Childhood and Child Rearing
The Child-centered Modern Age
Since the nineteenth century, scholars, scientists, and writers, along with lawyers, statesmen, and philanthropists, have concerned themselves with the nature and welfare of the child as at no previous time. Triggering that interest were the ideas of John Locke (1632–1704), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), and later authors of the Romantic movement.
Elaborated in his Essay on Human Understanding (1690), Locke's notion that the human infant's brain is a tabula rasa, free of innate ideas but subject to the formative stresses of the environment, made the earliest stage of human development seem critical. In his Émile (1762), Rousseau understood the child as a noble savage, best able to gather knowledge as he pursued his natural interests and instincts long before he needed to master the artificial skills of the schoolroom. Soon afterwards, Romantic writers and artists idealized childhood innocence and empathized with childhood experience, as did William Blake (1757–1827) in his Songs of Innocence (1789) and William Wordsworth (1770–1850) in his Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood (1807).
The exploration of childhood proceeded as new "social sciences" of the human condition developed. Charles Darwin's (1809–1882) theory of evolution by the process of natural selection, described in his seminal works The Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), envisioned the creation of new species as the product of individual acts of procreation by millions of genetically privileged individuals—a vision of biological change, that is, centered on the birth of new infant generations. In a series of works published from the 1890s through the 1930s, the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) explored the role of childhood trauma on later adulthood and mapped the struggles toward autonomy of the developing infant personality. In The School and Society (1899), among other works, the American philosopher John Dewey (1859–1952) redefined the purpose of education: its aim was not to instill the accumulation of adult learning but to prepare future citizens and workers.
Practitioners of the new science of anthropology traveled the globe to study pre-state human societies, including their child-rearing concepts and practices, an interest exhibited in, among others, Margaret Mead's (1901–1978) Coming of Age in Samoa (1928). Sociologists investigated the situation of youth in modern societies, looking at peer groups, youth gangs, adolescent drug use, and teen pregnancy, among many other topics. Psychologists explored early childhood learning and development, a topic they share more recently with biologists, philosophers, and linguists in the interdisciplinary pursuit of "cognitive science."
Social reformers, philanthropists, and journalists, meanwhile, took up the cause of child welfare, as did Danish-born Jacob Riis (1849–1914) and Lewis Hine (1874–1940), for instance, who depicted in photographs and prose the condition of "street Arabs" and child workers at the turn of the twentieth century in America. While advocating women's civil rights, the early feminist movement highlighted women's maternal capacities and duties, an orientation that culminated in the publication in 1900 of the Swedish feminist Ellen Key's (1849–1926) influential book, The Century of the Child.
In the twentieth century, both communist and fascist governments targeted the child. Soviet Communism promoted collective childcare so as to free women to become workers, while Italian Fascists and German Nazis adopted maternalist and pro-natalist policies. Totalitarian states of both persuasions promoted youth societies that indoctrinated adolescents in official ideology. Reeling from the slaughter of World War I, meanwhile, democratic states instituted welfare policies that supported mothers, families, and children. Among the free and the unfree, twentieth century wars and genocidal projects resulted in the slaughter, starvation, displacement, and militarization of children. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) addresses these, among other abuses of children that have survived in the modern world.
At the same time, the twentieth century has also seen great progress in the medical care of the child. The modern practice of childbirth put traditional midwives out of business by about 1900. Whereas vaccination for smallpox had been known since the eighteenth century, the twentieth century brought new vaccinations against diseases dangerous specifically for children, such as diphtheria. In addition, the availability of pasteurization, refrigeration, and devices for artificial feeding dramatically improved survival rates of abandoned and orphaned children. Funded by public and private monies, social workers tended to the needs of the children of the poor and immigrant populations. Experts on child rearing flooded the market with advice books for middle-class readers, a flood epitomized by the popular work of Dr. Benjamin Spock (1903–1998), whose Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, first published in 1946, reached its seventh edition before the author's death in 1998.
A generation before Spock's death, however, a new book appeared in France that shook the scholarly world: Philippe Ariès's Centuries of Childhood (1960; English trans., 1962). So careful of children had citizens of the modern West become that they had forgotten the lost world of not so very long ago: the premodern world, where children perhaps counted not so much as in the present era, or at least not in the same way.