Friday, May 11, 2018

Changing Perspectives on Childhood

by Maria Grace

Today, most Western societies mark a distinct period of childhood beginning at birth and extending into adolescence, with full adult responsibilities not required until close to an individual’s second decade—and sometimes beyond that. We take it for granted that childhood is a unique and special period of life during which the child should play and be educated in the ways of their culture, essentially free from adult responsibilities.

The concept of childhood

Some historians have suggested that the modern conception of childhood developed during ‘long eighteenth century’ (c.1688-1832).  The concept of the ‘child’ sparked widespread debate causing society to reconsider its perception of childhood. Prior to the nineteenth century, children were viewed as fundamentally miniature adults, not much different from their parents. (Metz, Romanticism and the Child) But, as a result of the Enlightenment and other social influence during this period, people began to rethink children as impressionable, unformed beings; requiring much protection and attention from adult caretakers; inherently different from adults. The role of parent and guardian was similarly redefined to include a deep, affectionate regard for youngsters and a sense of nostalgia toward the childhood period. Historian J. H. Plumb characterized England during the latter half of the 18th century as a “new world of children.”  (O’Malley, 2005)

Some argue that it was not so much the concept of a unique period childhood that developed during this period, but rather a more copious expression in the interest in children, their maintenance, and their future prospects. Dissemination of Enlightenment thought and an emerging middle class seem to be at the root of these changes. (O’Malley, 2005) The notions of an ‘enlightened’ humanity suggested the possibility of a better world and future for the future generations and fueled enthusiasm and resourced to be martialed in efforts to improve the lot of children.

Towards a Unique Childhood

At the start of the Enlightenment, probably the most common view of children was the traditional Calvinist Christian view. A child was born with Original Sin and the only hope for overcoming it was strict subordination to authority. (Anyone ever faced with a room full of toddlers near naptime has probably ascribed to this view too—just saying.) Advances in sciences came to suggest a more biological view of children. The character and potentialities of the child were determined by inheritance at conception. Whether this came from genetics as we understand them today or from astrological influences could be debated, though.

 Philosophers contributed an altogether another way to view children. John Locke’s and Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s philosophies, although different from one another, regarded children as natural innocents whose feelings and wishes might be corrupted by his experience in society. (Stone, 1979)

Philosophers of Childhood

John Locke’s 1673 treatise, Some Thought Concerning Education proposed the notion of a lengthy, and in many ways leisurely childhood. However, it was not until the mid-eighteenth century that his recommendations about education were paid heed. Rousseau’s 1762 work, Emile: or On Education helped transform the fad for Locke’s ideas into lasting social change.


John Locke regarded the young mind as tabula rasa, a blank slate, without inborn knowledge or ideas. Society was then responsible for inscribing said slate with appropriate rational and moral precepts by the experiences a child took in with his five senses. To this end, Locke suggested children should be dressed in cool, loose clothing, fed simple diets, and kept safe from erroneous or detrimental influences and stimuli since what was initially written on these little blanks slates might well be indelible.

“Locke famously argued against the physical punishment of children for their little transgressions, except in cases where a child evinced a ‘manifest Perverseness of the Will.’ He suggested children would learn better and correct themselves when their behaviour was disciplined by a system of reward and shame, and while physical punishment was doubtless still widespread, most writers for and about children adopted Locke’s position.  For some critics and historians, Locke’s system provides the child with the kind of autonomy and self-discipline needed to become a successful and socially responsible modern individual; others see in Locke’s method of child-rearing an almost insidious internalization of authority designed to produce docile and compliant subjects.” (O’Malley, 2005)


In contrast, the French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau stressed the natural goodness and innocence of the child who was his own independent entity. His fictional account in Émile (1762) depicted his view of an ideal the “natural” education for the titular character. Though impractical, his natural education emphasized a separation of the innately good child from and corrupt society where the child (with his tutor) could learn experientially from interactions with nature to become a good and productive adult citizen.

Both Locke’s and Rousseau’s philosophies supported “the ideas of personal responsibility and of society not as a fixed hierarchy or ‘great chain of being,’ but as a ‘race fairly run,’ in which the individuals who worked hardest at improving themselves should succeed. Both of these ideas were central to an emerging middle-class ideology in the period. (They) … recognized in education … (the) potential not just for passing on old knowledge but for generating new ideas and technologies needed to reform and improve society.” (O’Malley, 2005)

Practical offshoots

These new views of childhood resulted in practical changes in parenting. The formality between children and parents prevalent in earlier periods was, on the whole, replaced by a more relaxed and affectionate kind of behavior within the family. Solicitude and indulgence towards children became far more common.

As children came to be regarded as individuals with their own unique and relevant likes and dislikes, their opinions, were taken into account, but were not necessarily the final word. Experts like Maria and Richard Edgeworth in “Practical Education” examined the influence of those who cared for children and recommended that the interactions between servants and children be limited. While they recognized that very young children needed the help of servants for some tasks, they insisted that the mother or governess (the governess was not a servant, but professional staff, a critical distinction) should be present during those times to minimize the talk between child and servant and thus minimize the impact the interaction could have on the impressionable young mind. (Selwyn, 2010)
Even the mode of children’s dress was influence by these philosophical changes. Locke, Rousseau and other writers attacked stiff and restrictive swaddling as an assault on human liberty and a means of depriving children of early affectionate contact, like cuddling. By the second half of the eighteenth century the practice was dying out in England (Selwyn, 2010).

Rousseau went even further, believing that young men’s innate goodness could be preserved by raising them in a more natural environment which included plain, comfortable clothes which allowed freedom of movement. Perhaps more significantly, for mothers of boys in particular, the change in philosophy that went along with the changes in garments meant that their young sons did not make the transition from infant boys to men the moment they donned male garments.  Instead of being immediately sent off to apprenticeships or boarding schools, boys could enjoy a slower initiation into the world of men. Fathers would begin spending more time with them, teaching them masculine activities. A tutor might be hired to educate him or he might be sent to study a few days a week with a local vicar, curate, or other resident scholar all while the boy remained close to hearth and home for a little while longer.

An astute reader may have noticed by now nearly all the references to the child in this article are masculine. This is not an oversight. As was typical in the period, it was the male who was counted as particularly relevant, while female education drew relatively little attention. While good for providing companionship for her mother, and becoming a mother (hopefully of boys) in the future, the female child did not receive a great deal of consideration in this era.


Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2002.
Fullerton, Susannah. Jane Austen and Crime. Sydney: Jane Austen Society of Australia, 2004.
Horn, Pamela. Flunkeys and Scullions: Life below Stairs in Georgian England. Stroud: Sutton, 2004.
Metz, Stephanie. “Can it be a song of joy? / And so many children poor?”: William Blake and the Child.” Romantic Politics. Accessed Feb. 18, 2018.
Metz, Stephanie. “Romanticism and the Child: Inventing Innocence “Romantic Politics. Accessed Feb. 18, 2018.>
O’Malley,  Andrew .”The Eighteenth-Century Child.” Representing Childhood. 2005. Accessed Feb. 18, 2018.  <
 Rovee, Christopher. “The Romantic Child, c.1780-1830.” Representing Childhood. 2005. Accessed Feb. 18, 2018.  <>
Selwyn, David. Jane Austen and children. London: Continuum, 2010.
Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.


Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful. 

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.

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