Childhood Research Paper

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Historians struggle to define the roles children have played in history, mostly because the documentation that exists focuses on Western offspring of elites and is seen through an adult perspective. Although childhood is shaped largely by local influence, some modern global forces put new pressures on children; a fundamental redefinition of childhood has been under way since the late nineteenth century, affecting how children can define their roles and how adults perceive them.

All societies focus heavily on children and childhood. Considering childhood on a global scale and in a global history context offers opportunities to distinguish between inherent, or natural, features of childhood and those imposed by particular economic, political, and cultural structures. It also challenges historians to think about the relationship between global forces and the phase of life in which individual personhood is determined.

At the same time, however, there are important limitations. The history of childhood is difficult to study because of the nature of sources. Adults speak about children far more than children speak for themselves, which distorts our view of childhood in the past. It is far easier, furthermore, to deal with childhood for elites than for ordinary people historically, for relevant sources are far more abundant. Nevertheless, some important ventures have already been made into the history of childhood, and there is growing interest in the topic among current historical researchers.

More is available, however, on childhood in Western history than on childhood in most other societies, which at least for the moment affects opportunities for study, including comparative opportunities. Childhood is also closely shaped by local and regional factors—particular religions, laws, and so on. It has not been easy to see more global forces shaping childhood, at least before the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There are few comments on the history of childhood in the pages of world history texts, a situation that may well change as further research occurs, opening new possibilities for a world history perspective on a vital topic. Happily, however, work on childhood in several other societies, such as China, is advancing rapidly.

Recognizing Childhood

Within Western history, fierce debates have raged over how much conceptions of childhood have changed over time, particularly in terms of children’s position within the family. The classic work by Philippe Aries, Centuries of Childhood, which really launched the study of the history of childhood, argued that premodern Western society had relatively little concept of childhood, viewing children as small adults and, as a result, often treating them harshly. Lloyd de Mause, a psychohistorian, picked up this claim when he argued that only in the twentieth century did children begin to be treated properly (a sweeping condemnation of the past that few would now defend). Other historians have claimed to find relatively little grief evinced when children died in the premodern West, partly because high birth rates cushioned any individual loss. From the eighteenth century onward, according to this classical school, childhood began to be more sharply differentiated as a separate stage of life, and bathed in greater sentimentality.

In contrast to this approach, a revisionist group, comprising mainly medievalists and early modernists, points to a clear recognition of childhood in earlier centuries, including distinct categories of legal treatment, along with high emotional investment by parents in individual children. It is clear, for example, that most families did grieve when children died, often viewing these events as decisive in family history—though this does not mean that the grieving process was the same as the modern emotional reaction. Debate continues, with some middle ground between the position that there has been no essential change in the conception of childhood and the position that there are massive modern/premodern contrasts; the more moderate position is probably the most accurate. Similar debates may apply to differences among societies, to the question of how many aspects of childhood are natural, and so uniform across the major societies in world history, and how many significant variations must be identified and explained.

Children in Agricultural Societies

Much of world history is taken up with the development of agricultural societies and civilizations. We know several things about children in agricultural societies, and about comparative issues, even when further specific analyses remain desirable. First, most children in agricultural societies were put to work at a young age, and indeed the economic utility of children was vital to family calculations in any agricultural society. This remains true in agricultural societies today. One of the reasons birthrates rose when agriculture replaced hunting and gathering was because of a need for labor. This does not mean that children were worked excessively hard, but that they were expected to help, and job training constituted a major part of the socialization of both boys and girls. Only an upper-class segment, as well as a few children identified as particularly talented from the lower orders, might be spared from work in order to spend significant time in school.

Second, because families in agricultural societies were fairly large, with an average birthrate of five to seven children per family, children had considerable interaction with siblings, and older siblings, particularly girls, were expected to help care for their younger brothers and sisters. As death rates between infancy and two years of age ranged from 30 to 50 percent of the total in agricultural societies, children in those societies also had extensive, intimate experiences of death.

There were also, however, a number of differences among various agricultural societies. Schooling is one; differences in schooling depended both on the dominant culture and on available resources. Islam encouraged efforts to provide some religious education, particularly in the cities, especially to boys but sometimes to girls. Hinduism, by contrast, fiercely limited access—at least to religious literacy—to the top three castes. Chinese Confucianism encouraged lots of education for a minority, but showed little concern for a broader base. But Confucianism as adopted in Japan under the Tokugawa shogunate (1600/1603–1868) produced widespread schooling, reaching up to 25 to 30 percent of all boys. Within Christianity, Protestantism encouraged efforts to promote literacy, whereas Catholicism, more reliant on the intermediary of priests, was traditionally less active.

Approaches to discipline also varied. American Indians were appalled at the amount of physical punishment dished out by Protestant immigrants. Denominations of Christianity that emphasized original sin, which no child could escape, tended to be strict. Hinduism, by contrast, encouraged a greater delight in children and their promise. Family structures also varied in ways that could affect childhood. The European-style family, introduced from the later Middle Ages (fourteenth–fifteenth century), emphasized relatively late marriage and nuclear, rather than extended, families; children had a closer, possibly tenser relationship with individual parents than was true in the extended families that were characteristic of Eastern Europe and most of Asia. Because there were few adults around, Europeans often hung young infants on hooks in the house, so that they would not get into trouble while their mothers worked. In contrast Chinese and African mothers typically took their children with them to work in the fields, wrapping them on their backs and maintaining close physical contact. Emphasis on work in subordinate positions helps explain the common emphasis on obedience for children in agricultural societies, even in school settings.

In between commonalities and contrasts, agricultural societies varied (though more modestly) when it came to issues of gender in childhood. All the societies were patriarchal, emphasizing boys, particularly older boys, over girls. But some societies stressed the importance of boys more than others, to the point that in some female infanticide was used to get rid of unwanted girls and limit the total burden of children on individual families. This was true for long periods of Chinese history and also in classical Greece. Islam, however, worked hard against the older Arab practice of female infanticide, on grounds that both boys and girls had souls. Chinese Confucianism stressed more systematic inculcation of girls’ inferiority than did Indian culture; one manual (written by a woman) urged that girl babies be placed at the feet of beds, to emphasize their lower position, while boys be allowed to sleep at the side of parents. There was also some variation in arrangements for marriage of older children. All agricultural societies stressed the importance of property transmission and adult supervision in marriage. In India, China, and some parts of Africa, marriages were arranged while girls were very young, whereas in regions where Christianity and Islam dominated, mate selection for children usually took place at a somewhat later age.

Childhood in Industrializing Societies

The world history of childhood shifts gears considerably as agricultural civilizations begin to be challenged by a more commercial world economy. Comparison remains important, but some wider generalizations are also possible. Western Europe and the new United States pioneered some of the crucial departures from the norms of premodern childhood, and while other parts of the world did not follow slavishly, there were some general patterns emerging by the later nineteenth century.

A gradual redefinition of the purposes of childhood, away from work and toward schooling, was a key change. The greater emphasis on education emerged in Europe and the United States as a result of Enlightenment beliefs in the educability and progressive possibilities of children. This view dovetailed with the long-term results of industrialization which, after producing some initial factory exploitation of children, reduced the number of jobs children could do while increasing the need for literacy and numeracy in the labor force. From the 1830s onward, labor laws explicitly limited children’s work. Other societies jumped on the educational bandwagon with varying degrees of speed. Japan, where schooling was already well developed, pushed for universal education from 1872 onward. Eastern Europe moved in the same direction, and in the post–World War II years under Communism, which disputed other aspects of the Western model, mass education became a major goal. Everywhere the numbers of children in school and the length of time devoted to education increased. Intriguingly, while girls lagged behind boys in educational access in some places, most mass education movements included girls, if only because of the need to improve the education of mothers as part of the wider association of childhood and schooling.

In the West, this fundamental redefinition of childhood was accompanied by heightened attention, at least in principle, to the innocence of children and to their lovable qualities. Birth rates began to drop, which expanded the emotional as well as financial investment in individual children. With the decline of infant mortality, particularly dramatic between 1880 and 1920, there were growing efforts to shield children from death and new movements for the legal protection of children. The concept of adolescence expanded the reach of childhood and resulted in the minimum legal age for marriage going up, as well as in growing attempts to regulate adolescent sexuality. By no means did all of this export to other parts of the world, but in most cases industrialization resulted in lower birth rates, which had a similar impact in increasing the attention lavished on individual children; this was true in Japan, for example, and, by the later twentieth century, in China as well.

By the twentieth century, and particularly after World War II, several global currents added to these patterns of change, though great diversity remained. Children’s work received international attention. From the 1920s onward international organizations, such as the International Labor Office, formulated standards that would limit the burden of work, particularly on young children. But the pressures of the global economy, which led manufacturers to seek ever cheaper labor, actually expanded the incentive for the use of child workers in some regions. By the later twentieth century half of all child laborers were employed in South and Southeast Asia. Economic pressures also accounted for a growing sexual exploitation of older children with parents sometimes selling daughters to aid the family economy in societies such as Thailand or parts of Eastern Europe, where the sex trade has grown; some global tourism focused explicitly on sexual activities, and girls, rather than adult women, were sought because it was believed that they would be less likely to be infected with HIV. Some desperately poor families also exploited children for exportable body organs, while in Africa the growing phenomenon of child soldiers pointed to another disruptive pattern.

Against these trends, a global human rights movement with a focus on children gained increasing momentum. The Save the Children organization, which emerged in 1919 after World War I and the Russian Revolution, sought to help displaced children across Europe. Its mission evolved after World War II to a more general campaign to assist children materially and psychologically affected by war—leading, for example, to the 1996 United Nations Study of the Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. More general attempts to define children’s rights internationally led to the 1989 United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, ratified within a decade by all but two countries, Somalia and the United States. The Convention enunciated rights in law and in educational access. In 1999 the International Labor Organization followed with Convention 182 against the most exploitative child labor, including sexual exploitation. These initiatives sometimes won superficial commitments that led to little change, but some imaginative implementations have also ensued, such as a 1996 “foul ball” campaign that forced the Federation of International Football Associations to refuse to endorse soccer balls sewn by children, or a 2003 decision to stop the use of child riders in camel races in parts of Arabia.

Another global phenomenon affecting children involves new patterns of migration, emerging from the late nineteenth century onward and involving long-distance movement into societies with radically different cultures—for example, Asian migrations to the West, Caribbean migrations to the United States and Western Europe, or African and Middle Eastern migrations to Western Europe. Generational tensions and identity issues, part of any migration process, have been exacerbated.

Finally, the spread of global consumerism has obvious implications for children and childhood. Children often lead in picking up consumerist cues, welcoming them in part because of their role in reducing parental and other adult authority. Children in many societies have become prime consumers of global goods, whether rock music or fast food. Global symbols like Disney, blue jeans, or Coca-Cola provide some currency for a global youth culture quite different from the more traditional cultures of older generations. Interestingly, even as Western and international agencies express concern about the sexual exploitation of children, consumer cues often emphasize the sexuality of older children—another tension in the modern global mix, and one that inspires resistance from more traditional sectors eager to defend customary modesty.

These changes, accelerating in the first years of the twenty-first century, do add up to a tidy package. Some modern global forces put new pressures on children, particularly in some of the world’s poorer regions. Despite diversities, something of a fundamental redefinition of childhood has been under way for more than a century, affecting how children can define their roles and how adults perceive them.


  1. Aries, P. (1965). Centuries of childhood (R. Baddick, Trans.). New York: New Vintage Books.
  2. Fass, P. (Ed.). (2003). Encyclopedia of the history of childhood. New York: MacMillan.
  3. Hanawalt, B. (1993). Growing up in medieval London: The experience of childhood in history. New York: Oxford University Press.
  4. Heywood, C. (1988). Childhood in nineteenth-century France. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  5. Hsiung, P. C. (2005). A tender voyage: Children and childhood in late imperial China. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  6. Mintz, S. (2004). Huck’s raft: A history of American childhood. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.
  7. Pollock, L. (1983). Forgotten children: Parent-child relations from 1500 to 1900. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  8. Sargent, C., & Scheper-Hughes, N. (Eds.). (1998). Small wars: The cultural politics of childhood. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
  9. Scheper-Hughes, N. (1987). Child survival: Anthropological perspectives on the treatment and maltreatment of children. Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer.
  10. Stearns, P. N. (2002). Consumerism in world history. London: Routledge.
  11. Stearns, P. N. (2006). Childhood in world history. New York: Routledge.

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