The invention of childhood

John Locke and the invention of childhood. 

Notions of childhood

What do you think about when you think of the word ‘childhood’? Do you think of toys, playing with friends, the magic of Christmas, amateur dramatics or making a mess with paint? My own children think  of playing outside, going to castles (we went to a lot of them!) and school.

Whatever comes to your mind, your thoughts are very likely to include commonly held notions of what it means to be a child. As a child you play, you learn, you imagine and you are kept sheltered from the dangers of the world for as long as possible even though bad things can, of course, still happen. The adults in your life want you to remain naïve and untainted by the brutal realities of the world—to simply be a child.

So it is quite shocking to consider that this notion of childhood has only been a mainstream concept in the western world since the twentieth century. It is also worth remembering that, in many countries, for many different cultural, religious and economic reasons, childhood is very different to and distant from, our western ideal. In the past, while some children did experience a childhood that we might recognise today, most did not, and it is only in the twentieth century, and even then mainly in The West, that childhood, as we now know it, has become the norm.

Origins of childhood

Our modern notion of childhood has its origins during the Enlightenment otherwise known as ‘The Age of Reason’, which spanned from about the 1620s to about the 1780s. The Enlightenment shook up the traditional religious values of the Middle Ages and many cherished ideas about the nature of childhood were challenged and re-examined.

A particularly influential thinker at the time was John Locke who published the book ‘Some Thoughts Concerning Education’ in 1693. Locke’s ideas were highly regarded in educated circles despite being at odds with accepted thinking at the time. Locke stated that authoritarian teaching is counterproductive, suggesting, of children, that ‘all their innocent folly, playing, and childish actions are to be left perfectly free.’ The goal was to make moral children, not scholars. Locke believed that education should be enjoyable and sculpted around the needs of the individual child in order to make a productive, positive member of society. This was nothing short of revolutionary thinking at the time when any form of unstructured play or entertainment was considered a waste of time. In fact his words sound distinctly revolutionary and forward thinking today at a time when so much has been done by governments to make learning increasingly formal, academic and proscribed.

The hornbook

In Locke’s time the only ‘book’ and learning tool specifically designed for children was the hornbook. With a history that traces back to the 15th century, this “book” was actually a wooden paddle, traditionally inscribed with the alphabet, numbers from zero to nine, and a passage of scripture. Unfortunately for the children of the time the wooden implement had the dual purpose of being both a learning tool and a form of punishment! In Locke’s time, very little thought was given to a child’s rights. If you didn’t have the money to care for a child, that child was simply used as an extra worker and if the child wasn’t working, then they were an extra mouth to feed.

Child labour in 17th century England

It is also disturbing from the perspective of 21st century England , to think of the 200-year-long English tradition of child chimney sweeps, which really took off in the 1660s. Small boys between 4 and 10 years old from families of poverty were sold to master sweeps. Using their elbows, back and knees, the boys would climb up and down narrow chimneys to clean out the soot. These children were severely beaten, starved, disfigured, prone to serious health complications, and frequently died young. However, this ‘business model’ remained until 1875, when it finally became illegal to use children as chimney sweeps.

The historic use of children as cheap labour has of course continued to the present day in many countries. Although the idea of children working , even for  part of their day, is generally not acceptable to us in the west, even when combined with formal schooling, many families across the world would not be able to survive if forced to abandon the practise. However even if the ideal of a childhood free from the cares and corruption of the world is only possible if there is sufficient disposable income available, it is still amazing to think that the concept of childhood is only as old as our grandparents or, at the most, great grandparents.

What now for childhood?

Could it be that we have already passed the period with the most powerful conception of childhood (1850 – 1950) and that in the current era, childhood is now mainly defined and shaped by the media, particularly social media, rather than by society and families? If so this has profound implications for educators. Indeed I have noticed after 27 years in education that children appear to be less resilient emotionally and physically, than they were in the past. If the notion of childhood as being highly protected and low risk is a relatively modern phenomenon I would suggest that it is dangerous to now consider this notion as fixed forever more since it may not be benefiting our children in the long term. As educators, and as parents, I think that we have a duty to continually question what the nature of childhood should be, and that we should resist attempts to set it in conceptual concrete so as to best serve children’s long term interests in a rapidly changing world.

‘Things of this world are in so constant a flux, that nothing remains long in the same state’.

John Locke

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