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Childhood and Child Rearing

The Historicity Of Childhood

Centuries of Childhood presents the thesis that the "concept of childhood" itself is modern: a creation of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. This thesis has been disputed and defended by later scholars. As a product of that controversy, the historicity of childhood has been established indisputably. The concept of childhood, along with childhood itself, is subject to change in changing historical circumstances.

In earlier times, Ariès argued, children were perceived as participants in adult society. They shared the same amusements as adults and did not have distinctive occupations or adornments. Even at school, children, adolescents, and adults intermingled, without distinction of age. The important boundary was not between child and elder, but dependent and master. Sentimental relations between parents and children were weakened, moreover, by the frequency of child death. Attitudes began to shift in the seventeenth century as smaller, coherent family groups supported the experience of individual children. Literary works evinced a newfound affection for children, while families willingly invested in child accessories and education and grieved at child deaths. Ariès based his arguments mainly on literary texts and artistic representations, mostly from France and England between 1500 and 1750.

Ariès's work evoked responses that critiqued and confirmed his hypotheses. In 1965 the British historian Peter Laslett published The World We Have Lost echoing some of Ariès's conclusions. Laslett was reporting on the project of empirical research on the history of the family centered at Cambridge University, which studied such archival sources as baptismal records for evidence of family structure, ages of baptism, marriage, and death. Using different sources, Laslett, like Ariès, concluded that the experience of past childhood was unlike that in the modern age: such children lived in a world we have lost.

Also affirming Ariès's hypothesis, Lawrence Stone's massive Family, Sex, and Marriage in England, 1500–1800 (1977) focused on elite households and utilized literary evidence such as diaries, autobiographies, and letters. Over three stages of development ranging from large, authoritarian households to smaller, more egalitarian ones, the family became increasingly "affective," Stone argued, characterized by strong sentimental ties and abundant investment in child welfare.

The American psychohistorian Lloyd de Mause, agreeing with Ariès and Stone on the greater importance of the child in modern times, proposed a model of the history of childhood that unfolded in five stages from the horrors of antiquity to the enlightened childrearing practices of the present day. Declaring in his seminal 1973 essay "The Evolution of Childhood" that the history of childhood was a "nightmare from which we have just begun to awaken," de Mause credited modern psychoanalytic theory with persuading adults to abandon age-old practices of abuse and consciously to further the child's autonomy and creativity. Also highlighting recent shifts in child-rearing attitudes, Edward Shorter's Making of the Modern Family (1975) argued that warmer, sentimental relations between men and women encouraged a stronger bond between mother and child.

Historians of the Italian Renaissance, examining a period (principally the fifteenth century) well before the kind of turning point in perceptions of children identified by Ariès, Stone, de Mause, or Shorter, found a trove of empirical data that permitted the mapping of household structures of Florence and its surrounding countryside. The work of David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, first published in 1978, yielded important insights about family size and ethos in different social groups. In essays collected and republished in 1993, Richard Trexler further explored both the dependency of children in Florence and their capacity as innocents as agents of salvation. Turning from Florence, Margaret King studied childhood death and adult bereavement in a noble Venetian family (1994).

While not aligning themselves as supporters or opponents of Ariès, Renaissance historians added to the evidence pointing to the difference between modern and past childhoods. In the wake of Stone's study, however, historians of England plunged into the controversy, generally to defend past parents and childhoods. Clarissa Atkinson's study of medieval motherhood, and Barbara Hanawalt's of children in fourteenth-century London, pointed to the complexity of past family relationships in contradiction to Ariès's notion of a premodern "indifference." More heatedly, Linda Pollock plowed through hundreds of diaries (mostly seventeenth century) to support her claim that parents cared deeply about their children. Alan Macfarlane, in studies of the origins of English individualism (1978) and of love and marriage in the early modern era (1986), proposed that familial relationships in England had long exhibited supposedly "modern" qualities of profound sentiment.

Examining Puritan communities in England and colonial Anglo-America, John Sommerville and John Demos each found attitudes toward children that were surprisingly modern. Examining family documents from Reformation-era Germany in several studies between 1983 and 2001, Steven Ozment argued (as had Macfarlane for England) that modern sentiments of family intimacy were well-established long before the modern age. Historians of ancient Greece and Rome such as Mark Golden and Suzanne Dixon, similarly, did not detect, as Ariès had suggested, any lack of a "concept" of childhood. Anthropologists note that in the Americas, early documents about the Aztec and Inca civilizations reveal a very structured picture of the life course, in which phases of childhood play an important role; in tribal societies of Africa and the Americas, too, initiation rituals divide a life into discrete phases associated with childhood, adolescence, parenthood, and grandparenthood. Hugh Cunningham, finally, focusing on children in the industrial era, placed the break between older and modern perceptions of children not in the early modern era, as had Ariès and Stone, but in the nineteenth century.

This brief overview shows that Ariès's pioneering hypothesis did not win universal acceptance from scholars. On one point agreement has been general: childhood is not the unchanging phenomenon contemporary experts often assume it is, but it varies according to time, setting, social context, gender, and culture. Ariès's great achievement was to establish the historicity of childhood as something no longer capable of refutation.

That established, it is clear that scholars have moved beyond the issues of the Ariès debate to explore a broader range of issues. These include issues concerning the child in the context of the mother-child relationship; those concerning the child in the context of the father-headed household; and those related to the training and education of children. This survey concludes with a consideration of the impact of industrialization on childhood, ushering us into the modern world.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Categorical judgement to ChimaeraChildhood and Child Rearing - The Child-centered Modern Age, The Historicity Of Childhood, Mother And Child: The First Dyad