Childhood in the Modern Western World

As modernization transformed western Europe and North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, a new and distinctive pattern of childhood emerged that was the result of a number of influences—economic changes such as the intensification of a market economy, a decline in family size, the rise of rationalism in public discourse, to name a few. In addition, several important European thinkers were midwives to this new form of childhood. John Locke helped to undermine the dominant Puritan conception of children as innately evil, that is, born in sin, when he published his Essay Concerning Human Understanding in 1690. In it he argued that ideas could come from experience and thus were not innate. In 1693 he issued Some Thoughts Concerning Education, in which he attacked the doctrine of infant depravity. Locke did not regard children as innately good; rather, he argued that they were morally neutral—blank tablets.

Another central figure was the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose Émile (1762) was the story of a boy and his tutor. Rousseau argued that children should be reared more naturally, making use of their innate curiosity to motivate their learning. For Rousseau both nature and the child were innately good. Evil arose from the corruptions of civilization. One of Rousseau's followers who put his ideas into practice was Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, who founded a school in Switzerland in 1799.

Yet another important figure in the emergence of the modern concept of childhood was the English novelist Charles Dickens, whose well-known child characters Oliver Twist, Charley Bates, Jack Dawkins, and the Artful Dodger personalized some of the tragic effects of the industrial revolution in England. Dickens vividly described the desperation of the urban working classes and the processes whereby homeless children had to fend for themselves. His writings, supported by the findings of royal commissions and by the work of social reformers, helped transform the social attitudes of the Western world. In 1848 the English established "Ragged Schools" for the children of the urban working classes. Later they created a system of universal public education with the Forster Education Act of 1870.

In the United States in the nineteenth century, Charles Loring Brace, a New York clergyman and reformer, founded the Children's Aid Society in 1853 to ship "surplus" urban children—whether orphaned or not—to rural areas. The Children's Aid Society also founded lodging houses for homeless newsboys and industrial schools for homeless girls of the streets. (It was hoped that by teaching the latter unfortunates a trade such as sewing, they might be rescued from prostitution.) Later in the nineteenth century another New York reformer, Elbridge Thomas Gerry, founded the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 1875. Popularly known as "the Cruelty," the organization sought to reduce or eliminate the worst instances of child abuse and neglect.

While these reforms and the expansion of public schools sought to provide opportunities for the child victims of modern society, the problem of child labor proved more difficult to solve. In part this was because few people—and certainly not most parents or employers—regarded child labor as a problem. For one thing, children had always worked before the modern era. Only the sons and daughters of the privileged elite escaped labor during their childhood. In the preindustrial world most families, whether urban or rural, relied on the labor of their children. Children in that world were regarded as a renewable labor supply. They began doing simple chores as early as possible, and they continued to work throughout adulthood and into old age, as long as they were able. Children also functioned as safety nets for parents. As parents became too infirm to work, they relied on their offspring for food and shelter. This family labor system moved with families to industrial cities. Thus, in nineteenth- and twentieth-century factories children joined their parents on the shop floor, first as helpers and later as hands. Industries welcomed child labor because it guaranteed a steady supply of trained workers, and families depended on the income the children produced.

But modern society demanded more skills from its work force than the family labor system was able to deliver. As a result, families had to forgo the income from some of their children so that they could learn the skills necessary to obtain employment. At the same time, reformers began to define child labor as a social problem and to expand the availability of schools. By the 1920s, child labor was on the decline in the Western world as schools, child labor laws, and technological innovation finally reduced the supply of child laborers and the demand for them.

In the process of expanding schools and trying to reduce child abuse and to regulate child labor, Western society was redefining childhood. Childhood now became a special, protected status, a time during which biological maturation could run its course, and children could come to know the complexities of the modern world and find their places in it. Two other social developments were significant in this process of redefinition: the creation of the federal Children's Bureau and a federally funded program to reduce infant mortality in the United States. The Children's Bureau, established in 1912, was an outgrowth of the First White House Conference on Children, convened by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1909. At first it concentrated on the reduction of infant mortality, which led in 1921 to the passage of the Sheppard-Towner Act, a program of matching grants for states. The grants helped states set up programs of education and prenatal clinics. This program of prevention and education had the desired effect, but was killed by lobbying from the American Medical Association in 1929.

Other social advances in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries included the rise of pediatrics as a medical specialty and the rise of child psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers. By the late twentieth century virtually all advanced industrial countries, including many outside the West, had made significant strides in reducing some of the threats to children's health and well-being.

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