Jealousy and Envy

Since the nineteenth century, parents, psychologists, and educators have expressed concern over children's envy and jealousy. Envy and jealousy are often conflated today, but in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the two emotions elicited different responses from child experts and moralists who believed them to be quite distinct. Envy described the feelings experienced by one who longed for the belongings or attributes of another. In contrast, jealousy referred to the emotion experienced when an individual felt that a relationship or possession was threatened. While envy was frequently associated with material longings, jealousy was more often linked with LOVE.

Long viewed as a deadly sin, envy first became a source of worry for many in the United States during the last half of the nineteenth century. In the midst of a rapidly expanding consumer economy, moralists worried that Americans were becoming too covetous and materialistic. Educators, ministers, and pioneering psychologists expressed particular concern over the envy that children were displaying. They repeated Judeo-Christian condemnations of the emotion and told youngsters that they must learn to be contented with what they had rather than envying the belongings of their playmates. God had placed people in the condition he believed best for them; to long to be in different circumstances was to question God's wisdom. This message was repeated ceaselessly in children's schoolbooks, sermons, and stories, as well as in parenting advice.

By the 1910s and 1920s, many child-rearing experts had ceased thinking of envy as a sin. They still regarded it as a problem; however, believing that children who did not learn to conquer the emotion in youth might grow up to be unsuited for the corporate world which increasingly demanded cooperation and teamwork. Therefore, envy among children still had to be addressed. The experts suggested that the way to do this was not to force children to repress their envy and live with deprivation, but instead to give them the things they desired. If they envied their classmates' clothing or playthings, they should be provided with similar items.

While restrictions on envy generally relaxed in the twentieth century, rules governing jealousy became more rigid. Peter Stearns (1989) describes how attitudes towards the emotion changed. In preindustrial Europe and America, jealousy was not as harshly condemned as it would be in later years. Many authors claimed that jealousy arose naturally from love and the desire to protect a cherished relationship. Jealousy was considered a manly emotion, intimately connected to honor. Because it was seen as natural and even laudable, very little attention was paid to the question of how to limit jealousy in children.

In the early 1800s, attitudes towards jealousy began to change. Many commentators and moralists regarded jealousy as antithetical to true love. Ideally, love was so encompassing and total that jealousy need never arise. Women, in particular, were told to control the emotion in themselves, and the selfishness on which it was based. But while the emotion was becoming both feminized and stigmatized, scant attention was paid to it in child-rearing literature. Conventional wisdom held that real jealousy did not plague children–it only became a problem in adolescence and adulthood when romantic feelings were developing. Children might squabble and fight, but family love and unity were supposed to be strong enough to offset these problems.

By the late nineteenth century, however, child experts deemed jealousy a problem. During this period, family size decreased and maternal attention increased, causing more intense competition between SIBLINGS for affection and attention. Experts often framed their discussion of jealousy in terms of sibling rivalry, a problem first identified in the 1890s. They concluded that sibling rivalry was widespread in middle-class families, and that girls were more prone to the emotion than boys. As a result, throughout most of the twentieth century, child-rearing literature frequently addressed the problem of sibling rivalry and jealousy. Advisors suggested that children who did not overcome jealousy ran the risk of being maladjusted as adults and incapable of sustaining satisfying relationships. They advised parents to address the problem of jealousy by giving their jealous children extra love and TOYS. While concern with sibling rivalry subsided in parenting literature after the 1960s, parents continued striving to distribute affection and playthings evenly, in order to minimize sibling rivalry and jealousy.

The modern approaches to children's jealousy and envy reflect not only the changing nature and structure of family life, but also the powerful influence of CONSUMER CULTURE. The contemporary solutions to these childhood problems are based on the belief that material goods can bring contentment, and that it is better to indulge longings than to repress them.

See also: Anger and Aggression; Child-Rearing Advice Literature; Emotional Life; Guilt and Shame.


Foster, George. 1972. "The Anatomy of Envy: A Study in Symbolic Behavior." Current Anthropology 13: 165–202.

Matt, Susan. 2003. Keeping Up With the Joneses: Envy in American Consumer Culture, 1890–1930. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Schoeck, Helmut. 1969. Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior. Trans. Michael Glenny and Betty Ross. New York: Harcourt Brace.

Spielman, Philip M. 1971. "Envy and Jealousy: An Attempt at Clarification." Psychoanalytic Quarterly 40: 59–82.

Stearns, Peter. 1989. Jealousy: The Evolution of an Emotion. New York: New York University Press.

Stearns, Peter. 1998. "Consumerism and Childhood: New Targets for American Emotions," In An Emotional History of the United States, ed. Peter Stearns and Jan Lewis. New York: New York University Press.

Stearns, Peter. 1999. Battleground of Desire: The Struggle for Self-Control in Modern America. New York: New York University Press.