Parents' attachment to and affection for their children are perhaps the most profound emotional experiences of human existence. Infancy and childhood require an extraordinary level of parental involvement and typically call for the parent or caretaker to sacrifice resources, comfort, and even safety in the interests of the child. Contemporary evolutionary theory views affection for children and parental attachment as biologically motivated behavior, fundamental to the survival of the species. Some psychological theories also place the experience of parental love and attachment at the center of emotional development. As children develop, other important emotional relationships grow out of the experiences of affection and attachment that they had as children.
Culture has inevitably grown up around attachment behavior, investing it with meanings and also shaping the behavior to conform to other human needs. Although examples abound in the Bible and in Greek literature of the love of parents for children, these do not necessarily resemble contemporary standards for love. For instance, in 2 Samuel, King David mourns for his dead, rebellious son, Absalom. But his general, Joab, rebukes David for his sadness, reminding David of the danger his men had incurred to defeat Absalom.
Evidence from Rome depicts an upper class that poured out affection for dead infants and children. Yet the experience of childhood may have been filled with relatively few moments of abiding tenderness. Roman fathers could reject children at birth, allowing them to be exposed and die. Roman medical literature has little to say about childhood illness, and children in Roman letters and memorials were often praised for adult characteristics. This does not indicate a Roman ignorance of stages of child development– children played freely in their early years and received many toys from fond relatives. But upper-class Romans may have cared more for the adult to be than for the child. Roman children began life and continued through childhood within a dense network of relationships in which the biological parents often were not the primary caregivers and may not have been the primary givers of love and affection. As they grew, boys had to learn the Roman values of citizenship and generally received a relatively extensive education under harsh masters. Even so, there is evidence that by the first century. B.C.E. parental affection for young children had wider acceptance and that during the early imperial period some Romans came to see the family as their principal source of identity.
Historians in the two decades following PHILIPPE ARIÈS's groundbreaking 1960 work generally applied Ariès's insights to the affectional bonds of medieval and early modern households. According to Ariès parents loved their children, but not so much for themselves as for the contribution these children could bring to the household. High infant and childhood mortality meant that families feared to invest much time, affection, and attention in small children who might not survive. Even names were reused, either family names or the names of dead siblings. WET-NURSING meant mothers had little opportunity to become attached to their infants, and SWADDLING and inattention meant that the very young received little opportunity to bond with mothers. Similarly the lack of privacy foreclosed opportunities for purely family activities. Between ages seven and fourteen both boys and girls could expect to be apprenticed to another family, thus ending family closeness altogether. Childhood ended quickly, and youths became miniature adults, with versions of adult roles and responsibilities. Thus, the household economy completely absorbed the bonds of affection.
More recent historians have stressed continuity rather than a sharp change in child rearing from medieval to early modern times. Evidence exists back to antiquity of the recognition that childhood was a distinctive phase in human development and worthy of special attention. Children's TOYS, evidence of grief for dead infants, and new insights into practices such as wet-nursing all point to a more affectionate family environment. One study of rural France found mothers fussing over young children and grieving at the loss of children through death or separation. Important changes in child raising accompanied economic and intellectual trends from the late Middle Ages. These included extended schooling, the renewed importance of classical models for education, and a newly vital embrace of marriage and family life. These trends tended to reinforce the importance of warmth and affection in the home.
By the eighteenth century the general features of the modern affectionate or sentimental family had become widely disseminated in child-rearing literature and the values of close family ties and affection began to be taken for granted among middle-and upper-class families in western Europe and the British North American colonies. JOHN LOCKE's 1693 Some Thoughts Concerning Education became a fundamental text of the new family ideal. Locke believed that children were distinct from adults in having few if any concepts, and that the education of children should be central to family life. He urged parents (he wrote to fathers) to use physical punishment as little as possible, but rather to shape behavior through esteem and disgrace. Locke's work became an important point of departure for ENLIGHTENMENT writers who encouraged sentimental relationships within the family.
By the early nineteenth century, the affectionate family, with recognizably contemporary attitudes toward parental love, had taken firm root among the middle classes in western Europe and the northern United States. The economic functions of the family had largely withered away and in their place powerful affectionate bonds had grown up. Even with continuing high INFANT MORTALITY, parents recognized each new child as an individual and as worthy of a unique relationship. Children received new and distinctive names. Mothers nursed their own children and both parents attempted to spend time playing with children and nourishing the bonds of affection. Boys and girls would still have gender-neutral clothing until age seven, but the ages of childhood were valued as intrinsically important. Extended schooling limited, sometimes even replaced, APPRENTICE-SHIPS for boys, and girls generally remained in the home. Within the larger middle-class homes, private parlors allowed the family to spend time together away from outsiders. The love of family members for one another, and particularly of parents for their children, became the central concern of the family.
The workings of the affectionate family varied by gender, social class, ethnicity, and region. Among the important economic and social changes in the United States and western Europe was the separation of work from the home. Middle-class fathers, as breadwinners, were absent from the home for most of the day, six days a week. This reduced or eliminated many of the relations that fathers would have with their children within a household-based economy such as a farm or artisan's workshop. Fathers still strived to serve the family and still enjoyed their children and gave them warm regard, but their time for this was limited.
The role of the middle-class mother became far more important. During the nineteenth century, motherhood assumed a vitally important role, becoming the epitome of all love and the highest example of devotion. Mothers, especially as they gained assistance from maids and other servants, could devote ever larger periods of time to raising children, a calling that became central to the self-identity of middle-class mothers. Literature was filled with examples of maternal sacrifice and love. Evidence from letters in the nineteenth century, and from surveys in the early twentieth century, show that both male and female children had fonder memories of mothers than of fathers. But boys had eventually to separate from mothers to pursue independent lives. Girls, on the other hand, could grow to womanhood within a realm of motherly affection that was extended through relations to other female relatives, friends of the mother's, and age-contemporary friends who were part of the extended female network.
In the pre–Civil War American South, the sentimental family bound by affection and centered on the rearing of children appeared in a modified form among upper-class white families. Here the fathers may well have taken more of a role in the life of the children, and these families may have given greater scope to affection. But southern parents also demanded that children acquire a sense of family pride and honor, and take on roles that were often more prescriptive than those found in the North. Consequently, these families have been described as warm and affectionate but with careful control of emotional displays.
African-American families in the South prior to the Civil War maintained affectionate ties in spite of the hardships of slavery. Frederick Douglass recalled his mother's visits to him, even though she had to travel many miles at night, after her work. The vulnerability of the slave family to being broken by the sale of its members, and the harsh conditions of slavery, meant that many children developed kinship ties to aunts, uncles, grandparents, and fictive kin within the slave community. These ties spread the child-rearing tasks and also the bonds of affection throughout the community. Even so, after the war one of the most common reasons for the almost universal movement of freed men and women was the desire to find spouses and children and reunite families.
Working-class white families in the nineteenth century had little in common with middle-class families. Children in industrializing America had to work and contribute to the family economy from an early age. Affectionate ties within the family always competed with the material needs of the family. Fathers may have been even more distant than in middle-class families. A primary source of tension within working-class families was the demand for children's wages. In immigrant families, especially those from southern and eastern Europe, traditions of patriarchy meant that fathers preferred sons and the family focus was not on raising and adoring children but on serving fathers and catering to male children. Combined with the pressing demands for the entire family to work, this limited affectionate play and the warmth of family life.
The twentieth century brought a range of changes to the affectionate family. With the growing prosperity of the middle class, fathers could budget more time for activities with children. This still left the bulk of child rearing and family chores with mothers, but fathers at least had more opportunities for affectionate play with children. Growing prosperity also meant that successful working-class families began to resemble middle-class families, with their affectionate ties. Mandatory school laws and the limited success of CHILD LABOR laws meant that more working-class children were experiencing extended childhoods similar to those of children of the middle class.
A peer culture also developed among adolescent youth in the twentieth century. With extended schooling, and with the popularity of SUMMER CAMPS, many more children found themselves with age peers for much more time. Some conflicts grew out of this development, with adolescent children convinced that parents had little understanding of and affection for them. Mothers found it more difficult to continue the long tradition of female bonds among girls and young women.
Motherhood and mother love also came in for criticism. By the 1920s, social scientists and journalists began to attack mother love as a dangerous, even suffocating, emotional attachment. While maternal affection continued to characterize home life, at least middle-class mothers often found themselves fearing that their desire to coddle or praise or worry over children might have long-term harmful effects. After World War II this trend was partially reversed, with the renewed cultural emphasis upon the affectionate family, but suspicion of mother love continued as a motif in American culture throughout the twentieth century.
As indicated by biological and psychological theories that place parental affection for children at the center of human evolutionary survival and emotional development, love of children has become transcendent in contemporary America. Child-centeredness is taken for granted, with the only debate being around the proper means of aiding children in their development. At the same time, late-twentieth-and early-twenty-first-century Americans recognize the possibilities for abuse disguised as love for children. Revelations of the sexual exploitation of children in child-care facilities and religious institutions, and the recognition of dysfunctional family life as an important social issue, have made the proper form of love, care, and affection for children a pressing issue. Because of its importance in contemporary culture, love for children will continue at the center of vital debates on social and moral issues.
The history of children's love is obviously more obscure than that of parental love. As sentimental love became more highly emphasized, it was usually assumed that children would respond in kind. But not all children proved as loving as their parents hoped. One feature of ADOLESCENCE often involved a period in which active affection was less forthcoming, which could be confusing to child and parent alike. Sociologists have speculated that a longer-term result of the growing emphasis on love for children involved a need for children (perhaps particularly girls) to fall in love in order ultimately to separate themselves from their parents (particularly their mothers). The ramifications of the history of love and childhood deserve further attention.
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JOHN C. SPURLOCK