The birth of childhood: A brief history of the European child - Deepstash
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Children as objects

Children as objects

It took thousands of years for the European culture to realise that a child is not an object but a human being.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote in Emile, or On Education (1762), that "nature wants children to be children before they are men." He did not see children as humans but appealed to parents to look after their offspring. However, he did not take his own ideas to heart and abandoned his offspring at birth.


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Ancient cruelty

  • In ancient Greece, babies were often left by the road or in the garbage. If a passer-by took the child, it was often raised for the slave market. This is because children were considered private property.
  • The Romans followed the custom to put a newborn on the ground just after birth. If the father picked the baby up, the mother could care for it. If not, the newborn was thrown away.
  • When Greeks and Romans did decide to raise their offspring, they showed them love and attention. Plato wrote that parents have the duty to care for their children's physical and mental development.


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Condemning the practice of abandonment

Christians condemned the practice of abandonment of newborns and ordered followers to care unconditionally for every child. This trend became so strong that it survived the fall of the Empire. Unwanted children ended up in shelters opened by monasteries.

Legal provisions outlawed parents from killing, mutilating and selling children. As children survived into adulthood, parents did not develop emotional ties with their offspring. During the Middle Ages, most European languages did not contain the word 'child'.


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Children as independent beings

During the Middle Ages, families decided the fate of the children. The canon law of the Catholic Church stated that a bride had to be older than 12 and the groom, 14. But the father, desiring to increase his resources and prestige, looked for a daughter- or son-in-law immediately after a child's birth.

Interest in children as persons was revived in Europe when ancient philosophers' writings were discovered, and the fashion for educating children returned.


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Education and corporeal punishment

At first, corporeal punishment was the primary tool in the education process. In the 17th century, philosopher John Locke urged parents to use praise to stimulate children to learn and behave well.

The fashion then was for a wet nurse to feed a newborn, and then the child was passed on to grandparents or poor relatives for a salary. The child would return home around age five and be educated by the biological mother. Rousseau condemned all of this. After Emil, it became fashionable for the mother to breastfeed her child.


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Shelter and factory

In the 18th century, it became the norm again to abandon unwanted children. They usually went to care facilities, but few survived into adulthood. Condemnation by the Catholic and Protestant churches did not help.

The Industrial Revolution turned out to be more effective. In Great Britain, the financing of shelters placed a burden on municipal budgets, but the new cotton mills in Lancashire, Derby, and Notts were seen as a godsend. Orphans became a source of cheap labour, working twelve hours a day. They had to earn a living to receive shelter and food.


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Emerging morality

German educator Friedrich Fröbel gave lectures on returning children to their childhoods and encouraged adults to provide children with care and free education.

In 1839, the Prussian government reacted by banning the employment of minors. France followed two years later. Britain only adopted the Factory Act in 1844. The legislation prohibited children under 13 from working in factories longer than six hours per day and required children to be educated in factory schools.


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Fighting to protect children

In April 1874, under the guidance of social activist Etty Wheeler, 10-year-old Mary Ellen Wilson told a New York court of her almost daily whipping by her stepmother. The request for intervention was repeatedly refused, and Wheeler turned to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) for help.

Its president Henry Bergh agreed that the child was not her guardians' property and established American Humane, an NGO fighting to protect harmed creatures, including children.


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The rights of the child

Towards the end of the 19th century, the custom of entrusting the care of offspring to strangers fell away. Parents were urged to provide their offspring with love and a sense of security.

But the pioneering work by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels proposed that home education ought to be replaced by social education. The aim was to prepare young people to fight the conservative generation of parents for a new world. In 1924, the League of Nations adopted a Declaration of the Rights of the Child, although it's still not implemented in many parts of the world.


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The Greeks were right.


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