Childhood is such a universal feature of human life that we readily consider it a natural stage of development. After all, doesn’t every society that’s ever existed have some people identified as “children”? As obvious as the answer to this question may seem, variations in culture and over time are dramatic. People in modern Western societies have a widely held, unquestioned belief that children are fundamentally different from adults. We take for granted that children areoand have always beenoinnocent and entitled to nurturing and protection.
However, in other cultures (for example, Japan) children are viewed as much more independent creatures who can act willfully from the earliest moments of life. 1 We tend to base our Western beliefs about the nature of childhood on biological considerations. Young children are thoroughly dependent on adults for their survival. Infants cannot feed themselves or take care of themselves in any way. A 10-month-old child, left on its own, will surely die within days. A human may remain dependent on his or her parents for several decades. By contrast, other animal babies are much more self-sufficient.
A newborn horse, for example, is able to gallop around when it is only a few minutes old. To us, then, laws protecting innocent and defenseless children from dangers like exploitation at work, pornography, neglect, and abuse make sense. It seems inconceivable to us that the protection of innocent children is not a fundamental value in all societies, present and past. But as you will see, childhood is not simply a biological stage of development. Rather it is a social category that emerges from the attitudes, beliefs, and values of particular societies at particular points in time,2 subject to changing definitions and expectations.
Parental attachment to children, therefore, is less a function of instinct than a function of how parents in a particular culture or historical era perceive their responsibilities toward their children. Indeed, according to some historians, the notion of childhood as a distinct phase of life didn’t develop in Western culture until the 16th and 17th centuries. 3 Views of Childhood in the Middle Ages Until the end of the Middle Ages, children in the West were sometimes seen as miniature versions of adults.
If you look at paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries, you will notice that the children depicted in family portraits look like shrunken replicas of their parents. Their clothes and their bodily proportions are the same as those of adults. This image goes beyond artistic representation. Because they were seen as miniature adults, children of the era were expected to act accordingly. They were expected to participate in all aspects of social life alongside their parents. Foul language, sexual acts, death, and so on were all permitted in their presence.
The notion that children deserve special protection and treatment did not exist at this time. Children could be punished, and frequently were, for social transgressions with the same severity that adults were. Families of the 1600s and 1700s may have valued children for their role in inheritance, but children clearly didn’t elicit the same kind of sentiment that they elicit from adults today. 4 This rather “unsentimental” treatment of children probably had something to do with demographic realities. Fatal disease in the Middle Ages was quite prevalent, and infant mortality rates were extremely high.
Young children were not expected to live for very long. In 17th century France, for instance, between 20 and 50 percent of all infants died within the first year after birth. 5 People commonly believed, therefore, that if they wanted only a few children, they should have many more in order to “hedge their bets. O Parents couldn’t allow themselves to get too emotionally attached to something that was seen as a probable loss. Some even referred to their infant as “it” until the child reached an age at which survival was likely. At that time, the death of a baby was probably not the emotional tragedy that it is today.
In Spain, for example, when an infant died he or she was likely to be buried almost anywhere on the premises, like a pet cat or dog. Even the dead children of the rich were sometimes treated as paupers, their bodies sewn into sacks and thrown into common graves. 6 Childhood in the 18th and 19th Centuries By the 18th century, perceptions of childhood in the West were beginning to change. Children began to be seen as innocent and in need of protection, not unlike the way we see them today. Consequently, though, they were viewed as weak and susceptible to temptation.
Along with the notion of protection came the notion of discipline, as parents taught their children to avoid the enticements of their social world. Severe beatings of children in the name of discipline were common occurrences up until the late 18th century (and persist in some corners of society even to this day). Such cruelty was often couched in religious terms. One Dutch theologian offered the theory that God had formed the human buttocks so that they could be severely beaten without causing serious bodily injury. 7 Heaven was sometimes described to children in Sunday school as “a place where children are never beaten. “8
Definitions of childhood throughout history have been influenced by social institutions as well. Until the late 1800s, for instance, child labor was commonly practiced and accepted. 9 In the early part of the 19th century, perhaps half of all workers in northern factories were children under the age of eleven. 10 Children worked as long and as hard as adults, sometimes even harder. Because of their small size, they were sometimes given difficult and hazardous jobs, like cleaning out the insides of narrow factory chimneys. In poor urban families, parents often forced their children to engage in scavenging and street peddling.
In addition, abandoned children were sometimes recruited by unscrupulous adults for use in robbery and prostitution and other marginal enterprises: Some had their teeth torn out to serve as artificial teeth for the rich; others were deliberately maimed by beggars to arouse compassion. . . . Even this latter crime was one upon which the law looked with a remarkably tolerant eye. In 1761 a beggar woman, convicted of deliberately “putting out the eyes of children with whom she went about the country” in order to attract pity and alms, was sentenced to no more than two years’ imprisonment. 1 Although we have little evidence today of complete social approval or tolerance of these kinds of practices, they weren’t severely sanctioned either. Only by the middle of the 19th century did the first child protection organizations emerge. In 1825 the first House of Refuge in America was founded, an institution whose purpose was to provide sanctuary to children who had been abused or neglected. In subsequent years many similar institutions were established. Even these, however, were not totally sensitive to the welfare of children.
Their purpose was not to protect but to prevent children from becoming economic burdens and threats to society. Many people at the time believed that a bad childhood would lead to a bad adulthood. The House of Refuge sought to prevent the potential criminal tendencies of poor urban youths from ever surfacing by removing them from abusive home environments and placing them in institutions. Here they would share a “proper growing up” with other abandoned and neglected youths as well as delinquents who had violated the law. 12
The social value of children was also affected by major economic transformations in society. 13 The shift from a predominantly agricultural economy to an industrialized one in the 19th century revolutionized cultural conceptions. On the farm, families were bound together by economic necessity rather than emotions. Children were a crucial source of labor in the family economy, and they were a source of financial support in old age. 14 Consequently, the birth of a child was hailed as the arrival of a future laborer who would contribute to the financial security of the family.
In adoption practices, the most desirable child was the teenage male because of his potential value as a laborer. 15 20th-Century Childhood With the firm establishment of industrialization by the middle of the 20th century, children were no longer seen as economic necessities. The main source of income was now the parents, or more accurately the fathers, working outside the home. As a result, children became economically “useless,” and people began to see them as downright costly to raise. 16 At the same time, though, the culture was beginning to recognize their emotional importance.
Today’s parents are more likely to look to their children for intimacy and less likely to expect anything tangible in return, such as economic support in old age. The contemporary social value of children is therefore determined not by their labor potential but by the love and care they are thought to deserve. Hence the most desirable child for adoption today is the newborn baby. A person living in an earlier era would find this preference difficult to understand, just as we today assume that babies bring forth a nurturing instinct in adults.