Childhood and Children

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ideas on childhood
from work to school
happy families?

"Christopher Columbus only discovered America. I discovered the child!" proclaimed the French writer Victor Hugo (1802–1885). Hugo was hardly the first author to make such a "discovery," but he was certainly prominent among those Romantic poets who did much to arouse an interest in childhood during the nineteenth century. The period produced a torrent of paintings, poems, and novels featuring children; advice manuals on child rearing; childhood reminiscences by famous literary figures; scientific studies of human development; polemical works on child welfare; and literature specially written for the young. Meanwhile political elites in Europe came to realize that children embodied the future of their societies, and so took steps to improve their health, education, and moral welfare. All this attention was not an unmixed blessing for children: attitudes toward them remained ambivalent, and historians have talked of a "colonization" of childhood by adults through schools and other welfare institutions.

ideas on childhood

The vast majority of people in a traditional agrarian society, as much of Europe remained before 1914, had a relatively "short" childhood. They went through infancy, under the supervision of their mothers and other female caregivers, until somewhere between the ages of four and seven. After that, they gradually melted into the adult labor force as they worked around the house, on farms, and in workshops, according to their physical strength and stamina. This may help to explain why for centuries contemporary scholars found little to interest them in this stage of life. However, from the seventeenth century onward, there emerged in elite circles the idea that young people needed an extended period of "quarantine" from the corrupt and dangerous world of adults. For a minority of upper- and middle-class boys in particular, several years attending school brought a "long" childhood. Reactions to this varied: former English public schoolboys tended to look back with nostalgia to their time at school, as in the case of Thomas Hughes with his Tom Brown's School Days (1857), while their French counterparts often developed a fierce hatred for their lycée. Either way, the increasing numbers of young males delaying their entry into the labor force paved the way for the supposed "discovery" of adolescence around 1900. This invariably involved a "second birth" with puberty, and the idea, now commonplace in Western culture, that the period running from the age of fourteen to the mid-twenties is one of "storm and stress." It only remained for the child-study movement, particularly active in Germany, to attempt to discover the laws of normal child development. Psychologists and physiologists began in the early twentieth century to divide infancy, childhood, and adolescence into increasingly fine phases.

Associated with a long and sheltered childhood was the notion of childhood innocence. The sociologist Chris Jenks has drawn attention to the contrasting images of the evil "Dionysian" child and the sunny, poetic "Apollonian" child in Western civilization. The eighteenth-century Enlightenment and the later Romantic movement gave the latter a huge boost. The Romantics asserted that the original innocence of childhood involves a sense of wonder, an intensity of experience, and a spiritual wisdom lacking in the adult. The English poet William Wordsworth's Ode, Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood (1807) reverberated down the nineteenth century. His line "Heaven lies about us in our infancy" was repeatedly quoted, plagiarized, and adapted by later writers. At the same period the German painter Philipp Otto Runge provided a compelling image of juvenile vitality with his Hülsenbeck Children (1805–1806). The logical corollary of this stance was some form of child-centered education, and measures to protect the young from the realities of the adult world, such as the need to earn a living or the experience of sexual relations. However, the alternative vision, of children tainted with original sin, was also of some influence, notably among devout Christians. The English evangelical writer Mrs. Sherwood (1775–1851) thundered, "All children are by nature evil, and while they have none but the natural evil principle to guide them, pious and prudent parents must check their naughty passions in any way they have in their power" (Darton, p. 169). The logical outcome of this conception was a strict regime of child rearing, and principles of authority and respect in education.

Fritz Pauk, born in 1888 in the German town of Lippe, describes life as a farm servant aged ten.

During the summer I had to get up at three-thirty in the morning. First there were twenty-five to thirty pigs to be fed, and afterwards fifty sheep to be taken care of. It was six o'clock by the time all that was done, and time for breakfast. Every morning there were coarse ground oats with milk and bread crumbs. You ate with a wooden spoon. School began at eight o'clock, but I had an hour-and-ahalf's walk to get there. Still I was happy to go because it meant a relief from the heavy work at the farm. School was already over at ten o'clock. Everyone ran back home. If the farmer had something for me to do, I didn't go to school at all. If the teacher asked why you hadn't come, you only needed to say that the farmer had work for you. That took care of it. There wasn't really much to learn in the little village school. Most of the time was devoted to the catechism and innumerable Bible passages.

Source: Alfred Kelly, trans. and ed., The German Worker: Working-Class Autobiographies from the Age of Industrialization (Berkeley, Calif., 1987), 402.

from work to school

A slow but inexorable change affecting most children in Europe during the nineteenth century was a shift from work on the land or in the workshops to formal education in the school system. Why this occurred remains a matter of some controversy among historians. The first historians to investigate child labor usually highlighted the role of factory

legislation, with heroic figures such as Anthony Ashley Cooper (1801–1885), known as Lord Ashley (later Lord Shaftesbury), in England or enlightened textile magnates from Alsace in France campaigning against "exploitation" in the factories. From this perspective, what counted was effective legislation, such as Althorp's Act of 1833 in England, and similar laws around 1840 in Prussia and France. However, other historians countered that it was technical progress and rising real wages during the latter half of the nineteenth century rather than state intervention that encouraged the withdrawal of children from industrial employment. There is also the assertion that compulsory school attendance was the decisive influence on this withdrawal in the end, since it was easier to enforce than factory legislation.

Much of the work done by children was in fact casual and undemanding. Although they often started to help their parents around the age of six or seven, many jobs on the land and in the towns required more strength than a child could muster. On small, family farms, for example, both boys

and girls confined themselves to simple but time-consuming tasks such as looking after younger brothers and sisters, fetching water, picking stones, scaring birds, and "minding" a few cattle, pigs, or sheep. Such work in agriculture, the handicraft trades, and the service sector remained uncontroversial during the nineteenth century. Around the farms, the practice of finding little jobs for children before and after schooling continued unobtrusively throughout the nineteenth century.

As for the children who worked in the proto-industrial workshops of the countryside—the factories and the urban "sweatshops"—they were most in evidence in those countries that started early on the path to industrialization, notably Britain, Belgium, France, and the western parts of Prussia. Factory children were always a minority among child workers, and were concentrated in a few industries, particularly textiles. In textiles, some started work as early as seven or eight years, but most waited until they were ten or twelve. This would be later if they were in a heavy industry like iron and steel. Most children acted as assistants to adult workers, for example, mending broken threads for mule-spinners, winding bobbins for weavers, and operating ventilation doors for miners. How grim their working conditions were is open to question. Nonetheless, children in industry did work more regularly through the year than their peers, endured longer hours, and labored more intensively.

Efforts to compel children to attend school gained momentum at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Stung by defeat at Jena in 1806, Karl Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) and his successors in the Prussian administration planned a system of primary, secondary, and higher education. By the 1830s as many as 80 percent of children aged six to fourteen were attending elementary schools in Prussia. Britain and France were slower to act, though in the 1880s both made primary education free and compulsory. Contrary to accusations made by contemporaries, parents and children in peasant and working-class households were not necessarily hostile to the schools and the literate culture they promoted. Basic literacy might help in a trade or in a bid to move up the social scale. However, there was a greater incentive to acquire it in an industrial and commercial society than in an agrarian one: in 1897 no less than 87 percent of females and 71 percent of males in the Russian Empire were illiterate. In addition, nineteenth-century education systems were riven with inequalities, according to social background, gender, and region. During the 1820s conservative Prussians like Ludolf von Beckedorff (1778–1858) called for schools to support orders or estates rather than "artificial equality." Elementary schools in the nineteenth century curbed the freedom of children to mix in their own society, taught the poor to "know their place," and all too often relied on rote learning, backed up with fierce corporal punishment.

happy families?

A number of historians have identified the eighteenth century as a turning point in parent-child relations. They contrast the indifference of parents, or more specifically mothers, to the development and happiness of their offspring in earlier periods, with the attention lavished on the health and education of the young during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They also identify the well-off middle classes as the innovators in this sphere, leaving an often dismal image of family life among the poor. A more plausible interpretation of the evidence suggests a strong element of continuity in the long term, with parents always trying to do their best for sons and daughters. On the surface, a number of child-rearing practices that drew the fire of reformers appeared to reveal widespread negligence among parents until the end of the nineteenth century. The large majority of mothers in the past breast-fed their own children, but those in aristocratic circles, and those involved in small businesses in countries such as France and Italy, routinely sent their newborn infants out to a wet-nurse. This abruptly separated mother and child, but arguably it allowed those dependent on help from their wives, such as silk-weavers in Lyon and Milan, to remain solvent. Families in some countries also abandoned infants on a large scale: in St. Petersburg during the 1830s and 1840s the equivalent of between a third and a half of all babies born in the city ended up in a foundling hospital, in Milan somewhere between 30 and 40 percent. This seemingly heartless custom partly reflected the desperate situation of poor families, and partly the policy in the Catholic part of Europe of providing institutional care for foundlings. There was sometimes a hard edge to relations between parents and their children in peasant and working-class households. However, autobiographies suggest that children understood how a grinding work routine left little scope for physical warmth. Adelheid Popp, born near Vienna in 1869, felt deprived of motherly love during her childhood, but still recalled with fondness "a good, self-sacrificing mother."

In the nineteenth century, then, concerns over such issues as infant mortality, child abuse, and juvenile delinquency gradually encouraged philanthropic and state intervention at the expense of paternal authority. One can point to a range of institutions dedicated to child welfare that appeared in the nineteenth century, notably infant milk depots, health visitors, créches (day nurseries), reformatories, industrial schools, societies for the prevention of cruelty to children, and laws to remove children from cruel or negligent parents. The philanthropic motives of reformers need not be doubted, nor the benefits of their schemes for the young, yet it is hard not to see the rise of what Michel Foucault (1926–1984) called a "disciplinary society" behind it all.

See alsoDemography; Marriage and Family; Population, Control of.


Darton, F. J. Harvey. Children's Books in England: Five Centuries of Social Life. London and Newcastle, 1999.

Davin, Anna. Growing Up Poor: Home, School, and Street in London, 1870–1914. London, 1996. Exemplary case study of childhood in a big city.

Dickinson, Edward Ross. The Politics of German Child Welfare from the Empire to the Federal Republic. Cambridge, Mass., 1996. A "top-down" approach to childhood.

Heywood, Colin. Childhood in Nineteenth-Century France: Work, Health, and Education among the Classes Populaires. Cambridge, U.K., 1988. Focuses on the shift from work to school.

——. A History of Childhood: Children and Childhood in the West from Medieval to Modern Times. Cambridge, U.K., 2001. A long-run survey of the themes raised in this essay.

Hopkins, Eric. Childhood Transformed: Working-Class Children in Nineteenth-Century England. Manchester, U.K., 1994. Full synthesis of recent research in this area.

Jenks, Chris. Childhood. London, 1996. Useful insights from the social sciences.

Kertzer, David I. Sacrificed for Honor: Italian Infant Abandonment and the Politics of Reproductive Control. Boston, 1993.

Pollock, Linda A. Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900. Cambridge, U.K., 1983. Forceful statement of the line that there were few changes in parental care at this period, based on British and American sources.

Ransel, David L. Mothers of Misery: Child Abandonment in Russia. Princeton, N.J., 1988. Excellent monograph on this aspect of children's experience.

Stargardt, Nicholas. "German Childhoods: The Making of a Historiography." German History 16 (1998): 1–15.

Colin Heywood