Sunday, January 31, 2010

The History of Childhood

DeMause has identified six modes of parent-child relations from antiquity to the present. Until the fourth century, infanticide was commonly practiced. Infanticide did not begin to be reduced until the Middle Ages, and the killing of illegitimate children, though unlawful, still occurs today.

DeMause believes that, in the period from the fourth to the thirteenth century, abandonment replaced infanticide as a common way in which parents disposed of their children. The abandonment included giving child-rearing responsibility for the care of the child to others as well as emotional abandonment at home.

The mode that gained prominence during the period from the fourteenth to the seventeenth century was characterized by deMause as ambivalence. During this third period, parents were advised that children were like clay forms that could be physically shaped by their parents.At the beginning of the eighteenth century, an intrusive mode evolved in which parents sought not only to physically shape the child but also to gain control of the child's will.

The fifth mode, the socialization mode, prevailed from the nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. During this period of parent-child relations, the father began to assume a definite role.

In the mid-20th century, the present helping mode began. “The helping mode involves the proposition that the child knows better than the parent what it needs at each stage of its life, and fully involves both parents in the child's life as they work to empathize with and fulfill its expanding and particular needs. There is no attempt at all to discipline or form habits. Children are neither struck nor scolded, and are apologized to if yelled at under stress. The helping mode involves an enormous amount of time, energy, and discussion on the part of both parents, especially in the first six years, for helping a young child reach its daily goals means continually responding to it, playing with it, tolerating its regressions, interpreting emotional conflicts, and providing the objects specific to its evolving interests.”

You should recognize that parents of earlier centuries were not all ignorant, mean-spirited, lacking in compassion, and abusive. Indeed, some historical documents do record the kindness and affection of parents of earlier eras towards their children. The obvious fact is that across the centuries the world's population increased as more and more children survived to adulthood. Progressive improvement in child-rearing practices supported this population increase.

Borstelmann, L.J. (1983). Children before psychology: Ideas about children from antiquity to the late 1800s. In W. Kessen (Ed.), Handbook of child psychology: Vol 1. History, theory and methods. New York: Wiley.
deMause, L. (1974). The evolution of childhood. In L. deMause (Ed.), The history of childhood. New York: Harper & Row.
Mintz, S. (2006). Hucks’s Raft: A History of American Childhood. Cambridge: Belknap Press.
Pollock, L. (1983). Forgotten children: Parent-child relations from 1500 to 1900. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.

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