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Childhood and Child Rearing

The Household: The Father's Domain

In premodern times, a child's chances of survival depended on her mother's availability to nurture; but so, too, on her father's benevolence. For once human beings joined together in sedentary communities to engage in agricultural production, the father-headed household made an appearance. Fathers were the gatekeepers of households, and the guardians of the children he admitted to them. Those fortunate children were generally the offspring of approved women: those considered to be "legitimate." A bright line divided the spheres of legitimacy and illegitimacy, with great consequence for the lives of children (even though, in many societies, the illegitimate children of concubines lived under the same roof as their preferred half-siblings).

In Greek and Roman society, the master of the household had the power to welcome or reject a newborn child. Children not so welcomed would be "exposed," or placed outside the household in a place where they might perhaps perish, or possibly be retrieved by other families seeking a servant or by slavedealers interested in exploiting the child as a laborer or prostitute. As John Boswell carefully noted, exposure was not necessarily coterminous with infanticide; but certainly, a child's destiny was more assured if he remained in the household into which he was born.

The "exposure," abandonment, or killing of unwanted infants was commonplace in ancient civilizations, including China as well as those of the Mediterranean world. The aim was to limit population and conserve household resources, purposes achieved in modern times by contraception and abortion. Another form of abandonment practiced in medieval Europe, which may also have been caused by demographic factors, had at least superficially a religious motivation as well. Children given to a monastery, as "oblates" (offerings), would not only disburden a family of too many children, but would enhance their parents' chances of salvation. Yet the oblation of a child had ancient roots as well and approaches the phenomenon of child sacrifice as much as that of abandonment.

When fathers kept or exposed children, gender issues came into play. Boys were generally preferred to girls, as skewed sex ratios in different communities of the ancient world inform us; indeed, they still do so inform us, as sex preference by abortion is widely practiced today in Asia. When girls were raised in the household, the status of males remained higher. In ancient Rome, for instance, when boys received distinctive personal names at birth, girls bore their fathers' name with a feminine ending: the daughter of Julius, for instance, was Julia. In Italian Renaissance genealogies, daughters were often anonymous, designated only as "filia" (daughter). In contrast, in some pre-state societies, such as those of the American Iroquois or Hopi, the birth of a female child was celebrated.

In Western and Asian civilizations, boys were generally preferred to girls as heirs, whether they were valued as the keepers of the family rites, as in China and Rome, or as the inheritors of property, as they were nearly everywhere. The dowry was a common device—prevalent among the Hebrews and Babylonians, the Chinese and Indians, the Greeks and Romans, and premodern Europeans—used to give a limited portion of a patrimony to daughters upon marriage (or entry to a convent, in Christendom) so that the bulk of it was preserved for one or more sons.

The concern with inheritance, resulting in the devaluation of daughters relative to sons, characterizes societies organized by father-dominated households. The organization of those households, however, varies enormously according to region, era, and social rank. In China, India, and Islamic society, the young tended to marry early and remain within or closely related to the bridegroom's male kin. In Islam, endogamous marriage, principally to first cousins, was and remains common, and polygamy, although never universal, is permitted. In China, young brides often suffered under the hand of their powerful mothers-in-law.

European society, in a pattern especially characteristic of northwestern Europe, tended toward late marriage and the establishment of autonomous households, and truly nuclear families, by the newly married. As Alan Macfarlane has argued (1978, and again in 1985), the latter pattern, which prevailed in England, was conducive to the development of behavioral autonomy and the sense of individualism that was to manifest itself in the theoretical products of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. Certainly, in monogamous, nuclear families, it may be assumed that individual children received greater parental attention, with a consequent enhancement of their life chances.

The iron reality of high mortality meant that, whether the family was more or less extended, all children in premodern times experienced a different type of household than is common in contemporary society. Women generally gave birth to children over the whole span of their fertile years. Their first-born children might be twenty or more years older than their last. Sibling relationships would be greatly complicated by this fact: late-born children would find themselves subject to the authority of early children, if those remained at home; or early-born children might be ejected early from the household in favor of late-born dependents. As women's lives were often cut short by death in childbirth, moreover, husbands tended to re-marry, and more than once. Their second and subsequent wives continued to bear children, who were half-children of the first wife, occasioning even more intense sibling rivalries and the often-hostile presence of the stepmother.

When the father of the household died, patterns of widow remarriage differed. In China, India, and the West, the preference was that they should not remarry—and in traditional India, some widows died on their husbands' funeral pyres, in the Hindu custom of suttee. In Europe, although chaste widowhood was theoretically preferred, widow remarriage was common. Young widows who remarried might surrender their children to their husband's kin. Widows who did not remarry might continue to rear their children in the households of their husbands, or form one of the few woman-headed households.

A child's life chances in history depended even more than today on the nature of her mother, her father, and her household. So too did the kind of training or education that children received.

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