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Re-inventing childhood

Updated Friday, 15th September 2006
Each generation remakes the meaning of being young. Hugh Cunningham explores some of these childhood inventions.

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Children working part-time 1900 - Farnworth Library, Bolton

Ideas about the nature of childhood and about how best to bring up a child have changed in significant ways over time. It’s true that at any one point in time we can find people disagreeing about these issues, but in most periods of the past there have emerged dominant modes of thinking about childhood. We can think of these as inventions of childhood, new ways of imagining the key features of childhood.

The most significant of these inventions as they affected Britain I’ve described in six main sections. We should not, however, assume that parents necessarily followed the advice they were given. Quite often those who were setting out ideals were all too aware that day-to-day parenting differed sharply from what they regarded as best practice.

The Middle Ages

During the five hundred years between the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the dawn of the Reformation, there were many different emphases in thinking about childhood. But there was one dominant and enduring institution, the Catholic Church, which set the tone for all such thinking. In the ceremony of baptism a child was received into the Church and freed from the burden of original sin. Babies, said one preacher, "are symple, withowt gyle, innocent, wythout harme, and all pure wythowt corruption."

The Church had inherited from Greek and Roman authorities ideas of the stages of life. Infancy lasted up to the age of seven, pueritia or childhood up to fourteen, to be succeeded by adolescence.

These ages were in some senses building blocks to enable you to reach the peak of life which came with young adulthood: childhood was not thought to be as important as we now consider it in the formation of personality and character. That said, there was nevertheless room for debate as to how best to bring up a child.

It’s best brought home to us in a story about St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury at the turn of the eleventh and twelfth centuries. An abbot told Anselm of the difficulties he was having in bringing up boys in his care. The abbot was a disciplinarian, beating the boys for each and every misdemeanour. Anselm could not contain his disagreement: "In God’s name", he burst out, "I would have you tell me why you are so incensed against them. Are they not human? Are they not flesh and blood like you?" The boys, he said, need "the encouragement and help of fatherly sympathy and gentleness", not just blows.

St Anselm [Image: Lawrence OP - CC-BY-NC-ND]
St Anslem depicted in stained glass at Our Lady and the English Martyrs, Cambridge. [Image: Lawrence OP, under CC--BY-NC-ND]

Anselm’s views were widely known and widely quoted in the later Middle Ages. But equally the abbot had his successors: every picture of a schoolroom features a master brandishing a whip. Spare the rod and spoil the child echoes through most centuries of British history.

But whatever else this debate about child-rearing shows, it puts paid to the idea, frequently cited, that in the Middle Ages, and beyond them, children were seen simply as ‘little adults’. They were not. Childhood was clearly recognised as a distinct time of life.

The Protestant Reformation

The Reformation of the sixteenth century replaced the Catholic Church and its rituals with a sterner faith. Children and their parents no longer had the comfort of knowing that, once baptized, they would be spared the pains of hell should they die – an all too frequent occurrence. Godly parents, urged on by their preachers, tried to bring their children to an awareness of their sins and of the need for salvation.

As the printed word became increasingly available, catechisms became the means of bringing children to a knowledge of God. Adults put the questions, and children learnt the proper reply. Parents couldn’t begin too soon: there was a catechism for children "that are not past the breast yet" – and a four-hundred page one for a five-year-old. Parents, if not children, lived in a state of anxiety unparalleled until our own time.

There was plenty of evidence that some children were responsive. The most famous book for children in the seventeenth century was James Janeway’s A Token for Children, being an Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy and Exemplary Lives, and Joyful Deaths, of several young Children.

James Janeway
James Janeway

Janeway was a Protestant minister in London. He’d experienced the terrible plague of 1665, children most vulnerable to its ravages. "Did you never hear of a little Child that died?" he asked. "And if other Children die, why may not you be sick and die? And what will you do then, Child, if you should have no grace in your heart, and be found like other naughty Children?"

It is perhaps some relief to the modern reader to find that there were some ‘naughty Children’, apparently unaffected by the preachers. And on the positive side, parents were told not to resort too easily to corporal punishment, and to aim at a happy medium, in the words of one advice book, ‘so as I neither make my child to despise me through too-much lenity, nor to hate me through too-much severity’.

The Enlightenment

In 1693 the great philosopher John Locke (1632-1704) published Some Thoughts Concerning Education, probably the most influential British book on childhood. Its origins hardly suggested this. Locke had been tutor to a number of aristocratic children, and on the basis of this experience wrote some letters to a relative on child rearing. These circulated, and eventually Locke was persuaded to publish them.

Locke, unlike the Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, does not seem at all concerned about the child’s salvation. His interest, rather, is to suggest ways of instilling good habits into a child that will last a lifetime. The way to do this was not through corporal punishment, not through frightening them, as servants were inclined to with stories of ghosts and hobgoblins, but to take reason as your guide.

For Locke "the Principle of all Vertue and Excellency lies in a power of denying ourselves the satisfaction of our own Desires, where Reason does not authorize them", and this should be instilled from babyhood. The first thing babies should learn is that they shouldn’t have something because they like it, but because it is thought good for them. Locke is full of sensible advice on clothing and food for children, and on not buying them too many toys.

John Locke
John Locke

He also thinks that learning should be made fun, and that children should "be tenderly used … and have Play-things". And he recognises that each child will have its own ‘natural Genius and Constitution’. Parents fell on Locke’s book in much the same way as they would fall on Dr Spock in the mid-twentieth century: he relieved them of many anxieties, and set them a clear agenda, for, he claimed, nine-tenths of how a child turns out as an adult, "Good or Evil, useful or not", will be the result of its education.

The Romantics

For half a century or more Locke’s book reigned supreme, in Europe and North America, as well as in Britain. The eventual challenge to it came from Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Émile (1762). For Rousseau, the problem with Locke lay in his obsession with the adult to be, rather than with the child. Rousseau was perhaps the first thinker to be truly child-centred. Don’t reason with children, he wrote. Let them learn from things, from nature, not from teachers.

Rousseau laid the ground for the Romantic poets in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was only a small step from arguing that a child should learn from nature to suggesting that a child might have access to the natural world in a way denied to world-weary adults.

Jean Jacques Rousseau
Jean Jacques Rousseau [Image: Aldor via Flickr under CC-BY-NC-ND licence]

Childhood, for the first time, became the most privileged, perhaps the most enviable, phase of life. In his Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood (1808), William Wordsworth famously imagined children descending from heaven ‘trailing clouds of glory’. So great was Wordsworth’s influence – perhaps as great in the nineteenth century as that of Sigmund Freud in the twentieth – that Christians begin to abandon their belief in original sin, and to revel in Wordsworth’s imagery.

Children, some people began to think, were not only innocent, but could also have much to teach adults about truth and beauty. As Charles Dickens was to reiterate, if you let the child in you die, you were in effect dead, like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol.

The Victorians

Some Victorian children were allowed to live out the dream of a romantic childhood. But for all too many, conditions of life in industrialising and urbanising Britain made it seem to observers that they were ‘children without childhood’, condemned to long hours of work and far from the nature that the Romantics so prized.

Victorian reformers, such as Lord Ashley or Dr Barnardo, set themselves the task of restoring childhood to these children who were missing out on it. Children, it came to be thought, should be protected from the adult world of work and responsibility. They should be dependent on adults, and their time divided between home and school. And ideally they should be happy, a state of happiness coming to be particularly associated with childhood.

Right at the end of the period Peter Pan wanted never to grow up. Childhood was idealised as a garden, protected by walls and hedges, where nature flourished at its perfect best. In practice, not many parents attained to, or even desired, this kind of childhood for their children.

The wealthier classes turned over their children to the care of governesses, and then sent them off to boarding schools. For the mass of the working classes, poverty meant that a child had to contribute to the family economy as soon as it was able to and the law allowed. Compulsory schooling, from the 1870s onwards, had to be imposed by force of law.

The Century of the Child

The twentieth century was loudly proclaimed at its outset to be ‘the century of the child’. What this meant was a recognition that the future of any nation was dependent on its children. There were many positive aspects to this. The health of children began to receive serious attention, as did their education. There were campaigns to relieve children from poverty, the first major success being the Family Allowances Act of 1946. But tying the future of the nation so closely to the treatment of children also had more dubious sides to it.

There was much fear of a ‘degeneration of the race’ and of halting it by discouraging unsuitable parents from breeding. Science seemed to hold the key to the future, and if, as the prominent child psychologist, Cyril Burt, claimed, ‘superintending the growth of human beings is as scientific a business as cultivating plants or training a race horse’, then many parents seemed ill-equipped for the task. In the 1920s and 1930s behaviourism dominated as a mode of child rearing, the emphasis on producing an obedient child.

There was a reaction against behaviourism in the 1940s and afterwards, but its replacement by a fear of the consequences of ‘maternal deprivation’ may have done little to relieve the anxieties of parents.

Rising standards of living from the mid-century enabled parents to begin to invest hopes and resources in children on an unprecedented scale. The flow of cash now went from parents to children, and by the end of the century children in many families could expect parental support up to their twenties, something unimaginable in previous centuries.

At the same time, from the 1970s onwards, children began to acquire new rights in relation to the state and to their families: the right not to be beaten in school (1982), the right to be consulted in the event of parental divorce, and so on. This was not what the proponents of ‘the century of the child’ had imagined at its outset. What had happened was that childhood itself had in many ways become prolonged, but children had gained a higher status both within the family and in society at large.


Find out more

The Life of St Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, Eadmer, ed. R. W. Southern, Clarendon Press

A Token for Children, Janeway, James, quoted in Ralph Houlbrooke, ‘Death in childhood: the practice of the “good death” in James Janeway’s 'A Token for Children’, in Anthony Fletcher and Stephen Hussey Childhood in Question: Children, Parents and the State, (eds), Manchester University Press, p. 37

The Educational Writings of John Locke, Axtell, James L. (ed), Cambridge University Press

Cyril Burt, quoted in The Children of the Poor: Representations of Childhood since the Seventeenth Century, Cunningham, Hugh. Blackwell

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