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The Invention Of Childhood By Hugh Cunningham

1189 words - 5 pages

Contemporary anxieties about childhood have often fuelled the incentive into historical research on the subject, with childhood enjoying a high status in our social, political and cultural debates. This has been reflected in what can be described as a ‘lively field’ of historical investigation , aiming to give us a wider perspective on the changing conceptions of childhood, and an understanding of the experiences of children through time. The publication of Philippe Ariès’ L’enfant et la vie familiale sous l’ancien regime in 1960 helped to stimulate an upsurge of interest in the field, with Ariès managing to convince most of his readers that childhood had a history, and that ideas about childhood and the experience of being a child had changed over time and in different cultures.
In this area of study, there has often been a belief that the ‘true nature’ of childhood emerged in the eighteenth century, and has since been established as a norm in Western European societies . Many of our modern ideas about childhood are indebted to eighteenth century thinkers, such as John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and many of our modern perceptions of childish ‘nature’ can be embodied in art of the time, such as that of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Jean-Baptiste Greuze. It is therefore unsurprising that we often locate the discovery of childhood in this century, as it seems to symbolise the origin of our contemporary beliefs. Many historians repudiate this ‘true nature’ approach; Colin Heywood considers childhood not as ‘a timeless category waiting in the wings of history to be discovered’ , but as a cultural construct which is deeply determined by its historical, social and economic context. Distinctions are also drawn between the history of childhood and the history of children, one connoting the beliefs which surround this stage of life, the other implying an investigation of child experience. What constitutes ‘childhood’ is also a subject for contention, especially with regards to the eighteenth century, with the term being applied to life stages of varying length. Sexual and moral innocence was often thought to end at seven or eight, with this being the period of childhood given in Denis Diderot’s 1751 Encyclopédie . However, in English law a man would not have ‘the command of his fortune till twenty one’ , with children therefore being legally dependant on their parents’ wills until this age of discretion.
When considering the possibility of a ‘new age’ of childhood in the eighteenth century, it is necessary to adopt an approach which encompasses all of the primary aspects of childhood theory and experience at the time. Such a method can be found in Hugh Cunningham’s Children and Childhood in Western Society Since 1500, in which he develops his thesis by exploring a number of dimensions which focus on three main interlocking themes: ‘ideas of childhood; the actuality of adult-child relations; and the roles of philanthropists and states in regard to...

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