Violence in the History of Childhood

When considering the “modern model” of childhood according to Peter N. Stearns, there are many different images that come to mind. However, violence is typically not one of them. Nevertheless, exposure to violence has been a major part of the history of childhood, especially recently. Since the 1970’s, over 150 million children have been killed in various types of war. With these types of numbers, it is clear that violence has played a major part in defining the modern model, and vice versa.

With so much focus on the Western progress and evolution of childhood, many people seem to ignore the lives of African children sold into slavery. Having been separated from their families and exposed to brutal treatment and racism, there is no doubt that slave children suffered both physically and psychologically. It appears though, that much research remains to be done in this area. While Stearns mentions childhood slaves and the new forms of child labor that developed from it, he does not go into any detail regarding the effects it had on slaves in the future. In what ways did slavery effect the minds of children? Did slaves have different standards of childhood for themselves? Another interesting aspect would be how whites viewed slave children. How did their view of childhood differ in regards to slaves? It is clear that Europeans had believed violent punishment of children to be wrong, as seen in their opposition to the Aztecs. However, did this same reasoning apply to African American slaves in the U.S. colonies?

Later in the book, Stearns goes into great detail describing the types of violence and discipline that children have recently experienced. As mentioned earlier, surprisingly high numbers of children have been negatively effected by wars and displacements. What is interesting though, is how the modern model of childhood is used within this realm. The belief that children are innocent and should not be exposed to this type of violence, has been the rhetoric used for new global standards and justifying international interference. However, it has also been the rhetoric used by those under attack, such as Japan in WWII. As Stearns notes, the natural impulse of those under attack is to “highlight pictures of dead or injured children.” Therefore, it is fair to conclude that the topic of children is almost unavoidable in discussions about violence. As Stearns admits, this exposure to violence has divided childhoods into two very different kinds of experiences with “intermediate conditions between the two extremes.” If this is indeed true, then can a true global history of childhood really exist? And if so, what more can be done to focus on this important yet wide spectrum without making sweeping generalizations?

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