Over the last two millennia of Western civilization, the concept of ‘childhood’ has significantly evolved from one of a family-oriented perspective to
Over the last two millennia of Western civilization, the concept of ‘childhood’ has significantly evolved from one of a family-oriented perspective to that of the child-centered universe. Those of us who live in the Western world often take for granted what it means to have a healthy and happy childhood. After all, it was not so long ago that children were seen as young adults training for labor, apprenticeships, and farming. Though formal education for all children has been a swinging pendulum debating its significance, it may seem that there is a strong correlation between when a civilization develops a social middle class and education becoming available to all children.
In the modern era, childhood is considered an essential foundation for shaping the lives of children. Today, Western ‘helicopter parents’ spend an immense amount of money to make sure their children are well educated, well looked after, and well stocked with games, toys, and extracurricular activities. This is not only done to make sure their children are happy, but to assure that every advantage is available for them to succeed in later life. However, how exactly did this transition occur?
Early History of Childhood (900 BC – 400AD)
Though many other cultures throughout time believed in the importance of childhood, some of the earliest written records regarding child-rearing in the West began in ancient Greece during the Archaic period (eighth century BC). In that form of schooling, or as they called it Paideia, only the wealthy males of Greek society could partake. As researcher Raquel Lopez discusses in ‘Did sons and daughters get the same education in Ancient Greece?’ , wealthy boys by the age of 18 (the social age of ephebes) were given the option of furthering their education to study with philosophers either at Plato’s Academy or Aristotle’s Lyceum. For most others who were unable to afford formal education, they were faced with learning a trade through informal family training or being able to attain an apprenticeship with a skilled craftsman.
In the early history of childhood and education, Plato’s Academy is one of the first known examples of further education. Pictured: a mosaic depicting Plato’s Academy, which can be found in Pompeii. ( Public domain )
Women were only able to attain a non-formalized education within the household. They were expected to be the bearers of children and workers of the loom. The city-state Sparta was the only exception, which granted women a formal education that was controlled by the Spartan state. This allowed for Spartan women to be freer in their thinking and able to own land. But even with a Spartan education, both boys and girls were extremely engendered and focused on better serving the state.
In the Hellenistic period, women were eventually granted a formal education, able to accumulate wealth, and allowed to hold minor public positions. However, it was still only granted to the upper elite. Even with these changes, women were still unequal in many ways. However, not all the city-states, during Hellenistic Greece, were in complete favor of women having a formal education.
In Sparta, the controversy of whether women should be granted formal education was much debated. Aristotle himself was adamant in limiting the rights of women, for he blamed them for the downfall of Spartan civilization. Due to his lively discussions, Spartan women were forbidden to be given a formal education until the time of the Spartan King Cleomenes III when education for women was granted again.
A painting depicting the school of Aristotle. (Gustav Spangenberg / Public domain )
The engendered pendulum would continue to swing throughout the final years of the Greeks and into the emergence of the Roman Empire . Still, the role of formal education would remain with the upper elites. This limit to formal education within Greco-Roman society was one of many reasons why upward social mobility was almost impossible.
Childhood Within the Church from 500 AD – 1300s
As the age of the Greco-Roman antiquity came to an end, the mystery of childhood grew. Between 500AD to roughly 1100AD, there is limited information regarding how children were raised or how their education progressed. However, there are some documents that exist regarding education during the 800’s in monasteries. Wealthy families would send their children at the age of seven to the monasteries for a career in the church, as the scholar Pierre Riche wrote in The Daily life in the world of Charlemagne,
“…In his seventh year, a child was ready for his education. That does not mean that children were not received into monasteries at even younger ages. Many parents offered their sons or daughters when they were barely weaned, although, theoretically, a child could confirm or deny his parents’ decision on reaching the age of reason.” (Riche, 1978).
Nicholas Orme’s work, “Childhood in Medieval England,” discussed the education system that existed in the seventh century AD of England in the form of monastery clergymen raising both boys and girls to become monks and nuns. Orme further explores what their education entailed, that it was still the wealthy who would send their second or third-born children for training in the faith. In these schools, boys and girls were educated in the literacy and comprehension of Latin grammar.
Representation of children studying philosophy with a monk in monastery during medieval times. ( Public domain )
By the early tenth century AD, a more formal education provided by towns began to take hold in England. However, it was in learning to read and write in English rather than Latin, and only open to boys. Once again, similar to the Greco-Roman times, women were given informal education at home.
It would not be until the 1200s that formal education would return for both boys and girls. Additionally, it would consist of learning the Latin alphabet for literacy in their own language. By the twelfth century, laws appeared in both society and the catholic church stating that certain labors and responsibilities were not fit for children to perform until the age of 12 or 14. Within the medieval times, it appeared that further efforts were made in creating a separation between childhood and adulthood. According to Orme, he states
“It came to regard children under the age of puberty as too immature to commit sins or to understand adult concepts and duties. On these grounds, they were forbidden to marry, excused from confessing to a priest, and excluded from sharing in the sacrament of the eucharist. Secular justice developed a similar concept of an age of legal responsibility beginning at about puberty, although there are occasional references to children receiving adult punishments.” (Orme, 2005)
Though education and child-rearing did continue through the way of the home and the church, a question remains why an appreciation for childhood reappeared by the end of the 1200s. What could have been the reasons for this?
Absence of Childhood Between 800 AD – 1200 AD
Between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the 1200s, in the Western world it was time for utilitarian thinking and survival. Due to the significant mortality rate in both the young and the old, there was strong objection to growing attached to anyone. It was crucial to raise young adults starting from the age of seven to fill society by apprenticeships to servants, crafts, labor, military, and agriculture as soon as possible, leaving little to no time to appreciate the surviving family who bore no love for them.
The appreciation of children, as well as the further value of their education, would become more substantial when the foothold of a growing middle class, or as Le Goff termed, the Burgess class (the free ones) emerged in the 1300s. It was only then when trade and commerce became more prosperous for town economies that an appreciation for children began. With other trade, and the further specification of skills came to a growing need to better educate their people to aid in the facilitation of international trade with other cities, countries, and regions. Additionally, further wealth came from trading with the Middle East due to the complicated relationship brought by the earlier crusades.
Depiction of the disastrous Children’s Crusades, where tens of thousands of self-proclaimed, unarmed crusading children marched on the Holy Land to regain Jerusalem from the Muslims in 1212. (Gustave Doré / Public domain )
In further exploration of the growing Burgess class, Henri Pirene, author of ‘Medieval cities, the origin, and revival of trade,’ emphasizes the importance that twelfth-century merchants brought to the cities of Europe. Their profits and commerce brought the available funding to aid in the construction of buildings, hospitals, and even churches. With these riches and newfound respect came the developments for further education in both the churches and for the common people simply because a growing number of families were now able to afford formal schooling.
History of Childhood from 1300 AD – 1600 AD
Though it can be argued that there were no real significant differences between the European Renaissance (between the fourteenth and seventeenth century), the significant differences were in the scientific, artistic, and cultural improvements that catered to a newer belief that humans were the center of their own universe. There was more prosperity brought by the further development of banking, not to mention patronage for the arts. There was also a newfound love for the value of children in everyday life.
Within the art of the Renaissance, children began to take more of a presence than adults. Unlike times of the past, when children were required to grow up fast in order to take hold of the stations they trained for, it was now expected that children spend more time learning and exploring the world they were part of. Though this may sound utopic, it brought an unexpected dread that most young individuals faced. It was in the form of servitude for extended apprenticeships.
The painting called ‘Children’s Games’ from the 16 th century, depicting children playing together during medieval times. (Pieter Bruegel the Elder / Public domain )
In the medieval ages of Europe, apprentices were initially supposed to be six years at the most and then either a return to home or a beginning of the trade they trained for. However, during the late fourteenth century and on, it was commonplace for families, both rich and poor, to send their children to other homes for the duration of ten to fourteen years in the hopes of either learning a trade, gaining legal apprenticeship experience, or becoming servants. A select few, who were wealthy enough, were generally sent to either university or the church. However, it was significantly less than what was the case during the Middle Ages. William Kremer, a reporter for the BBC, discussed the possible reasons,
“For the poor, there was an obvious financial incentive to rid the household of a mouth to feed. But parents did believe they were helping their children by sending them away, and the better off would save up to buy an apprenticeship. These typically lasted seven years, but they could go on for a decade. The longer the term, the cheaper it was.” (Kremer 2014).
Depiction of a meeting of doctors at the University of Paris in the Middle Ages. (Étienne Colaud / Public domain )
Apprentices and child servants were contractually bound to whomever they were sent to. In their contracts, it was clearly stated that they were not to gamble, steal, visit prostitutes, marry, or leave the household without permission from their guardians. If the adolescents, in any way, abused this privilege, they would be punished by additional time added to their apprenticeship.
Though these rules were to be obeyed, Kremer mentions that it did not distract the youth from getting into trouble. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in London, it was prevalent for riots to break out between frustrated young apprentices and mobs whom they owed money to. Ironically, the rowdiest were the young and wealthy apprentices to lawyers and judicators due to their funding coming from home along with their training.
17th through the 19 th century – Enlightenment, Industry, and labor
With the Age of Enlightenment also came the Age of Industry, and a shift in the perspective of childhood once again. Europe contained a necessity for the furthering of fundamental spiritual and medical innocence to children under the age of seven. It attained a characteristic to which all adults still contained the wonder they once held as children. However, this primarily pertained to the wealthy who were able to indulge in these concepts. For the rest of Western society, the onslaught of the Industrial Revolution occurred, which continued to exploit children as apprentices, laborers, and servants regardless of the dreams and expectations for innocence untouched.
Children working machines in a mill during the Industrial Revolution. (Lewis Hine / Public domain )
With the advent of the coal-powered steam engine came the development of locomotion as well as the effect it had in the creation of intensive factories. Though this was a developmental breakthrough that both enabled technological advancement and the production of complex trade goods, it also required an intense labor force to keep the factories producing. Those who worked in them endured the worst of conditions for at least 16 hours a day. Though it was grueling, the opportunity for consistent pay and stable work drew thousands from the countryside as well as other jobs that were generally done by a skilled artisan.
Child labor was also expected since they could work for a meager wage and were nimble enough to weave threads within the milling machines. Unfortunately, many child laborers would lose their arms in the process of tying knots as these milling machines worked. As time went on, nearing the end of the nineteenth century, awareness was brought to the working conditions for child laborers in factories, and a more massive push was made by lawmakers to help improve the conditions for factory workers.
The Victorian Childhood (1837-1901)
As with the Industrial Revolution of Europe, the Victorian era (1837-1901), brought significant changes to the lifestyle, labor, and perception of childhood. Much research was done from researcher Judith Flanders in ‘Inside the Victorian home,’ to which she detailed the lives of a Victorian household. With the advancement in technology, medicine, and modern comforts, the life expectancy of children grew. As Flanders mentioned,
“A child born in the earliest part of the century would probably have watched at least one of its siblings die; a child born in the 1880s would have had fewer siblings, and would also have had less chance of seeing any of them die.” (Flanders, 2003).
Depiction of a Victorian family at home. ( Public domain )
Additionally, with the novel thinking from the Age of Enlightenment regarding the innocence and importance of childhood, the wellbeing of children became a primary concern. However, even though the people of Victorian England were more particular about the wellbeing of their children, the cultural expectations of how children should be raised were either by servants or far away at an apprenticeship or boarding school.
Due to the prosperity brought by international businesses and the Industrial Revolution, there was a growing middle class who accrued disposable income. This meant that more families had the ability to send their children for higher education as well as apprenticeships with lawyers and doctors. This privilege was once only granted to the super-wealthy in earlier eras.
Depiction of King’s College London (one of the founding institutions of University of London) during the Victorian era, engraved during the 19 th century. (J.C Carter / CC BY 4.0 )
During the Victorian era, Flannagan notes that the growing shift from the parent-centered universe and towards the child-centered universe was definitely seen. By 1901, children became more of an essential part in the family and the economic unit, either through marriages or labor.
As further advancements in technology came, as well as the changing shift in labor policies, children began to see less time at work and more time in education, healthy home dwellings, and a further appreciation for emotional growth. However, even with these advancements, and the changing attitudes toward a child-centered universe, parents still were firm believers in corporal punishment. Order and punctuality were still essential in the upbringing of a Victorian child. After all, this era keyed the term “Children are to be seen but not heard.” Disciplinary beatings of Victorian children were routine and expected to be delivered by either parents or teachers.
Modern Childhood (1902- 2015)
By the time the twentieth century arrived, changes in how children were raised and educated began to take hold. In the Western world, children were no longer allowed to work in factories, corporal punishment became taboo, and as a growing middle class continued, higher education became much more available to people who would typically not get a chance to attend.
In the modern era, access to higher education and education in general has become a lot more widespread for people from different backgrounds. Pictured: modern day students studying in a lecture hall at university. ( ectorfusionart / Adobe stock)
Though trades and apprenticeships continued as a long-held tradition, there were now regulations on how they would be run. No longer would children be sent to a stranger’s house at the age of seven or fourteen. Most apprenticeships would happen either after school or part-time. Public education became integral in Western society to which all children were required to learn the basics of their regional history, mathematics, literacy, and science. This was done in the hopes of implementing skilled abilities for children that would enter the massive ultra-industrialized world that now existed to continue society.
Schools now had children and teens segregated into age groups and taught in ‘years’ for better socialization. In this era, the state would have more power in raising the child and cause friction with the cultural beliefs of the households. A growing number of families currently opt to home-school their children away from the standards of the state-run public schools.
It is indeed ironic that currently in the twenty-first century, the issues that parents face for their children are being given a formal education they believe is flawed and ruining the future of their children when in the last twenty-five hundred years of Western civilization, families of the lower classes struggled immense hardships for the chance that their children would receive any form of formal education.
Top image: The history of childhood and education in Western civilization has evolved significantly over the last 2000 years, from no education to child labor to formal schools, how exactly did it all change? Pictured: Top left: The School of Athens, a famous fresco by the Italian Renaissance artist Raphael, with Plato and Aristotle as the central figures in the scene (Jorge Valenzuela A / CC BY-SA 3.0 ). Bottom left: Group of child labor boys during the Industrial Revolution (Lewis Hine / Public domain ). Top right: Representation of children studying philosophy with a monk in monastery during medieval times ( Public domain ). Bottom right: Group of children at elementary school in the modern day ( Rawpixel.com / Adobe stock).
By B.B. Wagner
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