The birth of childhood: A brief history of the European child

The birth of childhood: A brief history of the European child - Big Think
Jan Steen – A School for Boys and Girls [c.1670]

Did the 20th century bring a breakthrough in how children are treated?

by Andrzej Krajewski 

It took several thousand years for our culture to realize that a child is not an object. Learning how to treat children as humans continues to this day.”Nature wants children to be children before they are men,” wrote Jean-Jacques Rousseau in the book Emile, or On Education (1762). While Rousseau did not see children as humans, he appealed to parents to look after their offspring. “If we consider childhood itself, is there anything so weak and wretched as a child, anything so utterly at the mercy of those about it, so dependent on their pity, their care, and their affection?” he asked. At a time when children were regularly entrusted to others during adolescence or left in shelters, Rousseau’s demands seemed revolutionary. They paved the way for the breakthrough discovery that indeed, a child is also a human being, capable of feelings, having their own needs and, above all, suffering. But the philosopher himself did not take these ideas to heart. Whenever his lover and later wife, Teresa Levasseur, gave birth to a child, Rousseau immediately gave the baby to an orphanage, where just one in a hundred newborns had a chance to live to adulthood.

Ancient cruelty

Double standards in people’s approach to children were not unusual in the past. In ancient Greece, no one condemned parents for leaving a baby by the road or in the garbage. Usually, it was torn apart by animals. Less often, a passer-by would take them – not necessarily guided by mercy. After raising the orphan, the ‘Good Samaritan’ could sell the child at a slave market, recovering the money invested in their maintenance with interest. This kind of practice did not shock, because in the world of ancient Greece a child had the status of private property, and therefore the public and authorities were indifferent to their fate.

The exception was Sparta, but this did not mean anything good for minors. While in other poleis infanticide was left to parents, in Sparta it was managed by the council of Fyli. In Life of Lycurgus, Plutarch wrote about how the child was inspected by the Fyli elders forming the council: “If they found it stout and well made, they gave order for its rearing, and allotted to it one of the nine thousand shares of land above mentioned for its maintenance, but, if they found it puny and ill-shaped, ordered it to be taken to what was called the Apothetae, a sort of chasm under Taygetus; as thinking it neither for the good of the child itself, nor for the public interest, that it should be brought up, if it did not, from the very outset, appear made to be healthy and vigorous.” The boys who passed the selection faced a rather short childhood – when they were seven, they were taken to the barracks, where they were trained to be excellent soldiers until they came of age.

Greek standards for dealing with children were modified slightly by the Romans. Until the second century BCE, citizens of the Eternal City followed the custom to put each new born baby on the ground right after delivery. If the father picked the baby up, the mother could care for it. If not, the newborn landed in the trash – someone could take them away or wild dogs would consume them. It was not until the end of the republic that this custom was considered barbaric and gradually began to fade. However, the tradition requiring that the young man or woman should remain under the absolute authority of their father was still obliged. The head of the family could even kill the offspring with impunity, although he had to consult the decision with the rest of the family beforehand.

Discovering childhood

When the Greeks and Romans did decide to look after their offspring, they showed them love and attention. In wealthier homes, special emphasis was placed on education and upbringing, so that the descendant “would desire to become an exemplary citizen, who would able to govern as well as obey orders in accordance with the laws of justice,” as Plato explained in The Laws. According to the philosopher, children should be carefully looked after, and parents have the duty to care for their physical and mental development. Plato considered outdoor games combined with reading fairy tales, poetry and listening to music as the best way to achieve this goal. Interestingly, Plato did not approve of corporeal punishment as an educational measure…


F. Kaskais Web Guru

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