Childhood in the Ancient Western World

We know that childhood, a period of relative freedom from work, existed in the ancient world because children's play was depicted on Greek vases and Roman sarcophagi. There were several ancient treatises on the diseases of children and a recognition that children were to be treated differently from adults. Thus there was a tradition of childhood in the ancient world that saw children as passing through stages of growth, as being malleable, as being fragile, playful, and sometimes headstrong. This tradition saw children as individually different and in need of protection from abuse by adults. Ancient philosophers, particularly Plato and Aristotle, wrote about child-rearing practices and regarded children as a link to the future. Some children's toys have survived— dolls, small versions of weapons, and the like—and they point to adult agendas for future citizens. Epitaphs remind us that ancient parents mourned the death of their children.

The Greeks and Romans devoted special attention to children and child-rearing practices. Women were the child rearers, and a number of other adults worked with children: midwives, teachers, tutors, and physicians. Both Plato and Aristotle recognized five stages of childhood (expressed in modern terms):

1. Babyhood, from birth to about two years—that is, until the child is weaned and can talk;

2. The early preschool age, from two to three years or later—when the child is separating emotionally from the mother, becomes more active physically, and begins to play games alone;

3. Later preschool age, from ages three to seven—a stage when children become more active and more involved in social groups;

4. School-age children (up to puberty)—a time of intense competition, especially among boys; and

5. The stage between puberty and adulthood—which continues into the late teens or early twenties.

The last stage may have been brief or nonexistent for girls, who married at a relatively early age. In their broad outline, however, these stages closely resemble modern child-development theory.

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