What ideas come to your mind when you think of childhood?
You will be surprised to know that childhood as a concept, has varied along the time. I invite you all to read the following extract adapted from Peter N. Stearns “History of Childhood”, centered in early agricultural societies.
The history of childhood features two massive, structural changes in the position of children in society. The first occurred in the transitions from hunting and gathering economies to agriculture. The second involved the equally dramatic shift from agriculture to an urban, industrial economy. The second transition, deeply relevant to an understanding of trends and problems in childhood today, is of course complicated by the fact that many societies are still experiencing it, with some outcomes that are difficult to anticipate.
Within the context of basic shifts to agriculture, and then from agriculture to industry, several other factors have a role. One, obviously, involves the extent to which other changes, though less sweeping than the structural transformations, deeply affect the experience of childhood. How much, to take a crucial example, did the rise of new religions affect childhood during the long agricultural period of world history? Or to take a modern example: how much did the emergence of globalization generate additional changes in childhood within an increasingly industrial context?
The dependence on child labor, however modified, generated three or four other characteristic features of childhood in agricultural societies, amid a great variety of regional and cultural specifics. A strong emphasis on the importance of obedience was one standard feature, often reinforced by religious beliefs. Pronounced gender division was another common pattern, potentially affecting children from a very young age; this would include effort to control girls’ sexuality. A distinctive emotional climate for children included the frequency of death. Finally, agricultural societies may have encouraged a tendency to devalue childhood in favor of encouraging greater maturity, though this is less easy to demonstrate and certainly permitted some exceptions.
Distinctive emotional features for children in agricultural societies are predictably harder to pinpoint, but there are at least a few clear elements. The omnipresence of death is an obvious point. Very few families would not experience the death of at least one or two children, which means that very few children would not experience the death of siblings during their own formative years. High rates of maternal mortality in childbirth (one in ten women would die during one of their attempts to give birth), or the possibility of accidents or violence for fathers, meant that many children also would live through the death of a parent. Historians once speculated that the frequency of death generated stoicism among agricultural families, in which grief would not necessarily loom large.
Some historians have also claimed, for at least some agricultural societies including premodern Western Europe, that agricultural childhoods were full of fear, and deliberate adult efforts to inculcate fear. Fear could certainly be used to enforce obedience. This might follow from the frequency of death. Some religions may have played on children’s fears as part of socialization. Less formally, many village families, in at least several cultural settings, invoked the threat of bogeymen or other sources of fright as part of instilling discipline and also warning children away from imprudent interactions with strangers or any tendency to wander too far into the woods or other dangerous settings.
- What is the main idea of this extract?
- How much would you say this concept of discipline has changed along the time? Expand your ideas.