conflicts, and defenses. The inner world of the young child as she describes it is filled with monsters and demons, and the picture of infantile sexuality she presents is strongly tinged with sadism. In discussing the death drive, she describes an infant whose first act is not simply a gesture of pure love toward the object (breast) but also a sadistic act associated with the action of the drive. Here, as Freud had earlier, Klein challenged a universal human shibboleth: the innocent soul of the child. This was one of the reasons why her work was often poorly received.

The direct observation of young children has expanded considerably in recent years, helped in part advances in technology: it is now possible to study newborns and even fetuses. It is interesting to note that, in this way, the significance and the complexity of the mental life of the very young child have been confirmed, along therefore with the intuitions and efforts of psychoanalysts working during the early twentieth century.

It is clear that psychoanalysis has renewed our vision and understanding of the world of childhood. However, that world remains highly complex, especially its pathology, and it is important to avoid seeing it in terms of adult behavior. Also, while psychoanalysis has enabled us to better understand that world, we must remember, as Anna Freud remarked at the end of her life, that it does not have the power to eliminate childhood neuroses and turn the child and childhood into that place where we would so much love to find innocence, the mythical innocence of a paradise lost.

Claudine Geissman

See also: Childhood and Society ; Children's play; Fort-Da; Klein-Reizes, Melanie; Winnicott, Donald Woods.


Freud, Anna. (1966). Collected writings. New York: International Universities Press.

Freud, Sigmund. (1905d). Three essays on the theory of sexuality. SE, 7: 123-243.

. (1909b). Analysis of a phobia in a five-year-old boy. SE, 10: 1-149.

. (1914d). On the history of the psycho-analytic movement. SE, 14: 1-66.

. (1920g). Beyond the pleasure principle. SE,18:1-64.

Geissmann, Claudine and Geissmann, Pierre. (1992). A history of child psychoanalysis. New York: Routledge.

Klein, Melanie. (1975). The psycho-analysis of children. In The Writings of Melanie Klein (Vol. II). London, Hogarth. (Original work published 1932)

Winnicott, Donald. (1965). The theory of infant-parent relationship. In The maturational processes and the facilitating environment. (pp. 17-55). London: Hogarth. (Original work published 1962)

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childhood The term ‘child’ can be used to mean either an offspring or someone who has not reached full economic and jural status as an adult in a society. Individuals in the latter state are passing through an age-related period known as childhood.

Childhoods vary between cultures and historical periods. The French historian, Phillipe Ariès (Centuries of Childhood, 1962), was the first to point out that modern Western childhood is unique in the way it ‘quarantines’ children from the world of adults, so that childhood is associated with play and education, rather than work and economic responsibility. Other writers have pointed out that childhood is constructed on the inabilities of children as political, intellectual, sexual, or economic beings, despite empirical evidence to the contrary. This construction implies that children must be protected (primarily by women) in the family, which serves the needs of capitalist states for the reproduction and socialization of the labour-force, at minimum cost to the state. The child also provides state agencies with the excuse to intervene in irregular families, and to change or dismember them, if they do not comply with certain norms.

Studies in the sociology of childhood indicate that the term is a powerful symbol in the construction of modern, Western society. The term is highly ambiguous, which helps its symbolic functioning. On the one hand, children are the cherished and valued possessions of the parents; on the other, they are a cost and burden on society (and particularly on women). In the 1980s, through the ‘discovery’ of child abuse and also the development of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, a new approach—stressing the rights, strengths and capabilities of children—has arisen in sociology, to challenge the prevailing image of childhood.

For different reasons, childhood has been a major topic of analysis in psychoanalysis, linguistics, the sociology of education, and in the study of primary socialization and gender differentiation. For an overview of the field see Allison James and and Alan Prout ( eds.) , Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood (1990)

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child·hood / ˈchīldˌhoŏd/ • n. the state of being a child. ∎  the period during which a person is a child: [as adj.] a childhood friend.

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childhoodcould, good, hood, Likud, misunderstood, pud, should, stood, understood, withstood, wood, would •Gielgud • manhood • maidenhood •nationhood • statehood • sainthood •priesthood • kinghood • babyhood •likelihood • livelihood • puppyhood •childhood • wifehood • knighthood •falsehood • widowhood • boyhood •cousinhood • adulthood •neighbourhood (US neighborhood) •husbandhood • bachelorhood •toddlerhood • womanhood •parenthood • sisterhood •spinsterhood • fatherhood •brotherhood, motherhood •girlhood • Talmud • Malamud •matchwood • Dagwood • Blackwood •sandalwood • sapwood • basswood •Atwood •Harewood, Larwood •hardwood • lancewood • heartwood •redwood • Wedgwood • Elmwood •bentwood • Hailwood • lacewood •beechwood • greenwood • Eastwood •cheesewood • driftwood • stinkwood •Littlewood • giltwood • Hollywood •satinwood • plywood • wildwood •pinewood • whitewood • softwood •dogwood, logwood •cottonwood • coachwood • rosewood •fruitwood • Goodwood • brushwood •firewood • ironwood • underwood •Isherwood • wormwood

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