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Episode
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A Short History of Childhood

Nov 19, 2021
History
-
27
minutes
The Enlightenment
Sociology
Children
Philosophy
The Victorian Era
18th Century
20th Century

Although there have always been children, the concept of "childhood" is more recent than many people think, with one French historian declaring that childhood didn't exist until the 17th century.

In this episode, we'll explore how ideas of childhood have changed, from John Locke to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, from the English Romantic poets right through to the creation of the teenager in post-war America.

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[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Childhood, and how ideas about children and childhood have changed over the years. 

[00:00:33] We’ll start by looking at early ideas about the role of children and the concepts of childhood, then we’ll look at when and why this started to change, how the modern ideas of childhood came about, how this was in conflict with industrialisation, and the resolutions that were made.

[00:00:54] Then we'll look at the creation of the idea of the teenager, and why the idea of the adolescent didn’t really exist in the same way before. 

[00:01:04] And finally we’ll reflect on modern and future childhood and ask ourselves whether it really is true that the childhood of children today is not as innocent and carefree as yours or mine might have been.

[00:01:20] OK then, A Short History of Childhood.

[00:01:26] Now, with this show we often cover big, momentous topics or historical events: the French Revolution, Fake News, Pirates. 

[00:01:37] In today’s episode we’re covering something that is, on one level, a lot less monumentous, a lot less covered in the history books: children and childhood.

[00:01:50] Yet for each and every one of us, we have experienced childhood. We have all been children. Perhaps if you are one of our younger listeners you might still consider yourself a child now. 

[00:02:02] Even if you aren’t a younger listener, perhaps you would still consider yourself a child.

[00:02:08] And for those of us who are no longer children, perhaps we have our own children who are still in their childhood, perhaps they are now young adults, or perhaps they have grown up and had children of their own.

[00:02:24] The point is that childhood, or at least being a child, is something that unites us all, and this is what we’ll explore today. We’ll focus on the ideas of childhood in Britain, but will also touch on ideas of childhood further afield too. 

[00:02:44] There are some important questions to think about before we start on this journey.

[00:02:50] What exactly is a child? 

[00:02:52] What is childhood? 

[00:02:54] When do you stop being a child, and for what reasons? 

[00:02:59] And when you stop being a child, what do you become?

[00:03:04] We will explore all of these questions in due course, but I raise them now to get us thinking, before we dive into the history.

[00:03:14] Now, historians are in fact somewhat divided over the idea of childhood before the Enlightenment, around three hundred years ago.

[00:03:25] The French historian Phillipe Ariès, who wrote the seminal 1960 book “L’Enfant et la Vie Familiale sous l’Ancien Régime”, which was translated into English as “Centuries of Childhood”, simply believed that childhood didn’t exist until the 17th century.

[00:03:45] Famously he wrote that “in medieval society, the idea of childhood did not exist". 

[00:03:52] Firstly, infant mortality was so high, with anywhere from 30-50% of babies dying before their first birthday. Given that such a high proportion of children would die, it simply wasn’t practical to devote your emotional energy towards them nor to invest time and effort in their growth. 

[00:04:17] This certainly isn’t to say that Medieval parents were cruel, emotionless, and felt no love for their children, but rather that death was so commonplace that the death of a child was not unexpected, and therefore was less of a tragedy than the death of an infant would be today.

[00:04:39] In Medieval times, so the theory goes, if a child was lucky enough to survive its first few years it would help its parents with household work and farming. 

[00:04:52] There simply was little time to play or develop creatively, as we encourage children to do today, nor was there the belief that this was an important thing for children to do.

[00:05:05] Children didn’t tend to celebrate their birthday, they celebrated their Saint’s day, the day on which the saint they would be named after was celebrated. For this reason many people didn’t really know how old they were.

[00:05:22] What’s more, there was this puritanical Christian idea of original sin, the idea that man comes into the world in sin, and so newborn babies needed to be freed from this. 

[00:05:37] A baby needed to be baptised and then redeemed through Christian instruction. 

[00:05:44] If they were lucky enough to be born into a relatively wealthy family and to survive past their first birthday, they might receive a religious education, but the purpose of this wasn’t to allow them to expand their mind and think for themselves, it was to help them on their journey towards Christian salvation.

[00:06:07] Thus for most of the Medieval era at least, if you were poor, which would mean the majority of the population, your young life, your childhood would consist of helping your parents around the house and working, and if you were born into a wealthy family, it might involve some religious instruction, but there was no developed idea that children needed to be treated greatly differently.

[00:06:37] In both cases, so Ariès’ theory goes, there was no concept of childhood, or it being a unique, important stage of a person’s development.

[00:06:50] Now, things started to change at the start of the Enlightenment, when philosophers and thinkers all over Europe started to question assumed beliefs.

[00:07:03] When it comes to childhood, the first “revolutionary” idea came from the Englishman John Locke, who proposed that an infant, a newborn child was a tabula rasa, a blank sheet of paper, in need of education and instruction from his elders

[00:07:23] Thus it was the parents’ responsibility to educate and nurture their children, to make sure that they were able to make their way in the world.

[00:07:35] Fast forward a few decades and across the English Channel the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposed another new and revolutionary idea relating to the development of children.

[00:07:51] He proposed that children had their own innate natural way of developing, guided by their emotions. The idea was that by nurturing children in the right way, and allowing them to explore on their own, they could start to reason, and being able to reason was the aim for man.

[00:08:16] They should be free, but there should also be a closer bond between mother and child. 

[00:08:24] At this time especially mothers from wealthy families wouldn’t breastfeed their children, instead sending them to wet nurses, female servants who would breastfeed them instead of the mother. 

[00:08:39] Rousseau placed a great importance firstly on the child having its own freedom to explore, but also on the bond between mother and child. This was crucial to a healthy, happy and successful childhood.

[00:08:57] Rousseau even defined three stages of childhood development: 

[00:09:03] Stage one was up to the age of twelve, when children should be guided by their feelings.

[00:09:10] Stage two was from twelve to around sixteen, and this is when they start to develop their own sense of reason.

[00:09:20] And stage three is from sixteen onwards, when the child becomes an adult, marries and has children of their own.

[00:09:30] Most of this comes from his 1762 book “Emile, or On Education”, and is still influential today - you can see similar ideas at work in places like Montessori schools, and his theories are an important part of many progressive educational theories.

[00:09:51] So, the Enlightenment gave us these two opposing views of childhood, but they at least recognised that children have unique needs and that childhood is of vital importance. 

[00:10:05] Strange enough as it might seem to us now, this is something that appears not to have been a real consideration beforehand, at least Ariès, the first historian to write about childhood, believes the concept simply didn’t exist in the Medieval era.

[00:10:24] The Romantics, who appeared towards the end of the 18th century, went a step further than the Enlightenment thinkers, imaging children as free, pure and innocent, only to be corrupted by the rules of society.

[00:10:42] Starting with people like the English poets William Wordsworth and William Blake at the turn of the 19th century, in the late 18th and early 19th century, children were seen as free, unencumbered by the norms of society.

[00:10:59] Children should be spontaneous, free to do what they want, to learn from what is around them rather than being forced to learn from textbooks. 

[00:11:11] Children also started to appear in works of art, often naked and smiling, showing their innocence. The English Romantic poets linked childhood to the power of imagination, and believed that children were closer to God than adults. Children were capable of things that adults were not, and the adult world corrupted the innocence of children.

[00:11:41] We can see how this is so very different to the original ideas of childhood, and even of John Locke’s vision, where he suggested that children were blank slates that needed instruction.

[00:11:55] Now, through the Romantic movement in Britain, childhood became almost holy, a time of innocence, the only time in a human’s life where he or she was completely free, and thus it was a time to be cherished, a time of vital importance.

[00:12:16] But, at the same time as the Romantic poets the Industrial Revolution was just getting started. 

[00:12:23] Great Britain was a deeply unequal society, and the creation of factories and lack of any kind of real social security system pushed more and more children into work.

[00:12:38] While in the Medieval times children might have worked alongside their parents in the fields or around the house, in the late 18th and early 19th century children might spend 12 hours a day 7 days a week, literally half their lives and almost all their waking hours working away in dangerous factories doing repetitive, menial work.

[00:13:04] Just while the Romantics were pushing this idea that children should be free and that childhood was a crucially important time for the development of children, the luxury of having this type of childhood was restricted only to the richest in society.

[00:13:23] As these awful conditions became better known, in part through novelists such as Charles Dickens who documented the plight of working children, there was an increasing movement to restrict child labour.

[00:13:39] In 1833, a law was passed to say that children working in the cotton or woolen industries needed to be more than 9 years old and that nobody under the age of 18 could work more than 10 hours a day or eight hours on a Sunday.

[00:13:59] Now, that gives you an idea of how bad it was before that there was a law that was put in place to stop children who were under 9 from working more than 68 hours a week.

[00:14:13] The Victorians did try various methods to get children into education, including making education free, but children who worked in factories would often be too tired to go to school, and would fall asleep in class.

[00:14:30] Children in much of Victorian Britain were breadwinners, they were responsible for bringing money into the house, and so simply not working wasn’t an option for them. 

[00:14:43] Since the 1833 law numerous more forward-thinking laws were created to increase the working age and reduce the hours, but even in 1901 a 12 year old could still legally work.

[00:15:00] Although for the average child in Victorian Britain a childhood wasn’t much of a childhood at all, the Victorians were very influential in creating the modern idea of what a childhood should look like.

[00:15:15] For starters, there was this new genre of children’s literature, of books and stories for children that served not primarily to educate, but to entertain.

[00:15:29] Prior to this the prevailing view had been that children should learn from books. Yes, there were books for children, but they taught them morals, how to behave, and how to live in society.

[00:15:44] Authors such as Lewis Carrol and J.M Barrie, who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan respectively, created magical worlds for children. 

[00:15:57] There might be some morals in there, but they were hugely entertaining and magical, and existed to make children hope and dream.

[00:16:08] Childhood was a time to be prized, because when it was gone, it was gone. Indeed in Peter Pan, the boy Peter Pan is a boy who never wants to grow up and Never Never Land is a place where children don’t need to grow up.

[00:16:28] Childhood became a place for children to explore, to create their own magical worlds, to have their own adventures. This might sound familiar to you now because it is the prevailing view of much of Western society, that childhood is a time for children to explore and to have fun, not a time to be forced to behave in a particularly “adult” way.

[00:16:56] Moving into the 20th century, we see compulsory schooling, we see children being required to have an education and the banning of child labour in Britain at least. 

[00:17:09] It is widely agreed that an education is an important part of a child’s development, and of childhood, but numerous different ideas about what this education should consist of emerge

[00:17:24] Indeed, what “education” should look like is certainly not something that any country seems to have figured out, and certainly how to effectively help children learn foreign languages still is a hot topic of debate.

[00:17:40] Moving on to childhood in the 20th century, there is one very important addition to childhood that we haven’t touched on yet.

[00:17:50] The invention of the teenager.

[00:17:53] The term “teenager” started to be used in 1944 to identify children in adolescence, technically children who are from 13-19 years of age. 

[00:18:07] Previously, children in this age group weren’t given any special treatment, they weren’t considered any differently really. The term adolescent had started to be used in the late 19th century, but it mainly referred to the period of transition between childhood and adulthood rather than giving children of this age a distinct identity.

[00:18:34] The teenager was a new invention entirely.

[00:18:38] The post-war period in America gave teenagers their own identity, their own freedoms. Films were made for teenagers, and companies realised that they could sell products to this discrete audience that was different to “children”.

[00:18:56] There was a New York Times article from 1945 called “A Teen-Age Bill of Rights”, which outlined 10 rights that children in this particular age group should have, from “the right to make mistakes” to “the right to question ideas”. 

[00:19:14] Given that teenagers no longer needed to work in factories they were free to explore the world on their own, to rebel against their parents, to have sexual relationships, to do things that teenagers previously had simply never been able to do, because they had either been working or, if they came from a wealthy family, they were rarely allowed out of their own little familiar bubble.

[00:19:43] When you combine this with the mass production of cars, in America at least teenagers suddenly had a way to gain independence from their parents, they literally had a vehicle that could take them anywhere.

[00:19:59] And this cult of the teenager has only got stronger. 

[00:20:04] Billion dollar companies exist solely with teenagers as customers, authors write for teenagers, films are made for teenagers, the teenager is a discrete part of childhood that simply didn’t exist 100 years ago.

[00:20:21] Now, coming to the question of modern childhood, and how childhood now is different from the childhood that you might have experienced, and why that is, I’ll just invite you to think about your own childhood for a minute, you can even press pause if you like.

[00:20:39] OK, if you paused and thought about your childhood for a bit, well done. For many of us we think of our childhoods as being the happiest, most carefree period of our lives.

[00:20:53] You might think of being able to get the school bus home without a care in the world, of a world without mobile phones or social media, perhaps a world where your mother kicked you out of the house at 8 o’ clock in the morning and told you to come back for tea, a world that was safer, more innocent, a happier place to grow up.

[00:21:18] When compared to the childhood that many adults believe children are living today, it seems simpler, easier, safer, and you might even say better.

[00:21:31] And in the UK a lot of the media outlets, especially right-wing media outlets, relish stories about the decline of childhood, about how the innocent youth that Brits used to enjoy is gone forever.

[00:21:48] Indeed, there’s a story by a famous historian called Professor Hugh Cunningham, who is the author of an excellent book called “Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500”, where he recounts being offered to write an article for the Daily Mail newspaper about the history of childhood.

[00:22:09] He was offered about £1 a word, and told that the article should be around 2,000 words. That would be around £3,000 in today’s money, so around €4,000 for an article that he could probably write in his sleep.

[00:22:26] He said “sure, I'll write it”, but was told that the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, a man called Paul Dacre, would only publish it if it showed that childhood had got worse since the 1950s. Cunningham’s view was that childhood hadn’t got worse, so the article was never published.

[00:22:49] The point is that Dacre knew exactly what his audience wanted, and that was to be told that the past was better than the present. If Cunningham wasn’t willing to say this, well, the article wouldn’t be published.

[00:23:04] And this brings us to the very real question of whether childhood is better or worse today than it was in the past. 

[00:23:12] Well, of course it really depends on how far back in the past you go.

[00:23:18] If we are talking about the Medieval or Victorian era, or even childhood in the first half of the 20th century when you might have finished school at 13 and started working, well I think I’d prefer to try my luck with the pressures of social media over working 12 hours a day in a coal mine

[00:23:39] But if we are talking about a childhood in the 1970s, let’s say, then it’s probably safer to say that the problems are simply different. Children today have opportunities that simply didn’t exist even 10 years ago, let alone 50 years ago. From opportunities to connect with other children from all over the world to the opportunities to access any information they want. 

[00:24:07] These opportunities come with their fair share of risks, but it seems too binary and shortsighted to say childhood now is simply better or worse. 

[00:24:20] At least we can be happy in the knowledge that most societies have recognised that childhood is a fundamental part of a human’s life, a time for adventure, a time to be curious, a time to learn, a time to play, a time to laugh, a time to experiment.

[00:24:39] Childhood has certainly come a long way since its creation, if you are to believe Phillipe Ariès, remember he was the French historian who said it didn’t exist until the 17th century. 

[00:24:53] And as our idea of what is a correct and proper childhood has continued to evolve, this would suggest that it will continue to evolve in the years to come.

[00:25:05] Childhood is a process of figuring out how the world works, what sort of person you are, and what sort of person you want to be.

[00:25:14] It’s perhaps appropriate that even as adults, and as a wider society, we are still figuring out what sort of childhood is right for our children.

[00:25:27] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Childhood.

[00:25:33] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that it’s made you think about your own childhood in a slightly different way.

[00:25:41] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:25:44] How do you think childhood is different from what it was when you were growing up? Is it better, worse, the same, or just different?

[00:25:54] And as we mainly dealt with childhood in Britain today, how is the evolution of childhood in your country different?

[00:26:03] I would love to know.

[00:26:04] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:26:13] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:26:19] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


Continue learning

Get immediate access to a more interesting way of improving your English
Become a member
Already a member? Login

[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Childhood, and how ideas about children and childhood have changed over the years. 

[00:00:33] We’ll start by looking at early ideas about the role of children and the concepts of childhood, then we’ll look at when and why this started to change, how the modern ideas of childhood came about, how this was in conflict with industrialisation, and the resolutions that were made.

[00:00:54] Then we'll look at the creation of the idea of the teenager, and why the idea of the adolescent didn’t really exist in the same way before. 

[00:01:04] And finally we’ll reflect on modern and future childhood and ask ourselves whether it really is true that the childhood of children today is not as innocent and carefree as yours or mine might have been.

[00:01:20] OK then, A Short History of Childhood.

[00:01:26] Now, with this show we often cover big, momentous topics or historical events: the French Revolution, Fake News, Pirates. 

[00:01:37] In today’s episode we’re covering something that is, on one level, a lot less monumentous, a lot less covered in the history books: children and childhood.

[00:01:50] Yet for each and every one of us, we have experienced childhood. We have all been children. Perhaps if you are one of our younger listeners you might still consider yourself a child now. 

[00:02:02] Even if you aren’t a younger listener, perhaps you would still consider yourself a child.

[00:02:08] And for those of us who are no longer children, perhaps we have our own children who are still in their childhood, perhaps they are now young adults, or perhaps they have grown up and had children of their own.

[00:02:24] The point is that childhood, or at least being a child, is something that unites us all, and this is what we’ll explore today. We’ll focus on the ideas of childhood in Britain, but will also touch on ideas of childhood further afield too. 

[00:02:44] There are some important questions to think about before we start on this journey.

[00:02:50] What exactly is a child? 

[00:02:52] What is childhood? 

[00:02:54] When do you stop being a child, and for what reasons? 

[00:02:59] And when you stop being a child, what do you become?

[00:03:04] We will explore all of these questions in due course, but I raise them now to get us thinking, before we dive into the history.

[00:03:14] Now, historians are in fact somewhat divided over the idea of childhood before the Enlightenment, around three hundred years ago.

[00:03:25] The French historian Phillipe Ariès, who wrote the seminal 1960 book “L’Enfant et la Vie Familiale sous l’Ancien Régime”, which was translated into English as “Centuries of Childhood”, simply believed that childhood didn’t exist until the 17th century.

[00:03:45] Famously he wrote that “in medieval society, the idea of childhood did not exist". 

[00:03:52] Firstly, infant mortality was so high, with anywhere from 30-50% of babies dying before their first birthday. Given that such a high proportion of children would die, it simply wasn’t practical to devote your emotional energy towards them nor to invest time and effort in their growth. 

[00:04:17] This certainly isn’t to say that Medieval parents were cruel, emotionless, and felt no love for their children, but rather that death was so commonplace that the death of a child was not unexpected, and therefore was less of a tragedy than the death of an infant would be today.

[00:04:39] In Medieval times, so the theory goes, if a child was lucky enough to survive its first few years it would help its parents with household work and farming. 

[00:04:52] There simply was little time to play or develop creatively, as we encourage children to do today, nor was there the belief that this was an important thing for children to do.

[00:05:05] Children didn’t tend to celebrate their birthday, they celebrated their Saint’s day, the day on which the saint they would be named after was celebrated. For this reason many people didn’t really know how old they were.

[00:05:22] What’s more, there was this puritanical Christian idea of original sin, the idea that man comes into the world in sin, and so newborn babies needed to be freed from this. 

[00:05:37] A baby needed to be baptised and then redeemed through Christian instruction. 

[00:05:44] If they were lucky enough to be born into a relatively wealthy family and to survive past their first birthday, they might receive a religious education, but the purpose of this wasn’t to allow them to expand their mind and think for themselves, it was to help them on their journey towards Christian salvation.

[00:06:07] Thus for most of the Medieval era at least, if you were poor, which would mean the majority of the population, your young life, your childhood would consist of helping your parents around the house and working, and if you were born into a wealthy family, it might involve some religious instruction, but there was no developed idea that children needed to be treated greatly differently.

[00:06:37] In both cases, so Ariès’ theory goes, there was no concept of childhood, or it being a unique, important stage of a person’s development.

[00:06:50] Now, things started to change at the start of the Enlightenment, when philosophers and thinkers all over Europe started to question assumed beliefs.

[00:07:03] When it comes to childhood, the first “revolutionary” idea came from the Englishman John Locke, who proposed that an infant, a newborn child was a tabula rasa, a blank sheet of paper, in need of education and instruction from his elders

[00:07:23] Thus it was the parents’ responsibility to educate and nurture their children, to make sure that they were able to make their way in the world.

[00:07:35] Fast forward a few decades and across the English Channel the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposed another new and revolutionary idea relating to the development of children.

[00:07:51] He proposed that children had their own innate natural way of developing, guided by their emotions. The idea was that by nurturing children in the right way, and allowing them to explore on their own, they could start to reason, and being able to reason was the aim for man.

[00:08:16] They should be free, but there should also be a closer bond between mother and child. 

[00:08:24] At this time especially mothers from wealthy families wouldn’t breastfeed their children, instead sending them to wet nurses, female servants who would breastfeed them instead of the mother. 

[00:08:39] Rousseau placed a great importance firstly on the child having its own freedom to explore, but also on the bond between mother and child. This was crucial to a healthy, happy and successful childhood.

[00:08:57] Rousseau even defined three stages of childhood development: 

[00:09:03] Stage one was up to the age of twelve, when children should be guided by their feelings.

[00:09:10] Stage two was from twelve to around sixteen, and this is when they start to develop their own sense of reason.

[00:09:20] And stage three is from sixteen onwards, when the child becomes an adult, marries and has children of their own.

[00:09:30] Most of this comes from his 1762 book “Emile, or On Education”, and is still influential today - you can see similar ideas at work in places like Montessori schools, and his theories are an important part of many progressive educational theories.

[00:09:51] So, the Enlightenment gave us these two opposing views of childhood, but they at least recognised that children have unique needs and that childhood is of vital importance. 

[00:10:05] Strange enough as it might seem to us now, this is something that appears not to have been a real consideration beforehand, at least Ariès, the first historian to write about childhood, believes the concept simply didn’t exist in the Medieval era.

[00:10:24] The Romantics, who appeared towards the end of the 18th century, went a step further than the Enlightenment thinkers, imaging children as free, pure and innocent, only to be corrupted by the rules of society.

[00:10:42] Starting with people like the English poets William Wordsworth and William Blake at the turn of the 19th century, in the late 18th and early 19th century, children were seen as free, unencumbered by the norms of society.

[00:10:59] Children should be spontaneous, free to do what they want, to learn from what is around them rather than being forced to learn from textbooks. 

[00:11:11] Children also started to appear in works of art, often naked and smiling, showing their innocence. The English Romantic poets linked childhood to the power of imagination, and believed that children were closer to God than adults. Children were capable of things that adults were not, and the adult world corrupted the innocence of children.

[00:11:41] We can see how this is so very different to the original ideas of childhood, and even of John Locke’s vision, where he suggested that children were blank slates that needed instruction.

[00:11:55] Now, through the Romantic movement in Britain, childhood became almost holy, a time of innocence, the only time in a human’s life where he or she was completely free, and thus it was a time to be cherished, a time of vital importance.

[00:12:16] But, at the same time as the Romantic poets the Industrial Revolution was just getting started. 

[00:12:23] Great Britain was a deeply unequal society, and the creation of factories and lack of any kind of real social security system pushed more and more children into work.

[00:12:38] While in the Medieval times children might have worked alongside their parents in the fields or around the house, in the late 18th and early 19th century children might spend 12 hours a day 7 days a week, literally half their lives and almost all their waking hours working away in dangerous factories doing repetitive, menial work.

[00:13:04] Just while the Romantics were pushing this idea that children should be free and that childhood was a crucially important time for the development of children, the luxury of having this type of childhood was restricted only to the richest in society.

[00:13:23] As these awful conditions became better known, in part through novelists such as Charles Dickens who documented the plight of working children, there was an increasing movement to restrict child labour.

[00:13:39] In 1833, a law was passed to say that children working in the cotton or woolen industries needed to be more than 9 years old and that nobody under the age of 18 could work more than 10 hours a day or eight hours on a Sunday.

[00:13:59] Now, that gives you an idea of how bad it was before that there was a law that was put in place to stop children who were under 9 from working more than 68 hours a week.

[00:14:13] The Victorians did try various methods to get children into education, including making education free, but children who worked in factories would often be too tired to go to school, and would fall asleep in class.

[00:14:30] Children in much of Victorian Britain were breadwinners, they were responsible for bringing money into the house, and so simply not working wasn’t an option for them. 

[00:14:43] Since the 1833 law numerous more forward-thinking laws were created to increase the working age and reduce the hours, but even in 1901 a 12 year old could still legally work.

[00:15:00] Although for the average child in Victorian Britain a childhood wasn’t much of a childhood at all, the Victorians were very influential in creating the modern idea of what a childhood should look like.

[00:15:15] For starters, there was this new genre of children’s literature, of books and stories for children that served not primarily to educate, but to entertain.

[00:15:29] Prior to this the prevailing view had been that children should learn from books. Yes, there were books for children, but they taught them morals, how to behave, and how to live in society.

[00:15:44] Authors such as Lewis Carrol and J.M Barrie, who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan respectively, created magical worlds for children. 

[00:15:57] There might be some morals in there, but they were hugely entertaining and magical, and existed to make children hope and dream.

[00:16:08] Childhood was a time to be prized, because when it was gone, it was gone. Indeed in Peter Pan, the boy Peter Pan is a boy who never wants to grow up and Never Never Land is a place where children don’t need to grow up.

[00:16:28] Childhood became a place for children to explore, to create their own magical worlds, to have their own adventures. This might sound familiar to you now because it is the prevailing view of much of Western society, that childhood is a time for children to explore and to have fun, not a time to be forced to behave in a particularly “adult” way.

[00:16:56] Moving into the 20th century, we see compulsory schooling, we see children being required to have an education and the banning of child labour in Britain at least. 

[00:17:09] It is widely agreed that an education is an important part of a child’s development, and of childhood, but numerous different ideas about what this education should consist of emerge

[00:17:24] Indeed, what “education” should look like is certainly not something that any country seems to have figured out, and certainly how to effectively help children learn foreign languages still is a hot topic of debate.

[00:17:40] Moving on to childhood in the 20th century, there is one very important addition to childhood that we haven’t touched on yet.

[00:17:50] The invention of the teenager.

[00:17:53] The term “teenager” started to be used in 1944 to identify children in adolescence, technically children who are from 13-19 years of age. 

[00:18:07] Previously, children in this age group weren’t given any special treatment, they weren’t considered any differently really. The term adolescent had started to be used in the late 19th century, but it mainly referred to the period of transition between childhood and adulthood rather than giving children of this age a distinct identity.

[00:18:34] The teenager was a new invention entirely.

[00:18:38] The post-war period in America gave teenagers their own identity, their own freedoms. Films were made for teenagers, and companies realised that they could sell products to this discrete audience that was different to “children”.

[00:18:56] There was a New York Times article from 1945 called “A Teen-Age Bill of Rights”, which outlined 10 rights that children in this particular age group should have, from “the right to make mistakes” to “the right to question ideas”. 

[00:19:14] Given that teenagers no longer needed to work in factories they were free to explore the world on their own, to rebel against their parents, to have sexual relationships, to do things that teenagers previously had simply never been able to do, because they had either been working or, if they came from a wealthy family, they were rarely allowed out of their own little familiar bubble.

[00:19:43] When you combine this with the mass production of cars, in America at least teenagers suddenly had a way to gain independence from their parents, they literally had a vehicle that could take them anywhere.

[00:19:59] And this cult of the teenager has only got stronger. 

[00:20:04] Billion dollar companies exist solely with teenagers as customers, authors write for teenagers, films are made for teenagers, the teenager is a discrete part of childhood that simply didn’t exist 100 years ago.

[00:20:21] Now, coming to the question of modern childhood, and how childhood now is different from the childhood that you might have experienced, and why that is, I’ll just invite you to think about your own childhood for a minute, you can even press pause if you like.

[00:20:39] OK, if you paused and thought about your childhood for a bit, well done. For many of us we think of our childhoods as being the happiest, most carefree period of our lives.

[00:20:53] You might think of being able to get the school bus home without a care in the world, of a world without mobile phones or social media, perhaps a world where your mother kicked you out of the house at 8 o’ clock in the morning and told you to come back for tea, a world that was safer, more innocent, a happier place to grow up.

[00:21:18] When compared to the childhood that many adults believe children are living today, it seems simpler, easier, safer, and you might even say better.

[00:21:31] And in the UK a lot of the media outlets, especially right-wing media outlets, relish stories about the decline of childhood, about how the innocent youth that Brits used to enjoy is gone forever.

[00:21:48] Indeed, there’s a story by a famous historian called Professor Hugh Cunningham, who is the author of an excellent book called “Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500”, where he recounts being offered to write an article for the Daily Mail newspaper about the history of childhood.

[00:22:09] He was offered about £1 a word, and told that the article should be around 2,000 words. That would be around £3,000 in today’s money, so around €4,000 for an article that he could probably write in his sleep.

[00:22:26] He said “sure, I'll write it”, but was told that the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, a man called Paul Dacre, would only publish it if it showed that childhood had got worse since the 1950s. Cunningham’s view was that childhood hadn’t got worse, so the article was never published.

[00:22:49] The point is that Dacre knew exactly what his audience wanted, and that was to be told that the past was better than the present. If Cunningham wasn’t willing to say this, well, the article wouldn’t be published.

[00:23:04] And this brings us to the very real question of whether childhood is better or worse today than it was in the past. 

[00:23:12] Well, of course it really depends on how far back in the past you go.

[00:23:18] If we are talking about the Medieval or Victorian era, or even childhood in the first half of the 20th century when you might have finished school at 13 and started working, well I think I’d prefer to try my luck with the pressures of social media over working 12 hours a day in a coal mine

[00:23:39] But if we are talking about a childhood in the 1970s, let’s say, then it’s probably safer to say that the problems are simply different. Children today have opportunities that simply didn’t exist even 10 years ago, let alone 50 years ago. From opportunities to connect with other children from all over the world to the opportunities to access any information they want. 

[00:24:07] These opportunities come with their fair share of risks, but it seems too binary and shortsighted to say childhood now is simply better or worse. 

[00:24:20] At least we can be happy in the knowledge that most societies have recognised that childhood is a fundamental part of a human’s life, a time for adventure, a time to be curious, a time to learn, a time to play, a time to laugh, a time to experiment.

[00:24:39] Childhood has certainly come a long way since its creation, if you are to believe Phillipe Ariès, remember he was the French historian who said it didn’t exist until the 17th century. 

[00:24:53] And as our idea of what is a correct and proper childhood has continued to evolve, this would suggest that it will continue to evolve in the years to come.

[00:25:05] Childhood is a process of figuring out how the world works, what sort of person you are, and what sort of person you want to be.

[00:25:14] It’s perhaps appropriate that even as adults, and as a wider society, we are still figuring out what sort of childhood is right for our children.

[00:25:27] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Childhood.

[00:25:33] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that it’s made you think about your own childhood in a slightly different way.

[00:25:41] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:25:44] How do you think childhood is different from what it was when you were growing up? Is it better, worse, the same, or just different?

[00:25:54] And as we mainly dealt with childhood in Britain today, how is the evolution of childhood in your country different?

[00:26:03] I would love to know.

[00:26:04] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:26:13] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:26:19] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]


[00:00:00] Hello, hello hello, and welcome to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English. 

[00:00:12] The show where you can listen to fascinating stories, and learn weird and wonderful things about the world at the same time as improving your English.

[00:00:22] I'm Alastair Budge, and today we are going to be talking about Childhood, and how ideas about children and childhood have changed over the years. 

[00:00:33] We’ll start by looking at early ideas about the role of children and the concepts of childhood, then we’ll look at when and why this started to change, how the modern ideas of childhood came about, how this was in conflict with industrialisation, and the resolutions that were made.

[00:00:54] Then we'll look at the creation of the idea of the teenager, and why the idea of the adolescent didn’t really exist in the same way before. 

[00:01:04] And finally we’ll reflect on modern and future childhood and ask ourselves whether it really is true that the childhood of children today is not as innocent and carefree as yours or mine might have been.

[00:01:20] OK then, A Short History of Childhood.

[00:01:26] Now, with this show we often cover big, momentous topics or historical events: the French Revolution, Fake News, Pirates. 

[00:01:37] In today’s episode we’re covering something that is, on one level, a lot less monumentous, a lot less covered in the history books: children and childhood.

[00:01:50] Yet for each and every one of us, we have experienced childhood. We have all been children. Perhaps if you are one of our younger listeners you might still consider yourself a child now. 

[00:02:02] Even if you aren’t a younger listener, perhaps you would still consider yourself a child.

[00:02:08] And for those of us who are no longer children, perhaps we have our own children who are still in their childhood, perhaps they are now young adults, or perhaps they have grown up and had children of their own.

[00:02:24] The point is that childhood, or at least being a child, is something that unites us all, and this is what we’ll explore today. We’ll focus on the ideas of childhood in Britain, but will also touch on ideas of childhood further afield too. 

[00:02:44] There are some important questions to think about before we start on this journey.

[00:02:50] What exactly is a child? 

[00:02:52] What is childhood? 

[00:02:54] When do you stop being a child, and for what reasons? 

[00:02:59] And when you stop being a child, what do you become?

[00:03:04] We will explore all of these questions in due course, but I raise them now to get us thinking, before we dive into the history.

[00:03:14] Now, historians are in fact somewhat divided over the idea of childhood before the Enlightenment, around three hundred years ago.

[00:03:25] The French historian Phillipe Ariès, who wrote the seminal 1960 book “L’Enfant et la Vie Familiale sous l’Ancien Régime”, which was translated into English as “Centuries of Childhood”, simply believed that childhood didn’t exist until the 17th century.

[00:03:45] Famously he wrote that “in medieval society, the idea of childhood did not exist". 

[00:03:52] Firstly, infant mortality was so high, with anywhere from 30-50% of babies dying before their first birthday. Given that such a high proportion of children would die, it simply wasn’t practical to devote your emotional energy towards them nor to invest time and effort in their growth. 

[00:04:17] This certainly isn’t to say that Medieval parents were cruel, emotionless, and felt no love for their children, but rather that death was so commonplace that the death of a child was not unexpected, and therefore was less of a tragedy than the death of an infant would be today.

[00:04:39] In Medieval times, so the theory goes, if a child was lucky enough to survive its first few years it would help its parents with household work and farming. 

[00:04:52] There simply was little time to play or develop creatively, as we encourage children to do today, nor was there the belief that this was an important thing for children to do.

[00:05:05] Children didn’t tend to celebrate their birthday, they celebrated their Saint’s day, the day on which the saint they would be named after was celebrated. For this reason many people didn’t really know how old they were.

[00:05:22] What’s more, there was this puritanical Christian idea of original sin, the idea that man comes into the world in sin, and so newborn babies needed to be freed from this. 

[00:05:37] A baby needed to be baptised and then redeemed through Christian instruction. 

[00:05:44] If they were lucky enough to be born into a relatively wealthy family and to survive past their first birthday, they might receive a religious education, but the purpose of this wasn’t to allow them to expand their mind and think for themselves, it was to help them on their journey towards Christian salvation.

[00:06:07] Thus for most of the Medieval era at least, if you were poor, which would mean the majority of the population, your young life, your childhood would consist of helping your parents around the house and working, and if you were born into a wealthy family, it might involve some religious instruction, but there was no developed idea that children needed to be treated greatly differently.

[00:06:37] In both cases, so Ariès’ theory goes, there was no concept of childhood, or it being a unique, important stage of a person’s development.

[00:06:50] Now, things started to change at the start of the Enlightenment, when philosophers and thinkers all over Europe started to question assumed beliefs.

[00:07:03] When it comes to childhood, the first “revolutionary” idea came from the Englishman John Locke, who proposed that an infant, a newborn child was a tabula rasa, a blank sheet of paper, in need of education and instruction from his elders

[00:07:23] Thus it was the parents’ responsibility to educate and nurture their children, to make sure that they were able to make their way in the world.

[00:07:35] Fast forward a few decades and across the English Channel the Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposed another new and revolutionary idea relating to the development of children.

[00:07:51] He proposed that children had their own innate natural way of developing, guided by their emotions. The idea was that by nurturing children in the right way, and allowing them to explore on their own, they could start to reason, and being able to reason was the aim for man.

[00:08:16] They should be free, but there should also be a closer bond between mother and child. 

[00:08:24] At this time especially mothers from wealthy families wouldn’t breastfeed their children, instead sending them to wet nurses, female servants who would breastfeed them instead of the mother. 

[00:08:39] Rousseau placed a great importance firstly on the child having its own freedom to explore, but also on the bond between mother and child. This was crucial to a healthy, happy and successful childhood.

[00:08:57] Rousseau even defined three stages of childhood development: 

[00:09:03] Stage one was up to the age of twelve, when children should be guided by their feelings.

[00:09:10] Stage two was from twelve to around sixteen, and this is when they start to develop their own sense of reason.

[00:09:20] And stage three is from sixteen onwards, when the child becomes an adult, marries and has children of their own.

[00:09:30] Most of this comes from his 1762 book “Emile, or On Education”, and is still influential today - you can see similar ideas at work in places like Montessori schools, and his theories are an important part of many progressive educational theories.

[00:09:51] So, the Enlightenment gave us these two opposing views of childhood, but they at least recognised that children have unique needs and that childhood is of vital importance. 

[00:10:05] Strange enough as it might seem to us now, this is something that appears not to have been a real consideration beforehand, at least Ariès, the first historian to write about childhood, believes the concept simply didn’t exist in the Medieval era.

[00:10:24] The Romantics, who appeared towards the end of the 18th century, went a step further than the Enlightenment thinkers, imaging children as free, pure and innocent, only to be corrupted by the rules of society.

[00:10:42] Starting with people like the English poets William Wordsworth and William Blake at the turn of the 19th century, in the late 18th and early 19th century, children were seen as free, unencumbered by the norms of society.

[00:10:59] Children should be spontaneous, free to do what they want, to learn from what is around them rather than being forced to learn from textbooks. 

[00:11:11] Children also started to appear in works of art, often naked and smiling, showing their innocence. The English Romantic poets linked childhood to the power of imagination, and believed that children were closer to God than adults. Children were capable of things that adults were not, and the adult world corrupted the innocence of children.

[00:11:41] We can see how this is so very different to the original ideas of childhood, and even of John Locke’s vision, where he suggested that children were blank slates that needed instruction.

[00:11:55] Now, through the Romantic movement in Britain, childhood became almost holy, a time of innocence, the only time in a human’s life where he or she was completely free, and thus it was a time to be cherished, a time of vital importance.

[00:12:16] But, at the same time as the Romantic poets the Industrial Revolution was just getting started. 

[00:12:23] Great Britain was a deeply unequal society, and the creation of factories and lack of any kind of real social security system pushed more and more children into work.

[00:12:38] While in the Medieval times children might have worked alongside their parents in the fields or around the house, in the late 18th and early 19th century children might spend 12 hours a day 7 days a week, literally half their lives and almost all their waking hours working away in dangerous factories doing repetitive, menial work.

[00:13:04] Just while the Romantics were pushing this idea that children should be free and that childhood was a crucially important time for the development of children, the luxury of having this type of childhood was restricted only to the richest in society.

[00:13:23] As these awful conditions became better known, in part through novelists such as Charles Dickens who documented the plight of working children, there was an increasing movement to restrict child labour.

[00:13:39] In 1833, a law was passed to say that children working in the cotton or woolen industries needed to be more than 9 years old and that nobody under the age of 18 could work more than 10 hours a day or eight hours on a Sunday.

[00:13:59] Now, that gives you an idea of how bad it was before that there was a law that was put in place to stop children who were under 9 from working more than 68 hours a week.

[00:14:13] The Victorians did try various methods to get children into education, including making education free, but children who worked in factories would often be too tired to go to school, and would fall asleep in class.

[00:14:30] Children in much of Victorian Britain were breadwinners, they were responsible for bringing money into the house, and so simply not working wasn’t an option for them. 

[00:14:43] Since the 1833 law numerous more forward-thinking laws were created to increase the working age and reduce the hours, but even in 1901 a 12 year old could still legally work.

[00:15:00] Although for the average child in Victorian Britain a childhood wasn’t much of a childhood at all, the Victorians were very influential in creating the modern idea of what a childhood should look like.

[00:15:15] For starters, there was this new genre of children’s literature, of books and stories for children that served not primarily to educate, but to entertain.

[00:15:29] Prior to this the prevailing view had been that children should learn from books. Yes, there were books for children, but they taught them morals, how to behave, and how to live in society.

[00:15:44] Authors such as Lewis Carrol and J.M Barrie, who wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Peter Pan respectively, created magical worlds for children. 

[00:15:57] There might be some morals in there, but they were hugely entertaining and magical, and existed to make children hope and dream.

[00:16:08] Childhood was a time to be prized, because when it was gone, it was gone. Indeed in Peter Pan, the boy Peter Pan is a boy who never wants to grow up and Never Never Land is a place where children don’t need to grow up.

[00:16:28] Childhood became a place for children to explore, to create their own magical worlds, to have their own adventures. This might sound familiar to you now because it is the prevailing view of much of Western society, that childhood is a time for children to explore and to have fun, not a time to be forced to behave in a particularly “adult” way.

[00:16:56] Moving into the 20th century, we see compulsory schooling, we see children being required to have an education and the banning of child labour in Britain at least. 

[00:17:09] It is widely agreed that an education is an important part of a child’s development, and of childhood, but numerous different ideas about what this education should consist of emerge

[00:17:24] Indeed, what “education” should look like is certainly not something that any country seems to have figured out, and certainly how to effectively help children learn foreign languages still is a hot topic of debate.

[00:17:40] Moving on to childhood in the 20th century, there is one very important addition to childhood that we haven’t touched on yet.

[00:17:50] The invention of the teenager.

[00:17:53] The term “teenager” started to be used in 1944 to identify children in adolescence, technically children who are from 13-19 years of age. 

[00:18:07] Previously, children in this age group weren’t given any special treatment, they weren’t considered any differently really. The term adolescent had started to be used in the late 19th century, but it mainly referred to the period of transition between childhood and adulthood rather than giving children of this age a distinct identity.

[00:18:34] The teenager was a new invention entirely.

[00:18:38] The post-war period in America gave teenagers their own identity, their own freedoms. Films were made for teenagers, and companies realised that they could sell products to this discrete audience that was different to “children”.

[00:18:56] There was a New York Times article from 1945 called “A Teen-Age Bill of Rights”, which outlined 10 rights that children in this particular age group should have, from “the right to make mistakes” to “the right to question ideas”. 

[00:19:14] Given that teenagers no longer needed to work in factories they were free to explore the world on their own, to rebel against their parents, to have sexual relationships, to do things that teenagers previously had simply never been able to do, because they had either been working or, if they came from a wealthy family, they were rarely allowed out of their own little familiar bubble.

[00:19:43] When you combine this with the mass production of cars, in America at least teenagers suddenly had a way to gain independence from their parents, they literally had a vehicle that could take them anywhere.

[00:19:59] And this cult of the teenager has only got stronger. 

[00:20:04] Billion dollar companies exist solely with teenagers as customers, authors write for teenagers, films are made for teenagers, the teenager is a discrete part of childhood that simply didn’t exist 100 years ago.

[00:20:21] Now, coming to the question of modern childhood, and how childhood now is different from the childhood that you might have experienced, and why that is, I’ll just invite you to think about your own childhood for a minute, you can even press pause if you like.

[00:20:39] OK, if you paused and thought about your childhood for a bit, well done. For many of us we think of our childhoods as being the happiest, most carefree period of our lives.

[00:20:53] You might think of being able to get the school bus home without a care in the world, of a world without mobile phones or social media, perhaps a world where your mother kicked you out of the house at 8 o’ clock in the morning and told you to come back for tea, a world that was safer, more innocent, a happier place to grow up.

[00:21:18] When compared to the childhood that many adults believe children are living today, it seems simpler, easier, safer, and you might even say better.

[00:21:31] And in the UK a lot of the media outlets, especially right-wing media outlets, relish stories about the decline of childhood, about how the innocent youth that Brits used to enjoy is gone forever.

[00:21:48] Indeed, there’s a story by a famous historian called Professor Hugh Cunningham, who is the author of an excellent book called “Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500”, where he recounts being offered to write an article for the Daily Mail newspaper about the history of childhood.

[00:22:09] He was offered about £1 a word, and told that the article should be around 2,000 words. That would be around £3,000 in today’s money, so around €4,000 for an article that he could probably write in his sleep.

[00:22:26] He said “sure, I'll write it”, but was told that the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, a man called Paul Dacre, would only publish it if it showed that childhood had got worse since the 1950s. Cunningham’s view was that childhood hadn’t got worse, so the article was never published.

[00:22:49] The point is that Dacre knew exactly what his audience wanted, and that was to be told that the past was better than the present. If Cunningham wasn’t willing to say this, well, the article wouldn’t be published.

[00:23:04] And this brings us to the very real question of whether childhood is better or worse today than it was in the past. 

[00:23:12] Well, of course it really depends on how far back in the past you go.

[00:23:18] If we are talking about the Medieval or Victorian era, or even childhood in the first half of the 20th century when you might have finished school at 13 and started working, well I think I’d prefer to try my luck with the pressures of social media over working 12 hours a day in a coal mine

[00:23:39] But if we are talking about a childhood in the 1970s, let’s say, then it’s probably safer to say that the problems are simply different. Children today have opportunities that simply didn’t exist even 10 years ago, let alone 50 years ago. From opportunities to connect with other children from all over the world to the opportunities to access any information they want. 

[00:24:07] These opportunities come with their fair share of risks, but it seems too binary and shortsighted to say childhood now is simply better or worse. 

[00:24:20] At least we can be happy in the knowledge that most societies have recognised that childhood is a fundamental part of a human’s life, a time for adventure, a time to be curious, a time to learn, a time to play, a time to laugh, a time to experiment.

[00:24:39] Childhood has certainly come a long way since its creation, if you are to believe Phillipe Ariès, remember he was the French historian who said it didn’t exist until the 17th century. 

[00:24:53] And as our idea of what is a correct and proper childhood has continued to evolve, this would suggest that it will continue to evolve in the years to come.

[00:25:05] Childhood is a process of figuring out how the world works, what sort of person you are, and what sort of person you want to be.

[00:25:14] It’s perhaps appropriate that even as adults, and as a wider society, we are still figuring out what sort of childhood is right for our children.

[00:25:27] OK then, that is it for today's episode on Childhood.

[00:25:33] I hope it's been an interesting one, and that it’s made you think about your own childhood in a slightly different way.

[00:25:41] As always, I would love to know what you thought of this episode. 

[00:25:44] How do you think childhood is different from what it was when you were growing up? Is it better, worse, the same, or just different?

[00:25:54] And as we mainly dealt with childhood in Britain today, how is the evolution of childhood in your country different?

[00:26:03] I would love to know.

[00:26:04] You can head right into our community forum, which is at community.leonardoenglish.com and get chatting away to other curious minds.

[00:26:13] You've been listening to English Learning for Curious Minds, by Leonardo English.

[00:26:19] I'm Alastair Budge, you stay safe, and I'll catch you in the next episode.

[END OF EPISODE]