History lessons

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People in every time and place 'construct' different childhoods (James and Prout 1997; Hendrick 2003). That is, they hold certain beliefs and values that guide their behaviours and policies, which in turn reinforce or change their beliefs and behaviours about what children are and ought to be like. Historians trace the changing child, from the Puritan child whose will must be broken, through Rousseau's free romantic or natural child, to the pure evangelical child, the factory child who was either to be forced to work intensely hard or to be rescued, and the delinquent child who was supposed to be tamed into the school child.

People in every time and place 'construct' different childhoods (James and Prout 1997; Hendrick 2003). That is, they hold certain beliefs and values that guide their behaviours and policies, which in turn reinforce or change their beliefs and behaviours about what children are and ought to be like.

Historians trace the changing child, from the Puritan child whose will must be broken, through Rousseau's free romantic or natural child, to the pure evangelical child, the factory child who was either to be forced to work intensely hard or to be rescued, and the delinquent child who was supposed to be tamed into the school child.

The 20th century saw the medical-psychological child (treated by doctors, analysed by psychologists, and measured by developmentalists), and the welfare child who was expected, after care from the Welfare State, to share in creating a more prosperous and fair society. 'Thatcher's children' are thought to be more selfish. Today, one model is the spending child (or parents) surrounded by possessions.

Some people argue that our minds and bodies are so shaped by our own times and where we live that we cannot fairly compare childhoods across the centuries. We cannot, therefore, understand childhood, say, in 1840.

Another barrier to understanding childhood is that we have to rely mainly on adults' views, or memories of their personal childhood, and seldom on children's own voices.

Sources such as childcare books and manuals do not tell us how children were cared for, but instead how the authors think children ought to be cared for. Parents in 1960s Nottingham were definitely not all led by Dr Spock's manuals (J and E Newson).

Despite these barriers, we can learn much from historical texts, novels, poems and pictures. They suggest that besides all the changing fashions in childcare, there are some constants in what makes children happy or sad, healthy or sick.

We know more now about how children's bodies and minds work and grow, and how to help them to be healthy. This does not necessarily mean that childhood itself, as an idea or ideal of how adults and children should behave, and what children and their views are really like, are generally better understood.

Are today's children more loved?

Alongside accounts of whipped and overworked children are many loving accounts (Tomalin). John Hall describes London in 1654 with 'girls providing apparel and food for their Babies (dolls) with most high and great indulgence as supposing they do hereby as really pleasure and benefit these as their parents do them' (Rosen).

The great poet Ben Jonson wrote that his little son who had just died was 'his best piece of poetry'. Although love cannot be measured, parents appear to have loved their children as deeply 400 years ago as today (Tomalin).

Are today's children happier?

Happiness cannot be measured any more than love can. Much depends on each person's beliefs about happiness. You might pick 2005 as an ideal time for children's bright, comfortable clothes, their effective health care or the wealth of learning that they access through the internet. Yet you might pick earlier times for children's freedoms:

* to roam in towns and the countryside away from adult controls, consumerism, and modern risk anxieties

* to play in large families and communities of children and friendly adults.

Perhaps the most useful lessons from history are that no single period has all the best or the worst ways of caring for children. History moves in cycles and reactions rather than in a steady upward progress.

Children have gained but also lost precious freedoms. Today's childcare is neither inevitable nor the only correct way. Adults can do much harm while trying to do good. We need to keep listening and learning from children themselves about happy ways for children and adults to live together.

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