Theories of Childhood

Childhood is generally considered to be either a natural biological stage of development or a modern idea or invention. Theories of childhood are concerned with what a child is, the nature of childhood, the purpose or function of childhood, and how the notion of the child or childhood is used in society. The concept of childhood, like any invention, was forged from a potent relationship between ideas and technologies within a frame of social, political, and economic needs. Theories of childhood as a concept are often highly colored or emotive, that is to say, they deal with stark contrasts revealing the development over time of the psychological or emotional significance of childhood as viewed from the state of adulthood. Up until the 1990s, theories of childhood tended to be determined in a "top-down" approach which some have described as "imperialistic." This is true of theories about the medieval child as much as the modern child. Children themselves, while the focus of theory, have not generally been considered as having a legitimate voice in influencing its production. However, the UN CONVENTIONON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILD (1989) created a climate for reconsidering this tendency and a subsequent focus on listening to the views of the child and CHILDREN'S RIGHTS of expression in general. This has led some scholars to explore allowing children themselves to reflect upon their own experience of childhood, resulting in the use of inclusive research methodologies and more democratic frameworks for dissemination.

Ever since JOHANN AMOS COMENIUS (1592–1670) published his Didactica Magna (1649) and JOHN LOCKE (1632–1704) produced his treatise Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), observers of children have been occupied with attempting to understand, document, and comment on what it is and what it means to be a child. The significance of a state of being after the end of infancy, experienced by all humans in all societies, has produced sometimes contradictory theories from philosophical, religious, and scientific schools of thought as well as from the later established disciplines of psychology, anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies. Throughout history, theorists have been fascinated with the distinctive character of human development, unique as compared with other mammals in having evolved a lengthy period of dependency known as childhood.

Theoretical Boundaries of Childhood

The theoretical boundaries drawn between the relative states of childhood and adulthood have historically been highly significant across a range of cultures for social, political, religious, and legal purposes. The status of child awarded protection and acknowledged distinct limitations of personal responsibility within a context of parental or community belonging. A child has been de fined as any person below a notional age of majority, but this has been variously interpreted and there have been many differences throughout history in the ways that societies have come to recognize the exact beginning and end of childhood. The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has for its purposes identi fied childhood as that stage of life experienced by any person between birth and fifteen years. Article 1 of the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that a child is any person under the age of eighteen.

Childhood has thus been identified as a stage of life, associated with chronological age, located between infancy and youth, and including ADOLESCENCE. The word child has been used in many societies to indicate a kin relationship but also to indicate a state of servitude. But biological determinants have not always been paramount in indicating childhood. Children in the past often lived with and belonged to households rather than their biological parents. The beginning of childhood has been considered variously to occur at birth or at the end of breast-feeding, which lasted sometimes until the age of three in medieval Europe or in preindustrialized societies of modern times. The Qur'an, for example, indicates thirty months as the usual period. Medieval European society considered infancy to end at around seven years, coinciding with the beginning of a young person's competency at performing certain domestic or industrial tasks. At that time, the educational framework which modern societies have come to draw upon in distinguishing stages of infancy and childhood was yet to be invented. The eighteenth-century philosopher JEAN-JACQUES ROUSSEAU (1712–1778), in constructing an ideal childhood, described what he termed the "age of nature" as occurring between birth and twelve years. For the Austrian-born philosopher RUDOLFSTEINER (1861–1925), childhood was a state of physical and spiritual being roughly between the ages of seven and fourteen years, indicated initially by certain physiological changes such as the loss of the milk teeth.

Biological-anthropologists, taking a biocultural perspective, regard childhood as a stage in development unique to humans, the function of which is the preparation for adulthood. However, advocates of a new sociology of childhood such as sociologist Alison James have pointed out that chronological age is sometimes of little use when comparing childhood across very different cultures and societies. A ten year old may be a school child in one society, the head of a household in another. As such, the new sociology of childhood prefers to identify a "plurality of childhoods" rather than one structural conditional term. This plurality, it has been argued, is partly reflected through the prism of children's own definition of themselves.

Legal definitions of childhood have emerged gradually over time and during this long evolution the law can be seen to have reflected changing understandings of the meaning, span, and significance of childhood. Medieval English common law indicated, through its recognition of ages of majority, that a child was considered incapable or lacking sufficient

The inherent playfulness of childhood is depicted in Judith Leyster's Two Children with a Kitten and an Eel (c. 1630s). © ; By kind permission of the trustees of the
National Gallery
, London/

means of carrying out a range of adult practices. The capacity of the individual to know and reflect upon the moral status of their actions has come to signify the capacity of belonging and contributing to civil society. The age at which a person can be considered capable of moral reflection upon their actions has altered over time according to changes in the understanding of childhood. Thus, for example, according to nineteenth-century English common law, it became established that children should be exempt from criminal liability under the age of seven. This was raised to age eight in 1933 and to ten in 1963.

The necessity of formulating a precise legal definition of childhood grew out of demographic, economic, and related social and attitudinal changes in the industrialized world that together forged a new recognition of the significance of childhood at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Before this time, children had been defined in strict relation to their status as the biological offspring of fathers who also were considered by law to own any of the child's possessions and to whom they were obliged to offer their services. The lowly status of children was reflected in the fact that child theft was not acknowledged by English law before 1814. By the end of the nineteenth century, there was a growing concern among the newly formed middle classes with the moral condition of childhood and the domestic responsibility of parents. Accompanying this was a notion of childhood innocence and vulnerability which was employed to argue for a new definition of childhood–one which associated it less with the world of industry and more with the world of education. Notions of protection and welfare developed strongly in parts of the world which were experiencing for the first time reductions in infant and child mortality.

The social historian Viviana Zelizer has described what she terms a "sacralization" (investing objects with religious or sentimental meaning) of childhood that occurred at this time, creating a transition in the way children were regarded, from a position of economic value to one of emotional price-lessness. Thus, the notion of the economically useful child began to be replaced by the notion of the incalculable emotional value of each child. Such a theoretical development was essential for the generation of a consensus around legally sanctioned compulsory education.

The Significance of Childhood

What was childhood for? Two broad theoretical positions have emerged on this question. One argues that childhood is a characteristic of human evolution designed to ensure the survival and development of the species. The other suggests that the state of childhood or how childhood is viewed is significant in itself as an indicator of the evolution or development of societies and cultures toward notions of civility or modernity. The former, which encompasses the biosocial and evolutionary approaches, argues that childhood, as a stage of growth and development, has evolved in human society to provide the conditions for optimizing the prospects of maturity. In particular, this perspective has suggested that the distinctively rapid growth of the brain and the immaturity of dentition and digestive tracts characteristic of the early stages of human life have evolved over time to sustain human society. Such a view is consistent with an essentialist or universal view of childhood (that prioritizes biology over environment in explaining childhood) but has also recognized that social conditions and ecology play a part in constructing the social and cultural response to childhood. Somewhat related to bio-social theories, the perspective of evolutionary psychology came to regard childhood as directly linked to the evolution of what has been called a psychology of PARENTING. This theory suggests that certain universal characteristics of infants and young children, such as relatively large heads and eyes in small bodies, act to trigger instinctive emotions and responses in adults, thus securing development toward maturity.

From this perspective, childhood can be seen as a relationship and therefore can be understood in generational terms. The principle relationship of childhood is with adulthood, but more specifically with parenthood. The development or evolution of conscious parenting is the focus of a school of thought known as psychohistory, which has developed since the 1970s following the work of Lloyd deMause. DeMause and his associates have developed a distinctive and controversial theory of childhood. This position establishes from empirical evidence that childhood, while seemingly held by society to be a time of freedom and innocence, has been for the majority of children a time of oppression and abuse. DeMause has argued that the parental response to the infant or child has evolved over time from one which was generally abusive and cruel to one which became nurturing and affectionate. Such a development, according to this theory, not only reflected social, technological, and cultural change but indeed generated those changes.

For SIGMUND FREUD (1856–1939) and psychotherapists who have followed Freud, such as Alice Miller, childhood was of key significance in the adjustment of the individual to mature well-being. Freud developed his theories of the sub-conscious partly through considering the reasons early childhood memory becomes lost. Since childhood was regarded as the key stage in the successful, or unsuccessful, development of ego, psychological well-being in adult life hinged on this period of time and healing might be effected through the recall of repressed childhood experience.

Developmental and Social-Constructionist Models

Before the second half of the twentieth century, physiological, psychological, and cognitive mapping of development was the dominant theoretical model for the study of childhood. However research and theory which emerged from the disciplines of history, anthropology, and sociology came to strongly question the developmental model, shifting the focus from the child itself to the socially and culturally constructed view of childhood specific to time and place. Since the eighteenth century, the dominant paradigm in Western cultures has viewed childhood as a stage of life characterized by dependency, learning, growth, and development. The notion that in the medieval world there was no concept of childhood was first introduced by the French scholar PHILIPPE ARIÈS in his Centuries of Childhood (1962), which focused mainly on France. Ariès believed that the evidence drawn from European paintings and texts of the time revealed that children seemed to be viewed as miniature adults. They had no special clothing, food, social space, or time which amounted to a childhood culture. It was only in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries that the demarcation between the adult world and the world of childhood slowly began to be drawn. In other words, the social and cultural world of childhood was instituted as a key part of the institution of a new kind of adult, the adult of the bourgeoisie. In spite of regional, cultural, and social differences in the experience of being a child and in how childhood is understood, the social-constructionist view of childhood has become the dominant conceptual model.

The late-eighteenth-century conception of children as utterly innocent is exemplified in The Age of Innocence (c. 1788), by Sir Joshua Reynolds PRA (1723–1792), from the title of the painting to the young subject's artless expression and pure white clothes. (Oil on canvas). Collection: © .

The early twentieth century saw the development of the discipline of psychology and associated with it, within the context of compulsory mass schooling, educational psychology. For the first time, large numbers of children were brought together institutionally with the object of transforming them into literate and numerate citizens. This material fact encouraged the development of learning theory with particular reference to childhood, and a developmental model, drawn from scientific observation and experimentation, came to characterize the understanding of the child as learner. Stage theory, usually associated with the work of JEAN PIAGET (1896–1980), assumes that the child, regardless of social or cultural context, has a certain universal nature which predisposes it to develop in identifiable stages. This understanding had profound effects on the organization of knowledge and pedagogy in the modern school.

During the 1920s anthropologist MARGARET MEAD (1901–1978) challenged Piaget's theory of stages of development. Her research sought to show that children brought up in different cultures did not exhibit a replica of the animistic stage that Piaget thought to be universal. Mead studied important differences in child and adolescent experiences according to environmental factors and while the results were controversial, the contextual debate continued throughout the rest of the twentieth century, reflecting a weakening of confidence in the universal view of childhood.

Historians, sociologists, and anthropologists have suggested that there is no single and universal experience or understanding of what childhood is and where it begins and ends but that this has altered according to time and place. Social-constructionist theory seeks to illustrate that there are many possible answers to the questions "What is a child?" or "What is childhood?" While factors such as body weight might be measured scientifically, producing the same answer in any time or place, childhood itself, the social and cultural expectations of the child, and its roles and responsibilities or stages of legitimacy can be understood very differently according to any contextual worldview. Social-constructionist theory argues that a notion of childhood is generated by successive generations out of a mix of tradition, social inter-course, and technological development. The context is cultural, and the key generating force is discourse. A discourse on childhood is the mediation of an interrelated set of ideas which are communicated through predominantly cultural outlets that generate and consolidate a particular worldview.

That children have and actively generate their own cultural worlds is recognized within another social-constructionist approach which has been termed the tribalchild perspective. IONA AND PETER OPIE's work in the 1950s and 1960s on children's culture as expressed through PLAY and organized games in United Kingdom streets and playgrounds encouraged this understanding of the child operating within and determining its own cultural world. Another variation on the social-constructionist approach is a political theory of childhood, which views children as a minority group. Within this perspective, children are viewed as people who are afforded little status in society but who are capable of becoming the agents of their own destiny. Within this framework, the physical and cognitive characteristics of childhood are subsumed within an approach which questions a key political function of the ideology of childhood, that which denies a voice to the child.

Cultural Theories of Childhood

Considerations of age and physical maturity are not the only factors by which childhood has been characterized. The association of childhood with notions of a spiritual world, or in modern times, a fantasy world, have shaped both the experience and expectation of childhood. In medieval times in Europe and into modern times through much of the rest of the world, childhood has been considered a condition with a special closeness to nature and to things spiritual. Marina Warner has shown how across cultures adult society has universally recognized this attribute by means of its songs, stories, and FAIRY TALES, rituals and iconography. In preliterate or predominantly oral cultures ideas about childhood were and still are transmitted through stories, song, and ritual. Such traditional media carried meanings, communicated moral codes, instructed on the care and protection of the young, and marked the important transition from childhood to adulthood. The end of childhood is a universally recognized stage of transition characterized by physiological changes which indicate sexual maturity. All societies and cultures have variously recognized this important mark of entry into the adult community. In the premodern world, the relative position of the young within the community and the wider cosmos was articulated as clearly to contemporaries through the collective recognition of RITES OF PASSAGE as is the case in the modern world. What came to transform this consideration into what we identify as theory was the development and spread of LITERACY.

Neil Postman has suggested that in western Europe at least, it was the spread of literacy through the invention of the printing press that was the principal force in generating a widely held and understood consensus around the meaning of childhood. In this sense, childhood was recognized as a stage of life essentially separated from the world of adults and adult knowledge by a lack of literacy. Knowledge and skill with the written word became a sign of maturity toward which the young could be trained. Postman has suggested that the information and communications revolution at the turn of the twenty-first century has delivered the end of

Le Gamin de Paris aux Tuileries (1848), Honoré Daumier. Children's penchant for overturning authority is embodied in Daumier's lithograph of a street urchin sitting on the throne of the King of France. Collection of Honoré Daumier Lithographs,
Robert D. Farber University Archives
and Special Collections Department,
Brandeis University Libraries

childhood, since the relational distance between the adult and the child has been terminally altered by the spread and crucial adoption by children of information and communications technologies.

The notion of the disappearance of childhood expresses a sense of loss communicated at an earlier period in history. The Romantic poets of late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Europe employed the notion of a lost childhood in their responses to an emergent industrial world. As Hugh Cunningham has put it, the child was the "other" for which one yearned (p. 43). From the end of the eighteenth century, particularly through the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the poetry of William Blake and William Wordsworth, childhood began to be associated strongly in the European mind with a state of nature and as a symbol of humanity, a signifier of development, and the root of progress. This was accompanied by a romantic turn against the impact of new forms of industrial organization and production. Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794) deployed the notion of a universal, natural childhood as a symbol of the humanity that Blake and his contemporaries feared would be destroyed through the oppressive effects of industrialization.

The dominant cultural product that emerged from the end of the eighteenth century was the image of the child as

In Hugo Simberg's The Wounded Angel (1903), it's not clear whether these children are helping the angel or if they've captured her. , Finland.

a symbol of innocence and purity, particularly the white Anglo-Saxon child. Within a racial framework, the evolutionary notion of childhood was found to be useful when deployed by the European colonial powers in justifying their "civilizing" domination of Africa. Those to be colonized were, according to the theory of recapitulation, likened to children in their behavior and evolutionary stage of development. In cultural and religious terms, the modern theory of childhood came to be identified with notions of innocence and absence of sin or corruption. Innocence was associated more often than not with the female child in the adult mind and it has been argued indicates an awareness of its opposite state. These are essentially adult concerns and not natural attributes, but the inevitable confusion has been exploited, not always in the interests of children themselves. Literary historian James Kincaid has argued that the notion of childhood innocence has been adopted by the adult world in order to imply the potential of violation and as such contains within it the potential of its opposite meaning. As such, theories of childhood communicate reflections on the state of human nature and the dominating anxieties of adult life at particular historical junctures.

The experience of being a child and the conceptualization of childhood are of course related, but Jens Qvortrup and colleagues have suggested that the idea of childhood developed as a structural form irrespective of children themselves. Theoretical notions of childhood can be seen to reflect adult anxieties, concerns, and needs while at the same time functioning to teach children themselves what it is to be a child and to provide a marker against which any child can be measured and compared. Childhood viewed at a distance, through a historical perspective, is revealing of patterns or what are sometimes called landscapes–general conditions of how children appeared to themselves and to their adult contemporaries at any one time. Historian John Sommerville has adopted the term standardization in this context. According to this theory, a consensus is arrived at, usually in accord with a hegemonic ordering of the values and standards of the more prosperous in society, through which a normal or ideal vision of childhood is arrived at. Theorist Henri A. Giroux has argued that the generation of cultural definitions of childhood needs to be understood historically, since the contextual site or framework within which childhood becomes defined alters over time. In modern times this occurs predominantly through commercial or market forces; a dominant site of cultural definition is the media and associated leisure and entertainment industries. For Giroux, the "politics of culture" provide the conceptual space in which childhood is constructed, experienced, and struggled over. For most of the twentieth century the school served as the principal site of cultural production, but in the twenty-first century the media and leisure industries have become at least as significant in the cultural definition of childhood. In a similar vein, childhood has been characterized as spontaneous desire by historian of childhood Gary Cross, who has focused on the changing form of children's TOYS over the course of the twentieth century. He traces these changes to the construction of the child as consumer within the context of a view of parenting which emphasizes the importance of fulfilling those desires for healthy cognitive and social development.

Postmodernist Theories of Childhood

The idea of a universal state of childhood was challenged toward the turn of the twenty-first century through an increasingly globalized perspective which accompanied scholarly questioning through ethnographic, cultural, and anthropological studies. The shift toward a recognition and acceptance of children's voices in determining their own world-view brought about a fragmented view which questioned the structural norm of childhood and brought about a theoretical position about pluralities of childhoods. For such theorists as Chris Jenks and Jens Qvortrup, it is more accurate and helpful to talk of many childhoods or a plurality of experience both across cultures and within them. Diversity of experience according to class, ethnicity, gender, culture, place of residence, health, or disability rather than one common childhood is emphasised, in spite of growing recognition of the universalizing effects of GLOBALIZATION.

Popular writing and scholarship on childhood in the last decades of the twentieth century reflected on a changed state of being. The traditional Western notion of childhood, which had held from about the 1850s to the 1950s, was implied in its absence by notions such as "the disappearance of childhood" or David Elkind's "the hurried child." The emerging consensus was that notions of childhood innocence and dependency on adults could no longer be sustained in the context of children's access to and use of new media technologies. The notion of childhood as an apprenticeship period for adulthood was fundamentally challenged by the use of such technologies, particularly in the home. Such a material change, coupled with an intensification of child-focused popular entertainment (sometimes called kinderculture) that began in the second half of the twentieth century, came to place strains on existing contemporary theories of childhood. What has been called by Shirley Steinberg and Joe Kincheloe "the dilemma of postmodern childhood" was characterized by a democratization in family life which placed the expectations of children and the concept of childhood itself in conflict with many of its established institutions such as the traditional family or the authoritarian school. This has also been accompanied by a new vision of CHILDREN'S RIGHTS apart from and even in opposition to their parents.

See also: Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child Psychology; History of Childhood; Law, Children and the; Sociology and Anthropology of Childhood; Theories of Play.


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Bogin, Barry. 1999. Patterns of Human Growth, 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Cahan, E.; Jay Mechling; B. Sutton-Smith; and S. H. White. 1993. "The Elusive Historical Child: Ways of Knowing the Child of History and Psychology." In Children in Time and Place: Developmental and Historical Insights, ed. Glen H. Elder, Jr., John Modell, and Ross D. Parke. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Cross, Gary S. 1997. Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

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Warner, Marina. 1999. No Go the Bogeyman: Scaring, Lulling, and Making Mock. London: Chatto and Windus.