How Childhood Has Changed over the Centuries

In relation to the changing ideas about childhood over the centuries, there are several points of discussion that arise. Many ideas surrounding the change and evolved over the centuries, ideas such as the views towards education and the impact of the industrial revolution on westerns societies views towards childhood, due to the limited space, this essay will focus on two underlying issues which have contributed greatly to the changing ideas about childhood over the centuries, which are; the recognition of childhood and innocence in western society and the extent to which childhood throughout history has been socially constructed.

This essay will argue how the concept of childhood has changed over the centuries. Furthermore, this essay will outline that the concept of childhood throughout the centuries has been constructed from a state of adulthood. This essay will begin by exploring the innocence of children and outlining the change in the recognition of childhood by western society. Following this, it will explore the great extent as to which childhood has been socially constructed and how it has shaped the concept of childhood in different eras.

The idea of recognising and separating childhood from the adult world has had a complex history over the centuries. Depending on where you look for evidence and whichever approach to the history of childhood you adopt, the same conclusion is reached: children today occupy a different status from that of the young in earlier centuries and different cultures. Modern childhood as we know it is historically specific. According to Aries (1960), the major difference between contemporary childhood and childhood in earlier periods is the lack of recognition of the concept of childhood.

He goes on to say that as far back as the medieval period, ‘the idea of childhood was non-existent’. This concept is prevalent throughout the artworks Aries uses as evidence for his findings. From these artworks, Aries (1960) argued that there was no concept of childhood; rather, children were regarded as small adults. Based on this evidence, this conclusion about childhood cannot be fully drawn as artwork was often composed from a conceptual perspective and it cannot be used as fact.

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It can however be argued that childhood was recognised as being non-existent due to the attitudes towards children of this era. In direct contrast, the innocence of a child was not socially recognised during medieval times, childhood was thought to be a stage of life which we as humans pass through. Austin (2003) states that during the 18th and 19th century, the concept of childhood innocence was not so much recognised, but something that was looked back upon and was something that was lost.

It was apparent that it was preserved, but due to corruption from the adult world, childhood nostalgia was now more prominent. This is evident in two literary works, Rousseau (1762) took a view, as did Wordsworth (1802) that from a Neo-Platonist interpretation, it was possible to look back to childhood as a period of innocence during which children are born pure but corrupted through the guidance of the adult world. They further emphasised the need for freedom of children and for their protection by adults.

As a result, this concept of childhood innocence and the preservation of it led to the development of the recognition of childhood and the role it plays within society. It is further led to development of compulsory schooling and the move away from child labour as a result of the industrial revolution. A second key and underlying issue is the question of the extent to which childhood has been socially constructed throughout history or whether it is simply a stage of development that we as humans pass through.

Aries (1960) central argument is that ‘post 17th century that childhood has been shaped by social construction’. It is argued that the understanding of childhood is that it is not the same throughout the world and throughout history and how children differ from adults and how the social environment alters the way in which they are constructed. In western society, childhood is considered a time period of innocence and purity and it is something to be protected. It is characterised as a time of protection from the adult world and the concepts associated with adulthood, such as sexualisation, work and injury.

With reference to (Anti Essay 2012) as a result of these ideologies, children are expected to be educated and to be provided with care, nurturing and protection by their parents. However, in developing societies the idea of childhood is wholly opposed to that of the childhood of developed societies. The economic state within these developing societies controls the type of childhood these children experience. Children in developing societies are required to work to help maintain their household’s economic tatus. This is also evident during the time of the industrial revolution, where children were seen to have to contribute to the economy of the household and to contribute to the income of society. Furthermore, the time frame in which a child lived altered the way in which they experienced childhood. As pointed out earlier, Aries (1960) stated that there was no concept of childhood until the 17th century, and as western society developed so did the way childhood was socially constructed.

This can be seen throughout modern society, where now the protection of children and their innocence is taking over the place of child labour. Children and their innocence are now shielded from the adult world with laws and rules set in to place to help maintain their innocence and purity. For example, laws are now set in place to restrict what children watch and observe this was non-existent during earlier times. It can then be argued that childhood is a social construction.

In conclusion, this essay has argued that the ideas about childhood have changed over the centuries due to development of the understanding of it. Childhood was previously not regarded as something to be recognised and that the innocence in which children possess was not socially realised as to be something to be nurtured. Rather, it not seen as something separate from the adult world. As western society developed, so too did the ideas surrounding childhood. The way in which the concept of childhood has been recognised and accepted has been heavily influenced by the society in which the child lived.

The social construction of that particular view towards childhood has led to the largest amount of change in relation to the ideas of childhood over the centuries. Therefore, it can be said that the ideas about childhood have changed significantly over the centuries and that with the change in the understanding in the importance of childhood, the concept will continually grow. References – Aries, P 1960, Centuries of Childhood, trans. R Baldick, Jonathon Cape, London

Austin, L M 2003, Children of Childhood: Nostalgia and the Romantic Legacy’, Studies in Romanticism, vol. 42, no. 1 (spring, 2003) CambridgeA November 26, 2008, Anti Essays, Childhood is a Social Construct, accessed 17 October 2012 Google Books, 2012, Emile, or on education – John Jacques Rousseau, lucy141, January 26, 2011, Anti Essays, To What Extend Is Childhood A Social Construction, accessed 17 October 2012, Poets. org – Poetry, Poems, Bios & More 2012, Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood 1804, accessed 15 October 2012

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