Here in the West, we all pretty much take the existence of childhood for granted. However, childhood is a relatively new phenomenon. Prior to the 18th century, most European societies saw children as simply smaller, less-educated adults. They were expected to work just as adults did and in many instances, they were expected to have the same interests as adults. As historian Philippe Ariès wrote: ‘The important boundary was not between child and elder, but dependent and master. Sentimental relations between parents and children were weakened, moreover, by the frequency of child death.’
Childhood became the childhood we know today when people began to realise that here was a new market for things like toys, clothing, books, schools and other services. The popular press soon picked up on this and championed the idea. As schooling became universally available, children became more literate and authors like Robert Louis Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Jack London and Anna Sewell began to write books aimed specifically at this new audience. The media helped shape society’s views of what childhood should be like.
Now vastly expanded by the arrival of film, TV, mass printing and the internet, the media has a major influence on how children behave and how adults perceive them. Changes in the traditional structure of the family have also contributed, of course, but parents and other family members don’t always have the same powers of persuasion as targeted marketing and peer pressure. We are also living in an increasingly technological environment and there are genuine concerns among parents and healthcare professionals that children are losing the ability to play and to exercise themselves healthily through movement. Technology can only become more immersive and addictive as time goes on so the challenge for adults is going to be finding ways to help their children have happy, healthy childhoods while not disadvantaging them. As The Alliance for Childhood puts it: ‘The gifts of a real childhood are creativity, wonder and imagination and, by extending these qualities into our adulthood, we can help those future generations who will be born into an increasingly complex and fragile world to enjoy their right to childhood'.
The way that children and young adults are perceived seems to have gone through a big change in recent years. A largely media-fuelled campaign that seems determined to paint all teenagers as trouble makers has led many adults to become scared, or at least wary, of groups of children despite the fact that the vast majority of kids are not violent or criminal. In fact, most victims of crime are people under 21.
The idea that ‘kids are trouble’ is not a new one; we’re just exposed to more complaints than in previous decades. If we go as far back as 450BCE, we find this quote, allegedly made by Socrates: ‘The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannise their teachers.’ And Hesiod, writing in the 8th century, said: ‘I see no hope for the future of our people if they are dependent on frivolous youth of today, for certainly all youth are reckless beyond words... When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint.’
By the time we get to 1274CE, a sermon given by Peter the Hermit proclaims that: ‘The young people of today think of nothing but themselves. They have no reverence for parents or old age. They are impatient of all restraint. They talk as if they knew everything, and what passes for wisdom with us is foolishness with them. As for the girls, they are forward, immodest and unladylike in speech, behaviour and dress.’ And, to bring us more up to date, a British Medical Association journal from 1961 tells us that: ‘Looked at in his worst light the adolescent can take on an alarming aspect: he has learned no definite moral standards from his parents, is contemptuous of the law, easily bored. He is vulnerable to the influence of TV programmes of a deplorably low standard …’ Sound familiar?
Adults are just obsolete children and the hell with them.
The Bible was used by families to look for advice on childcare all the way up until The Enlightenment; more orthodox religionists still use it for help. The popular view was that a baby was born with ‘original sin’ and so rearing a child was a battle of wills between the inherently sinful infant or child and the parent: ‘Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and shalt deliver his soul from hell’ (Proverbs 23:14); ‘The rod and reproof give wisdom: but a child left to himself bringeth his mother to shame’ (Proverbs 29:15).
Michel de Montaigne - a contemporary of Shakespeare – had a very rigidly organised childhood. For the first three years of life his parents left him with a peasant family in order to ‘draw the boy close to the people and to the life conditions of the people who need our help.’ He was then brought home to the family château where he was only spoken to in Latin, which eventually became his natural language.
Other ‘hothoused’ pupils include Philosopher John Stuart Mill who was schooled from the earliest age in the classics and works of philosophy, By the age of 14 he had the intellectual grasp of the average Oxford don.
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown was also hothoused. While at Kirkcaldy West Primary School, he was selected for an experimental fast-stream education program. He was taken into high school two years early and was taught in separate classes. At age 16 he wrote that he loathed and resented ‘this ludicrous experiment on young lives’.
Winthrop and Luella Kellogg, for some reason, decided to raise a chimp called Gua alongside their son Donald. Gua got a lot more human-like but it soon became obvious that he wasn't learning words and didn't have the ability to control his emotions.
The experiment was stopped when the Kelloggs realised that Donald was becoming a lot more like his playmate.
In the early nineteenth century, crimes punishable by death included ‘strong evidence of malice’ in children aged between seven and fourteen.
The average US child watches 1,197 minutes of television a week and, at aged 18, will have witnessed 16,000 TV murders and viewed 500,000 ads.
Catherine the Great wrote an ABC for children which sold 20,000 copies in a fortnight.
According to the Inuit, ptarmigans were originally human children.
As a child, Mozart was frightened of trumpets.
Children under four do not lie because they are convinced that grown-ups can read their minds.
John Harvey Kellogg and his wife Ella fostered forty-two children.
JS Bach had 20 children. Only 10 survived infancy. He has no known descendants living today.
Mothers underestimate the height of their youngest child by an average of 7.5cm.
Parents should leave books lying around marked ‘forbidden’ if they want their children to read.