This article was last modified on February 24, 2008.


On the History of Childhood

Over the course of the Autumn 2007 semester, I had an ongoing dialog with a zoology major at the University of Madison. That discussion is presented below. (I am only using her initials to protect her identity, as she was not aware that this would be re-presented at a later time).

Neither her nor I have any professional background in the history of childhood. Outside of what she learned in class and what I have gathered on my own time, we were largely speculating. Despite this amateur approach, I found the conversation interesting and stimulating. I think others will find the same thing I found, and have decided to present the exchange for that reason.

I have also included appendices, further explaining the main historian in question and presenting the further thoughts of KH as presented in essays she wrote for class. They are here merely for discussion, not to be taken necessarily as any sort of authority.

GS: What classes do you have this semester?

KH: I have… some random history class 478 about children and childhood in the west from the 1500s to the 1900s or something. My history class so far is super easy, mainly because we had our first class yesterday. The professor was in Switzerland last week so class was canceled. I read the two chapters, last week’s and this week’s, but he didn’t say anything about even starting that so I’m ahead!

GS: I am fascinated with history, though I’ve never been so much interested in children. My understanding was that childhood didn’t really exist until relatively recently, and adolescence wasn’t around until the early 1900s. You pretty much took up the family trade as soon as you were old enough to handle a plowshare. But I wouldn’t know for sure. Let me know if anything interesting pops up.

KH: I’ve been finding out that some French guy named Aries back in the 1960s wrote a book about the lack of childhood in history, especially in the Middle Ages [see Appendix 1], but a bunch of critics emerged in the 1970s and 1980s that say otherwise, that most all families were nuclear and a lot more intimate than people realize. Children were kind of neglected emotionally until age two or so because of high infant mortality rates, but through demographic records, diaries, art especially, and random other stuff I can’t remember the critics said that everyone’s been wrong and that there was a definite childhood period. More so they looked at it as “our lives are divided into stages, and one is where a person is not a baby and not an adult yet” type of thing. It’s confusing. I’m still not convinced and in the class of “misled individuals thinking the Middle Ages were a barbaric time.” It’ll take some convincing by the professor and one of my stupid books to make me think otherwise. I don’t know how much I’m believing. Most people were poor I understand, and I think all the kids did start working right away as you said, but I think since mostly the upper classes did the reading and writing and art-making for a long time, we’re getting a skewed vision in class that EVERYONE had a chance to give their children the break of “childhood” to play and get away from all the daily duties of working even though it was just the select rich few.

GS: I like your theory about childhood being a class issue. I’m not familiar with Aries or his critics, though I assume the ideas he had were much the same as I understood the history of children (which, as I said, is something I’ve never studied). I find the criticisms interesting. I would say, though, even if there was a “childhood” period, it was never as pronounced as it is today. We’ve made a point of pushing back marriage ages, working ages, and the way advertising works clearly has pushed children into even more of a separate demographic than they’ve ever been before. I don’t know if just because someone is younger that they’re a “child” and not just “a young adult”, but it all depends on your terms and definitions, I guess.

KH: My history professor was rambling on that people were getting married really late in the middle ages and even if they did have many kids a lot of them died, so the ones that survived were a small enough number to be doted on and considered a nuclear family apparently even by today’s standards. I don’t know. I’ve got to do a paper on it for tomorrow though, so I should probably get my shit straight.

GS: I don’t know what your professor is thinking, but I would hope they know what they’re talking about. I have a difficult time picturing marriage being later, knowing that in, say, 1790 it was not uncommon to be married at 13 or 14 and now 30 seems more common. But who knows? As for the “nuclear family”, I thought it was more like grandparents and in-laws lived together and such, making it more of an extended family household. (Actually, I don’t know if “nuclear families” were ever the norm, even in the 1950s.)

KH: Yeah, my professor and the author of whatever book we were reading kept saying that people got married in their late 20s. Extended families weren’t common I guess because it was extremely likely that one or both of a child’s parents would have died by the time the child reached the age of 20. Life expectancy was often in the 40s, I guess, but this average was brought down by the very high infant mortality rate, around 35%. The numbers don’t quite seem to jive to me, but I don’t know if anyone, historian or not, can ever know the whole story without the aid of a time traveling device. This was my short paper about Aries being wrong about the lack of childhood in the Middle Ages. We weren’t supposed to write about nuclear families though so it’s not really applicable, but here it is anyway:

Aries used pictorial evidence to say that those in the Middle Ages didn’t have the concept of a childhood by pointing to the fact that children were shown as miniature adults, that their size relative to adults was the only indication that they were children. However, Jesus was portrayed as divine by artists in the early Middle Ages and so looked like an adult but later was shown as a naked child to demonstrate his humanity. Cunningham says of this, “the changing image tells us about changes in theology, not in attitudes to childhood…the different types of childhood portrayed in paintings through the centuries may have more to do with changes in art rather than changes in the way children were seen”. Aries needed to remember to be careful to keep in context of the times the art he used for his claims of a lack of childhood for the Middle Ages. Children being seen only as miniature adults, then, is most likely not correct. Childhood was seen as a separate stage in life from adulthood.
Cunningham mentions Shahar’s evidence for a childhood, citing how there were various theories about pregnancy, birth, infant feeding, raising small children, etc. The medieval opinion that “birth should take place in a darkened room in conditions which ease the transition to the world outside… corresponds to some late twentieth-century theories. Even a preference for warm bath water rather than cold is discussed. How can such nurturing ideas about childhood exist so recently and also in such a time Aries describes to us as cold-hearted, anti-children Middle Ages? The nurturing concepts also existed then, making childhood not quite so horrific after all. Moderation in punishment, gentleness, patience, and cheerfulness were to be used with children. Manuals about such care became very popular. Accounts of adults crying and feeling tremendous loss over children they had to bury were also prominent. Families, which were usually small, allowed for emotional and physical investments in children and were a “location for affection and sentiment”. Even in the early Middle Ages there was a concept of childhood although it was different from what immediately comes to mind; accounts of rough things such as abuse aren’t mentioned, but rather the simple non-threatening idea that childhood was important for observing what traits the child had, providing clues as to what kind of person the child was to grow up to be. All of these things provide evidence against Aries’ idea that a concept of childhood didn’t exist in the Middle Ages.

Pretty bad. But oh well. I got full credit. I don’t know if I agree with what I said or not. I just wrote what I thought the professor wanted.

GS: I never believed the life expectancy rates. As you say, the infant mortality rate brings down the average. I don’t think it was uncommon for people to live into their 60s or 70s. Biographies about people from the era typically show them living normal life-spans. This, of course, relies on their ability to provide food and such for themselves, but I don’t think wealth necessarily meant better health care (I was reading a few weeks ago how bloodletting was still very common into the early 19th century).

I thought your paper would be longer, but I like it (even if I don’t understand all the references). I am still of the opinion that children had no childhood, or a very brief and pointless one. Aries was probably wrong to use paintings as evidence, but I don’t think the general thesis is incorrect necessarily. You make good points are birthing, nursing and the like… but I don’t think that birthing and nurturing during infancy is the same as a childhood. Obviously, a child of one or two cannot work in the fields…

I think for a good history of children, a place to look would be for a history of the school. I would guess that once schools became more prominent, the child in the workplace (farm fields) would decrease and they would have more time with other children away from their families, gaining them a “childhood” full of their own imaginations and discovery.

I’d really like to read this Aries character.

KH: I’m not sure what to make of the whole childhood thing. We’ve been reading such conflicting information and jumping all over the place back and forth between centuries so much that I can’t tell what’s going on half the time or even get a general trend of the period. In one breath the professor will mention the 1500s and in the next talk about the turn of the 20th century before talking about the Civil War. He teaches in such a weird way, I swear. I’ve written a few more papers since that one and had an exam today so we’ll see how that goes. One of the topics covered was actually the history of schools and how as educational importance increased children worked less and became more of an economic drain on their families rather than an asset.

The Aries guy might have some interesting stuff. I can’t remember his first name though. Not sure if I wrote it down.

Further Thoughts, Concluding Remarks

Appendix 1: Philippe Aries

(Via Wikipedia) Philippe Ariès (July 21, 1914 – February 8, 1984) was an important French medievalist and historian of the family and childhood, in the style of Georges Duby. Ariès has written many books on the common daily life. His most prominent works regarded the change in the western attitudes towards death.

Ariès regarded himself as a right-wing anarchist. He was close to the monarchist Action française, and wrote in La Nation française review. However, he also cooperated with many left-wing French historians, like Michel Foucault.

He is best known for his book Centuries of Childhood (1962). This book stands pre-eminent in the history of childhood; it was essentially the first book on the subject (although some antiquarian texts were in existence prior to this) and it seems that even today nobody can say anything on the topic without first referring to Ariès. Ariès is most famous for his statement that “in medieval society, the idea of childhood did not exist”. The central thesis of Centuries of Childhood is that attitudes towards children were progressive, and evolved over time with economic change and social advancement, until childhood, as a concept and an accepted part of family life, came into being in the seventeenth century. Children were seen to be too weak to be counted and that they could disappear at any time. But these children were considered as an adult as soon as they could live without the help of their mothers, nanny, or someone else. Centuries of Childhood has had mixed fortunes; while it is important to acknowledge the profound significance of Ariès’ contribution, both in recognizing childhood as a social construction rather than a biological given and in founding the history of childhood as a serious field of study, it has been widely criticized.

Appendix 2: The Protestant Reformation

The Protestant Reformation did change views on children and how best to rear them. Children were sent to monasteries and nunneries early on in life before the reformation as a way for them to become literate and to try to make something important of their lives. This was also a way for families to obtain order and security. It was a morally a good thing for parents to donate their children to the church.

Children after the reformation were raised at home in religious contexts. Their parents had a moral obligation to raise them properly as good, upstanding Christians. “The child who did not learn to honor, obey, and love his parents and teachers would grow up without a sense of duty and self-sacrifice to society and hence would not be of service either to his fellowman or to God” (Ozment 163). Disciplining children “sought to create a confident, responsible adult” (Ozment 163). This was not the responsibility of any church organization anymore but that of the parents, and it was important to start early since it was easiest to mold a child into the proper citizen when he was young (Ozment 147). Children weren’t seen as miniature adults in the reformation but as people inexperienced with life who needed molding and guidance by adults on how to develop their characters. This was done often using discipline and restraint; “the cardinal sin of child rearing…was willful indulgence” (Ozment 163). Children weren’t being shipped off like before to an apprentice to learn a trade to become successful, but rather success lay in obtaining as a child the moral skills necessary to be adult and thus contribute to society constructively.

Children were loved dearly from the start in the reformation and even before their births. For example, expectant mothers were “advised to avoid all foods and activities known to hinder birth” (Ozment 105), especially during the last few weeks of pregnancy. Ozment lists many treatments of the time for both new mother and child for several ailments. While it is very likely that parents before the reformation were concerned about sick infants, it is doubtful that such detailed remedies for so many things were commonplace. Ozment also presents many documents describing proper etiquette and activities for children in great detail in many situations. With so much literature on children being so prevalent for the time, it is clear that children were very important in the lives of their parents.

Appendix 3: Rousseau on Education

Rousseau’s ideas on differences in education for men and women stem from their qualities that he says result from nature. Women are naturally passive and weak, and men are strong and active. The duty of women is to please men, while the duty of men is achieved simply by their quality of being strong. Rousseau doesn’t say whether this is right or wrong, he says simply that it’s the law of nature and not love because nature is older than love. Women are not to be confined to domestic tasks but to ones requiring them “to think, to judge, to love, to know and to cultivate the mind as well as the countenance” while men should keep to tasks requiring everyday knowledge. Men don’t want a servant but someone who complements their abilities. Women are to care for men in childhood and in old age and to make life pleasant for them; their “education must be wholly directed to their relations with men” from childhood on. Girls should be raised to have grace in all they do while boys should be taught how to be strong in order to complete their tasks easily. Once again women’s role to men is brought up when Rousseau says that women “should not be sturdy like men but for them”. They should be obedient at all times and get used to bowing to authority, but young boys are to learn by experience. Both sexes, however, should have freedom to explore the innocent parts of childhood that are gone so quickly. The ability to count is important to both sexes, but girls are to learn reading and writing later on when opportunities for large amounts of time present themselves. Girls find more value in dressing up dolls and sewing, for example, than reading and writing because such girl-like things translate easily to the things women do when they run their own households. Drawing is encouraged for young kids in general in the early part of Emile, but later on in Rousseau’s work, girls are encouraged to create drawings making the home beautiful, such as flower-based or otherwise feminine themes.

Appendix 4: American Pioneer Children

West tries to tell about childhood in the Western United States during the pioneer era using such sources as personal accounts and succeeds well. He includes several examples of adults reflecting back on their childhood at that time when their families were traveling across the country and what daily life was like. These seem very accurate. Though it is adults telling their memories, these were the people who were children during that time; it is different than getting the perspective of someone who was already an adult during a cross-country movement. Collectively, West says that adults had different emotional responses to departing for a long cross-country journey than children did. He gives an excerpt of a thirteen year old’s words: “The younger kids know something unusual is going on but don’t understand it like the older folks do…The older folks seem to understand some things we younger ones don’t grasp”. West notes that children were most affected by the physical act of leaving and adults by the emotional aspect of it.
West also lists all sorts of things children wrote about being afraid of such as intense thunderstorms (particularly ones at night), animal noises, separation anxiety, Indians, their parents dying, and their own mortality, to name a few. West gives personal accounts for all of these and they seem very accurate. He also gives information on how children’s minds work in general for each fear that he lists. For example, West tells specifically how children tend to focus on physical sensations and distinctive aspects of their journeys and then follows this with a child’s account of a thunderstorm: “The rain was pouring down into my face, my eyes were blinded by the glare of lightning, the wind was roaring like a furnace, and the crash of thunder was terrible and almost continuous…I could see nothing but sheets of fire…for a minute I was dazed…”. We can see that the child’s description is very physical and indeed vivid. Children’s accounts of their daily lives give physical descriptions of the events hat occurred while adults wrote about “daily rhythms of travel…but they tell little about the extraordinary world through which the pilgrims moved”. Though children give different types of diary entries than adults do, they are not less accurate, merely different. Children give a clearer picture, in fact, of the pioneer era of their immediate world. West captures this in a clear way in the accounts he presents.

Appendix 5: Benefits of Child Labor

Nasaw claims in Children of the City that child labor was beneficial not only to children but to adults as well. He gives several examples of this throughout the book, starting with one involving a benefit to children. Early in the book Nasaw notes that “if we were to be moved backward in time to the early twentieth-century city, we would probably be most repelled not by the lack of privacy, or toilets, or space, air, and light, but by this stench”. He describes how disgusting and objectionable home conditions were. It makes sense that children would welcome working to leave these conditions at least for a little while, providing a “pleasant interlude between a day’s confinement at school and an evening in cramped quarters at home”.
Sometimes kids got extra benefits from working besides time away from home. Some employers would provide newsies with “furnished clubhouses, tickets to ball games, trips to summer camps, and free turkey on holidays” or even free lunches. These didn’t necessarily have to go directly to helping the family out; the child could more easily not share a trip to a summer camp than he could money he earned from selling papers earlier in the day. This extra perk was something he could more surely call his own.
Adults benefited from child labor as well. Local shopkeepers that needed outside help but couldn’t afford to hire full-time workers could hire children by week, day, or even hour. Also, a lot of the work children did was too ill-paid to offer it to adults. The newspaper business relied heavily on children to sell their papers and “would have been in serious trouble” had it not been for newsies since sometimes they sold more than 50% of afternoon papers. Children also collected junk to sell to the local junk man; he got so many materials from them and was spared a lot of time looking for them since he could just buy them from children that had done all the scrounging. The children’s families benefited too by children working; “paychecks could be stretched a bit further” when children could bring home wood, coal, and free food. Also, young girls helping their mothers with housework helped the family and also trained the girls for their domestic lives they would have later when they were housewives themselves. Nasaw does a thorough job of demonstrating that child labor benefited both children and adults.

Appendix 6: African-American Childhood

Through his work Black Boy, Richard Wright tells readers what his life was like in southern America during the Jim Crow era. Wright uses in particular stories on his family, reading interests, and school experiences to give us a glimpse into what life was like for some African Americans during the Jim Crow era.

Quite early on, Wright’s stories center around the theme of abuse. He gets beaten literally within an inch of his life, losing consciousness and reaching the point of hallucinations, for setting the curtains on fire. Quite understandably such beating made him afraid and nervous generally all the time, even of his own family members. Living with his Aunt Addie and Granny, Wright mentions that his muscles instinctively tensed whenever he passed by a relative at home.

Wright’s father left when Wright was very young, making things very difficult for the family and leading Wright to be hungry for the majority of his childhood as food money was hard to come by. This hunger causes him to be weak and malnourished so that even when he was older it affected him, such as when he failed to weigh enough for the post office job despite his best efforts to eat as much as he could. Wright got sort of used to hunger being ever-present through his life as a youth.

His mother’s suffering affected him as well, tainting his view of life and his future experiences and interactions with people. It also made him suspicious and self-conscious. Getting constantly beaten and confused by how his family reacted to all his actions obviously contributed to his self-consciousness as well. He became puzzled by their reactions and felt for the rest of his youth that his family never accepted any aspect of him or his life. His suspiciousness of people spanned the color line so that he was afraid of blacks as well as whites. Because of how the rest of the family was treating Wright, his own brother became skeptical of him after coming back from Chicago to visit. Aunt Maggie even deemed Wright a failure soon after she saw him again after being separated from him for many years. It’s not a wonder at all that Wright’s self-consciousness and feelings of low self-worth persisted for so long past his youth.

We also get a glimpse into what Wright’s life was like through his elaborations of his reading interests. Psychology, realistic fiction, natural fiction, and art were among the subjects he first listed, and he delighted in subjects that had no clear answer to questions. The magazine supplement story published in the KKK newspaper held Wright’s interest until he found out the paper’s contents. Anything that held his interest satisfied him since he had such a limited experience with reading. Wright read detective books as well, and likely it’s due to this reading of such material he loved that he wanted to become a writer. For him to tell his dream of writing to a stranger when he went to apply for the servant boy position at her house likely indicates he was really passionate about his dream, for the woman was not only a stranger but a white one. While working for the optical company in Memphis, Wright’s interests spread to modern novels not so much always for their plots but for the points of view they expressed. Reading these new points of view helped inspire his desire to write even further and he kept trying as he gained more viewpoints from more and more novels. Reading about such sociological topics as interracial conflicts also held his interest as did books with strong prose, but while feeling moved to write, he felt discouraged that his work would never attain such a high level. The sociological reading, however, helped him identify different types of blacks and their behavior, no doubt useful as a foundation for when he started reading Communist literature.

Wright’s experiences at school also shaped his adolescence. Being so poor and thus having threadbare clothes no doubt contributed to his self-consciousness. Being very afraid in front of the other children likely stemmed from his general nervousness and contributed to him feeling the need to fight and prove himself, even on the first day at a new school. It’s also at school that hate for whites becomes more openly discussed between groups of boys than anywhere else, which contributes to Wright’s distrust of them, which increases throughout his life.
Through Black Boy, Wright tells us about his adolescence in the Jim Crow era in the South, particularly through stories he shares about his family, school experiences, and reading interests.

Appendix 7: Difficulty of Adolescence

Throughout European and American history, adolescence has been regarded as a life stage separate from that of childhood as well as adulthood, and it has been regarded as a difficult time. This can be seen in the works of West, Blake, and Ozment and also by examining the Middle Ages.

For example, in West’s Growing Up with the Country, he describes how children focused on physical sensations and distinctive aspects of their journeys out West while adults focused more on the emotional aspects. Many physical elements new to children were encountered on a trip West, and these often scared them. Intense thunderstorms (especially ones at night), Indians, animal noises, their parents dying, their own mortality, and separation anxiety were just a few of the things children were afraid of. A child’s account of a thunderstorm reveals how real children’s fear could be when he describes how paralyzed with fear he was. Adults would likely be startled in that situation, but since they focused on more emotional things, adults had grown out of this fearful life stage where physical things new and different were quite scary.

Blake describes in Songs of Innocence how it can be difficult to go through adolescence. Poor working conditions that boys like the one described in “The Chimney Sweeper” had to endure could be not only hazardous to the health of anyone that held that position, but it was preventing children from being children. They couldn’t work and have fun playing at the same time. The boy dreamed of being set free. Also, Blake notes that children are naturally good when they enter the world but become corrupted by institutions. One would imagine that it could be quite troubling to enter into the life stage where one becomes corrupted. Adolescence is also the time as well that innocence has mostly disappeared, according to Blake.

Ozment describes how parents needed to mold their children into responsible citizens by helping them develop their characters. Very specific behaviors were outlined for such everyday events as eating meals with family. This molding was done often using discipline and restraint since indulgence was a cardinal sin in bringing up children. Children didn’t want to be disciplined when it just seemed easier to be as they were and not have anyone trying to “mold” them and change them. This molding conflicted with the adolescent’s interests of wanting to be left to play and explore their surroundings as well as finishing growing up in their own timing. Adolescents were in a middle ground between childhood and adulthood and got the poor end of both deals. On the one hand, they were still treated like children by those older than them because indeed they weren’t adults yet and weren’t fully mature. However, they were at the same time given responsibilities often similar to those of adults that kept increasing. The adolescents didn’t get the full adult benefits from the responsibilities, such as more pay at a job or in the late 19th century the chance to finally get out of school if they had been going, but were expected to uphold their responsibilities anyway.
Adolescence was difficult during the Middle Ages also. It wasn’t uncommon for one or both of one’s parents to be dead by age 20. In fact, this was usually the norm. Losing a loved one is never easy, especially if that loved one is someone as close as a parent. Going through adolescence is difficult enough, but adding on the deaths of one or both parents made life much more difficult.
Around the 12th century, it wasn’t uncommon to have an apprenticeship under a master if one was in the middle classes. This would be a difficult time of being away from home for an extended time away from family and instead under the care of a stranger who had to ensure his apprentices learned the trade well and also attended church. Though the apprentice would know a trade at the end of the training, he didn’t get to make any money working under his master; that was only upon completion of training. Some of the boys even ran away. Jobs at the church or state were common where it was important to be literate and have the skill of counting.

Adolescence is still a difficult stage separating childhood and adulthood. West, Blake, and Ozment discuss it in their works read for class, and the notion is also shown throughout the Middle Ages.

Also try another article under Historical / Biographical
or another one of the writings of Gavin.

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