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?

Finding the History of Childhood

The history of childhood is both a fairly undiscovered and misunderstood topic among scholarly work today. Recent research has sought to place it in it’s proper context and develop new ideas in regards to the way society typically thinks about it.

Stearns, Maynes, Mintz, and the Labels of Society

Mary Jo Maynes, Peter N. Stearns, and Steven Mintz each have written articles that portray the history of childhood in a new and important light. Maynes highlights the issue of agency and the role of childhood narratives, Stearns focuses on the specific study and origin of childhood happiness, while Mintz shows the use of childhood as a category of historical analysis. However, all three of these authors, while different, seem to show the important role of adults when researching childhood. This begs the question: do these articles tell us more about childhood or adulthood? In addition, each of these articles seems to focus on the modern model of childhood based in the United States. If a wider lens were given to each of these essays, would their assertions remain true or would they be different? What do these articles emphasize as important values in American culture? Perhaps the most interesting passage comes from Mintz’s article in which he does tie childhood (and age) into the surrounding culture, saying, “Age functions in differing ways in distinct social and cultural contexts and inevitably intersects with other categories of social organization and social difference.” In this way, Mintz suggests that society helps to create age categories, but also that age categories help to create society.

Wilson, Pascoe, and the Approach to Childhood History

A second set of articles are by Adrian Wilson and Carla Pascoe titled “The Infancy of the History of Childhood: An Appraisal of Philippe Aries” and “The History of Children in Australia: An Interdisciplinary Historiography” respectively. While Wilson focuses on the critique of a specific author and Pascoe goes into detail about the entire historiography of Australian childhood, there are three overarching ideas that are essential. Both Wilson and Pascoe assert the importance of looking at childhood through a historical lens. In addition, they emphasize the problem of generalization when piecing together a historical narrative. Thirdly, they each (and Pascoe more explicitly) imply the need for new methods of research. With these three themes, it is clear that how historians approach the history of childhood is absolutely paramount. In one of the most interesting passages, Pascoe cautions historians from romanticizing childhood, stating, “Perhaps the greatest challenge for historians of childhood is to continually strive for reflexivity.” This, along with the previous three points, raise important questions. Is it best to view the history of childhood through a distant and removed perspective, or is it best to view it in a more empathetic closer perspective? Also, are there broad generalities about childhood in history that can be made without ignoring other important factors? These questions are just a few that face childhood historians today, and remain to be answered as this new field continues to grow and expand.

Davin, Rhodes, and Researching Childhood Experiences

Maxine Rhodes and Anna Davin are two historians that have written about the wide variety of approaches to childhood study. In her article, “Approaching the History of Childhood: Frameworks for Local Research”, Maxine Rhodes expresses the changing direction that recent scholarly work has taken. She states, “the history of childhood is not now confined to issues surrounding the transformation of the child from worker to scholar or the nature of child-parent relations but seeks to examine the multiplicity of experiences for children in the past.” This insightful point builds on several key elements expressed in both Rhodes and Davin’s articles. The first idea is the importance and need for more local research on the subject. Also, as Davin points out, historians must be creative when looking for meaningful sources in regards to childhood experiences. Finally, they each also emphasize the need for historians to be more aware of the complexity of childhood experiences. As a result, we must ask ourselves a few key questions. What sources can be used to tell more accurately the lived experiences of children throughout history? Also, can local research reveal any larger themes among children from a particular era and location?