The Evolution Of Childhood In Europe And America

2226 words - 9 pages

The Evolution of Childhood in Europe and America

Somewhere around the beginning of the seventeenth century, the perception of the nature of childhood -- its duration, its perceived purpose, its requirements, its quality -- changed rather significantly in the Eurocentric world, a period Valerie Suransky identifies as a watershed for the modern notion of childhood (1982, p. 6). Actually, two things seemed to have happened: first, the idea of childhood as a separate developmental stage began to arise; second, the idea of who was deserving of childhood also began to broaden. The pattern was similar in Europe and America, with some minor variations which resulted from geography, religion, etc., but the differences are inconsequential. Generally speaking, the factors which influenced this change are the view of the nature of humankind, the development of industry, urbanization, parents themselves, and the women's movement.

According to Sharar (1990), childhood in Europe during the Middle Ages was a concept pretty much limited to members of the upper-class. Children of the lower-classes generally had a rather extended infancy period -- to about age seven -- but were then, essentially, tossed into the adult world. With the advent of Calvinism, and protestantism in general, in the late 1500s, the focus shifted, perhaps because of the rise of a middle class, perhaps because of the new religion's focus on the individual.

In the Protestant view, in which humans were viewed as innately evil, soiled by original sin, children were also considered moral agents, and therefore in need of shaping. Given this idea, it was reasonable to stifle children's natural impulses by physically punishing those impulses, to set them in rows in classsrooms, to make whatever play they were permitted into moral lessons (Calhoun, 1945, pp. 106-27). They were perceived as little battlegrounds in the cosmic war of Good versus Evil. And it was considered necessary to, literally sometimes, beat the devil out of them (Calhoun, 1945, pp. 40-41).

Corollary to this view of human nature, and children's nature, was the Calvinist, or Puritan, "work ethic," which valued hard work as a weapon in the battle against Evil. Given this view of children and work, it is not difficult to understand why, with the seventeenth century development of industries such as coal mining, children would be put to work in them: the culture had come to believe that children needed to be kept occupied in productive things in order to save their souls, and believed that work per se was good. Industry easily accomodated this view.

Thus, the development of industry had a profound influence on the history of childhood in the lower-classes. With the development of the factory system, for instance, there was much demand for labor (Rose, 1991, p. 3). Given that throughout human history the end of infancy and the beginning of induction into adult life had occurred somewhere...

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