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The History of Childhood: A Story Written by Adults

Childhood is a recurrent subject of debate amongst sociologists, and for good reason. During the formative years of our lives, the brain evolves at a rapid pace to absorb as much information about its surrounding environment as possible. At this time, it develops the social and emotional skills necessary to successfully navigate through early education, home life, and beyond (Cunningham, 2014). Although sociology as a field has come to recognize the importance of the individual’s upbringing in shaping the rest of their lives, rarely does the history of childhood incorporate accounts of the children themselves. Rather, it has become a narrative of what adults have done to and observed about the child, thus omitting children’s feelings and opinions. When it comes to studying both their own and other people's childhood, the adult will unintentionally alter their perspective to fit it in with their matured understanding of the world. At first glance, the reason why the child has no voice in describing their own experiences appears unclear. Upon closer inspection, however, it becomes apparent that adopting the child's point of view has its own flaws in creating an accurate portrayal of childhood.

Figure 1: The child does not get the final say on their own lived experience.

The first obstacle encountered in assuming the child's viewpoint stems from the fact that childhood itself is a concept created by adults, and as such has been given no clear definition over significant periods of time. Though a contemporary understanding of childhood would typically stretch from the moment the child is born to the day of their 18th birthday, the end of childhood can be defined in other ways, namely financial independence or the completion of academic studies (Cunningham & Morpurgo, 2006). For example, starting full-time employment is one such achievement that can be considered a sign of entering adulthood. While in modern society, children are typically in full time schooling until at least age 16 and therefore unable to work, in the 18th century they could legally begin to work as chimney sweepers from the young age of seven (Lensik-Oberstein, 2011). This stark contrast demonstrates that it is difficult to properly compare the experiences of two children at different points in time even if they are the same age, as they do not have the same social responsibilities. Additionally, regardless of whether childhood is characterised by biological age or by completing specific goals, these parameters are still set by adults. As long as the task of defining childhood continues to be thus approached, adults will always have a significant influence on how the lives of children are understood.

A further complication, and one that becomes particularly relevant when researching further back in time, is that examining the complexities of childhood directly through the lens of the child necessitates a reliance on secondary evidence to inform sociological research. Many past accounts of childhood consist of only partially useful indicators such as visual art and personal diaries which risk being warped by how the child interprets events, and are thus difficult to accurately analyse (Pollock 1983). Phillipe Aries, one of the most influential sociologists in establishing the significance of childhood, used paintings of the medieval era to decipher what children's lives were like at the time. As he observed that the clothes children wore mirrored those of the adults in these paintings, Aries theorized that the concept of childhood simply did not exist during the medieval era, suggesting that people of all ages were subject to identical treatment (Aries 1960). However, this interpretation assumes that the paintings Aries observed were realistic portraits, and that the way the child was dressed correlated directly with their responsibilities in society. He also inadvertently assumes that if present ideas of childhood didn't exist in medieval times - when the child was treated as a separate entity from the adult - then the notion of childhood simply did not exist. The insufficient evidence supporting Aries' hypothesis illustrates how tunnel visioning by using the child’s lived experience, instead of the adult’s perspective, can also result in using incomplete information and bias for the definition of childhood, based on unverifiable conclusions.

Figure 2: As well as wearing adults clothes, children in medieval paintings were also given adult looking faces