Changing Concepts of Childhood: Chronological Trends

Figure 1.--This genre painting has the tounge-in-cheek title -- 'The Toilette". The artist was yje spanish master by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo and painted about 1670-75. It shows a very realitically rendered dirty child while a woman, probably his grandmother, is removing lice. Murillo painted several similar images involving children. Click on the image to compare this to a 19th century depiction of childhood. The differing concept of childhood could not be more dramatic.

Modern concepts of childhood first appeared in the 18th century. Englightenmnt thinkers began to explore the topic of the nature of childhood. Europeans until the enligtenment saw children as simply small-sized adults. Enlkigtenment thinkers began to see childhood as a special an importnt phase of human development. And we begin to see the new concepts expressed in art work. Webegin to see idealized imges of childhood. The appearance of specialized clothing for children appeared at essentially the same time. Not only did the chronology coinside, but the clothing also reflected the individual children were experiencing childood. Throughout the 19th children, children who had to work rather than ply and attend school still commonly wore adult clothes. Often working-class children wore the same styles heir parents wore. In fact their clothes were commonly their parents worn out, patched up clothes cut down to fit them. Only grdually did working-class children begin to experience a modern childhood. This shift can be observed to some extent in the clothes that the children wore.

17th Century

Europeans and and Americans in the 18th century believed that a child was born with an essentially evil nature. Naughty children were considered by many to be hatefull little vipers. The were viewed as small-size adults. In part this was an economic necesity as most children were needed to help support the family as had to work as soon as possible. After breeching boys were dressed much as heir fathers. Girls wore the same drss styles as their mothers. Given their esentially evil nature, it was considered essentially to thedir Christian salvation that the rod an a wide array of other implements to be generously applied in their correction. Many saw raising children as not unlike breaking a horse. Some thinkers began to question this wdely held view of childhood. John Locke was one of the first to suggest that some goodness might exist in children. [Locke] He had his puritanical side, however, and did not believe that children should be coldled. Depictions of children in genre works continue to be very realistic. There is no romantic idealism of childhood.

18th Century

The Western view of childhood mellowed considerably in the 18th century. Most continued to believe, however, in strict often corporal discipline. Jean Jacque Rosseau built upon Locke's work and focused on the implications concerning education. [Rosseau] Rosseau was by far the leading figure in the changing attitudes toward children. in his classic, Emile (1762), addressed the subject of childhood and education. The French Revolition (1789) marked a major turning point in how children were viewed. The Revolution overturned centuries of ingrained social and political thought. Rosseau's ideas were given some currency even before the Revolution, but they became greatly influential after the Revolution. Rosseau built on Locke with his much more benigh view of childhood. Parents continued to use corporal punishment, but witers of the day began to warn against breaking a child's spirit, rather the goal became to build self control. Several scholars have followed the changing nature of childhood. It seems most apparent in France. More writers began to accept Rosseau's view that the child was inherently different than an adult and had different needs. It is no accident that during the late-18th century that the first specialized clothing for boys appeared. (Specialized girls' clothing appeared later.)

19th Century

It was the Victorians in the 19th century that created the increasingly sentimental view of childhood now widely accepted. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert set an example for a trim and proper family where the children are tenderly cared for within a loving family. An ever invreasing number of publications spewed our a torrent of advise to parents. The Victorian parents were advisded to deal with their children firmly, but more tenderly than in the past. Increasingly the mother was seen as the best equipped parent to deal with the children. This was in part because it was the other who was judged more capable through tenderness of reacing the child's heart and this set values and affect behavior. Often mothers cared for the children until they reached a ceratin age. (This was not the case in the English royal family where Albert played an important role, even with the younger children.) By the late 19th century, a very sentimental view of childhood had emerged, one of a golden period. The angelic Little Lord Fauntleroy outfits of the 1880s and 90s symbolized the new way in which children were viewed. Increasingly adults saw childhood as a time in which children needed to be protected from a host of complicated adult concerns. These were, however, middle class concerns. All to many children receiving little schooling, and having to enter the adult work force even before reaching their teen years.

20th Century


Ariès, Philippe. L'enfant et la vie familiale sous l'ancien régime (Paris: 1960).

Locke, John. Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693)

Rosseau, Jean Jacques. Emile, or On Education (Émile, ou De l’éducation) (Paris: 1762).


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Created: 1:09 PM 10/7/2015
Last updated: 1:09 PM 10/7/2015