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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

Furthermore, even primary evidence of childhood fails to encapsulate an accurate account of the child, as it is systematically affected by their lack of personal agency. In theory, a diary presents the perfect opportunity for sociologists to research childhood, as the child puts their daily thoughts and experiences directly to pen and paper. However, it was typically only children in upper-class families who kept diaries in the past and children’s play was often segregated by gender. Girls were more likely to keep diaries, which reflected their status as entities to be ‘seen but not heard’ (Cunningham & Morpurgo, 2006). A diary is therefore problematic when examining how factors such as gender and economic standing affected the lives of children.


Furthermore, a child's diary would be required to adhere to a specific format, by which he or she would be discouraged to talk negatively about authority figures like parents or schoolteachers in case the diary was found (Cunningham & Morpurgo, 2006). The same can also be observed in direct interviews with children, where the child can make assumes what the more “socially powerful” adult wants to hear thus choosing to change their answers accordingly (Honeyman, 2005). For sociologists researching the history of childhood, the biggest hurdle is therefore not the collection of information itself, but the necessity to filter out the presence of the adult in shaping the way the child relays how they understand their own lives. While this process may be fine-tuned for the future, it is nearly impossible to do so for what limited evidence of the past still exists.


Figure 3: In order for diaries to be useful evidence, the child would need to know it wouldn't be read by anyone else

Although the absence of the child's voice is a recognized problem in the sociology of childhood, removing the influence of the adult continues to be a tricky issue to solve. Childhood itself is defined by adults, and an overemphasis on finding an unfiltered perspective of the child means relying on questionable evidence and using current perspectives on childhood to fill in the gaps in knowledge. Yet for all the complications the ever-present nature of the adult in the sociology of childhood creates, it also helps to form a separate conclusion: no matter the time period or the changing social, economic, and political elements at play, childhood is an experience that is continually shaped and understood by the perspectives of adults.



Bibliographical sources

Ariès, P. (1960). Centuries of childhood. Random House.


Cunningham, H. (2014). Children and childhood in western society since 1500. Routledge, an imprint of the Taylor & Francis Group.


Cunningham, H., & Morpurgo, M. (2006). The invention of childhood. BBC Books.


Honeyman, S. (2017). Elusive Childhood. Ohio State University Press.


Lesnik-Oberstein, K. (2011). Children in culture, revisited. Palgrave Macmillan.


Pollock, L. (2000). Forgotten children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900. Cambridge University Press.


Visual Sources


Figure 1: Reynolds, J. (1785). The Age of Innocence [Painting]. Retrieved 7 January 2023, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Age_of_Innocence_(painting)


Figure 2: Buoninsegna, D. D. (1300). Madonna and Child [A Medieval painting of a mother and her child] Church of Our Lady Bruges. Retrieved 3 October 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Madonna_and_Child_(Duccio,_Metropolitan).


Figure 3: Bigstock. (2022). Child writing under the bed covers. 8 great reasons for your child to keep a diary - The School Run. Retrieved October 27, 2022, from https://www.theschoolrun.com/8-great-reasons-your-child-keep-diary.






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Bastien Poole

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