Changes in the occurrence and handling of children's fears in the West fit into the pattern in which the history of childhood has been discussed in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. Notions of the "discovery" of the child in early modern times and of the absence of emotional relations between parents and children seem less convincing now than they did in the 1970s, when enthusiasm for the idea that personal relations could change in a short period of time was fresh. But without any doubt, ideas about how children should be raised show considerable shifts, and the debate about education has intensified since the eighteenth century. The social position of children changed in a long process in which childhood came to take several decades instead of (for most social classes) one.

Fear as a Pedagogical Tool

Everyday life in traditional society seems to have been determined by fear, since ignorance of natural phenomena, long periods of disease, and social strife made daily existence insecure. Religion was for a long time supportive in this world full of fear, but from the sixteenth century on became divided and destabilized. With religious disputes dominating public life, basic fears were reported to have been experienced in the religious domain as well.

In his autobiography, Grace Abounding, John Bunyan, who was born in 1628, tells his readers about the "fearful dreams" and "dreadful visions" which afflicted him while sleeping, and which were caused by "Devils and wicked spirits" but were ultimately sent by God to punish him for his sins. His greatest fear was the Day of Judgment, on which he might be ordered to spend his time "amongst Devils and Hellish Feinds."

By the eighteenth century, however, an enhanced confidence in knowledge and rationality made fear an undesirable relict, which was soon labeled as childish. In traditional society, fear had been used extensively in the raising of small children. In circumstances where it was difficult to keep an eye on the little ones who crept around and were in danger of getting lost, drowned, or burned, the bogeyman was a powerful tool to prevent children's dangerous inquisitiveness. As children got older they could prove their fitness for adult society by discarding their fears of a whole range of monsters, batmen, toe-shearers, werewolves, and childeating roosters that had been said to be after children all over Europe. Before 1800 only few autobiographers wrote about their childhood fears, but those who did usually mentioned frightening stories told by adults. Isabelle de Moerloose, born in Flanders around 1661, confessed that she was afraid of a man wearing a long cape, who roamed the land to kill babies by putting a ball in their mouths.

Autobiographical writings confirm that parents widely used the bogeyman as a pedagogical tool. Even an educated person such as the Dutch statesman and poet Constantijn Huygens, born in 1596, threatened his little daughter with a creepy doll in a black cape. Such dolls were made especially to serve this purpose. Nineteenth-century autobiographers still frequently complained about parents who frightened them. Willem van den Hull, for instance, wrote that to keep him away from the canals, his mother had taught him that death lived underwater and was lingering to grab his feet and pull him down under if he dared come too close.

Since the seventeenth century, a growing number of pedagogues warned against such methods. According to the Dutch writer Jacob Cats, bogeymen had such an impact on the "tender senses" of children that they would never lose their early fears. JOHN LOCKE, in his influential Some Thoughts Concerning Education, advised parents to keep children away from frights of all kinds and he warned against "telling them of Raw-Head and Bloody Bones." In the eighteenth century the practice was even more widely condemned. Betje Wolff, the first female Dutch pedagogue, protested the practice avidly, the more so because she was herself being scared by the "black man" in her youth. She called fear and fright "the poison of a child's heart."

To protect children from real dangers, bogeymen remained an acceptable practice, but writers on education warned that they should never be used for fun. Rational use of bogeymen, however, was embedded in a culture in which childhood and fear were still interwoven with deep-rooted beliefs and customs. Marina Warner, for instance, cites a particularly bad-tempered Italian lullaby: "Go to sleep, may you die in your sleep, that the priest come to take you to keep! Ninna … oh, Ninna! To whom shall I give this little girl? … To the bogeyman I'll give her, for a whole day he will keep her…. " Peasants who threatened children with the terrible corn mother to make them stay out of the fields may themselves have had a vague belief in ghosts and spirits.

Conquering Fear

In the new literature on childhood that began appearing in great supply in the second half of the eighteenth century, the conquest of fear became an important educational goal. As Peter Stearns and Timothy Haggarty have noted, the enthusiasm for actively encouraging children to master their fears prevailed in the nineteenth century, in advice literature as well as in stories and books for children. But the age at which is was considered fit to help children overcome their fear was lowered. It also became customary to think that adults (and especially mothers) were the source of children's fears because they transmitted their own fears to their children.

In feudal society, the show of fear had been functional in relations between the social classes, especially in the behavior of inferiors toward their superiors; only the aristocracy had been supposed to show defiance. Fearlessness had been admired intensely, as numerous FAIRY TALES testify, but most people could not afford it. During the eighteenth century, the ideal that men were free and equal left no room for people to consider fearfulness an acceptable attitude. As children in general lack the self-control needed to suppress expressions of fear, this changed attitude toward fear was one of the phenomena that enhanced the distance between children and adults. Children were banned from polite society as long as they were supposed to be unable to control themselves.

As the psychological costs of this suppression of fear became clear to psychiatrists, and possibly even more to artists and writers, toward the end of nineteenth century, the emphasis of advice-givers on the handling of children's fear shifted to avoiding fearful situations as much as possible. Actively instilling fear into children as an educational tool, which had already been discouraged during the nineteenth century, became an abhorrent type of miseducation in the twentieth century. As parents had more opportunities to supervise their children, or to have them supervised, instilling fear in children made little sense anymore. Thus the conditions for a modern attitude toward fear were first realized in the upper and middle classes. As most advice literature was meant for these groups, who were living in comfortable circumstances where children could be prevented from endangering themselves, bourgeois parents began to worry about the contact their children had with representatives of the lower classes. This is notable in the extensive warnings against the possibility of housemaids scaring the children in their care. In books on education, children's fears were taken much more seriously after the second half of the nineteenth century; parents were encouraged to pay attention to any sign of distress. Where fear had been seen as a moral defect, in the course of the twentieth century new psychological insights considered it a natural phenomenon, something children could never be blamed for.

The Experience of Fear

Advice manuals and children's books provide the material with which to write the history of emotional standards, but childhood memories bring us closer to the actual experience of how fear shaped the identities of children in the past. In the absence of systematic studies of childhood memories, some preliminary conclusions from a study-in-progress of 500 AUTOBIOGRAPHIES from the Netherlands and Flanders, covering the period from 1750 to 1970, show that one out of five of these autobiographies mentions fear, which makes it clear that it was a focal point. The social bias in the available authors commands caution, however: upper-class witnesses dominate the early period (up to 1850), whereas a solid majority from the middle class, with emphasis on white-collar professions, is evident throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

The earliest statements show a remarkable agreement with the normative sources: aristocratic boys remembered with pride that they had been put to the test of their fear of darkness, being asked to get a Bible out of a distant, unlit church or being ordered to fetch a bottle of gin from an inn on a night when there were rumors of burglars in the neighborhood. In particular they remembered the praise they received after fulfilling these commissions. They even remembered their mothers' protests against their being put to the test. Having to fight the dark outside the house has almost completely disappeared from twentieth-century childhood memories. Actively forcing children to overcome this fear by sending them out in the dark is only mentioned by a few lower-class boys; middle-class parents seem to have taken the hints of educational reformers who opposed the practice. But autobiographies contradict the advice books too: the horror stories told by servants are duly reported, but for every child who was scared by them, at least one remembers them with delight–a fondly remembered exercise in the control of fear.

What were children afraid of? In search of their first memories, almost one in three of the autobiographers comes up with sudden frights. Being lost in a crowd, the parents being out of sight, or a fire can easily be understood as impressive moments that can trigger a first memory. But many more mysterious moments are remembered only as anxious distress whose immediate cause has been lost. Some autobiographers simply state they were afraid of everything when very young.

The dark has inspired by far the most memories of childhood fears. Though it would seem feasible that night was less horrifying when children slept in the same bed or at least in the same room with others, some witnesses claim that the presence of sleeping family members enhanced their fright. If the others were not snoring, was it a sign they had suddenly departed? Were the monsters only after the children who did not sleep? But most memories of terrible fears in the night have been delivered by middle-class children who slept in their own bedrooms, with noises coming from all sides while they were on their own to cope with them. Whether night lights were a help is questionable. Enough witnesses remember the disturbing shadows and the spluttering sound adding to their misery. But many children asked for a light and remember the struggles they had to wage to be allowed one. Mentions of this fear declined in later years, with the most recent mention by an autobiographer born in 1918, which supports the idea that electrical light made a big difference, especially since many children have lamps by their beds that they can operate themselves and few people now feel they have to be economical with electricity.

Thunder and lightning could be overwhelming experiences, especially when others who were present could not master their fear. Quite a few autobiographers remember older brothers and sisters in distress: it was a moment of triumph for the smaller children. When the person who was afraid was an adult, the distinction between children and adults was lifted for a moment as children saw to their amazement that they were more in control of themselves than the trembling aunt or maid. Fathers visibly affected by the tempest, however, were a too severe breach of security: they left their children feeling that the world itself could perish.

The ubiquity of death in traditional society was an emotional burden to children and adults alike. In modern times the mystery of death became a more explicit moment of fear as children remembered clearly the day they realized their mortality for the first time. Many record it as a nauseating panic against which parents were almost helpless. Generalizations are dubious here, however: some autobiographers tell about childhood confrontations with sudden deaths–bodies encountered, skeletons found–that seemed only comical and made an impression only because other people were scared.

Generalized fear of the future seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon, not mentioned in memories of youth before 1880. Children have coveted adulthood as an escape from humiliating childhood. They remember their desire, but at the same time considered the future a frightening place where one had to be able to do all kinds of things that seemed very difficult. By the time childhood came to be valued as a special period in life, in the later nineteenth century, autobiographers wrote more specifically about their reluctance to grow up. How could they master all the skills in time to hold their own? The proliferation of vague fears about the future is a symptom of the disappearance of childhood in the last decades of the twentieth century. Rumors of war tend to result in frantic war games among the boys, but also in stifling anxiety. The horrors of mass warfare during two world wars, with carpet bombing, gas attacks, genocide, and nuclear destruction, had a great impact on children, but it is difficult to say to what extent this impact differed from that of warfare in previous centuries.

Finally, since the eighteenth century, all forms of fear appear in children's books, and since the twentieth century in MOVIES and on TELEVISION, continuing a much older tradition of telling children folktales and ghost stories. Children's fears are today exploited by writers and film directors, because in a paradoxical way fears have a great attraction. Often, but not always, the causes of fear are presented in a sensible way and the level of anxiety is coupled to the age of the intended audience. Nevertheless, books and films that are read or watched by children younger than their intended audiences have in the last decades been a new source of fears.

See also: Child-Rearing Advice Literature; Emotional Life.


Bakker, Nelleke. 2000. "The Meaning of Fear. Emotional Standards for Children in the Netherlands, 1850–1950: Was There a Western Transformation?" Journal of Social History 34: 369–391.

Dekker, Rudolf. 1999. Childhood, Memory, and Autobiography in Holland from the Golden Age to Romanticism. London: Macmillan.

Stearns, Peter N., and Timothy Haggerty. 1991. "The Role of Fear: Transistions in American Emotional Standards for Children, 1850–1950." American Historical Review 96: 63–94.

Warner, Marina. 1998. No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling, and Making Mock. London: Chatto and Windus.