Childhood as a Social Construction
Childhood is such a universal feature of human life that we readily consider it a natural stage of development. After all, doesn't every society that's ever existed have some people identified as "children"?
As obvious as the answer to this question may seem, variations in culture and over time are dramatic. People in modern Western societies have a widely held, unquestioned belief that children are fundamentally different from adults. We take for granted that children areóand have always beenóinnocent and entitled to nurturing and protection. However, in other cultures (for example, Japan) children are viewed as much more independent creatures who can ...view middle of the document...
Indeed, according to some historians, the notion of childhood as a distinct phase of life didn't develop in Western culture until the 16th and 17th centuries.3
Views of Childhood in the Middle Ages
Until the end of the Middle Ages, children in the West were sometimes seen as miniature versions of adults. If you look at paintings of the 15th and 16th centuries, you will notice that the children depicted in family portraits look like shrunken replicas of their parents. Their clothes and their bodily proportions are the same as those of adults.
This image goes beyond artistic representation. Because they were seen as miniature adults, children of the era were expected to act accordingly. They were expected to participate in all aspects of social life alongside their parents. Foul language, sexual acts, death, and so on were all permitted in their presence.
The notion that children deserve special protection and treatment did not exist at this time. Children could be punished, and frequently were, for social transgressions with the same severity that adults were.
Families of the 1600s and 1700s may have valued children for their role in inheritance, but children clearly didn't elicit the same kind of sentiment that they elicit from adults today.4
This rather "unsentimental" treatment of children probably had something to do with demographic realities. Fatal disease in the Middle Ages was quite prevalent, and infant mortality rates were extremely high. Young children were not expected to live for very long. In 17th century France, for instance, between 20 and 50 percent of all infants died within the first year after birth.5
People commonly believed, therefore, that if they wanted only a few children, they should have many more in order to "hedge their bets.Ó Parents couldn't allow themselves to get too emotionally attached to something that was seen as a probable loss. Some even referred to their infant as "it" until the child reached an age at which survival was likely.
At that time, the death of a baby was probably not the emotional tragedy that it is today. In Spain, for example, when an infant died he or she was likely to be buried almost anywhere on the premises, like a pet cat or dog. Even the dead children of the rich were sometimes treated as paupers, their bodies sewn into sacks and thrown into common graves.6
Childhood in the 18th and 19th Centuries
By the 18th century, perceptions of childhood in the West were beginning to change. Children began to be seen as innocent and in need of protection, not unlike the way we see them today. Consequently, though, they were viewed as weak and susceptible to temptation. Along with the notion of protection came the notion of discipline, as parents taught their children to avoid the enticements of their social world.
Severe beatings of children in the name of discipline were common occurrences up until the late 18th century (and persist in some corners of society even to this...