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Childhood and Child Rearing

Training And Education: The Circulation Of Children

Maternal rearing lasted until the age of seven, approximately, in most societies. Thereafter, although some girls continued under their mothers' care until marriage, most children learned the tasks of adulthood elsewhere: from tutors, at work, in school, or by apprenticeship.

Almost universally, the age of seven (sometimes six or eight) is the point at which children were thought to reach an age of competence. At that point, they could perform tasks responsibly, understand religious instruction, or begin formal education. At this point, too, boys were generally transferred from maternal to paternal oversight. In some tribal societies, as in such settings as ancient Sparta, the Ottoman Janissary Corps, and the nineteenth-century English public school, boys have been removed from the care of their mothers at an early age and raised in exclusively male groups—a kind of collective extension of paternal care.

If there was general agreement on the approximate age of seven as demarcating a stage of childhood, other demarcations were variable. Weaning (around eighteen months to two years was typical in the Western world) marked for some the boundary between infancy and early childhood. Later childhood was often seen to begin somewhere after age ten, when children were seen working outside the home, although some did so as early as age eight or nine as well. Some societies, like the Jews and the Romans, ritually marked the entry of boys into adulthood at age thirteen or fourteen. Minimum ages of marriage for girls clustered around age twelve.

No consensus, therefore, existed on the stages of childhood after age seven, or about the length of childhood. The child who was trained to peasant labor, or apprenticed to a master, or sent into service, or swept up in the experience of war, had only a brief childhood. In those peasant societies where household structures were extended, as in China, sons lived in the natal household even after marriage, still subordinate to paternal authority, while girls often married young, to be raised by the parents of their young husbands. In Western society, where it was common for young couples to begin their own separate households, adulthood began with marriage.

After regional and cultural factors, the boundaries of childhood depended most on the social standing of the child. In Western society, many children were in a process of circulation from ages as young as eight or nine. The poor were sent from home to labor as servants; nobles to acquire the skills of knighthood (if male) or household management (if female); those of artisan origin to apprenticeships lasting five, seven, or even ten years. Children circulated for purposes other than work or training. Wealthy households took in the surplus or orphaned children of their kin, while the children of an unwed or widowed mother would follow her on a tedious journey in search of shelter or employment.

In contrast, those children privileged enough to remain at home, supported by their bourgeois or aristocratic parents, were the real prototype of modern children. Dressed in special clothing, and endowed with specialized objects—known to us as toys—to enhance their play, they would be perceived as uniquely innocent. They would be protected from exposure to adult sexuality and violence; they would be tended in illness and mourned in death; and they might be given tutors and teachers and provided a liberal education. An interesting comparison is provided by Bronislaw Malinowski's famous description of childhood in the Trobriand Islands off the coast of Papua New Guinea, where children spent their days in a separate "nation of children," similarly freed from adult responsibility, but also from adult supervision to a degree unthinkable in the upper-and middle-class West.

Until recent times, schooling has been an opportunity limited to the fortunate few. One of the hallmarks of civilization, literacy was initially the property of an esoteric elite of priests and scribes. In Mesopotamia, Egypt, and China, writing consisted of numerous and intricate characters that were learned with difficulty and reproduced slowly. That pattern persisted in imperial China, where the literary arts were highly esteemed, and families sacrificed so that their sons could be educated and compete, and sometimes qualify for office, in strenuous state-run examinations. In tribal societies, sex-specific education could last for years, but usually took place in sex-segregated contexts and depended upon the oral and ritual transmission of knowledge.

Alphabetic writing systems made literacy easier to achieve. As merchants and artisans gained access to writing skills, schooling became more generalized. In Greek, Hellenistic, and Roman society, literacy was relatively widespread among urban elites. Islamic civilization, as well, esteemed literacy. Significant numbers of Muslims from the straits of Gibraltar into south Asia and Oceania learned to read Arabic, the language of the Koran.

In the wake of the Germanic invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries, the level of civilization in Europe dropped dramatically from Roman days. For centuries, literacy was limited to members of the Christian church hierarchy: priests and monks. Schools were appendages of monasteries and cathedrals, their prime purpose to supply the minimal knowledge of Latin necessary to perform the liturgy. As scholastic (school-based) learning developed in the twelfth and thirteenth century, stimulated by the incorporation of ancient Greek (especially Aristotelian) texts, universities took form. In these institutions of higher learning—the world's first—students in their teens and twenties gained degrees in philosophy, theology, medicine, and law. In the Americas, Aztec and Inca noble youth entered priest-run schools where they received education in the forms of knowledge; only among the Maya, however, would this include literacy in the Western sense.

The humanists of the Italian Renaissance created a form of schooling beyond the church-based system, whose purpose was to enlighten and develop the individual rather than to instill specific systems of knowledge. The Protestant and Catholic Reformations each adopted the Renaissance notion of elementary and secondary schools that now proliferated, serving to prepare not only a priestly class, but male elites from the middle classes and the nobility, and even girls at elementary levels. These educational initiatives, together with revolutions in economics and science that made backward Europe the dominant world power, greatly enhanced the chances children would have for their own advancement.

Schooling came at a cost for young students—the cost of corporal punishment. From antiquity, the symbol of a teacher was the rod that he wielded to "correct" the unruly or unresponsive student. In medieval Europe, it was understood that Latin was literally to be beaten into the young. Although humanist pedagogues deplored the use of the rod, corporal punishment remained a feature of the schoolroom into modern times. Such abuse was only an extension of norms outside the classroom. Those with power could visit physical chastisement on their dependents: masters over apprentices, householders over servants, the state over malefactors, and fathers over children. Perhaps the world has seen, over the last century, along with those consumed by Holocaust, world war, and state-sponsored famine, the first children to escape the rod.

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