The nature of childhood is a varied concept defined by its interpretation in various societies and communities. Different perceptions of childhood therefore exist although some researchers purport that childhood is an already dead concept while others note that modern children are more empowered than ever before (Newman 2006, p. 1). Childhood is therefore a universal concept of human life and a natural stage of development although variations in culture have made its definition a little dramatic.
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For instance, in the western world, children are considered quite fragile and different from adults but comprehensively, the variations in culture can be observed from the commonly held adult perception that children are innocent and have a strong entitlement to protection and nurturing (Newman 2006, p. 1). In countries such as Japan, children are accorded more independence and treated as people who can act willfully without much parental influence (Staples 2008, p. 1155).
The commonly held perception about childhood in the Western world is therefore largely based on biological construction. This explains why many Westerners purport that children are extensively dependent on their parents for long periods, infants can die if they are left alone for a couple of days or a human baby may depend on his or her parents for several decades to come (Newman 2006, p. 1).
In contrast, it is interesting to note that babies from other animals are normally very independent from their early days on earth. For example, a baby horse is able to get on its feet and play around in its early minutes of birth without any parental help.
From the Western point of view, the establishment of laws to protect children against various social adversities like pornography, child abuse, neglect and such like adversities is in order but its is equally interesting to note that the concept of childhood only took root in the Western society as late as the 17th century (Newman 2006, p. 5).
In many spheres therefore, the concept of childhood is often debated across various disciplines including developmental psychology, pedagogy, sociology and the likes but many researchers have often held the belief that childhood is a creation of cultural perceptions and an imagination of adult views (Newman 2006, p. 10).
Understanding the nature of childhood therefore stems from the understanding of how we perceive young children since we cannot differentiate how adults see young children and the paradigm that defines childhood today and in the past.
At present, small volumes of literature have shed light on the transformation of childhood through time and this study seeks to provide the missing link, with a clear definition of how the nature of childhood has evolved over the decades.
From this understanding, we will comprehend how the nature of childhood manifests itself in present day society when compared to historical time settings. In this context therefore, we will analyze the social and cultural perceptions of childhood and possible synchronistic developments to explore whether metabolite shifts in childhood have occurred over the years or not.
As will be evidenced in this study, childhood is rather a social construction than a biological stage because it basically emerges out of attitudes, beliefs, and values of different societies and communities at various points in time. This is however subject to a number of changes in definitions and expectations as will be evidenced through the parental perception of family responsibility. This analysis will be done systematically through the analysis of childhood in medieval times, the 18th and 19th centuries and childhood in modern times.
Medieval and Early Modern Childhood
The perception of childhood during the early 16th to 17th centuries was an evolving issue. Majorly, the perceptions about children and adulthood were defined by adult views and during the early modern times, children were perceived by upper class citizens as mature and fragile. This eventually led to changes in the way children were treated in various disciplines such as nursing, care, aristocracy and the likes.
However, before this development, children were often perceived (in the 16th century) as inherently evil creatures with a strong inclination to do moral wrongs (Hwang 1996, p. 196). This view was majorly advanced by the Puritan doctrine. Several Calvinist people held the belief that children were wayward and impulsive in accordance with their belief in predestination (which meant they had very little room between hell and heaven).
In the early years of the 17th century, the interpretation of the nature of childhood significantly changed because it was at this period that childhood was first perceived as a separate developmental stage of human life. In addition, at this point in time, the notion of who was deserving of childhood also started changing as the concept slowly broadened to eliminate the previous narrow-minded way childhood was perceived.
The same developments were characteristic of the Western world, including Europe and America, although there were slight variations due to religion, geography and the likes. Basically, the major factors which instigated the change of childhood perception came about with the development of industry, urbanization, parenthood and gender rights movements.
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At the very early stages of the 17th century, the concept of childhood was majorly understood by middle and upper class citizens because lower class citizens (in the European society) had an extended period of childhood, with the maximum age set at seven. Newman (2006, p. 11) notes that this view changed “With the advent of Calvinism, and Protestantism in general, in the late 1500s, the focus shifted, perhaps because of the rise of a middle class, perhaps because of the new religion’s focus on the individual”.
For instance, from a protestant’s view (where the world and human beings were perceived as evil and agents of immorality), children were perceived in the same manner with critical researchers noting that children were also agents of morals, requiring character moulding (Newman 2006, p. 12).
Another major influence of the perception of early childhood can be traced to the invention and growth of industries which implied an immense need for labor. Since childhood was perceived as the period between birth and the age of seven, it was not deemed wrong to subject children (more than seven years old) to factory labor (Hindman 2009, p. 38). There was therefore no significant difference in the way adults and children worked, except for the fact that both did different kinds of work in different time schedules.
This meant that instead of children working in their family farms, they worked in factories for minimum wage. The situation between America and Europe never differed much, only that America had fewer industries at the time due to the deep rooting of the economy in agriculture. Nonetheless, the situation became so severe that kidnapping instances became quite common in Europe since children were exported to America to work in Industries (Hindman 2009, p. 39)
From the above understanding of childhood in the early 16th and 17th centuries, childhood can be seen as a mere creation of the society. This view was largely advanced by a French Medievalist, Philippe Aries. He noted that in early childhood, the concept of early childhood itself was nonexistent because attitudes towards children were virtually progressive and influenced by socioeconomic perspectives (Hutton 2004, p. 73).
This view was widely held until the early years of the 17th century when children were considered miniature adults and it was believed that they could take care of themselves without the help of families or relatives (Hutton 2004, p. 73).
Aries’ works were basically useful in the development of the concept of childhood because it introduced the concept that childhood was a result of social construction and not biological construction (Hutton 2004, p. 73). However, his works are now currently criticized by most researchers even though he introduced the analysis of childhood as an independent field of study.
Some of the basic criticisms against Aries’ works stemmed from the methodologies he used in drawing up conclusions about childhood. One of his main critic was Hutton (2004, p. 73) who notes that “in everyday life, children were indeed dressed differently to adults; they were just put in adult clothes to have their portraits painted”.
This meant that Aries was wrong to take portraits in early modern history (regarding childhood and family) and base his assumptions of childhood on the same, because in essence; the portraits were often used to improve the status of individuals. Other researchers such as Kroll cited in (Hutton 2004, p. 73) also detested the view that childhood in medieval times was treated with a huge degree of ignorance as purported by Aries. Other criticisms held by Hutton (2004, p. 73) advances the fact that Aries’ works were wrong because:
“Firstly, his data were either unrepresentative or unreliable. Secondly, that he took evidence out of context confused prescription with practice, and uses atypical examples. Thirdly, he implicitly denies the immutability of the special needs of children, for food, clothing, shelter, affection and conversation. Fourthly, that he puts undue emphasis on the work of moralists and educationalists while saying little of economic and political factors”.
Nonetheless, Aries still remains one of the most celebrated contributors to the understanding of early childhood.
Representation of the Nature of Childhood in the 18th and 19th Centuries
The 18th and 19th centuries are probably the times when today’s Western perception of childhood developed because during this time, children were starting to be viewed as innocent and in need of social protection (Warren 1997, p. 204).
From this point of view, children were seen as creatures in need of protection and guidance to prevent them from falling into social temptations, but along with the notion of protection came the notion of discipline. The 18th and 19th centuries therefore changed the concept of parenthood because parents at this time were more persuasive to their children not to fall into the traps brought about by the social world.
During this time, children were often beaten, until a change in the way children should be disciplined was introduced in the 18th century (Newman 2006, p. 7). However, the same vice continues in some societies to date. Churches also voiced their concerns regarding the same, with one notable Dutch priest who said that God created the human buttocks so children could be beaten without causing unnecessary bodily harm (Newman 2006, p. 12).
In some religious quarters, heaven was regarded as a place where children would not be disciplined in physical ways. Apart from religion and the church, certain social institutions also affected the development of the concept of childhood; for instance, the concept of child labor was widely accepted through a great part of the 1800s and the early years of the 19th century (Hindman 2009, p. 38).
As the years went by, children were often forced by some parents to go to the streets and fend for themselves, through peddling, begging, robbery, prostitution and other vices. This point led to the creation of laws to protect children from such adversities as is affirmed by Newman (2006, p. 12) who notes that:
“Some children had their teeth torn out to serve as artificial teeth for the rich; others were deliberately maimed by beggars to arouse compassion. Even this latter crime was one upon which the law looked with a remarkably tolerant eye. In 1761 a beggar woman, convicted of deliberately “putting out the eyes of children with whom she went about the country” in order to attract pity and alms, was sentenced to no more than two years’ imprisonment”.
The first childhood protection agencies only emerged in the middle of the 19th century to provide a sanctuary to children who had been abused and neglected by their parents and the society. Many such institutions emerged from that time and some are still coming up today. However, such organizations have failed to protect children from suffering social adversities. In other words, they have tried to prevent children from experiencing social extremes instead.
The major kinds of children who have been protected by such agencies are poor urban youth who have been viewed by the society as an economic burden and a threat to society (Newman 2006, p. 12). The major view held by adults in the 18th and 19th century was that poor childhood led to poor adulthood and so it was very important for the society to take care of children during their tender ages to prevent them from becoming unproductive adults.
However, still at this time, economic factors still defined childhood because families were more bound on economic than emotional fronts. The male child was especially valued more than the female child because he was considered of great value in terms of the human labor he could provide in the farm.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, three key ideas were advanced by Rousseau’s concept of childhood. The first major concept was that even in the age of reason where major milestones were covered in terms of technological progression and science; there was a strong need to still emphasize on matters of the heart and the importance of human emotion (Santer 2007, p. 2).
Net Industries (2011) notes that Rousseau also preached “against the prevailing doctrine of original sin, Rousseau proclaimed the basic goodness of human nature and the innocence of childhood and lastly, Rousseau took issue with the notion that children were but imperfect adults” (p. 4).
From this analysis therefore, we observe that Rousseau was a strong advocate of the opinion that childhood was a precious period in human development and it was basically characterized by its own laws and functions; an attribute which has greatly influenced the development of contemporary perceptions of childhood (Classen 2005, p. 1).
Representation of the Nature of Modern Childhood
With the development and growth of industrialization in Europe and across the globe, the previous commonly held perception of children as a source of labor and income was no longer held since parents became the main source of income, rendering children economically useless (Newman 2006, p. 6).
This view made people see children as a great economic burden and with the progression of culture; many children were starting to be viewed in terms of their emotional significance (in contrast to the previously held perception of economic significance). Parents therefore began looking at their children in terms of their intimacy worth and many would invest in their children without expecting any tangible benefits in future. Many would only expect emotional support. Newman (2006, p. 11) affirms that:
“The contemporary social value of children is therefore determined not by their labor potential but by the love and care they are thought to deserve. Hence, the most desirable child for adoption today is the newborn baby. A person living in an earlier era would find this preference difficult to understand, just as we today assume that babies bring forth a nurturing instinct in adults”.
These views are primarily perpetrated by the media, and the internet through social networking sites. In fact, the media has been at the forefront in upholding the emotional value of children through contemporary television shows which depict children as priceless adult possessions (Andresen 2010, p. 14). Such observations have been evidenced through drama programs involving kidnappings, child adoption and the likes.
The internet and technology has also empowered children in terms of information access while children organizations have offered unconditional support to children who maybe subject to social adversities from their parents. Such developments have led to the empowerment of children laws, development of foster homes and other avenues to protect children. These developments have given children more voice in present day society.
Childhood has evolved through time, driven by economic and social progression. Economic conditions changed the way children were perceived because it led many to perceive children as miniature adults who could fend for themselves. This was the major paradigm existent in the medieval society and the early years of the 17th, 18th and early 19th centuries. There was also a considerable degree of neglect on children at this time.
However, as industrialization took centre stage in world economics, children were viewed as priceless emotional creatures (which act as the basis for present day perception of children). This development also led to the strong empowerment of children by giving them a strong voice through children laws. These events characterize the development of childhood perception through the years.
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