Perspectives on Childhood
©2000 Gary K. Clabaugh


edited 9/2/11

Parental delights and concerns have a remarkable universality. For instance a 3,700 year old clay tablet unearthed in the Middle East was found to be inscribed with an uncannily familiar father/son lecture. After lamenting his son's ingratitude and laziness the father observes that he has never asked his son to get a job or even to do chores as other fathers do. Despite this consideration, he now finds himself bedeviled day and night by a whining young wastrel who would rather party than work. From now on, the father declares, you will come straight home from school and get busy on your homework.

Another theme that also transcends time and culture is the conviction that the next generation is going to Hell in a handbasket. The Greek writer Aristophanes is typical. Four hundred years before the birth of Christ he observed that in his day children had been quiet, orderly and studious. They would even fight their way to school in "snow thick as meal." But today's children are nothing but "chattering wastrels, narrow chested, broad of tongue, ill-disciplined and soft. Clearly not the same stern stuff which won the day against the Persians."

Given these universals one expects a similarly enduring view of the nature of children and childhood; yet our modern view is quite novel. Historically children have been understood to be miniature adults. When Christianity, with its notion of original sin, grafted an element of depravity to this vision it made it singularly unrelenting. The Puritans, for instance, asserted that children were not only conceived in sin, but born in utter corruption. Without very strict controls, therefore, children would invariably end up, "undutiful, unsubmissive and disorderly" -- "a curse on persons in this world."

Contemporary notions of childhood make it difficult for us to fully appreciate the severity of this point of view. But Michael Wigglesworth's widely popular Day of Doom, published in 1662, offers a corrective. Wigglesworth, a Puritan Divine, depicts unbaptized infants pleading for mercy at the Last Judgement only to be told:

You sinners are, and such a share

As sinners may expect,

Such you shall have; for I do save

None but my own elect.

Yet to compare your sin, with theirs

Who lived a longer time,

I do confess yours so much less

Tho' every sin's a crime.

A crime it is, therefore in bliss

You may not hope to dwell;

But unto you, I shall allow

The easiest room in Hell.

The realization that children are fundamentally different from adults was 4 million years in the making. Not until the "Age of Reason" did this reappraisal began to emerge. Seminal thinkers such as John Locke (1632-1704) posited that the human mind is a "tabula rasa" or "blank slate" at birth. Only then is it furnished "by experience." This conception was typical of the Age of Reason not only because it held forth the hope that humankind could be bettered, but because it offered a fundamentally different notion of the nature of the child.

Romanticism added another dimension to this reconsideration of children and childhood. Here the writings of Jean Jacques Rousseau, (1712-1778) were particularly influential. In a number of wildly popular books Rousseau reversed the Christian conception of original sin to argue that children were born "naturally good." They became evil, asserted Rousseau, only to the extent that they were corrupted by tyranny, faulty institutions and improper education.

Although Locke and Rousseau took completely different positions with regard to their source of authority, the uncompromising empiricist and unapologetic romanticist were united at one critical juncture. They both were convinced that children were fundamentally different from adults. In this they helped mark a sea change in adult attitudes toward children which has since become nearly universal.

One wonders what the prevailing view of the child will be in twenty or thirty years. Perhaps it will continue to reflect our present optimism. But recent research hints at a more limited vision. Consider the startling identical twin research suggesting that religiousity is inherited or the groundbreaking study linking male homosexuality with atypical brain physiology. If similar findings continue to accumulate they will inevitably alter our view of the child as either tabula rasa or naturally good. And that, in turn, can only transform our understanding of the limits and possibilities of schooling.