Changing Concepts of Childhood: Chronological Trends

Figure 1.--This genre painting has the tounge-in-cheek title -- 'The Toilette". The artist was the Spanish master by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and painted about 1670-75. It shows a very realitically rendered dirty child while a woman, probably his grandmother, is removing lice. Murillo painted several similar images involving children. Click on the image to compare this to a 19th century depiction of childhood. The differing concept of childhood could not be more dramatic.

Modern concepts of childhood first appeared in the 18th century. Englightenmnt thinkers began to explore the topic of the nature of childhood. Europeans until the enligtenment saw children as simply small-sized adults. Enlkigtenment thinkers began to see childhood as a special an importnt phase of human development. And we begin to see the new concepts expressed in art work. Webegin to see idealized imges of childhood. The appearance of specialized clothing for children appeared at essentially the same time. Not only did the chronology coinside, but the clothing also reflected the individual children were experiencing childood. Throughout the 19th children, children who had to work rather than ply and attend school still commonly wore adult clothes. Often working-class children wore the same styles heir parents wore. In fact their clothes were commonly their parents worn out, patched up clothes cut down to fit them. Only grdually did working-class children begin to experience a modern childhood. This shift can be observed to some extent in the clothes that the children wore.

17th Century

Europeans and Americans in the 17th century continued to believe that a child was born with an essentially evil naturse. Naughty children were considered by many to be hatefull little vipers. One author wrote that naughty children were 'infinitely more hateful than vipers'. Given their esentially evil nature, it was considered essentially to thedir Christian salvation that the rod an a wide array of other implements to be generously applied in their correction. Many saw raising children as not unlike breaking a horse. The route to salvation was seen as the forceful application of corporal punishment. here were countless references to the rid and switch in a way that is virtually incomprehensible to the modern mind. This was especially the case fior boys. Children were viewed as small-size adults which can be seen with how they were dressed. In part this was an economic necesity. The Industrial Revolution had not yet occurred. Workers and farmers were far less efficent than modern times. This meant that for most families, everyone had to pitch in. Children were needed to help support the family and had to begin working as soon as possible. After breeching boys were dressed much as heir fathers. Girls wore the same drss styles as their mothers. Some thinkers at the end of the century began to rethink the long-established view of childhood. John Locke more famous for his contribution on political philosophy (political science) was one of the first to suggest that some goodness might exist in children. [Locke] He advoicated allowing chilkdren to run freely in fresh air. He had his puritanical side as well. He did not believe that children should be coldled. He wrote that chilkdren should wear 'shoes so thin that they bmight leak and let in water'. He thought it important to strengthen constitutions. Of course most children at the time except in winter commonly went barefoot. Depictions of children in genre works continue to be very realistic. There was no romantic idealism of childhood.

18th Century

The Western view of childhood mellowed considerably during the Enligtenment (18th century). Ideas like those expressed by Locke begin to percolate into popular thought. The idea that children were inherently evil largely disappeared. Parents began to be seen as key influences in childhood development. And the increasing number of authors in the expanding number of publications offered more advice to parents. Jean Jacque Rosseau built upon Locke's work and focused on the implications concerning education. [Rosseau] Rosseau was by far the leading figure in the changing attitudes toward children. in his classic, Emile (1762), addressed the subject of childhood and education. The French Revolition (1789) marked a major turning point in how children were viewed. The Revolution overturned centuries of ingrained social and political thought. Rosseau's ideas were given some currency even before the Revolution, but they became greatly influential after the Revolution. Rosseau built on Locke with his much more benigh view of childhood. Several scholars have followed the changing nature of childhood. It seems most apparent in France. More writers began to accept Rosseau's view that the child was inherently different than an adult and had different needs. It is no accident that during the late-18th century that the first specialized clothing for boys appeared--the skeleton suit. (Specialized girls' clothing appeared later.) Most parents continued to believe in strict often corporal discipline. Parents continued to use corporal punishment, but witers of the day began to warn against breaking a child's spirit, rather the goal became to build self control.

19th Century

It was the Victorians in the 19th century that created the increasingly sentimental view of childhood now widely accepted. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert set an example for a trim and proper family where the children are tenderly cared for within a loving family. An ever invreasing number of publications spewed our a torrent of advise to parents. The Victorian parents were advisded to deal with their children firmly, but more tenderly than in the past. Increasingly the mother was seen as the best equipped parent to deal with the children. This was in part because it was the other who was judged more capable through tenderness of reacing the child's heart and this set values and affect behavior. Often mothers cared for the children until they reached a ceratin age. (This was not the case in the English royal family where Albert played an important role, even with the younger children.) By the late 19th century, a very sentimental view of childhood had emerged, one of a golden period. The angelic Little Lord Fauntleroy outfits of the 1880s and 90s symbolized the new way in which children were viewed. Increasingly adults saw childhood as a time in which children needed to be protected from a host of complicated adult concerns. These were, however, middle class concerns. All to many children receiving little schooling, and having to enter the adult work force even before reaching their teen years.

20th Century

The 20th century was described as the 'Centutry of the Child' by the New York Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for a 2012 exhibit. This for a wide range of reasons including those discussed by MoMA and others seens an apt descriptin. A revolution in how childhood was viewed began in the 18th century and became largely enshrined by 19th century Victorian thinkers, including both authors and and artists. Socilist authors have often monopolized the public fora, advancing the idea that capitalism exploited both women and children. The exact opposite is the case. Only with the emergence of capitalism and indudtry did society begin to become productive enough that children did bot have to work. Even before civulkization itself, children worked as hunter gathers and then with the agricultural revolution, children worked in the fields with their parents. For the first time with the industrial revolution and the expansion of the middle class do we see child labor laws and public education. but only in indudtrisalized countries. These trends began in the 19th century, but became widespread in the 20th century, first in Europe snd North America and by the end of the century in Asia, beginning with the Asian Tigers and the adoption of market reforms (capitalism) and spreading to China, India, and other countries. This has thrust some one billion people from abject poverty to the propsperous middle class, fundamentally changing the experience of childhood. A related pheonenon is urbanization. The world population in the 20th centiuru went from a primarily rural to a primarily urban society. This had many implications for children. Another 20th century development impacting childhood is totalitarianism. Totalitarian societies, socialist variants like Communism and Fascism, see children as property of the state and seek to take control of child raising from the parents and transfer cointrol to the state. Another important development is consumerism and the mass media, two intertwined developments. Toys and games are as old as civilization. But there were many interesing features of 20th century toys and games as well as will rising affluence the invreasing number of children who get to enjoy them. There were major changes in fshion and clothing. One development in the 20th century is the varying views of gender. All kinds of opportunities and activities have opened up for girls. In cotrast, a substantial segment of society is trying the change the behavior of boys. Many ignore the simple fact that boys and girls are different and are intent on applying the same standards and demands on both boys and girls. This essentially disadvatages boys in the schools. [Sommers]

21st Century


Ariès, Philippe. L'enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien régime (Paris: 1960).

Locke, John. Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693)

Rosseau, Jean Jacques. Emile, or On Education (Émile, ou De l’éducation) (Paris: 1762).

Sommers, Christina Hoff. The War Against Boys: How Misguided Feminism is Harming Our Young Men (Simon & Schuster: New York<, 2000), 251p.


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Created: 1:09 PM 10/7/2015
Last updated: 1:07 AM 7/17/2018