THE MYTH OF CHILDHOOD
In the Middle Ages there was no such thing as childhood. The medieval view of children was profoundly different from ours. It was not only that it was not “childcentered,” it literally was not conscious of children as distinct from adults. The childmen and childwomen of medieval iconography are miniature adults, reflecting a wholly different social reality: children then were tiny adults, carriers of whatever class and name they had been born to, destined to rise into a clearly outlined social position. A child saw himself as the future adult going through his stages of apprenticeship; he was his future powerful self “when I was little.” He moved into the various stages of his adult role almost immediately.
Children were so little differentiated from adults that there was no special vocabulary to describe them: They shared the vocabulary of feudal subordination; only later, with the introduction of childhood as a distinct state, did this confused vocabulary separate. The confusion was based on reality: Children differed socially from adults only in their economic dependence. They were used as another transient servant class, with the difference that because all adults began in this class, it was not seen as degrading (an equivalent would be the indentured servant of American history). All children were literally servants; it was their apprenticeship to adulthood. (Thus for a long time after, in France, waiting on table was not considered demeaning because it had been practiced as an art by all the youthful aristocracy.) This experience held in common by children and servants and the resulting intimacy that grew up between them has been bemoaned right down to the twentieth century: as the classes grew more and more isolated from each other, this lingering intimacy was considered the cause of considerable moral corruption of children from the upper and middle classes.
The child was just another member of the large patriarchal household, not even essential to family life. In every family the child was wetnursed by a stranger, and thereafter sent to another home (from about the age of seven until fourteen to eighteen) to serve an apprenticeship to a master—as I have mentioned, usually composed of or including domestic service. Thus he never developed a heavy dependence on his parents: they were responsible only for his minimal physical welfare. And they in turn did not “need” their children—certainly children were not doted upon. For in addition to the infant mortality rate, which would discourage this, parents reared other people’s children for adult life. And because households were so large, filled with many genuine servants as well as a constant troupe of visitors, friends and clients, a child’s dependence on, or even contact with, any specific parent was limited; when a relationship did develop it might better be described as avuncular.
Transmission from one generation to the next was ensured by the everyday participation of children in adult life—children were never segregated off into special quarters, schools, or activities. Since the aim was to ready the child for adulthood as soon as possible, it was felt quite reasonably that such a segregation would delay or stymie an adult perspective. In every respect the child was integrated into the total community as soon as possible: There were no special toys, games, clothes, or classes designed just for children. Games were shared by all age groups; children took part in the festivities of the adult community. Schools (only for specialized skills) imparted learning to anyone who was interested, of whatever age: the system of apprenticeship was open to children as well as adults.
After the fourteenth century, with the development of the bourgeoisie and empirical science, this situation slowly began to evolve. The concept of childhood developed as an adjunct to the modern family. A vocabulary to describe children and childhood was articulated (e. g., the French le bebe) and another vocabulary was built especially for addressing children: “childrenese” became fashionable during the seventeenth century. (Since then it has been expanded into an art and a way of life. There are all kinds of modem refinements on baby talk: some people never go without it, using it especially on their girlfriends, whom they treat as grown-up children.) Children’s toys did not appear until 1600 and even then were not used beyond the age of three or four. The first toys were only childsize replicas of adult objects: the hobby horse took the place of the real horse that the child was too small to ride. But by the late seventeenth century special artifacts for children were common. Also in the late seventeenth century we find the introduction of special children’s games. (In fact these signified only a division: certain games formerly shared by both children and adults were abandoned by the adults to children and the lower class, while other games were taken over from then on exclusively for adult use, becoming the upper-class adult “parlor games.”)
Thus, by the seventeenth century childhood as a new
and fashionable concept was “in.” Aries shows how the iconography too reflects the change, with, for example, the gradual increase of glorified depictions of the moth- er/child relationship, e. g., the Infant in the Arms of Mary, or, later, in the fifteenth and the sixteenth centuries, of depictions of interiors and family scenes, including even individualized portraits of children and the paraphernalia of childhood. Rousseau among others developed an ideology of “childhood,” Much was made of children’s purity and “innocence.” People began to worry about their exposure to vice. “Respect” for children, as for women, unknown before the sixteenth century, when they were still part of the larger society, became necessary now that they formed a clear-cut oppressed group. Their isolation and segregation had set in. The new bourgeois family, childcentered, entailed a constant supervision; all earlier independence was abolished.
The significance of these changes is illustrated by the history of children’s costume. Costume was a way of denoting social rank and prosperity—and still is, especially for women. The consternation even now, especially in Europe, at any clothing impropriety is due primarily to the impropriety of “breaking rank”; and in the days when garments were expensive and mass production unheard of, this function of clothing was even more important. Because clothing customs so graphically describe disparities of sex and class, the history of child fashion gives us valuable clues to what was happening to children.
The first special children’s costumes appeared at the end of the sixteenth century, an important date in the formation of the concept of childhood. At first children’s clothing was modeled after archaic adult clothing, in the fashion of the lower class, who also wore the hand-me – downs of the aristocracy. These archaisms symbolized the growing exclusion of children and the proletariat from contemporary public life. Before the French Revolution, when special trousers of naval origin were introduced, further distinguishing the lower class, we find the same custom spreading to upper-class male children. This is
important because it illustrates quite clearly that children of the upper class formed a lower class within it. That differentiation of costume functions to increase segregation and make clear class distinctions is also borne out by an otherwise unexplainable custom of the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries: two broad ribbons had to be worn by both male and female children fastened to the robe under each shoulder and trailing down the back. These ribbons apparently had no other function than to serve as sartorial indications of childhood.
The male child’s costume especially reveals the connection of sex and childhood with economic class. A male child went through roughly three stages: The male infant went from swaddling clothes into female robes; at about the age of five he switched to a robe with some elements of the adult male costume, e. g., the collar; and finally, as an older boy, he advanced to full military regalia. The costume worn by the older male child in the period of Louis XVI was at once archaic (Renaissance collar), lower-class (naval trousers), and masculinely military (jacket and buttons). Clothing became another form of initiation into manhood, with the child, in modem terms, begging to advance to “long pants.”
These stages of initiation into manhood reflected in the history of child costume neatly tie in with the Oedipu; Complex as I have presented it in the previous chapter, Male children begin life in the lower class of women Dressed as women, they are in no way distinguished from female children; both identify at this time with the mother, the female; both play with dolls. Attempts axe made at about the age of five to wean the child from it mother, to encourage it by slow degrees, e. g., the male collar, to imitate the father: this is the transitional period of the Oedipus Complex. Finally the child is rewarded for breaking away from the female and transferring bis identifications to the male by a special “grown-up” cos-, tume, its military regalia a promise of the full adult mat power to come.
What about girls’ costumes? Here is an astonishM
fact: childhood did not apply to women. The female child went from swaddling clothes right into adult female dress. She did not go to school, which, as we shall see, was the institution that structured childhood. At the age of nine or ten she acted, literally, like a “little lady”; her activity did not differ from that of adult women. As soon as she reached puberty, as early as ten or twelve, she was married off to a much older male.
The class basis of childhood is exposed: Both girls and working-class boys did not have to be set apart by distinctive dress, for in their adult roles they would be servile to upper-class men; no initiation into freedom was necessary. Girls had no reason to go through costume changes, when there was nothing for them to grow up to: adult women were stiff in a lower class in relation to men. Children of the working class, even up to the present day, were freed of clothing restrictions, for their adult models, too, were “children” relative to the ruling class. While boys of the middle and upper classes temporarily shared the status of women and the working class, they gradually were elevated out of these subjected classes; women and lower-class boys stayed there. It is no coincidence, either, that the effeminization of little boys’ dress was abolished at the same time that the feminists agitated for an end to oppressive women’s clothes. Both dreSs styles were integrally connected to class subjection and the inferiority of women’s roles. Little Lord Fauntleroy went the way of the petticoat. (Though my own father remembers his first day in long pants, and even today, in some European countries, these clothing initiation customs are still practiced.)
We can also see the class basis of the emerging concept of childhood in the system of child education that came in along with it. If childhood was only an abstract concept, then the modem school was the institution that built it into reality. (New concepts about the life cycle in our society are organized around institutions, e. g., adolescence, a construction of the nineteenth century, was built to facilitate conscription for military service.) The
dividual of whatever age or sex.) According to Arik and with a certain trustfulness calculated to make them
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literary historians exaggerate the importance of the humanist tradition in the structure of our schools. The real architects and innovators were the moralists and pedagogues of the seventeenth century, the Jesuits, the Orato – rians, and the Jansenists. These men were at the origins of both the concept of childhood and its institutionalization, the modern concept of schooling. They were the first espousers of the weakness and “innocence” of childhood; they put childhood on a pedestal just as femininity had been put on a pedestal; they preached the segregation ol children from the adult world. “Discipline” was the key-
* Vestiges of these customs remain even into our own day. Wort ing-class boys tend to become tradesmen, artisans, or the moden equivalent, rather than engaging in a, for them, useless “boot lamin’.” This is left over from the time when lower-class childra The precocity so common in the Middle Ages and for still followed a system of apprenticeship while middle-class childr® ,ome tjmp aefP. r • -1 – , . ^ ?
had begun attending the modem school. (It is no accident eitte tlme a£ter has dwmdled «° zero m our own
that so many of the great artists of the Renaissance were low» class boys, trained in the workshops of the “masters.”) We cai also find remnants of this history in our present-day army, when the extremes of the class society are concentrated: on die ons hand, youthful working-class “dropouts,” and on the other, uppei the orthodox Jewish milieu in which I grew up, considered class officers, “West Pointers” of the aristocracy—for the aristoc machronistic by outsiders, many little boys still begin serious study racy as well as the proletariat was late in adopting the familj before the age of five, and as a result Talmudic prodigies are corn- structure and public schooling of the bourgeoisie. P°a*
modem school education was, indeed, the articulation oil the new concept of childhood. Schooling was redefined: No longer confined to clerics and scholars, it was widely extended to become the normal instrument of social fitf. tiation—in the progress from childhood to manhood, (Those for whom true adulthood never would apply! e. g., girls and working-class boys, did not go to school fpt many centuries.*)
For contrary to popular opinion, the development of the modern school had little connection with the traditional scholarship of the Middle Ages, nor with the development of the liberal arts and humanities in the Renaissance. (Iq fact the humanists of the Renaissance were noted for the, inclusion in their ranks of many precocious children and learned women; they stressed the development of the fo
note to modem schooling, much more important finally than the imparting of learning or information. For to them discipline was an instrument of moral and spiritual improvement, adapted less for its efficiency in directing large groups to work in common than for its intrinsic moral and ascetic value. That is, repression itself was adopted as a spiritual value.
Thus, the function of the school became “childrearing,” complete with disciplinary “child psychology.” Aries quotes the Regulations for Boarders at Port-Royal, a forerunner of our teacher training manuals:
A close watch must be kept on the children, and they must never be left alone anywhere, whether they are ill or in good jjealth. . . this constant supervision should be exercised think one loves them, and that it is only to enjoy their company that one is with them. This will make them love their supervision rather than fear it. (Italics mine)
This passage, written in 1612, already exhibits the mincing tone characteristic of modern child psychology, and the peculiar distance—at that time rehearsed, but by now quite unconscious—between adults and children.
The new schooling effectively segregated children off from the adult world for longer and longer periods of iime. But this segregation of child from adult, and the severe initiation process demanded to make the transition to adulthood, indicated a growing disrespect for, a systematic underestimation of, the abilities of the child.
tune.* Today, for example, Mozart’s feats as a child composer are hardly credible; in his own time he was not so unusual. Many children played and wrote music sen-
ously then and also engaged in a good many other “adult" activities. Our piano lessons of today are in no way сощ, parable. They are, in fact, only indications of child op. pression—in the same way that the traditional “women’s accomplishments” such as embroidery were superficial activity—telling us only about the subjugation of the child to adult whims. And it is significant that these “talents" are more often cultivated in girls than in boys; when boys study piano it is most often because they are ex – ceptionally gifted or because their parents are musical.
Aries quotes Heroard, Journal sur Fenfance et la jeu, nesse de Louis XIII, the detailed account of the Dauphin’s childhood years written by his doctor, that the Dauphin played the violin and sang all the time at the age of seventeen months. But the Dauphin was no genius, later proving himself to be certainly no more intelligent than any average member of the aristocracy. And playing the violin wasn’t all he did: The record of the child life of the Dauphin, born in 1601—of only average intelli. gence—tells us that we underestimate the capabilities of children. We find that at the same age that he played the violin, he also played mall, the equivalent of golf for adults of that period, as well as tennis; he talked; he played games of military strategy. At three and foui respectively, he learned to read and write. At four and five, though still playing with dolls (!), he practiced archery, played cards and chess (at six) with adults, and played many other adult games. At all times, just as soon as he was able to walk, he mixed as an equal with adulb in all their activities (such as they were), professional]; dancing, acting, and taking part in all amusements. Af the age of seven the Dauphin began to wear adult male clothes, his dolls were taken away, and his education under male tutors began; he began hunting, riding, shooting, and gambling. But Aries says:
We should beware of exaggerating [the importance of this age of seven]. For all that he had stopped playing, or should havi stopped playing, with his dolls, the Dauphin went on leading
drawn peer group, and then spoon-fed a “curriculum.11 Such a rigid gradation increased the levels necessary for the initiation into adulthood and made it hard for a child to direct his own pace. His learning motivation became outer-directed and approval-conscious, a sure killer oi originality. Children, once seen simply as younger people —the way we now see a half-grown puppy in terms of its future maturity—were now a clear-cut class with its own internal rankings, encouraging competition: the “biggest guy on the block,” the “brainiest guy in school,” etc. Children were forced to think in hierarchical terms, all measured by the supreme “When I grow up. …” In this the growth of the school reflected the outside world which was becoming increasingly segregated according to age and class.
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In conclusion: The development of the modern family meant the breakdown of a large, integrated society into small, self-centered units. The child within these conjugal units now became important; for he was the product oi that unit, the reason for its maintenance. It became desirable to keep one’s children at home for as long as possible to bind them psychologically, financially, and emotionally to the family unit until such time as they were ready to create a new family unit. For this purpose the Age of Childhood was created. (Later, extensions were added, such as adolescence, or in twentieth-century American terms, “teenagerdom,” “collegiate youth,” “young adulthood.”) The concept of childhood dictated that children were a species different not just in age, but in kind, from adults. An ideology was developed to prove this, fancy tractates written about the innocence of children and their closeness to God (“little angels”), with a resulting belief that children were asexual, child sex play an aberration—all in strong contrast to the period preceding it, when children were exposed to the facts of life from the beginning. For any admission of child sexuality would have accelerated the transition into adulthood, and this now had to be retarded at ail cost: The development of special costumes soon exaggerated the physical differences distinguishing children from adults or even from older children; children no longer played the same games as adults, nor did they share in their festivities (children today do not normally attend fancy dinner parties) but were given special games and artifacts of their own (toys); storytelling, once a community art, was relegated to children, leading to in our own time a special child literature; children were spoken to in a special language by adults and serious conversation was never indulged in in their presence (“Not in front of the children”); the “manners” of subjection were instituted in the home (“Children, should be seen and not heard.”). But none of this would have worked to effectively make of children an oppressed class if a special institution hadn’t been created to do the job thoroughly: the modern school.
The ideology of school was the ideology of childhood. It operated on the assumption that children needed “discipline,” that they were special creatures who had to be handled in a special way (child psych., child ed., etc.) and that to facilitate this they should be corralled in a special place with their own kind, and with an age group as restricted to their own as possible. The school was the institution that structured childhood by effectively segregating children from the rest of society, thus retarding their growth into adulthood and their development of specialized skills for which the society had use. As a result they remained economically dependent for longer and longer periods of time; thus family ties remained unbroken.
I have pointed out that there is a strong relationship
between the hierarchies of the family and economic class. Engels has observed that within the family the husband is the bourgeois and the wife and children are the proletariat. Similarities between children and all working-class or other oppressed groups have been noted, studies done to show that they share the same psychology. We have seen how the development of the proletarian costume paralleled that of children’s costume, how games abandoned by upper-class adults were played by both children and “yokels”; both were said to like to “work with their hands” as opposed to the higher cerebrations of the adult male, abstractions beyond them; both were considered happy, carefree, and good-natured, “more in touch with reality”; both were reminded that they were lucky to be spared the worries of responsible adulthood—and both wanted it anyway. Relations with the ruling class were tinged in both cases by fear, suspicion, and dishonesty, disguised under a thin coating of charm (the adorable lisp, the eyeroll and the shuffle).
The myth of childhood has an even greater parallel in the myth of femininity. Both women and children were considered asexual and thus “purer” than man. Their inferior status was ill-concealed under an elaborate “respect.” One didn’t discuss serious matters nor did one curse in front of women and children; one didn’t openly degrade them, one did it behind their backs. (As for the double standard about cursing: A man is allowed to blaspheme the world because it belongs to him to damn—but the same curse out of the mouth of a woman or a minor, i. e., an incomplete “man” to whom the world does not ‘ yet belong, is considered presumptuous, and thus an impropriety or worse.) Both were set apart by fancy and nonfunctional clothing and were given special tasks (housework and homework respectively); both were considered mentally deficient (“What can you expect from a woman?” “He’s too little to understand.”). The pedestal of adoration on which both were set made it hard for them to breathe. Every interaction with the adult world became for children a tap dance. They learned how to
use their childhood to get what they wanted indirectly (“He’s throwing another tantrum!”), just as women learned how to use their femininity (“There she goes, crying again!”). All excursions into the adult world became terrifying survival expeditions. The difference between the natural behavior of children in their peer group as opposed to their stilted and/or coy behavior with adults bears this out—just as women act differently among themselves than when they are around men. In each case a physical difference had been enlarged culturally with the help of special dress, education, manners, and activity until this cultural reinforcement itself began to appear “natural,” even instinctive, an exaggeration process that enables easy stereotyping: the individual eventually appears to be a different kind of human animal with its own peculiar set of laws and behavior (“I’ll never understand women!” . . . “You don’t know a thing about child psychology!”).
Contemporary slang reflects this animal state: children are – “mice,” “rabbits,” “kittens,” women are called “chicks,” (in England) “birds,” “hens,” “dumb clucks,” “silly geese,” “old mares,” “bitches.” Similar terminology is used about males as a defamation of character, or more broadly only about oppressed males: stud, wolf, cat, stag, jack—and then it is used much more rarely, and often with a specifically sexual connotation.
Because the class oppression of women and children is couched in the phraseology of “cute” it is much harder to fight than open oppression. What child can answer back when some inane aunt falls all over him or some stranger decides to pat his behind and gurgle baby talk? What woman can afford to frown when a passing stranger violates her privacy at will? If she responds to his, “Baby you’re looking good today!” with “No better than when I didn’t know you,” he will grumble, “What’s eating that bitch?” Or worse. Very often the real nature of these seemingly friendly remarks emerges when the child or the woman does not smile as she should: “Dirty old scum bag. I wouldn’t screw you even if you had a smile on your puss!” . . . “Nasty little brat. If I were your father I would spank you so hard you wouldn’t know what hit you!” . . . Their violence is amazing. Yet these men feel that the woman or the child is to blame for not being “friendly.” Because it makes them uncomfortable to know that the woman or the child or the black or the workman is grumbling, the oppressed groups must also appear to like their oppression—smiling and simpering though they may feel like hell inside. The smile is the child/woman equivalent of the shuffle; it indicates acquiescence of the victim to his own oppression.
In my own case, I had to train myself out of that phony smile, which is like a nervous tic on every teenage girl. And this meant that I smiled rarely, for in truth, when it came down to real smiling, I had less to smile about. My “dream” action for the women’s liberation movement: a smile boycott, at which declaration all women would instantly abandon their “pleasing” smiles, henceforth smiling only when something pleased them. Likewise children’s liberation would demand an end to all fondling not dictated by the child itself. (This of course would predicate a society in which fondling in general was no longer frowned upon; often the only demonstration of affection a child now receives is of this phony kind, which he may still consider better than nothing.) Many men can’t understand that their easy intimacies come as no privilege. Do they ever consider that the real person inside that baby or female animal may not choose to be fondled then, or by them, or even noticed? Imagine this man’s own consternation were some stranger to approach him on the street in a similar manner—patting, gurgling, muttering baby talk— without respect for his profession or his “manhood.”
In sum, if members of the working class and minority groups “act like children,” it is because children of every class are lower-class, just as women have always been. The rise of the modern nuclear family, with its adjunct “childhood,” tightened the noose around the already economically dependent group by extending and reinforcing, what had been only a brief dependence, by the usual means: the development of a special ideology, of a spe – cial indigenous life style, language, dress, mannerisms, etc. And with the increase and exaggeration of children’s dependence, woman’s bondage to motherhood was also extended to its limits. Women and children were now in the same lousy boat. Their oppressions began to reinforce one another. To the mystique of the glories of childbirth, the grandeur of “natural” female creativity, was now added a new mystique about the glories of childhood itself and the “creativity” of childrearing. (“Why, my dear, what could be more creative than raising a child?”) By now people have forgotten what history has proven: that “raising” a child is tantamount to retarding his development The best way to raise a child is to LAY OFF.