A Short History of Childhood

(from chaos to budding human rights)



Were children always children as we understand them? In times past, such was definitely not the case.

Children playing in a town square by Bruegel

Most of us tend to assume that children were always children and families were much the same as now—nice middle class (westernized) people who dote upon their children. In times past, such was definitely not always the case. In the ancient world, children were treated reasonably well. But…

Chaos in Europe

After the collapse of the Roman Empire chaos reigned across Europe. Children—seen or treated as such—barely existed. The Pope set and controlled morals but only scattered pockets of law and order remained. Western lore was essentially lost to its people. A few Irish priests and the Arabs preserved the remains of classical learning. But the paideia (schools) were gone. Attitudes towards children were not even up to the standards of primitive culture. Children were unschooled and exploited as labor at a very early age.

One might hope and expect that individual parents would behave better. Surely, there must have been some parental love and guidance. Not necessarily, for all parents reflect the prevailing state of society. In the feudal environment of the middle ages many mothers died young. Most fathers probably valued their horse and dog above their children. A boy’s main worth was as a vehicle to pass on name and property. Girls had less value yet…

Medieval times

It is hard to believe that this ‘neglect’ was due solely to incompetence or incapacity. The truth is that there was no real place for the child—as such—in the mediaeval world. During the middle ages the very concept of childhood hardly existed. Children were viewed quite differently than now. Artists, despite their inherent talent and originality, reflect society’s prevailing attitude and understanding. They failed to depict a child except as a man or woman on a smaller scale.[i] Bruegel, as shown in the above painting, was beginning a new trend, 

People of all ages worked and mixed together from an early time of life. At about age 7-9 all children, boys and girls alike, of all social classes, were ‘farmed out’ as apprentices to other families (and vice versa)—girls as domestics, boys as artisans, farm laborers or waiters on table, etc. (Schools were extremely rare—the exception—and those that existed were only for the very few who took Latin at monasteries in preparation for priestly orders.) Thus, from an early age children mingled intimately with adults. They were together all day long—and night too. Houses were crowded and not designed with privacy in mind. In fact privacy was virtually unknown. There were no specialized rooms as we know; each room connected directly with another; there were no hallways or bedrooms; portable beds (and chamber-pots) were everywhere; there were no rooms set aside for dining—or tables—and food, very often brought in, was eaten anywhere. Animals roamed. Promiscuity was rampant. The home was a ‘public house’ with all sorts of people coming and going. (Real pubs were the haunt of prostitutes and outlaws—hence dangerous—and avoided.) So children in the household were directly exposed to all aspects of adult life and adult conversation. And they participated also. If we consider some programs airing on TV nowadays to be inappropriate for children, mediaeval children saw and engaged in things we could hardly imagine.

But it wasn’t all bad. Living in close quarters was likely enjoyable. And mediaeval children, always virtually in the laps of grownups, hardly needed special controls or harsh discipline. If children received ‘unsolicited love’ and attention it was a response to their cuteness and entertainment value. As children don’t evaluate motives all that much, the attention they received, attendant upon close living, probably was psychologically sound. But, babies were so fragile and potentially ephemeral (infant death rates were very high) that sentimental attachment to them was avoided. Cuddling and coddling were in short supply. If they survived to walk, that was a good enough time to take any real notice of them.

Mediaeval birth registries were haphazard, if kept at all, and most people did not know their own exact age. All of life—the seasons, planets, personal temperaments—was tied by magical number ‘correspondences’ into astrology. Some connections could be pretty circuitous: The concept of the ‘ages of man,’ from birth to death, originated in the sixth century in the Byzantine Empire; man’s birth ‘in the midst of the storms of existence’ was symbolized by Aeneas’s[ii] shipwreck; this story was further interpreted as the ‘image of children hungering for fabulous tales’; it was stretched even more in an eighth century Arabian fresco in which seven ages of life correspond (somehow) with the seven planets. Here are its contents:

The 7 ages of man

1. Infancy, so named, was extended—from birth up to age 7: Its characteristics were ‘not talking well; no teeth.’ Breast feeding was extremely prolonged, weaning tardy, often well beyond age 5. This so-called infancy ended as the milk teeth gave way to permanent teeth.

2. Puerility ran from 7 or 9 to 14: the period of apprenticeship during which children, even in the bosom of a family, were treated as small adults. It was sensibly thought that a ‘strange’ family would be more likely to ensure hard work and application to good manners.

3. Adolescence, (which we think is stretched out!), started at 12-14, and ends anywhere between 21 and 35! Its main feature was the ability to procreate. Marriage, particularly of girls, was early and usually to a much older and successful man. Beauty was hardly enough to ensure it. Virtually all young women had to have a dowry to marry. Past 18, a woman not betrothed, was surely destined to be a spinster. Bachelors were common at all ages.

4. Youth, in the ‘ages of man’ sequence, lasts until 45 or 50. This particular age range occupies the central position. The person is ‘in his greatest strength to help himself and others.’ If successful, to marry. Of note, the whole ‘ages of man’ schema was built around the male gender. Females, except for the occasional queen, remained an incidental embellishment for centuries.

5. Gravity, ‘halfway between youth and old age, grave in habits and bearing.’

6. Old age, up to about 70. ‘Not so much sense and talk nonsense.’

7. Senility. ‘Always coughing, spitting, and dirtying.’

That was the mediaeval notion of human growth and development! It is noteworthy that what we might refer to as a mature or middle-aged person is, in the ages of man, called a youth. But connotations change over time and this is likely a quirk of semantics. Less obviously, our complicated notions of childhood simply did not exist. Even the behavioral distinctions of infancy and early childhood, starting to talk, walk, play, are overlooked. Knowledge of child development was unknown—Montaigne, Bowlby, and Dr. Benjamin Spock were far off in a hazy future. Each mediaeval ‘stage’ was discerned in terms of social and religious efficacy; the deeper personal-psychological aspects of life were almost completely outside of collective awareness.

During the middle ages the past was completely cut off. A personal future was fate, mainly understood in terms of heaven or hell. Only theological scholars had a notion of previous secular glories: Greece and Rome. Then came the dark ages of chaos and barbarity, capped by the Viking scourge. Although circumstances in Italy, France, Germany, and England varied widely, the late middle ages were hardly better. At this point it may be helpful to distinguish the terms, dates and turning points of overlapping historical time frames:

Overlapping historical time frames

1. Neolithic: prehistory—archeological evidence.

2. Ancient Western world: Greece, circa 500 BC; Roman Empire, c. 0-500 AD.

3. Mediaeval times: roughly 500-1500 AD (also called the Middle Ages), feudal society. Early Middle Ages (or the Dark Ages): from 476 (fall of Rome) to c. 1000 AD. Late Middle Ages: from c. 1000 to c. 1450 AD. Human Rights launched with Magna Carta, Runnymede, England 1215.

4. Renaissance: earliest in Italy (13th c.), spread over Europe, lasting into 17th century. Gutenberg’s invention of book-printing (c. 1456) pivotal for education and children. Columbus’ discovery of the Americas (1492) advanced the enrichment of Europe.

5. Modern times: post-renaissance. Beginnings vary with place, politics, science, the arts, global exploration… The Enlightenment (rationalism), Age of Reason (England & France) 18th century. American and French revolutions advance core concepts of basic human rights. Industrial Revolution: England in late 1700’s, spread during 19th & 20th centuries. With it and subsequently: Mandatory public education for all children; Expanding human rights movements (women, child labor laws); Seminal medical discoveries/procedures (water purification, sewage treatment, immunization, antibiotics) reduce infant-child death rates; Information Revolution: roughly last third of 20th century and on into 21st… What will it bring?

Under feudal law, warrior kings and their knights, the pope and priests, ruled the peasants with an iron hand while war, famine and pestilence reigned over all. Knights were not always ‘in shining armor’. The bad ones often treated peasants whimsically. If not raped or summarily killed for even minor infractions, men, women and children alike were sold in large numbers to the east as slaves. But the common people multiplied and filled the empty land masses of Europe. Taxes built fortified castles and raised Gothic cathedrals. A tenuous prosperity dawned. Then came the 14th century—a human disaster; it was the most terrible of times. In this period: 1. The 100 Years War devastated all of Europe. 2. The Black Death (plague) wiped out a third of the population. Weird mass whipping rituals by large groups of people wandering the countryside added a macabre touch. The value of life, instead of increasing, decreased. In the face of all this, children hardly mattered.

I emphasize all of this to show how crippled, vis a vis children, our shaky culture was rendered by the chaos and brutalities of the dark ages and how the later middle ages perpetuated it. Children were literally unseen as such. Even in Neolithic times a critical distinction between childhood and adulthood was perceived; initiation rites signified the passage into adulthood. Western mediaeval civilization failed to see the difference and therefore lacked a concept of transition—let alone education.

“Myths such as courtly and precious love denigrated marriage, while realities such as the apprenticeship of children loosened the emotional bond between parents and children. Mediaeval civilization had forgotten the paideia of the ancients and knew nothing as yet of modern education. That is the main point: it had no idea of education. Nowadays our society depends, and knows that it depends, on the success of its educational system. It has a system of education, a concept of education, an awareness of its importance.” [iii]

Printing: beginnings of education

Paintings at the dawn of the Renaissance period begin to show babies and children in proper bodily proportion (as had the statuary of ancient Greece and Rome). Children, if not fairing all that much better, very gradually began to be visualized in a different light. Although, wherever it took place, the Renaissance itself lasted only a century or so, it took over 600 more years to achieve the ‘rights’ of children.

Detail of painting shows varying body proportions – note heavy shoulders.

It started with an emerging middle class. Education—the gradual establishment and rise of schools—was the key. Education, often through religious teaching orders, transformed the family which gradually ceased to be simply an institution for the transmission of name and estate. It assumed a moral and spiritual function, molding both bodies and souls.

The mass of ‘peasants’, clinging to very early apprenticeship, continued to treat their children as small adults. Illiteracy predominated. With the Industrial Revolution and long hours of child labor in mines and factories, things became very bad for working class children. It wasn’t until the 1930’s that the labor movement really changed things in Europe. For an intimate idea, one should read The Road to Wigan Pier by George Orwell. In America conditions were better than in Orwell’s England. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn of the 19th century attests to it. But Black children suffered on through the 1960’s.

Babies had the worst of it. Effective contraception was unknown and birthrates high. It was hard to breast feed a long succession of newborns. If a mother’s breasts ran dry, it was a real problem. There were no feeding formulas. As cow milk was deemed dangerous (we now know why—tuberculosis) as well as unnatural, many French and English town babies were sent to a country wet-nurse. In short, babies got nothing like they do today. The notion of early maternal deprivation was unknown until mid-twentieth century.[iv] It is a true wonder that everyone didn’t grow up as emotionally deprived psychopaths. Probably many did to some extent. Certainly the epidemic of serial killers in 19th century Germany and England suggest it.

But let’s go back again, to Renaissance Europe c. 1456—a historical turning point. Johann Gutenberg, of Mainz, Germany, invented movable type. Books were freed from handwritten manuscript and at last could be widely circulated. Leaping ahead a century: in Germany, Martin Luther deposed a corrupt Catholic church and the Protestant Reformation was a turning point for all Europe. In Italy, Galileo (1564-1642) started measurable science. In roughly the same time span, Shakespeare wrote and published his plays.[v]

Art and action in the 17th century gave expression to the modern concept of family. Less its structure than its attitude. Primogeniture gradually died: All (male) offspring, not just the eldest, were beginning to be treated equally insofar as property inheritance was concerned. From 1600 on, home design began to change. Rooms became specialized: separate bedrooms, dining rooms, sitting rooms. People no longer just dropped in and stayed. At long last privacy prevailed! Just when the family had finished organizing itself around the child and raising this wall of privacy between itself and society, the phenomenon of Malthusianism or birth-control made its appearance in the 18th century. Moral ascendancy took stage center. People shrank from promiscuity. All seemed set for the Victorian age.

But the greatest event of the times was the revival of the ancients’ interest in education. It was moral rather than humanitarian. It affected the emerging middle classes more than the upper class. It was recognized that the child was not ready for life. “He had to be subjected to a special treatment, a sort of quarantine, before he was allowed to join the adults.” [vi] This new concept about education would gradually install itself in the heart of European society and transform it from top to bottom. The care expended on children inspired new feelings, a new emotional attitude. All children, including girls, were supposed to have a training for life. This training would be provided by the school. Moralists taught parents that it was their duty to send their children to school very early in life. A French-Latin text of 1602 states:

“Those parents who take an interest in their children’s education are more worthy of respect than those who just bring them into the world. They give them not only life but a good and holy life. That is why those parents are right to send their children at the tenderest age to the market of true wisdom where they will become the architects of their own fortune, the ornaments of their native land, their family and their friends.” [vii]

Family and school together removed the child from adult society. But all did not always end well. “The school shut up a childhood, which had hitherto been free, within an increasingly severe disciplinary system, which culminated in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the total claustration of the boarding-school.” [viii] Punishments reserved for felons from the lowest strata of society—the prison cell and beatings—were regularly visited upon children. In fact a birch-stick in the hand of a teacher became symbolic of the profession. As you read this you must be awakening to the fact that children have not been treated at all well, even when intentions were very well meant, in our advanced Western world! But there is more.

Other threads in the last few centuries affected the picture—the concept of class for one. For centuries in the distant past, all kinds of people rubbed shoulders and mixed freely. The ‘charity schools’ of the 17th century, founded for the poor, attracted children of the well-to-do just as much. But after the 18th century, middle class families ceased to accept this mixing and withdrew their children from what was to become the primary school system, and placed them in a separate stream. In France they were called pensions, in England public schools. The ‘teaching’ of superiority and inferiority by social class took firm root and a new form of prejudice was born where it had not been previously. (In Canada this separation and cloistering of children took a further step around mid 20th century: We now have two entire school systems, public and separate (Catholic), in addition to the elite and costly upper-crust private schools…)

The industrial revolution

The Industrial Revolution brought about the demise of the extended family (close-knit under one roof). It saw the birth of the small nuclear family which was promoted by the industrialists. Being small and hence more mobile, it could move from mine-pit to mine-pit to factory. There were no more kindly aunts and grandparents in the immediate background to counsel children and advise new parents. The newly isolated, exhausted parents were not much help to children at home—if they were at home. For the Industrial Revolution also prolonged child labor by almost two centuries.

Let’s slightly diverge into literature to hammer home the point. If a child, like Oliver Twist, somehow slipped out of the middle class, even temporarily, as we all know from reading the book or watching the movie—horrors happened. But, Charles Dickens, the preeminent reforming author of the 19th century, believed that intelligence, determination and individual fortitude, with a rich man’s help, could overcome all—as with David Copperfield. Childhood was portrayed more bucolically in the America of the same period—vis., Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer. But that was through rose-colored middle class glasses, for, half into the 20th century, child labor did exist in Canada and the United States.

The 20th century and beyond

1931: When I personally came into the world—soon to be reading Treasure Island and Tom Sawyer and Oliver Twist and watching Mickey Mouse. Having my own childhood in the Great Depression. But what a world of difference! Hiking, boating, camping. Our family doctor was a kindly man who made house-calls and loved children. I was treated as ‘a fair-haired boy’ like a little Lord Fauntleroy at home and given special attention at school. The teachers were dedicated, but favored the well-placed and the more gifted. Many children around me were coming to school in rags, getting the strap, and quitting to go to work, sometimes at 14, usually at 16. I, myself delivered papers at 8, worked after school at 11 and had a summer job at 14 on the railway section gang. Nevertheless, it was a golden age for children.

Christopher Robin in Winnie the Poo, a golden age of childhood…

“New sciences such as psychoanalysis, pediatrics and psychology devote themselves to the problems of childhood, and their findings are transmitted to parents by way of a mass of popular literature. Our world is obsessed by the physical, moral and sexual problems of childhood … ‘Youth’ (was) the privileged age of the seventeenth century, childhood of the nineteenth, adolescence of the twentieth.” [ix]

Not only do we divide childhood up into steps and milestones (neonate, infant, toddler, school-age, puberty, adolescence), we now have sophisticated ideas about sequentially phased child growth and development, namely, the Harvard growth/weight scales known to every family doctor and pediatrician and notions of distinct-but-interconnected phases of development in various areas and terms: social (Eric Erikson), sexual (Freud), cognitive (Piaget) and more. [x], [xi]

Changes that once took centuries now happen in decades. Not all for the good. Wide swings in attitude and the burgeoning of technology in the last half of the 20th century have made it immensely difficult for all children all over again, especially teenagers—in very new ways.

In the 1960’s (after the Hall-Dennis Report in Canada), young children were given too much credit for individual initiative and the schools became all too loosely structured for good learning. We are still reaping the unfortunate results. Now, the choices open to them are many and difficult and extremely competitive.

Only since mid-twentieth century has the reality that children can be abused by their own family come to general awareness. More recently, sexual abuse by those in trusted positions (priests, teachers) has been publicized. At the present point in time – a decade into the 21st century – people are becoming aware that children can be and are exploited in pornography disseminated over the Internet.

Thus, young people’s lives are still inordinately stressful: hardly physical, less social, highly emotional. One surely wonders if the current Information Revolution, through self-congratulatory ignorance, in a totally different way, is repeating some mistakes of the Industrial Revolution?

Famous viewpoints on children [xii]

Proverbs appear to reflect the attitudes of ordinary people. English Proverb: Children are poor men’s riches. French Proverb: A baby is an angel whose wings decrease as his legs increase. Two Danish Proverbs: Who takes the child by the hand, takes the mother by the heart. A lazy boy and a warm bed are difficult to part.

Collections of quotations contain the sayings of the wisest or wittiest of men and women. Omitted are the viewpoints of the rest of humanity—perceptive or stupid—for obvious reasons. Nevertheless it is interesting to take a look at what the notables have said. We’ll start with four of the ancients:

Aristotle: The life of children, as much as that of intemperate men, is wholly governed by their desires.
Sophocles: Children are the anchors that hold a mother to life.
Euripides: How delicate the skin, how sweet the breath of children!
Ovid: Dear to the heart of a girl is her own beauty and charm.

A major ‘modern’ turning point, Montaigne, essays 1580-88: We find ourselves more taken with the running up and down, the games, and puerile simplicities of children, than we do, afterward, with their most complete actions; as if we had loved them for our sport, like monkeys, and not as men.

Thomas Fuller MD 1732: What children hear at home soon flies abroad.
William Wordsworth in We Are Seven 1798: A simple Child, / That lightly draws its breath, / And feels its life in every limb, / What should it know of death?

Emerson 1836: There was never a child so lovely but his mother was glad to get him asleep.
Joseph Joubert 1842: Children need models rather than critics.
Charles Dickens in Nicholas Nickleby 1838-39: Every baby born into the world is a finer one than the last. In Great Expectations 1860-61: In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived as injustice.
Longfellow 1857: A torn jacket is soon mended; but hard words bruise the heart of a child.
John Ruskin 1866: Give a little love to a child and you get a great deal back.
Mark Twain 1894: Adam and Eve had many advantages, but the principal one was that they escaped teething.
Sigmund Freud 1899: Children are completely egoistic; they feel their needs intensely and strive ruthlessly to satisfy them.

20th century:
Heywood Brown 1921: There are one hundred and fifty-two ways of holding a baby–and all are right.
Aldous Huxley 1931: Children are remarkable for their intelligence and ardor, for their curiosity, their intolerance of shams, the clarity and ruthlessness of their visions.
Elizabeth Bowen 1935: There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone. And in 1938: Childish fantasy, like the sheath over the bud, not only protects but curbs the budding spirit, protects not only innocence from the world, but the world from the power of innocence.
General L. A. Hershey 1951: A boy becomes an adult three years before his parents think he does, and about two years after he thinks he does.
Benjamin Spock 1958: Perhaps a child who is fussed over gets a feeling of destiny, he thinks he is in the world for something important and it gives him drive and confidence.
James Baldwin 1961: Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.

There is a great gap in epigrammatic output between the ancients and Montaigne, whom I credit as the first real child psychologist. Maudlin old Dickens did much to enlighten 19th century England. Freud, while perhaps realistic, had about as much empathy for children as he showed tolerance of women. Feminists will attest to that. The 20th century saw a burgeoning of epigrams on children. Only a few are included. Few of them, Huxley and Spock excepted, seem all that charitable or to have progressed much beyond Montaigne and Dickens. Nothing at all is said about children as integral actors in family transactions.[1] When it comes to children, epigrammatic output is very idiosyncratic. Children are often described by extremes, rather seriously, either in very glowing terms or with overt distaste. Quips about children tend to an excess of wit and a lack of humor. Overall, as might be expected, great men and women do not necessarily reflect the tenor of their own times. They are either away ahead of everyone else or hopelessly personal and backward—either way, quite out of step!

End note

You may ask, what is the point of knowing all this history? Answer: Not solely for its own sake. The discovery of childhood is included because it is interesting. And perhaps broadening. It is not comparable to political history, of which it is said, ‘If you don’t know it, you’re bound to repeat it.’ Probably more apt: Each time history repeats itself the price goes up.

But not knowing how modern children got the way they got does not mean that we are about to revert to Dickensian or Mediaeval models. When you read between the lines, a light is not just thrown on children but on family. While the family is forever a constant of society, it is also ever-changing. Current sweeping changes (children of complex post-divorce family mixtures, single parenting, homosexual marriage) may be a bit better understood, if not always better tolerated. And, this question now should always surface: How do the children fare?

It is amazing that children, through all the centuries of neglect and exploitation, when left to their own devices, have managed to lead a life of their own—even to this very day in 2009. Bruegel’s painting of children playing leapfrog and rolling hoops shows it six or seven hundred years ago. And just yesterday my wife pointed out a news article about children, quite unbeknownst to adults (except maybe some Chinese exporting merchants), running an extensive fun enterprise in candy-wrappers that explode on being thrown down. Parents and officials, both aghast, are ‘plotting’ to end this dangerous game through a new toy law.

Next, and in closing, I am going to outline for you three modern methods (each in its own Knol) that some clinical professionals use and recommend in dealing with children. They are, first, the Reflection of Feeling, second, a useful Method of Front Line Screening, and third, the use of Toys As Tools.


[1] Those after about 1970 are not yet published.

[i] Aries, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (1960). New York: Translated from the French by Robert Baldick, Published by Alfred A. Knopf (1962). This is a seminal book.

[ii] Aeneas, who escaped from the siege of Troy, was ‘the founder of Rome.’

[iii] Ibid. Aries.

[iv] Bowlby, John. Maternal Deprivation and Mental Health. World Health Organization… (Seminal)

[v] The race between ‘countries’ was not equal. Although the Renaissance awakened in fractured Italy (its city states’ Mediterranean commerce was closest to the far advanced Arab world), France and the low countries took the lead, then came England. The broken-up principalities of Germany trailed far behind, except for Gutenberg’s monumental invention.

[vi] Ibid. Aries.

[vii] Ibid. Aries. Academia sive speculum vitae scholasticae. Arnheim (1602).

[viii] Ibid. Aries.

[ix] Ibid. Aries.

[x] Rexford, Sander and Shapiro. Infant Psychiatry (A New Synthesis). Yale University Press.

[xi] Berlin, Irving N. Bibliography of Child Psychiatry (Official Publication of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry). New York: Human Sciences Press.

[xii] Tripp, Rhoda Thomas. The International Thesaurus of Quotations. Harper & Row, Publishers (1987).