History of Childhood

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The history of childhood is a subject of controversy. Since serious historical investigation began into this area in the late 1960s, historians have increasingly divided into two contrasting camps of opinion, those advocating "continuity" in child rearing practices, and those emphasising "change". As there is little evidence of what childhood was really like in the past, it is incredibly difficult for historians to reconstruct the life of a child, much more the  "experience" of being a child. In so many ways, the history of childhood is a history that slips through our fingers. Few Parents have left written records of how they reared their children, and fewer still children have left us their story. It is largely because of this lack of evidence, and because the evidence that does remain - advice literature, journals and letters, are so open to differing interpretations, that historians have divided over major issues such as whether children were loved and wanted in the past, the way parents viewed their children, and the treatment they received. The first major works into the history of childhood were those of Philippe Aries and Lloyd De Mause, Centuries of Childhood, and The History of Childhood respectfully. Both historians took a "progressive" approach to history, and concluded that the treatment of children by their parents and society have improved considerably throughout the centuries.  Both paint a very negative image of childhood, and family life in the past. Lloyd De Mause went as far as saying that;  "The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken." (1)  believing that;

 "The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused". (2)  Aries concluded that there was no concept of childhood as a state  different to adulthood in these centuries, and therefore, even if parents did feel affection for their offspring, they did not fully understand how to respond to the emotional needs of their children. This argument gained further weight with the mammoth work of Lawrence Stone on the history of the family and family relationships in the early modern period, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800. Stone too focused on the "evolution" of the family through these three centuries, arguing that the family changed from being of an "open lineage" structure in which family relationships were formal and repressed, to the "domesticated nuclear family", which resulted in "affective individualism". In the early 1980's, Linda Pollock in her influential, yet highly controversial work, Forgotten Children : Parent - child Relations 1500-1900, harshly criticised all the arguments made by Aries, de Mause and Stone. From her intensive study of over four hundred diaries and journals, she argued that childhood experiences were not as grim as they suggest it was. She strongly denies that there were any fundamental changes in the way parents viewed or reared their children in this period;  "The texts reveal no significant change in the quality of parental care given to, or the amount of affection felt for infants for the period 1500-1900". (3)  Pollock's work has received support from Rosemary O'Day and Mary Abbot, who both deny that childhood "evolved" considerably in this period. In recent years, it is this approach that is beginning to predominate, but Pollock et al are not without their critics. Therefore, as there are two so very different approaches to the history of childhood in the early modern period, attempting to determine just how methods of child rearing did change in the past is fraught with difficulty. In order to determine how something has changed, it is necessary to determine what it changed from, and there is no consensus of opinion as to how parents reared their children in this period. However, it is perhaps important to emphasise that it is not so much...
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