The forgotten children
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The prevailing viewpoint on the history of childhood is that: (a) there was no concept of childhood prior to the 17th century; (b) children were cruelly disciplined; (c) there was a formal parent-child relationship. The evidence presented to support the thesis is suspect and there is little systematic analysis of any source. Moreover, the thesis is not universally accepted - other authors have shown that there was a concept of childhood in the middle ages. In addition, the main writers have concentrated on discipline, to the virtual exclusion of all other childhood experiences. This study, covering the period from the 16th to the 19th century inclusive, has attempted to provide a detailed analysis of primary sources of evidence (autobiographies and diaries) in order to reconstruct child life in the past. Newspaper reports on child abuse cases occurring before the prevention of cruelty to children act in 1009 have also been examined. The methodological problems inherent in the sources used have been considered. The information provided by the texts suggests that parents did possess a concept of childhood, were not indifferent to their children and did not treat the latter cruelly. (With reference to the last point, the newspaper reports also reveal that child abuse was condemned before specific child protection legislation appeared). Although there was discord between parents and adolescent offspring, in the vast majority of families there was an affectionate parent-child relationship. Parents did not totally control their children's lives. Moreover, the texts suggest that the basics of child life have changed very little. Children did pass through such developmental stages as teething and talking at a similar age to modern children, although the texts do disclose the considerable amount of individual variation. Children played and also received at least some education in every century studied. Nonetheless there have been some changes in parental care and child life, as revealed in the texts: the concept of the innocence of childhood did not appear till the 10th century; there was an increase in thinking about the nature of childhood and the parental role in the abstract; there was a lessening of parental control in such areas as career and marriage through the centuries and there was an increase in the severity of the discipline meted out to children in the early 19th century.
Thesis, PhD Doctor of Philosophy
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