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Children: I. History of Childhood


Childhood is a culturally determined social construct that might be thought of as a set of expectations for children. The principal dynamic in the history of childhood involves changes in these expectations. The history of childhood can be organized around three fundamental concepts: socialization, maturation, and modernization. Socialization is the process whereby a child incorporates the principal elements of the culture into which she or he is born. Maturation is the biological process of growing up. Modernization is the large-scale transformation of economies and societies—of European countries first, and then others. This process includes industrialization, urbanization, and the expansion of capitalistic systems of economic organization. The most dramatic changes in socialization and maturation of children come from the impact of modernization.

In traditional societies, socialization usually took place within families at a gradual pace and in informal ways. Sons learned the skills and practices of adult males by working alongside their fathers. Similarly, daughters worked and learned in close contact with their mothers. In the modern world, new agencies such as schools appeared and became part of the socialization process; and the process of maturation, formerly a natural process marked, perhaps, by rites of passage from youth to adulthood, now became the focus of serious social thought and practice. Put another way, maturation has been redefined in the modern age as a time of "identity crisis" for youth. In the modern age, youths have a greater range of choices for adult roles than did their ancestors.

The pioneering work in the history of childhood is L'Enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien régime, published by Philippe Ariès in 1960 (and translated into English as Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life [1962]). Ariès not only wrote one of the first modern scholarly treatments of the history of childhood, he also made the central point that childhood is socially constructed; that is, that ideas about and expectations for children are determined by social leaders and experts (advicegivers). Another early writer on the history of childhood, Lloyd deMause, in a work titled The History of Childhood, argued that "The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused"(p. 1). Professional historians have modified the views of Aries and deMause as they have developed deeper knowledge of the ways earlier societies regarded and treated children. The lasting importance of both scholars is that they founded the field of history of childhood and stimulated others to further investigations and revisions.

Childhood in the Ancient Western World

We know that childhood, a period of relative freedom from work, existed in the ancient world because children's play was depicted on Greek vases and Roman sarcophagi. There were several ancient treatises on the diseases of children and a recognition that children were to be treated differently from adults. Thus there was a tradition of childhood in the ancient world that saw children as passing through stages of growth, as being malleable, as being fragile, playful, and sometimes headstrong. This tradition saw children as individually different and in need of protection from abuse by adults. Ancient philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, wrote about child-rearing practices and regarded children as a link to the future. Some children's toys have survived— dolls, small versions of weapons, and the like—and they point to adult agendas for future citizens. Epitaphs remind us that ancient parents mourned the death of their children.

The Greeks and Romans devoted special attention to children and child-rearing practices. Women were the child rearers, and a number of other adults worked with children: midwives, teachers, tutors, and physicians. Both Plato and Aristotle recognized five stages of childhood (expressed in modern terms):

  1. Babyhood, from birth to about two years—that is, until the child is weaned and can talk;
  2. The early preschool age, from two to three years or later—when the child is separating emotionally from the mother, becomes more active physically, and begins to play games alone;
  3. Later preschool age, from ages three to seven—a stage when children become more active and more involved in social groups;
  4. School-age children (up to puberty)—a time of intense competition, especially among boys; and
  5. The stage between puberty and adulthood—which continues into the late teens or early twenties.

The last stage may have been brief or nonexistent for girls, who married at a relatively early age. In their broad outline, however, these stages closely resemble modern child-development theory.

Threats to Children in the Ancient World

Childhood in the ancient world had a darker side: some people practiced infanticide as a means of birth control or eugenics (French); some children were sold into slavery; and some of the little slaves were maimed so that they could be more pitiable beggars. Additionally, the use of wet nurses for the newborn was common and undoubtedly led to higher infant mortality rates. Wet nursing led to higher infant mortality because there was a greater possibility of disease, the wet nurse had less concern for the child than the mother did, and the amount of nourishment from the wet nurse might have been less. Infanticide was common, and such evidence as there is suggests that it was more common for female children than for male children to be killed by being abandoned and left to starve. A Roman law, for instance, said that all boy children and at least one girl born to a family had to be raised. In Sparta (from 700 to about 350 B.C.E.) infanticide was part of a program of eugenics whereby defective children were exposed. Illegitimate children were also disposed of through infanticide. Most children grew up in small nuclear families with one or two siblings. These small families were of concern to the Romans, who sought to increase the birth rate through incentives.

Childhood in Medieval and Early Modern Times

Very little is known about child-rearing practices and childhood in the early centuries of the Middle Ages because the historical sources for this period are very scattered and fragmentary. But it is known that children were valued. Among the Visigoths, for example, a male baby had a blood price (wergild ) of one-tenth that of an adult male. As the child aged, the wergild increased. Female children had a blood price half that of male children, but adult women's wergild was five-sixths that of an adult male. There was some schooling in this period; scattered references attest to schools in palaces and monasteries, although the practice of taking in small boys as oblates by monastic orders was already declining. For much of the population the process of maturation involved a long apprenticeship with children working alongside adults and thereby learning adult roles and responsibilities.

Literary references suggest that adults treated young children in a kindly fashion but that they had little regard for young people in their teens. Laws set the age of criminal responsibility (when a child could be charged with a crime) at seven and the age of majority (when a person could make a binding contract) at eighteen or older. As in the ancient world, medieval parents clearly mourned the deaths of their children. Medieval commentaries on childhood saw three stages in place of the ancient world's five (again expressed in modern terms):

  1. Infancy, up to the age of two;
  2. The preschool period, from age two to age seven;
  3. Puerility, from age seven to age fourteen.

There were texts that stressed the importance of breast-feeding (and by inference pointed to the dangers of wet nurses), but the use of wet nurses was common among the upper classes. An English bishop wrote of the importance of cradles (which would prevent infant deaths resulting from suffocation in the parental bed). Some children's toys— miniature figurines, for example—have survived from the period.

Infanticide was still common for female babies, but illegitimate children were sometimes added to the father's household. To counter the pattern of infant exposure and abandonment, orphanages appeared, the first being established in 787 at Milan. By the early fourteenth century, there were two hospitals in Florence that accepted foundlings, and in 1445 a separate foundling hospital, the Innocenti, was established. Other foundling hospitals appeared in Rome, Bologna, Pavia, and Paris by the end of the fifteenth century.

During the course of the Middle Ages, opportunities for schooling expanded from the limited possibilities offered by palaces, monasteries, or nunneries. Schools began to appear in the major cities of Europe; many of them, such as the grammar school at St. Paul's Cathedral in London, which was revived by John Colet early in the sixteenth century, were founded for the express purpose of training boys in business.

Most medieval children left home fairly early. Girls entered the work force at around age eight as servants, and boys typically were apprenticed to learn a trade. In effect these children traded their labor for their upkeep in their new households.

The death rate for children in the medieval world was extremely high—from 30 to 50 percent of children did not live to maturity. Besides disease, infanticide, and wet nursing, accidents claimed a great many children. There was little supervision of young children. Newborn children were swaddled (tightly wrapped with strips of cloth so that they could not move about or even move their limbs). Older siblings might provide some care, but most children were left alone; many of them suffered accidents, such as falling into an open fire, as a result.

European living patterns in the medieval and early modern period are comparable in some ways with traditional Japanese households. In traditional Japan the household was a residence as well as a legal, economic, affective, and ritual unit. In it children were regarded as treasures, although only one child would remain in the household as heir (the heir could be either male or female). The other children became apprentices or spouses or servants or remained in the household as dependents. The successor inherited all the assets of the household and was responsible for the continuity of the household and its reputation. The household was child-centered and stressed socialization into traditional roles. In recent times, as a result of the modernization of Japanese society, the process of socialization has changed. Japanese children do not remain in the traditional households, and younger families move to cities, where schools and other institutions have replaced the household as the primary agent of socialization because new occupations require different forms of preparation.

A similar transformation occurred in the Muslim Middle East. Ironically, it began with a reemphasis on the traditional household, which had been devalued by Westerners since the modern colonial period began in 1798. The family became a point for resistance to colonialism and strengthened paternal authority at a time when Western families were becoming more democratic. As the nations of the Middle East gained independence in the last half of the twentieth century, these traditional households began to give way before the process of modernization. And, as was the case in Japan and early modern Europe, schools and other institutions supplemented the family as agents of socialization.

Childhood in the Modern Western World

As modernization transformed western Europe and North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a new and distinctive pattern of childhood emerged that was the result of a number of influences—economic changes such as the intensification of a market economy, a decline in family size, the rise of rationalism in public discourse, to name a few. In addition, several important European thinkers were midwives to this new form of childhood. John Locke helped to undermine the dominant Puritan conception of children as innately evil, that is, born in sin, when he published his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690. In it he argued that ideas could come from experience and thus were not innate. In 1693 he issued Some Thoughts Concerning Education, in which he attacked the doctrine of infant depravity. Locke did not regard children as innately good; rather, he argued that they were morally neutral—blank tablets.

Another central figure was the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Émile (1762) was the story of a boy and his tutor. Rousseau argued that children should be reared more naturally, making use of their innate curiosity to motivate their learning. For Rousseau both nature and the child were innately good. Evil arose from the corruptions of civilization. One of Rousseau's followers who put his ideas into practice was Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who founded a school in Switzerland in 1799.

Yet another important figure in the emergence of the modern concept of childhood was the English novelist Charles Dickens, whose well-known child characters Oliver Twist, Charley Bates, Jack Dawkins, and the Artful Dodger personalized some of the tragic effects of the industrial revolution in England. Dickens vividly described the desperation of the urban working classes and the processes whereby homeless children had to fend for themselves. His writings, supported by the findings of royal commissions and by the work of social reformers, helped transform the social attitudes of the Western world. In 1848 the English established "Ragged Schools" for the children of the urban working classes. Later they created a system of universal public education with the Forster Education Act of 1870.

In the United States in the nineteenth century, Charles Loring Brace, a New York clergyman and reformer, founded the Children's Aid Society in 1853 to ship "surplus" urban children—whether orphaned or not—to rural areas. The Children's Aid Society also founded lodging houses for homeless newsboys and industrial schools for homeless girls of the streets. (It was hoped that by teaching the latter unfortunates a trade such as sewing, they might be rescued from prostitution.) Later in the nineteenth century another New York reformer, Elbridge Thomas Gerry, founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1875. Popularly known as "the Cruelty, " the organization sought to reduce or eliminate the worst instances of child abuse and neglect.

While these reforms and the expansion of public schools sought to provide opportunities for the child victims of modern society, the problem of child labor proved more difficult to solve. In part this was because few people—and certainly not most parents or employers—regarded child labor as a problem. For one thing, children had always worked before the modern era. Only the sons and daughters of the privileged elite escaped labor during their childhood. In the preindustrial world most families, whether urban or rural, relied on the labor of their children. Children in that world were regarded as a renewable labor supply. They began doing simple chores as early as possible, and they continued to work throughout adulthood and into old age, as long as they were able. Children also functioned as safety nets for parents. As parents became too infirm to work, they relied on their offspring for food and shelter. This family labor system moved with families to industrial cities. Thus, in nineteenth- and twentieth-century factories children joined their parents on the shop floor, first as helpers and later as hands. Industries welcomed child labor because it guaranteed a steady supply of trained workers, and families depended on the income the children produced.

But modern society demanded more skills from its work force than the family labor system was able to deliver. As a result, families had to forgo the income from some of their children so that they could learn the skills necessary to obtain employment. At the same time, reformers began to define child labor as a social problem and to expand the availability of schools. By the 1920s, child labor was on the decline in the Western world as schools, child labor laws, and technological innovation finally reduced the supply of child laborers and the demand for them.

In the process of expanding schools and trying to reduce child abuse and to regulate child labor, Western society was redefining childhood. Childhood now became a special, protected status, a time during which biological maturation could run its course, and children could come to know the complexities of the modern world and find their places in it. Two other social developments were significant in this process of redefinition: the creation of the federal Children's Bureau and a federally funded program to reduce infant mortality in the United States. The Children's Bureau, established in 1912, was an outgrowth of the First White House Conference on Children, convened by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909. At first it concentrated on the reduction of infant mortality, which led in 1921 to the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act, a program of matching grants for states. The grants helped states set up programs of education and prenatal clinics. This program of prevention and education had the desired effect, but was killed by lobbying from the American Medical Association in 1929.

Other social advances in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries included the rise of pediatrics as a medical specialty and the rise of child psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers. By the late twentieth century virtually all advanced industrial countries, including many outside the West, had made significant strides in reducing some of the threats to children's health and well-being.


The experiences of children in the recent past cannot be reduced to simple generalizations; there are too many variables. But it is obvious that region, economic health, and aspects such as race, class, and gender all have a major impact on children and childhood. Having noted these difficulties, some observations are possible. Abortion is more common in the industrialized world, whereas infant mortality is much lower. Children are less likely to become orphans in industrialized countries, to experience the death of a sibling, or to die before reaching adulthood. Children in industrialized countries will probably know their grandparents, and their parents may well have been divorced; many of them live in single-parent households, a sharp contrast to the extended households of traditional cultures.

Children in industrialized countries will spend more time in schools than children did in the medieval world, or than they do now where traditional cultures prevail. They will spend more time in groups with children of the same age. Their parents will have relied more heavily on experts, and they will probably have only a few siblings and perhaps a room of their own. They will have money of their own, and parts of the media will cater especially to them. They will also have a legal status that is clearly spelled out, although their status will vary from country to country. Of course even in industrialized countries poorer children will enjoy fewer privileges than the children of middle-class or elite parents.

In the twentieth century the improvements in children's lives in industrialized countries have been dramatic. In the United States, for example, in 1900 infant mortality was estimated to be more than 160 per 1, 000 live births; by 1990 this rate had dropped to around 10 per 1, 000. In Japan the rate was 5 per 1, 000. Similar improvements occurred in access to schooling and literacy. In 1900 high school graduates in the United States constituted less than 4 percent of the seventeen-year-old population. By 1990 they represented approximately 75 percent. Similar evidence of significant improvement in children's health and education can be cited for most, if not all, industrialized nations.

In the modern world childhood has been extended, redefined, and supported by an array of experts and social institutions. Maturity, once a biological matter worth little notice, has become a complex process perhaps more social and psychological than physical in nature. Similarly, the process of socialization is now much more complex, reflecting, as always, the society into which children are to be socialized. In complex modern societies, the preparation necessary to become a productive adult is much longer and more intensive than formerly. In recognition of this, students now extend their schooling well into their twenties and even beyond. Maturation, modernization, and socialization as they have interacted have created an entirely new world of childhood.

joseph m. hawes

n. ray hiner (1995)

SEE ALSO: Abuse, Interpersonal: Child Abuse ; Adoption; Family and Family Medicine; Feminism; Infanticide; Infants, Public Policy and Legal Issues; Pediatrics, Adolescents; Research Policy: Subjects; Women, Historical and Cross-Cultural Perspectives; and other Children subentries


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