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Comparative History of Childhood

Comparative History of Childhood

Comparative work on the history of childhood can be extremely revealing. It highlights areas in which otherwise different societies have shared experiences, partly of course because of the standard biological and psychological aspects of being or having a child. But it also shows the considerable possibilities for variation, based on different cultures, family structures, or economic contexts. The comparative study of childhood has taken on new importance in the contemporary world because of huge debates over the applicability of Western (or industrial) standards of childhood to societies with very different kinds of traditions and very different economic settings.

At the same time, comparative work on childhood's history is not abundant. The relative newness of the field adds to the challenge of comparison across cultural lines. There is great opportunity for further work. It is revealing that some of the most significant comparative insights have come from anthropologists or other social scientists looking at historical materials, rather than from historians themselves.

Quite apart from the challenge of novelty, there are some key complexities in dealing with the comparative history of childhood. Generalizations are always complicated by gender. Most societies make significant distinctions between boys and girls, and these distinctions can be compared. But the distinctions also inevitably limit statements that try to talk about childhood in general. Social position is another issue. In contemporary Turkey, for example, lower-class mothers, when asked about good children, emphasize obedience and courtesy; very few place any premium on independence or autonomy. But upper-class Turks list these traits first, spending much less time on obedience or even niceness to parents. Their approach is closer to Western styles than to those of the Turkish lower class.

Distinctions of this sort are common in contemporary society, where individual communities are changing at different paces; but they crop up earlier in history as well, as different social groups shaped different cultures and influenced their treatment of children. Ruralurban differences are another important variable, even in such prosaic matters as the nature and extent of child labor. In modern history, for example, the ruralurban gap between children's experiences in Russia is noticeably wider than in the United States. Poverty is another factor. Children who are malnourished, or whose parents are so poor that they have no energy to devote to children or even resent them as competitors for resources, will obviously differ from children whose families face fewer problems in normal subsistence. Studies in twentieth-century Latin America have documented the results of differential economic conditions within the same society.

Finally, there is the question of regional scale, a key issue in comparative work in general. Because of the importance of cultural factors in shaping childhood, many comparative studies use broad frameworks, talking about Chinese or Confucian versus Indian or Hindu versus Western. In Western history, however, there is also a tradition of making national comparisons, for example in commenting on distinctive aspects of childhood in the United States as commonly noted by European travelers. More rarely, still smaller regional units are used. In ancient Greece, for example, there was a vivid contrast between boyhood in Sparta, where upper-class boys were fiercely disciplined in preparation for lives of military service, and the more relaxed childhood and varied education available to upper-class boys in Athens.

Comparative distinctions in childhood often highlight significant aspects of the societies in which they are embedded. Sometimes they reflect differences in larger social purpose, as in the contrast between Athens and Sparta. Sometimes the distinctions themselves are the cause of wider structural differences. Some comparativists today, for example, grapple with the implications of the individualistic childhood in the Western world contrasted with the stronger family authority emphasized in many traditional societies: is the Western model essential as a basis for successful economic and political development?

Premodern History

Comparisons in the study of childhood until the eighteenth century usually emphasize the impact of cultural variables, that is, deeply held beliefs and values about children and their functions, using legal frameworks and family forms as secondary factors. Again, there are important commonalities. All the great agricultural civilizations extensively utilized child labor, for example, usually to supplement adult work in farming or craft manufacture. All enforced patriarchal distinctions between boys and girls, with girls carefully taught to be subservient to fathers and brothers as a prelude to their later role in marriage.

Cultural distinctions, however, loom large. Polynesian traditions encouraged widespread adoptions and shared parenting, for identifying a single-family derivation did not greatly matter. Islam, in contrast, with tremendous emphasis on family identity, prohibited formal adoption, favoring charitable care for children without family. Several cultural traditions, including the classical Greek and Chinese, tolerated widespread infanticide, particularly of female infants, as a means of reducing the burden of unwanted children on the family. But Islam expressly forbade infanticide and offered an unusual number of legal protections, including inheritance rights, to female children.

Comparisons between the Confucian and Hindu cultural traditions as they emerged in China and India after about 100 b.ce. have important implications for the study of childhood. Confucius (551478 b.ce.) viewed family relationships as a microcosm of broader political arrangements, and in both he sought order and hierarchy. Child rearing emphasized obedience and emotional control, and in the upper classes children were taught elaborate rules of courtesy. As was common in cultures that practiced primogeniture, first sons gained a special sense of privilege. Girls were instructed in humility and subordination, along with training in domestic tasks. Ban Zhao, the female author of a first-century manual on women (reprinted often into the nineteenth century), explained how girls should be placed in cots at the foot of their brothers' beds, to instill a proper sense of inferiority.

Later, beginning in the sixth century c.e., the practice of foot binding began to spread in China, first among the upper classes, then more widely. Young girls had their feet so tightly wrapped that small bones would break, creating a shuffling walk that was regarded as a mark of beautyand an obvious incapacity that was seen as appropriate for women. Confucian culture did not cause this practice, but it proved consistent with it. Foot binding would begin to recede only as a result of reform movements beginning in the 1890s.

Hindu culture, though not wanting in insistence on obedience and female subordination, placed a much greater premium on children's imagination. Indian culture emphasized dramatic, adventure-filled stories. Some of them, like "Jack the Giant Killer" or "The Seven League Boots," would later make their way into world literature; they were formally written up during the Gupta period, in the fifth century c.e.. Some adventure stories, taken from the great Hindu epics, featured heroic actions by women (albeit on behalf of fathers or husbands) as well as by men. The Hindu moral code urged duties appropriate to particular castes rather than a single set of obligations. Again, popular stories illustrated different behaviors expected from warriors or merchants. Some analysts have suggested that this also encouraged a subjective approach to reality and an active life in the imagination, both in childhood and later adulthood. Indian culture placed more vigorous emphasis on love than Confucian culture did, and stories highlighted the loving and playful interaction between parents and children. Girls received greater encouragement for their beauty and lively personalities than they did in Confucian culture.

Hindu tradition, however, placed less emphasis on education than Confucianism did. In China, education was the key to success in the competitive examinations that opened the door to the government bureaucracy, the most prestigious source of employment in China for many centuries. Upper-class boys were widely educated first by tutors, then by state-sponsored schools, from the first century b.ce. onward. Some lower-class youth might be identified as talented enough to be educated, under the patronage of an upper-class mentor; there was a limited opportunity for mobility here. And some girls were educated as well, like Ban Zhao herself, trained in domestic skills but also, under an indulgent father, granted literacy and other accomplishments.

Judging the impact of overarching cultural traditions on individual children and families is frankly difficult. Upper-class families followed better-defined or at least better disseminated traditions than did those in the lower class, particularly in systems like Confucianism: lower-class Chinese families might seek obedience and courtesy but they also needed work from their children. Personalities also played a role: individual parents might form intensely loving bonds with their children simply because of mutual personalities, even in seemingly restrained systems like Confucianism. On the other hand, some culturally induced differences were real and widely applied. The spread of foot binding demonstrates a distinctive system with measurable impact on the lives of many girls.

When Confucianism spread outside China, particularly to Korea, Japan, and Vietnam, it underwent some modifications. No society outside China copied foot binding for girls, for example. In Japan, from the sixteenth century onward, Confucianism encouraged a wider interest in education than ever developed in traditional China. By the eighteenth century a large minority of Japanese boys were sent to school for at least a few years and were gaining literacy.

Two other large cultural systems, Islam and Christianity, had a significant impact on the experience of childhood. Like Islam (but unlike Confucianism), Christianity discouraged the practice of infanticide that had been current in the Greco-Roman world. Christianity provided the first spur for schools in medieval Europe, though they were not widely accessible. Islam, spreading in a more prosperous part of the world and with stronger emphasis on the desirability of reading its holy text, the Qur'an, had wider educational impact, particularly in the cities, for several centuries.

Two later developments in Christian Europe invite comparative assessment. A strict disciplinary style developed there that involved the frequent use of physical punishments and also the instilling of fear. Children were often threatened with bogeymen or other monsters as an inducement to stay in line. Exactly when this approach arose is not clear. Some of it relates to Christian beliefs in original sin: children were born in sin because of Adam and Eve's fall, thus it was vital that they redeem themselves by behaving properly lest, in death, they be condemned to hell. Images and invocations of death were common in Christian culture into the nineteenth century, both in Europe and later the United States. Protestantism, on the whole, encouraged a strict disciplinary culture, in part because it emphasized original sin more starkly than Catholicism did.

Martin Luther, the first leader of the Protestant Reformation, was himself strictly raised by a coal-miner father in Germany, and he translated some of his own upbringing into his recommendations to parents. Protestant householders, particularly fathers, were responsible for the moral guidance and religious education of their children. This involved family Bible reading and also strict physical discipline. Indians in North America were amazed at the frequency of spankings European immigrants administered to their children. Native American practice involved warmer interactions between children and parents.

The second development was not directly related to Christianity, though it also had disciplinary implications. By the fifteenth century, Western European families (except in the upper classes) began to emphasize a relatively late age in marriage (26 or so for women, a bit older for men). This was apparently intended to control the birth rate and reduce the burden of inheritance caused by undue numbers of children. But with later marriage, the importance of extended family relationships diminished greatly. Western Europeans married and had children when their own parents were either quite elderly or already dead. Nuclear families were on their own. American family patterns, particularly in New England, departed from European precedents to some degree: marriage age was a bit earlier and longevity greater, which meant more grandparents and grandparental influence on children. Even so, the Western European family style affected the colonial American experience.

The pattern had two results. In the first place, it helps explain the use of physical discipline. Mothers as well as fathers had to work hard; there was no wider group of relatives to help keep the family afloat. Young children were often isolatedswaddled and hung on a pegso that mothers could work freely. Strict discipline helped keep older children in line. The second result was what many comparative analysts have seen as a slowly growing emphasis on children's individuality. Because they interacted with parents directly, with few intermediaries other than their siblings, children in Western Europe were encouraged to develop greater individual identity and self-reliance than was common in many other agricultural societies.

Other practices both reflected and encouraged this individuation. European families often sent teenage children to live in other households for several years. The motivation was economic: families with too many children could reduce their burden while providing another family with additional labor. Many parents argued that this helped with discipline, since other families could more easily insist that teenagers toe the line than soft-hearted parents could. The practice stood in sharp contrast to other societies where extended families more commonly worked in groups, and was another factor that encouraged a child to develop an individual identity.

Modern Comparisons

Comparative histories of childhood emphasize two combinations when they approach the history of the past two to three centuries. First, they explore differences, usually national differences, within Western society. And second, they deal with differences between the West and other societies, here focusing particularly on twentieth-century comparisons. The two approaches involve interesting mutual tensions, since the latter assumes a roughly common and novel Western experience that can be juxtaposed with other areas, in contrast to the former's emphasis on distinctions within the West.

One of the most sustained comparisons, launched in the late eighteenth century by contemporary observers European travelers to the United Statesrather than historians, involves the juxtaposition of the United States and Western Europe. The two societies have displayed similar dynamics in many respects. The modern pattern of birth-rate reduction began in roughly comparable ways in the late eighteenth to early nineteenth centuries, followed by a sweeping attack on infant mortality after 1880. U.S. birth rates have tended to be higher than those of Europe, probably because of more abundant land and resources (for example, the mid-twentieth-century baby boom was more pronounced in the United States). But basic features are widely shared. In both societies nineteenth century industrialization generated new uses for child and youth labor (though few societies on either side of the Atlantic matched the British extreme, with its widespread conscription of orphans). These were followed by child labor reformsin the United States, initially mainly at the state levelthat gradually curtailed the practice. The United States (except the South, which lagged behind) developed mass compulsory education a bit earlier than Europein the 1830s as opposed to the 1860s to 1870sbut again the process responded to similar forces and had similar results.

The big differences, however, involved children's position in the family and the looser patterns of authority on the American side. European visitors consistently commented, sometimes in praise, sometimes blame, on how openly children in American families were allowed to express themselves, even to dispute parental views and actions. The observation may seem surprising, given the emphasis on obedience and good manners in nineteenth-century child rearing. The comparison suggests how American childhood may informally have softened, despite the prescriptive literature. Even in the literature, the American enthusiasm for childish innocence and maternal affection surpassed most of Europe. The distinction has carried into the twenty-first century. New American efforts to protect children from emotional stress have continued to surpass those in Western Europe, despite some European (particularly British) imitations of American practice. Thus American attempts to promote self-esteem and inhibit teachers from using anger or shaming in the classroom have not been matched in Western Europe. The measures constitute changes in American practice, compared to nineteenth-century standards, but they build on an earlier national sensitivity to and indulgence of children.

It is possible that labor conditions help explain the transatlantic difference. With labor in shorter supply in the United States, and with the frontier available as a recourse for older children seeking to leave family unpleasantness behind, American parents were more cautious in dealing with their children than were their European counterparts. Some analysis has suggested an undercurrent of parental fear in the United Statesbecause of the importance of hanging on to children who might have other optionsthat was not present in Europe.

Whatever the causes, differences persisted, both outside of and within the schoolroom. The new generation of child-rearing literature that began to emerge in the United States in the 1920s, which recommended greater informality and, ultimately, greater permissiveness where children were concerned, was not matched in Western Europe until the late 1950s. Instead, in Europe, a more authoritarian parental approach persisted. American children may also have been introduced earlier and more widely to modern consumerism than their European counterparts: the practice of giving children allowances and the possibility of obtaining driver's licenses both occurred earlier in the United States.

Some analysts have suggested that, by the late 1950s, the two societies began to converge, with more informal, less parentally controlled, more peer- and consumer-oriented childhoods in both groups. Even here, however, some comparative studies note a few ongoing distinctions. American fathers were more open to a best-friends approach to their children, emphasizing shared entertainment, than were otherwise permissive fathers in Sweden. American parents were much more reluctant than French parents to regulate and discipline children's eating, which was one reason child obesity increased more rapidly in the United States.

Other comparisons are also revealing. American patterns of schooling in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries differed from those in Europe in their widespread use of coeducation and in their emphasis on sports and extracurricular activities, with less emphasis on achievement examinations and formal tracking. Where European (including Russian) and also Japanese systems featured decisive examinations, often around age twelve, to determine what kind of secondary school a child would attend, the United States continued to emphasize a more comprehensive high school (an American invention), though with periodic bows to tracking distinctions, mainly on the basis of aptitude tests. American secondary education, as a result, was in some senses more democratic but also, by most comparative accounts, considerably less intensive, particularly for the college-bound. A higher percentage of American youth went to college, though the gap here narrowed by the early twenty-first century, with about 40 percent of Europeans, compared to almost 60 percent of Americans, going on to postsecondary study.

American moralism and religious commitment also differed from European attitudes. After the changes in adolescent sexual habits in the 1960s (similar in both societies) Europeans moved to greater advocacy of birth-control devices, while Americans hesitated, preferring abstinence campaigns. By the 1990s this resulted in noticeably higher rates of teen pregnancy in the United States. By the 1980s, the greater American commitment to free market forces and the scaling back of welfare generated a higher percentage of children in poverty, particularly among racial minorities.

Several key comparisons suggest a somewhat more conservative approach to children in the United States than in Western Europe by the late twentieth century. Though the percentages of women working were similar, Americans were less confident about using child-care facilities than were Europeans. American leisure, including vacations, was somewhat more child-centered. Greater attachment to more traditional family values in the United States also helps explain the higher American birth rate. American parents were also still more likely to spank, particularly in contrast to Scandinavia, where laws banned the practice. American children were more likely to fight than French village children, who were schooled to restrain themselves physically while becoming adept at verbal insults. American youth culture made less reference to adult standards than in Western Europe, where the sense of range and spontaneity was smaller. The comparative differences remain intriguing, and they do not fit tidily together. Early childhood in the United States may, for example, have changed less rapidly than in Europe in recent decades, while youth culture, in contrast, seems more innovative on the American side of the Atlantic, despite many shared consumer and media interests.

Some comparative efforts have focused on national differences within Europe. By the 1930s a number of analysts sought to explain the rise of Nazism in Germany by focusing on particularly authoritarian patterns of child rearing and fatherson relations, but results were inconclusive. Some specific comparative efforts stress common historical patterns despite big differences in other aspects of society. A study of adolescence in late-nineteenth-century Britain and Germanytwo countries very different politically at that pointstressed how both societies moved toward a very similar, and novel, identification of adolescence, including the creation of separate juvenile courts.

Studies that compare Western Europe and the United States with Russia deserve special attention. Though much work remains to be done, it is clear that the history of childhood mirrors the complex comparisons possible in other aspects of Russian history, with its mixture of distinctiveness and eagerness to import Western models. In the nineteenth century, Western-minded aristocrats absorbed the writings of Western thinkers like Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who emphasized childhood as a period of innocence and learning. Writers like Tolstoy described idyllic childhoods based on these concepts. Ordinary Russians were far removed from these flights. The swaddling of children lasted longer in Russia than in the West, and this set a strong disciplinary tone in combination with widespread use of child labor in Russian agriculture.

With the Russian revolution of 1917, interest in children and youth crested. The state hoped to mold children to create the new Soviet citizen, though officials also reflected the older aristocratic interest in childhood as a time of learning. Education spread widely. As the birth rate dropped, many parents devoted great attention to their individual children, providing tutoring or private lessons in dance or acrobatics. Some of this mirrored what was happening in the West. Highly competitive schools and opportunities for advancement within the Communist Party beckoned successful children, and many parents tried hard to protect their offspring and encourage them to excel.

There were two clear differences between the Soviet Union and the West. First, the wars and dislocations of the Soviet era created an unusually large number of "lost" children, including refugees and orphans. The Soviet system tried to provide for these children, but their numbers outstripped the available resources. Second, the collective emphasis for childrenin terms of emphasis on group identity over individual achievementwas unusually strong. At least in the cities, schools worked children harder than in the West, with six days of classes. Soviet programs provided camps for many children in the summer, where they would do agricultural work and also learn to develop common bonds with one another amid extensive Communist propaganda. The state singled many children out for special service, as in the case of promising athletes. At an extreme, Soviet authorities hoped that children would learn loyalties to the socialist system that would supersede those due to their parents. (In a famous case in the 1930s, young Pavel Morozov turned his father in to the authorities for suspected dissident behavior. Morozov was held up by the state as a role model for other children.) Other Communist countries followed the Soviet model, as in the hothouse athletic-development program in East Germany.

Even after the Soviet system fell, distinctive Eastern European attributes remained, despite growing interest in Western-style media and consumerism. In Russia, many children reported a level of group loyalty unusual by Western standards, including a willingness to share work, even during examinations, on grounds that being a good comrade took precedence over official rules on cheating and over individual success. Several observers rate the intensity of friendship among Russian children, particularly boys, as higher than in the West. They also noted a longer childhood in Russia, especially in contrast to the United States. While Russian children were expected to perform more home chores, they were allowed to delay full emotional responsibility longer.

More general comparisons between Western (European and U.S.) patterns of childhood and those in other parts of the world highlight the several changes that began to take shape in the West from the nineteenth century onward. The growing Western hostility to child labor, the insistence on mandatory schooling, and the emphasis on warm emotional responses to childhood innocence added up to a demanding package by the early to mid-twentieth century. It was not always, of course, implemented in Western societies themselves. But Western observers, and international agencies that largely adopted Western ideas about the purpose of childhood and the rights of children, used the standards vigorously in judging other societies and urging reform. Ongoing differences reflected agonizing income inequalities, but also different conceptions of childhood itself.

Japan posed a fascinating case of a non-Western society that followed the Western lead very successfully in cutting child labor (after a period of intensive exploitation around 1900) and imposing schooling. The Japanese educational system, after the primary grades, was actually closer to that of Western Europe than the American system was. Japanese childhood continued to differ from Western patterns, however, in the greater emphasis placed on conformity. Early childhood education in Japan stressed good group relations and obedience to teacher authority, in contrast to Western efforts to stress individualism. Japan also routinely used shame in child rearing, while Western adults tried to minimize exposure to peer sanctions for the sake of individual self-esteem.

Contrasts between industrial societies and those that were slower to industrialize were of course more vivid. Many analysts compared villages in Kenya, for example, where the traditional emphasis on teaching children household and child-care tasks left little room to identify higher cognitive goals, to their modern Western equivalents. In one Kenyan village, six-year old girls were adept at housecleaning and sibling care, but could not repeat a story to an adult. Continued expectations that children should take care of older parents also marked great differences from Western patterns, again promoting a lower degree of individuation and more subordination to family and group goals.

Child labor persisted in many societies outside the West, and indeed often intensified with the pressure to increase production in the demanding global economy. Industrial observers, ignoring the fact that many of the responsible corporations originated in their own societies, expressed dismay at the work pressures, poverty, and lack of schooling that a majority of children still faced in countries like India. In contrast, even Western-oriented elites in India continued to find child laborin the poorer classesboth natural and acceptable, a key reason that the practice persisted more strongly there than in some poorer countries. Even where school opportunities were better developed, as in Turkey, the lack of preschool preparation (only 7 percent of Turkish children were in preschools by the 1990s) explained significant differences in the childhood experience and in school performance, compared to the industrial societies.

Western ambivalence about children's sexuality was another useful comparative marker. Few societies conformed to the Western idea that sexual innocence should extend through adolescence, particularly when Western films, widely marketed internationally, presented a highly sexual teenaged persona. Early marriage continued in many societies (early by Western standards of course), because teenagers were not seen as children, while sexual exploitation of teenage girls drawn from rural societies increased in the global economy.

Important comparative work has dealt with youth groups in contemporary history. Since the 1970s, student associations in places like India have been more strongly political than their counterparts in Western universities, and more critical of existing regimes. One explanation offered is that university education outside the West creates greater generational gaps with parents (often not university educated), which in turn promotes radicalization. With colleges and universities now drawing 40 to 60 percent of the relevant age groups in the West, political interests are inevitably more diffuse, particularly since the decline of student activism in the 1960s to early 1970s.

On the other hand, globalization did begin to reduce some differences, even between advanced industrial and less-developed societies. China's twentieth-century experience cut into Confucian traditions and patriarchy. A new concept of adolescence emerged, and at least in urban areas an interest in romance as part of the youth experience developed as well. Shared youth culture had a wide impact in many otherwise different societies after 1950, thanks to the spread of rock music and common sports and media idols. By the 1990s, village children in eastern Russia, ignorant of computers and knowing little about the United States, could nevertheless identify stars like Britney Spears as epitomes of beauty. Common interests in the Internet, with which children were more adept than most adults, aligned the interests of young people in places like Iran, in principle dominated by conservative Muslim clerics, with those in the industrial regions.

Other global trends from the 1970s onward included the continuing spread of education, despite persistent differences that depended on available resources, as well as some lingering hesitations about pulling children away from work and family. Birth rates declined, though again this general trend was combined with significant variations depending on when the decline began, and from what base. All societies were at least beginning to deal with the implications of smaller families for the experience of childhood and treatment of children.

Questions often asked in comparative contemporary history about the tension between traditional identities and homogenizing forces obviously apply to the study of childhood as well. Some societies used children as active agents in preserving distinctive ways of life, sometimes drawing children into violence as part of the process. People in key regions like the Middle East have often divided between considerable attraction to Western-style education and a consumeroriented childhood on the one hand and a commitment to religious schooling on the other that, in some cases, inflamed hatreds. Here, comparisons within societies might be more revealing than drawing contrasts between traditional civilizations and those more open to the changes of modernity.

The comparative history of Western society, or of Japan and the West, also reminds us that not all childhoods are alike even in places committed to advanced industrialization. Distinctions are less pronounced than those between a childhood of work and one of schooling, but they are significant nonetheless. Definitions of emotional goals, degrees of individualism, and other key issues can vary significantly in societies that seem equally adept in industrial economics and modern statecraft. Correspondingly, comparison remains an essential tool in identifying contrasts and commonalities.

See also: Africa; Australia; Canada; Early Modern Europe; Eastern Europe; Education, Europe; Education, United States; Israel; Medieval and Renaissance Europe; New Zealand .


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Peter N. Stearns

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