Century of the Child

Ellen Key's (1849–1926) two-volume work Barnetsarhundrade (Century of the child) was published on New Year's Eve 1900. Publication on this date was a conscious choice, for Key believed that the status of children in Western society would undergo a dramatic change in the century to come. Education and upbringing, she believed, would become the focal point of both family life and society.

The book attracted practically no attention in the Swedish press when it was published, though two review articles of some length were written, one of them quite critical. Ellen Key had many enemies–due to her opinions on free love, she was seen as a "seducer of young people." But she also had important friends active in the adult education movement, which was very strong at that time in Sweden. Barnetsarhundrade was incorporated into study circles and lecture series throughout Sweden and its neighboring countries. Key's ideas on upbringing and education soon garnered a growing number of supporters, particularly in Germany. The book was translated into some thirteen European languages, and in Germany it was published in seventeen editions between 1902 and 1926, the year of Key's death.

Barnets arhundrade is not only about upbringing and education; it also deals with family structure, gender roles, child labor, and class. It betrays utopian leanings, like most of Key's other writings and lectures. In her analysis, every child has a right to its childhood, which she defines as a period in an individual's early life when he or she bears no economic responsibility. Like many contemporary liberals, Key was very critical of the existence of child labor on a large scale, and her book presents statistical materials about child labor in various European countries. Key saw a close relationship between child raising and gender, and she believed the child's natural place is at home with its mother. She preached that women of all classes must be allowed to stay at home while their children are small, advocating for a kind of home school consisting of children from several families and taught by a female teacher. Older children, she wrote, should attend a common school open to children from all social classes.

A common school and ideas about the "right to childhood" for all children regardless of class were in conflict with the Swedish legal provisions, as well as the economic necessities, of the day. However, Key's ideas anticipated the reforms introduced by the Swedish welfare state established in the mid-twentieth century. In this and many other respects, the twentieth century did indeed prove to be the century of the child, at least in the Western world.

The ideological arguments that motivated Key are significant. Collectivism does not, according to Key, contradict individualism. A school system common to all classes is open to all variety of influences, which in turn stimulates individuality. The ultimate aim of bringing up children is to create "personalities." As its motto, Barnets a rhundrade features a quotation from the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the prophet of the "superman," a term that Key often employed.

Aside from Nietzsche, Key's ideological individualism can also be traced to her early studies of JEAN-JACQUESROUSSEAU, whose ideas about the worth of self-made experience, put forward in his book Émile, had a significant effect on Key. She was also well acquainted with reformist pedagogy, especially the German educator FRIEDRICH FROEBEL's ideas on "free play" (even though she herself did not care for KINDERGARTEN). She believed that teachers should be mentors, not supervisors. For Key, school was not primarily an exponent of society's rules and morality, but a way of creating individuals who can build a better society.

See also: Children's Rights; Key, Ellen; Social Welfare.


Key, Ellen. 1900. Barnets a rhundrade. Stockholm. Reprint, 1996; New York: Arno Press, 1972.

Lengborn, Thorbjörn. 1976. En studie i Ellen Keys tänkande främst med utgangspunkt fran Barnets a rhundrade. (A study in Ellen Key's thought from the perspective of the Century of the Child.) Stockholm.


Key, Ellen. Century of the Child. Available from www.socsci.kun.nl/ped/whp/histeduc/ellenkey/key03_b.html.