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When Childhood Was Discovered

Childhood didn't always exist.

The history of childhood "is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awake," writes Lloyd deMause in The History of Childhood. "The farther back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, terrorized, and sexually abused."

How children were viewed pre-17th century

Traditionally, for Christians at least, humans were thought to be born with corrupted souls and harbored within them the nastiest and meanest of instincts. Childhood, as a time of innocence, is a modern creation.

As pointed out by French historian Phillipe Aries, in Centuries of Childhood, before the 17th century, children were thought to be merely small adults, possessing the same qualities and natures as grownups. Children weren't little darlings or cute cherubs, as we often refer to children today. Rather they were fallen angels, like Lucifer. Consequently, children received little protection, were held fully responsible for their actions, left home, worked, and had sex. Since, in fact, children can't reason like adults and have trouble controlling their impulses, their actions proved they really were vile creatures.

A new view of human nature and children

The Romantics, reacting to this gloomy view of human nature, went in the other direction, asserting that if children were savages, at least they were noble savages. One of the leading figures in promoting a new view of human nature and of children was Frenchman Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a leading Romantic philosopher.

Rousseau viewed human nature as malleable, perhaps even perfectible. So while Hobbes may have accurately described life as it was, Rousseau described life as it could and ought to be. Rousseau not only served as a philosopher in the cause of revolution, but he also wrote a highly influential book that pointed the way in educational reform.

But even Rousseau couldn't overcome the childrearing attitudes he had inherited. Following common practices of his time, he didn't keep his children at home but rather sent them to an institution. Far from being objects of sentiment, children were viewed as parasites, literally sucking life juices from mothers, calling on scant resources from the family, and acting wildly on impulses that most resembled those of animals. Rousseau's five children went to various foundling hospitals, particularly malignant institutions. Nearly 70% of the children in a typical Parisian household died.

Although the practice hadn't caught up with the theory, there was a newfound appreciation for the lives of children during this era. Since this was also part of the period in which science began making systematic observations of the commonplace, it comes as no surprise, therefore, that one of the earliest observations of children's spontaneous inclination towards sympathy came in the early 18th century, near the beginning of the Romantic period. It was as though for the first time people could see their children other than as little beasts.

It was as though children had been seen in unlighted corners, so their features looked gloomy and fierce, like little beasts. Society had changed, children had been brought out into the daylight, and along with it, people's perceptions of their nature.

What caused the "discovery" of childhood?

Under a series of changes wrought by the Renaissance and Reformation and propelled by the development of a market economy and burgeoning capitalism, the feudal system, in place for more than a thousand years, cracked and crumbled. This opened up the possibility of directed change based on the optimistic idea that the human condition could be improved through human effort.

Perhaps one of the most significant facts of this period was the "discovery" of childhood. Of course, there always had been children and therefore childhood but not in the way in which we now understand it. More often than not, children were treated as miniature adults. There were no separate clothes, food, furniture, or space for children. Childhood, as a separate and discrete part of human development, didn't exist.

A person as a being defined externally by inherited and static roles gave way to an understanding of the person as an individual. And just as a change in the structure of houses allowed for the newly discovered value of privacy, a change in the political economy made it so that it wasn't any longer necessary for small children to be sent out to work away from the home.

Out of this conjunction of events, childhood was born. People could now look at children as never before. What they saw and how they understood them had altered. Children weren't any less egotistical in the 18th century. It was a shift in perspective on the part of adults, looking from a new direction, as it were. Along with an emphasis on the self came respect for other people as such. Children could now be seen as people, not as little monsters waiting to be made into human beings.