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History of Childhood

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 amily 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 the structure of childhood that is difficult to assess, in the sense of describing what the children actually did, but the attitudes and values of the parents.

It is difficult to determine whether these changed, if they did how they changed, and why they changed, and the outcome of these changes. Between 1500 and 1700, the actual structure of childhood changed little. In this pre-industrial age, England was largely agricultural. Amongst the poor, children were put to work at early ages on the farm, sowing seeds, chasing birds, and other rather unstrenuous activities. If they could not be made useful on the family’s own farm, then they would be put to work elsewhere.

This was a characteristic of both the town and the country, although in the towns, children were put to work a year to eighteen months earlier. This applied to both sexes, although boys were more likely to be put to work earlier, and girls to stay home a little longer to help their mother. Children who could be spared from the farm, or whose wages would not be missed, were often put to school, to receive a form of elementary education which would help them acquire the necessary literacy and arithmetic they would need in life.

Most of these children, especially the girls, remained in school only for a short period, and would then be expected to work to help their family financially. Some children never attended school, but were taught by their mothers at home. Amongst the wealthier social groups, boys, and to a lesser extent girls, would be provided with a more rigid and higher standard education from the age of six or seven upwards. This could take the form of private tuition, a school education, or education in someone else’s house.

It has been argued by Stone, Aries and De Mause, that there was a growing awareness of childhood as a state different to adult hood in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. According to them, society was beginning to appreciate that children were not miniature adults, but were at a substantially lower level of maturity, and so had distinct needs from adults – protection, love and nurturing. Society was now becoming more aware of the importance of parental socialisation, that it was socialisation that largely determined the kind of adult a child would eventually become. Lawrence Stone and J. H.

Plumb believe the emergence of this new characteristic can be traced in the artistic development of the period. Stone argues that in the middle ages, children were invariably portrayed as miniature adults in paintings, without any childish characteristics. However, into the sixteenth century, images of children began to acquire a distinct identity, and childish appearance. Plumb argues that from the late seventeenth century onwards, children can be seen playing, sketching and amusing themselves in portraits, which he suggests shows there was a definite concept of childhood emerging in this period.

He also argues that the increasing availability of toys and literature especially aimed for children, shows a greater understanding and appreciation of childhood. It is certainly possible that children were seen in a different light in this period, considering the influence of the Renaissance and the Reformation on ideologies(an explanation that Stone touches upon and will be discussed in more detail later), but the evidence employed by both Stone and Plumb needs to be used with supreme caution. Art and literature may reflect to a certain degree the alues and attitudes of a given society, but they are also limited by the technological understandings of the age. It could be argued that the change in the portrayal of children was due entirely to the Renaissance influence on physical realism in portraits, and the development of superior artistic skills as a consequence. Also, as artists became more familiar with painting the human form, they may have been more comfortable in exploring other forms of presentation, moving away from the stiffness of some early portraits, to the more naturalistic settings of the eighteenth century.

Similarly, the commercial availability of toys and children’s literature may have been the product of a growing materialistic and technological world, not an indication of a greater awareness of childhood. Just because toys were not commercially available in the past does not mean that the need for children to play was not appreciated. Parents may have manually made toys for their children. Indeed, Linda Pollock argues that imaginative play was common through out this period.

The literary development could likewise be due to the growing influence of the printing press which opened up new avenues for literature. There is no conclusive evidence that there was an increase in the “concept of childhood” in this period. Linda Pollock, and Rosemary O’Day, strongly deny that there was, arguing that parents had always been”aware that childhood was different in kind from adulthood. ”  (4) Stone et al have argued that once society became aware that childhood was a distinct state from adulthood, this effected the relationship between parents and children.

They argue that now parents were aware of the needs of children, they were more equipped to respond to them, and give their children the care and protection they so desperately needed. Both Ralph Houlbrooke and Lawrence Stone argue that during the course of the seventeenth centuries, families became more openly affectionate. They see the decline in observances such as the “blessing” as evidence of a more loving family relationship. The “blessing” was considered to be important in what it symbolised about the inferiority of children to adults.

Children were expected to seek their parent’s blessing every morning and night. Even in adulthood, children were expected to ask for this blessing every so often. There were also other customs to remind children of the respect, duty and obedience they owed their parents. Boys for example, were expected to take off their hats in their parent’s presence, and allegedly girls were expected to kneel before their mother. The Countess of Falkland for example, knelt before her mother even in adulthood, and even though she had obtained a higher social status than her mother through marriage.

Ralph Houlbrooke argues that in the seventeenth century such practises were declining. The “blessing” he says was replaced with a “goodnight kiss”, and the other customs relaxed. He believes that the increased intimacy in letters between parents and children in the seventeenth century are firm evidence of a growing affection and intimacy. He claims that parents were now using phrases such as “my dear child” or “my darling”, instead of the colder ones of “child” or “son, daughter”. However, again this evidence needs to be treated with caution.

In this period, society was becoming increasingly literate, especially amongst the wealthier social groups, and a greater depth of education may have meant that individuals were now able to express themselves easier. It must also be remembered that the English language itself was going through a transition at this time, greatly benefitting from the Renaissance emphasis on the vernacular. Lawrence Stone sees the decline in the customs of swaddling and wet-nursing from the late seventeenth century and particularly into the eighteenth, as a further indication of a growing affection.

However, again, this depends on interpretation. It was not for any abusive or oppressive reason that parents swaddled their children, but because they genuinely believed that it was for the child’s benefit, in that it prevented the child’s limbs from growing crooked and deformed. Arguably the decline of this practice was due to an increased scientific understanding of the human body, rather than an increase in parental affection towards children. Also there is no solid evidence that wet-nursing declined in the seventeenth century.

Indeed, for much of the eighteenth century, wet-nursing continued amongst the nobility and gentry. Admittedly it was increasingly the subject of attack, as puritans in particular believed that all mothers should breast feed their own children, but that this practise continued in aristocratic circles (it had never really been a custom amongst the poor) well into the nineteenth century, it cannot be used to illustrate a growing affection between mothers and children. Lawrence Stone argues that one of the reasons why parents and children were emotionally distant in the early part of this period, was ecause of the high infant mortality rate. He argues that parents were reluctant to invest love and care in their children, because of the pain losing them would cause. However, Linda Pollock identifies a flaw in his thesis. She argues that if this was the case, then one would expect the indifference towards children to have prevailed as long as the death rate. Stone puts forward that parents were becoming closer to their children in the late seventeenth century, where for some pars of the country such as Devon, more children were dying in this period than had done in the sixteenth century.

Pollock argues that contrary to reducing parental emotional investment, the high death rate only served to heighten their anxiety in times of illness, and increase their level of care. However, Lawrence Stone does not believe that all the consequences of a growing awareness of childhood as a distinct state from adulthood, had a positive effect on the relationship between parents and children. He suggests that with the awareness that behaviour depended on discipline, parents took their duty as disciplinarians more seriously.

He claims that whipping and flogging now became common place in an attempt to instil morality in their children. He also attributes this development to the Protestant Reformation. He argues that Protestantism emphasised the notion of Original sin, and contrary to Catholicism, did not advocated that the salvation of children could be obtained by baptism. Protestants argued that faith alone determined salvation, and therefore, for a child to be saved, faith was essential. This led to a decline in the importance of baptism, and increasingly parents delayed the ceremony, for days, weeks, or even months.

There was now added pressure on parents to ensure that their children fully comprehended the basics of Christianity, especially their own sinfulness, and need for repentance and salvation. This possibly increased the importance of the mother as teacher, and arguably created the potential for a greater intimacy between mother and child as they spent more quality time together. However, Sather argues that following the Reformation, the relationship between parents and children became characterised by  harshness and cruelty, as physical punishment became the norm, especially amongst Puritans. He who spareth the rod hateth his son” was universally repeated. Undoubtedly this theoretically sets the scene for a darkening of childhood experience. However, although the Reformation may have encouraged a harsher disciplinary role of the parents, as always, it is necessary to bear in mind that theory does not always convert into practise successfully. It is certainly possible that puritans treated their children harshly in this period, tyring to get them to conform to their notions of godliness, but it must be remembered that for most of this period puritans were a minority, and a rather unpopular one at that.

It was they who predominantly wrote the “conduct-books”, advising parents on how to rear their children, and although some historians such as Stone have taken their contents as evidence of a harsh attitude towards children, it is necessary to remember that  conduct books state how things ought to be, not how they are. Admittedly there were parents who did physically punish their children. John Aubrey, a contemporary of the seventeenth century, stated that harsh physical correction was rife, and that “the child perfectly hated the sight of his parents as the slave his torturer”, but this is highly debatable.

It is likely that if children were abused in this period, the abuse was more likely to be inflicted by the children’s employers who abused their powerful positions. There are numerous accounts of young boys and girls having been physically abused by their masters. However, it is significant that many parents on discovering this abuse, issued a suit against the guilty person, suggesting that such treatment was far from socially acceptable. Parents wanted their children corrected, and arguably would not have opposed to a physical chastisement if essential, but did not want, or approve, of excessive correction.

That physical punishment existed, cannot be taken as evidence of increased parental harshness towards children. It is clear from several journals that parents who did feel the need to physically punish their children, were often deeply troubled by the incident, and if possible, preferred not to inflict physical pain on their child. Also, there is little evidence for Stone’s theory that parents saw their children as innately evil, and thus needed excessive disciplining.

Indeed, considering that writers such as Thomas Gataker had to continuously press the point that it was “an idle concept” to suppose that “religion and godlinesse is not for children”, suggests that most parents did not accept the belief, even if it was widespread amongst puritans. In all likelihood, most parents took the view of John Locke, that children were morally neutral, and that it was up to them by both love and appropriate correction, to bring out the good in their nature. Another change which it has been argued came about partly because of the Reformation, was the “educational revolution” of the sixteenth century.

Certainly as Protestantism was the religion of the “word” both printed and preached, a higher degree of literacy was needed to read the Scriptures, and intellectual training in order for the people to comprehend doctrinal issues. Also, following the Dissolution of the monasteries and chantries, the educational provision made by these institutions ceased. Thus, if children were to be educated, schools had to be refounded, which is largely what happened in the reign of Edward the Sixth. This movement was also due to the Renaissance, which increased the value of education, especially amongst the gentry.

With the Renaissance came ideals of gentility, advocated by Castiglione and Thomas Elyot. Education was seen as a prime requisite of gentility, for not only did it cultivate the mind, but it distinguished gentle persons above the poor, and justified their privileged positions. Not surprisingly then, with such a high regard being attached to education, rich parents, who perhaps were not entirely literate themselves at the beginning of this period, increasingly ensured that their sons had a decent education.

Therefore, towards the end of the sixteenth, and especially into the seventeenth century, it became common for the wealthy to send their sons to the new grammar schools. If they were particularly wealthy, they would employ a tutor steeped in classical knowledge to educate their sons. That parents sent there children away from home at early ages has been taken as evidence of their indifference, but in all likelihood, when parents sent their children away, they believed it was in the best interests of the child. Ilana Ben-Amos argues that parents would only part with their children when it was absolutely essential.

In the  early seventeenth century for example, it was only after James Fretwell, who was then only four years old, came home weeping because he could not manage the distance between Sandal and Yorkshire every day, that his father out of concern for his welfare put him to lodge with a widow in Sandal. Even then, the child came home on Saturdays. It can also be seen that attitudes towards female education amongst the wealthy also changed in this period. In the Renaissance years, it is arguable that the education of women was encouraged. Thomas More himself said that “I do not see why learning ay not equally agree with both sexes”, and the period produced a number of learned women; Mary and Elizabeth Tudor, Lady Jane Grey, and even Mary Stuart. Antonia Fraser argues that during Elizabeth’s reign, there was a silent pressure on wealthy men to have their daughters educated. If they were to attend court without having some knowledge of Latin and the Classics, they would compare unfavourably with the intellect and knowledge of the Queen, and would thus not create a favourable impression on the men they were expected to “secure”.

Also, with there being a female monarch who was renowned as a scholar, it would be rather unmet to press the point that such a sphere was a man’s preserve. However, with the Queen’s death in 1603, and the accession of a man, such opinions were able to surface, and there was an increasing desire to exclude females from learning Latin and the classics. This was given impetus by the attitude of the sovereign himself. When King James was presented with a learned woman, he rather sarcastically remarked, “but can shee spin ? “.

This gave no incentive for the great families of England to subject their daughters to an expensive classical education, which many believed they had not the intellectual capacity to understand, and anyway would serve them no useful purpose in life. As the seventeenth century wore on, the difference in the educational expectations of the sexes became more marked. Girls were virtually excluded from grammar schools, and the notion of the “accomplished woman”, which was to play such a prominent part in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, gained a whole new lease of life.

Parents were now encouraged to have their daughters educated in those subjects deemed suitable for girls – sewing, knitting, music, and French. Over the course of the seventeenth century, schools for girls flourished, and were dedicated to educating girls in these increasingly regarded female traits. Stone argues that the end of the seventeenth century saw a more humane treatment of children being adopted, but arguably this was not the case for aristocratic girls. Physical deportment was becoming increasingly important.

The corset, which had long been in existence, now became regarded as essential, and the eighteenth century saw the development of other techniques to help create the perfect figure, such as stocks and backboards. Stone argues that one of the signs of a growing affection between parents and children, was the decline of parental control of their children’s marriages, but if this was the case with boys, the marriage of girls was still often tightly controlled. In concluding then, it can be seen that trying to determine to what extent there were important changes in the way that children were reared in this period, is fraught with difficulty.

The conclusion drawn, depends to a large degree on the approach adopted. Those historians such as Linda Pollock who advocate “continuity”, would argue that there were no fundamental changes in the way that parents treated and reared their children in this  who advocate “change”, would argue that there were important changes in these years. They would argue that there was a growing intimacy and affection between parents and children, a growing concern for the latter’s welfare, and although the Reformation initially introduced a period of increased severity, the general trend was the improvement of the treatment of children.

Certainly there were changes. There was an increased importance placed on education; the increasing segregation of male and female spheres within education; children were maintained at school longer; apprenticeships were lasting longer; there was an increase in the importance of early religious instruction; child baptism lost it’s immediate  significance; swaddling becoming less widely used, and into the eighteenth century there was a decline in the practice of wet nursing.

However, these changes are largely external changes. They tell us little about the way the “experience” of child rearing changed, if it did, during this period. Arguably, the more fundamental aspects of child-rearing, such as whether or not there was an emergence of a “concept of childhood” in this period, whether there was a growing intimacy between parents and children, and whether or not parental discipline became more severe, can only be speculated upon.

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