Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Myth of Childhood

Child workers from a glass factory, 1908

Some conventions we follow seem so innate and natural we assume they always existed. That's not always the case. A perfect example of this is the idea that childhood as we know it has always been the norm. The family dynamics of mother, father and children who needed to be tended to until they entered society as, hopefully, responsible adults was the way it’s always been. Certainly the so called 'family values' groups on the right would have us believe that God created the family as it stands today, therefore this is God's way and should be our way.

In actual fact, the concept of family as we know it came into being in the mid 19th Century and solidified in the late 19th century, though it wasn't until the 20th Century that child labor laws reflected this family value and protected children from exploitation. In 1916 a Federal law was passed prohibiting the transport of goods across state lines if minimum age laws were violated. The law was declared unconstitutional in 1918, voiding that protection. In 1924 Congress tried to pass a national child labor law, but the measure was blocked by opposition and the bill was dropped. In 1938 President Roosevelt signed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which limited many forms of child labor. In 1973 Congress passed the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act, creating the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect and other steps designed to increase children's rights and reduce child neglect and abuse.

Before the mid-1800s children were seen as being filled with original sin. The renown American theologian, Jonathon Edwards, believed children were "not too little to go to hell' and he advocated preaching terror when necessary, even to children, who in God's sight "are young vipers… if not Christ's."

Only through the works of people like Jean Jacques Rousseau, Johan Pestalozzi and Catherine Beecher this concept was rejected in favor of children being natural and innocent, free of original sin. With that change grew the idea that if children were going to become good adults they needed nurturing throughout their childhood. Children were blank slates, open to being molded with the proper raising. Women were assigned the role of primary caregiver and teacher. Men were to provide support. Starting in the mid 1800s women's magazines began to present articles aimed at instructing them on how children should be raised, including reading material and appropriate toys. Playgrounds began to be constructed for children to have a safe place to play. The definition of childhood was advanced from 5-6 years of age to include adolescence. This time was meant to be a time of innocence, play and learning.

But it took decades before the idea of childhood as an innocent, carefree age encompassed the idea that they should not be working long hours for low wages and they continued to be exploited as cheap labor well into the 20th Century.

What does all this mean? That family as is touted today as being the norm is no such thing. Family is as artificial as construct as marriage is. In the past people cared for their children as long as they were infants and unable to do anything themselves, but once they reached an age when they could work, be it hunting, tending crops or as the world grew more industrialized, working in mines or factories, often for 14 or more hours a day, often at little or no wages then they were expected to get out and be productive. Girls were married off as soon as they reached puberty. Certainly the idea of keeping children at home into their late teens or even early twenties was unheard of. They would only be mouths that needed feeding and if a boy or girl was big enough to work, then they should work. That was God's plan then. Reverend Edwards would certainly have agreed.


  1. A timely reminder of how lucky we are, not just to be living in the 21st century, but to be living in the so-called Western World. There are a lot of places where this is still the norm.

    Thanks for posting, Pat.

  2. PAT--Now, I think we've gone to the extreme the other way--parents now too often indulge their children, to the point of teaching them the fine art of "instant gratification." A baby obtains this wonderful feeling by breast feeding or sucking his thumb, or curling up in a blanket. By school age, children stop this--we hope, but with the advent of our wealthy society (I know, it's all relative)--parents give them what they want--instantly. Compared to the child of earlier centuries,this might seem better--but is it? Certainly, I don't advocate child labor, but at home--yes--they need to work a little around the house. I'm very annoyed by the parents who have given their child every conceivable electronic device to keep them entertained. We'll pay for this some day. Well, Pat, you didn't know you'd opened a floodgate, did you? You just happened to hit on one of my biggest pet peeves. Good post! Celia

  3. Actually you make a very good point. I'm not sure why it is, but as people we seem to do things in extremes. Instead of a happy balance of say, not exploiting children, but also teaching them to be responsible for their actions and if you want something, you need to work for it. TNSTAAFL Or There's No Such Thing As A Free Lunch. I think it was Heinlein that said that first.

    Parents abdicate all responsibility in teaching their children, but they don't want the schools to be more than babysitters. Mustn't punish them, or fail them or half the time even teach them, just hold them there for 8 hours out of mom and dad's way.

    My original point was that the hard right groups that blather on about family values act like the family we recognize today has always existed, and I was pointing out that it's a very new invention. Families did not look like this in Biblical or any historic time period. Families in the past were more like small tribes of interrelated people.