Picture of Knox Bell Tower

EDUC 201

School & Society

Animated picture of a wormy apple
Course Calendar
Video Clips








Factors Influencing The Development of The Idea of Childhood in Europe and America

by Jim Vandergriff

         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 around age seven, it was rather natural that seven year olds should go to work in the factories and mines.  What changed for these children was only the kind of work, and perhaps its duration.  Instead of laboring in the fields, many now labored in factories and in mines.  And instead of laboring with and for family members in exchange for room and board, the majority now worked with and for strangers for a wage.  The American and European experiences differed only in degree.  That is, given the agricultural and frontier nature of America at the time, there were fewer factories.  Nonetheless, where there were factories and cottage industries, children experienced the same kind of thing (Calhoun, 1945, pp. 287-8).  In fact, child labor was so prevalent that children were kidnapped in Europe and sold as factory workers and laborers in America (Calhoun, 1945, pp. 285-6).

         The factories also brought urbanization, which contributed significantly to the shape of childhood.  When families moved from rural to urban areas, family economies shifted from commodity economies to cash economies, necessitating the acquisition of more hard currency.  For the lower classes, this generally meant that the entire family, including children, had to produce income.  Furthermore, family size increased in response to industry's needs for labor (Cruickshank, 1981, p. 19).  Children became an economic asset (Calhoun,1946, p. 136).  And, as Rose argues, this trend reverses itself as the need for child labor diminishes:  family size in England fell steadily from an average of six in 1869 to just over four in the 1890s to under 2.5 in 1915 (1991, p. 2).  Though parents had few viable birth-control methods, there is ample evidence that many intentionally produced large families for economic reasons. 

         As industrial technology advanced, productivity went up and labor requirements went down.  As children were needed less in the work force, they became a social problem in the new urban areas, which generated an effort to contain them.  Thus the advent of schools.  At first, working children were required to attend Sunday schools, which attended to both their moral and academic needs, but these slowly grew in the direction of contemporary schools.  These Sunday schools were encouraged by industrialists because they taught the values the employers wanted the kids to have.  Some, in fact were open exclusively to working children (Cruickshank, 1983, pp. 34-5).

         As the idea of universal schooling was taking hold, the minimum legal working age for children was rising and the maximum number of hours a child could legally work was declining.  This particular trend played itself out in the series of labor reform and child welfare acts of the nineteenth century which not only established a minimum working age, but also helped to inculcate a new idea of the nature of childhood and to extend it to a wider range of social classes.  That is, as people became used to a particular legal definition of childhood, they came to consider it the norm.  For instance, in England "[t]he early Factory Acts introduced the principle of part-time schooling for child workers" ( Rose, 1991, p. 6) and later acts extended the principle to other types of employment.  One result was that the demand for child labor began to diminish; another was that the amount of required schooling gradually increased.   However, this legislation  ". . . was intended not so much to rescue children from exploitation, as to corral them in schools owing to the decline of work for them in industry"(Rose, 1991, pp. 6-7).  So, school and protective legislation resulted more from decreased industrial need than altruism.  Furthermore, as technology increased productivity, especially evident following World War II, increased consumption became necessary (Strickland, 1984, pp. 14-15).

         The third factor involved in the changing nature of childhood, and one which serves to further obscure cause and effect, is the parents' attitudes toward children and the nature of childhood.  As Rose points out, working-class, urban parents often opposed the limitations on child labor and the requirements for their schooling.  "A Liverpool factory inspector in the late 1860s noted how parents found their children's half-time factory earnings so meagre 'that on their parts they would rather keep them at home and have no bother with the schooling'"(1991, p. 7).  Likewise, ". . . much of the worst exploitation was inflicted in small workshops often at the hand of the children's own parents" (Rose, 1991, p. 19).  

Calhoun makes a similar case for America (1946, pp. 136-140), and Harriet Fraad writes,

. . . parents have been other than nurturant in the past and are other than nurturant today.  The idea of the nurturant family is a mask for something quite different.  Parents in private homes have never been reliable guardians for children.  From the beginning of time parents have not only routinely abandoned and neglected their children, but also sexually abused them and battered them (1993, p. 39). 

         Thus, there was a countervailing, historical tendency opposed to the extension of childhood, though it is important to distinguish here between classes.  Children of the higher classes have historically been better treated than those of the lower classes.  As to the nature of that different treatment, though, Shulamith Sharar (1990) argues convincingly that it has been more a function of means than intent, that parents have generally treated children as well as their own circumstances have permitted.  Thus, the parental oppositions noted above perhaps result from economic necessity rather than lack of tender feelings. 

         The fourth factor one must consider is also complex:  the impact of the Women's Movement on the idea of childhood. Shulamit Firestone contends that the extended term of childhood dependency was imposed on women in order to subjugate and confine them (reported in Suransky, 1982, p. 9).  Conversely, Anthony Platt argues that in part childhood was created by the feminist movement of the late 1900s, that

[t]he child-saving movement was, in part, a crusade which, though emphasizing the dependence of the social order on the proper socialization of children, implicitly elevated the nuclear family and, more especially, the role of women as stalwarts of the family (1982, p. 157). 

         Historians of the American family also speak often of the "cult of childhood" which arose after the Revolution.  They argue that women organized during the war years to support the war effort and that, after it ended successfully, turned that then-unfocused energy inward toward the family.  This movement in America is usually referred to as "the Cult of True Womanhood" (Welter, 1966, pp. 151-176).  Again, though, children of the upper-classses were the beneficiaries of this attitude.

         Along this line, Platt argues that the child-saving movement had both symbolic and status functions for middle-class, American feminists, that it served both as an affirmation of traditional family values (middle-class), by elevating the concept of the nuclear family and affirming women's status therein, and as an instrument of women's emancipation (1982, pp. 156-8).  He concludes this particular argument thus:  "it is not too unreasonable to suggest that women advanced their own fortune at the expense of the dependency of youth" (1982, p. 164).  These arguments share the idea that an effect of the extension of childhood was to confine and subjugate women, but disagree on who motivated it.  Haralovich, in still another vein, argues that both the post-World War II (re-)subjugation of women as housewives and the extension of childhood dependency, and their isolation in suburban homes, resulted from the need for increased consumption (1989, pp. 61-83).

         Thus, it seems clear that a number of important forces worked together to change the nature of childhood.  One of these is the Calvinist view  of the nature of humankind, which characterized children as innately evil and therefore in need of shaping.   Also, as industrialization advanced, its managers defined and redefined childhood in self-serving terms:  first as workers, then as "scholars," and ultimately as consumers.  Too, urbanization, which also resulted, at least in part, from industrialization, required alterations in the perceptions of the nature of the family and family economies.  (See Ivan Illich, 1973, Tools for conviviality,  for a discussion of the connection between urbanization and industrialialization.)  Finally, the women's movement, which resulted in part from the changing view of the nature of humanity, in part from urbanization, and in part from industrialization, also profoundly influenced the perception of childhood.  All of these factors were at work at once, intertwining and influencing each other.  One of their results was a steadily increasing dependency period for children, expanded to include ever more children of the various classes, that now, in 1993, frequently stretches into the early twenties

Works Cited

Calhoun, Arthur W.  (1945)  A social history of the american family:  The colonial period  (Vol. 1).  New York:  Barnes and Noble.

Cruickshank, Marjorie.  (1981).  Children and industry:  Child health and welfare in North-west textile towns during the nineteenth century.   Manchester, UK:  Manchester University Press.

Fraad, Harriet.  (1993).  Children as an exploited class.  Journal of Psychohistory.   21, 37-51.

Haralovich, Mary Beth.  (1989).  Sitcoms and suburbs:  Positioning the 1950s homemaker.  Quarterly Review of Film and Video.  2, 61-83.

Illich, Ivan.  (1973).  Tools for conviviality.   NY:  Harper and Row.

Platt, Anthony.  (1982).  The rise of the child-saving movement.  In Chris Jenks (Ed.)  The sociology of childhood:  Essential readings  (pp. 151-169).  London:  Batsfords  Academic and Educational Ltd.

Rose, Lionel. (1991).  The Erosion of childhood.   NY:  Routledge.

Sharar, Shulamith.  (1990).  Childhood in the middle ages.   London:  Routledge.

Strickland, Charles.  (1984).  The Rise and fall of modern American childhood:  Reflections on the history of childhood in the twentieth century.  Atlanta, GA:  Emory University, Department of History.  (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No.  ED248977)

Suransky, Valerie.  (1982).  The erosion of childhood.   Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Welter, Barbara.  (1966).  The cult of true womanhood:  1820-1860.  The American Quarterly,  18. 151-174. 

Last updated by Jim Vandergriff 6/13/02 10:51 AM