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Childhood and Child Rearing

The Advent Of Modernity: School And Work

The twin processes of Enlightenment and industrialization mark the division between premodern and modern for childhood and concepts of childhood. Whereas the Enlightenment introduced the ideas with which this article began, leading to the modern disciplines that specialize in the condition and care of the child, industrialization introduced new forms of exploitation of children, but also, in time, new opportunities for family life as standards of living eventually rose. In the two areas of work and schooling, the lives of children changed most dramatically during the industrial era.

Industrialization meant, above all, the factory organization of labor. Children, notoriously, labored in the early factories, to the great detriment of their health and well-being. As industrialization progressed, an inquest into the welfare of children workers resulted in Britain's Factory Act of 1833, which set hour limits for child workdays. Following suit, most advanced nations introduced the regulation of child labor, beginning with France in 1841, and culminating in the first decades of the next century with Japan, Russia, and the United States. Today, child labor is found in developing regions of the world and is the subject of investigation and censure by many activists and policy-makers in the developed world.

As policy-makers, employers, and parents came to understand that children must not spend their lives in factory labor, they established instead the goal of sending all children to school. Beginning with France by 1878 and Britain by 1891, secular, free, and compulsory mass public education was the norm for the wealthiest nations of Europe and the Americas, as well as rapidly modernized Japan. At the same time, the kindergarten movement created by central European pedagogical theorists Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827) and Friedrich W. A. Froebel (1782–1852) swept the Western world, encouraging the establishment of kindergartens supported by fee-paying elite parents and charitable institutions. In the early twentieth century, Maria Montessori (1870–1952) introduced the concept of a nursery school for the very young, featuring child-friendly spaces and materials and a structured but individualized and child-appropriate curriculum. In the more privileged countries, these opportunities for young children have become increasingly commonplace. In poor countries, in contrast, even children over age seven, especially girls, lack the opportunity for a basic education.

Laslett's depiction of The World We Have Lost poignantly alerted modern readers to the unbridgeable distance between their own reality and that of children of premodern times. More recently, we have learned that the distance is not so very great. In the developing nations of the modern world, millions of children live in conditions strikingly like those of the times we thought we had left behind: among them, continual maternal childbearing without possibility of contraception; high rates of infant and child mortality; abandonment, infanticide, and abuse; absent or tyrannical fathers; child labor; and the cataclysm of war.


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Margaret L. King

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