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1x07 | The Invention of Childhood

For much of history, children were just seen as small adults. Our modern concept of childhood is a social construct that came about following the Enlightenment and the Romantic period. Those new ideas about a child’s place in the world are part of what led to changes in education and child labor laws in Victorian Britain.

My name is Lenore and I’m the Victorienne.


If you’ve read pretty much anything by Charles Dickens, then you’ll know that Victorian children didn’t have it easy. If they managed to survive the first few years of life, they might end up working long hours in a dangerous job, never receiving a proper education, or any education at all.

Scores of Victorian children were orphans. The lucky ones were taken in by family members, but many were sent to orphanages, or to workhouses if the orphanages were full, which they often were. At the workhouses, children worked 16 hour days in dangerous conditions, and were given the lowest standard of food and clothing. Dickens wrote Oliver Twist in reaction to the New Poor Law of 1834, which established those workhouses. Children in workhouses were required to stay for a certain amount of time, sometimes until they reached the age of 21. Those who were caught trying to run away were severely punished.

Not all of those overworked children were orphans, though. Poor families had lots of children because they were a source of income. Those children weren’t usually forced into work by their parents, but did it willingly because they saw jobs as opportunities for themselves and they were proud of being able to bring money home to help out their families. Most of these children worked in factories or on farms, but some fortunate ones were employed as domestic servants or taken on as apprentices for several years. Still, that didn’t guarantee they’d be treated well by their employer. At the beginning of the 19th century, parliament put some regulations in place to address child labor issues, but those regulations were ineffective and didn’t apply to all industries.

Prior to the Enlightenment, the prevailing idea of how children developed was based on the idea of "original sin". It was thought that all people were born immoral and needed to be taught how to be good Christians to reach salvation. Raising children was about saving their souls, and sending them to work was sometimes seen as positive because "idle hands are the devil’s tools".

Then along came the philosopher John Locke and his idea that the mind is a tabula rasa, or a blank slate, and our life experiences shape who we are. Jean Jacques Rousseau furthered this idea in regards to parenting in his book "Emile, or On Education", published in 1762. Rousseau argued that childhood is a period of innocence and sanctuary before a person is corrupted by the world. During the Romantic era, the poet William Wordsworth furthered this idea by describing children as more spiritually pure than adults. 

Over time, we see this changing attitude toward childhood in paintings, with more depictions of pastoral life and innocent children. We can also see this cultural shift in literature. More stories were being told in which the inherent goodness of a child leads to adults learning a moral lesson.

Throughout the 19th-century, child-rearing practices also changed. Middle and upper class families began having fewer children, and those children survived longer, so more attention was given to each individual child. Outside of the home, in greater society, children became more important and were paraded around in baby carriages. Theatres began employing more and more children as actors, telling the increasingly popular stories about children.

The new consumer culture involved children as well. As it became less expensive to produce consumer goods, businesses began looking for new groups of consumers, and children emerged as a new market. Children’s books, games, dolls, and toys were mass produced, and Christmas became an occasion to give children these items as rewards for good behavior.

Looking at the 19th century, a shift can be seen in the number of children’s books produced, as well as in the types of stories being written. When it was believed that children were born sinful, books written for them were clear moral tales meant to teach them how to behave in the world. One popular work was James Janeway’s 1671 book "A Token for Children", which portrayed children on their deathbeds describing the common sins of children and how repentance was necessary and would bring them peace. Most children’s books weren’t quite so morbid, but had a similar insistence on what was considered moral and proper behavior.

In the 19th century, children’s literature gradually became more focused on entertaining rather than teaching. We can see this in "The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear" from 1846, with its silly poems and limericks. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland from 1865 ushered in the "First Golden Age" of children’s literature, which continued into the next century. Adventure novels and tales of exploration were popular with the children of the British Empire and they got to read translations of fairytales like those by the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen.

This new genre of children’s literature showed the Victorian idea of a natural division between children and adults and the belief that children needed a separate space where they could simply be children. Victorian writers expressed interest in returning to their own childhoods and they created characters who wished to stay children forever. The most famous of those characters, Peter Pan, was introduced in a play in 1904, just three years after the official end of the Victorian era. He notoriously refused to grow up, and it’s been suggested that staying a child forever is used in that story and others as a metaphor for a child’s death. Neverland is meant to be part of the afterlife, and we see the afterlife blended with nature in fairy tales and other Victorian children’s books like "The Water Babies" by Charles Kingsley and "At the Back of the North-Wind" by George MacDonald. The death of a child is romanticized in this literature because the child will never have to enter the harsh adult world and can remain innocent forever.

This new feeling that childhood was sacrosanct and should be protected also meant people felt it should be prolonged. In the later part of the century, this led to extending the age at which children left school, but it also led to more concern for working class children. Reformers felt that children who were forced to work were being deprived of childhoods. The work of Charles Dickens and others brought more public attention to the issue of child labor along with the generations of working class children who grew up to become political activists or union members. Political and legal changes were spurred on by groups of men who’d recently been given the right to vote by Reform Acts.

Large numbers of people believed education was key to solving various social ills, and there were efforts to have more children in school. At the beginning of the century, rich children were usually taught at home and when they reached a certain age, the boys would be sent off to boarding school. In 1840, about 20% of children in London were in school and by 1860, that number had reached 50%. Some of them were in day schools, some were in Sunday schools, and some were in ragged schools which were set up for the poorest children. While working class children were gaining more access to education, not all of them were able to take advantage of it. They still needed to work to help their families and as a result were too tired to go to classes, or they fell asleep at their desks. To fix this problem, the Elementary Education Act of 1870 was passed, which made school available to all children ages 5-12, and a few years later, school attendance was made compulsory for children up to age 10.  While this was seen by many as a great step forward, a lot of working class families objected to it because their children’s incomes were so essential to the family’s survival.

Today, we see child labor as a human rights violation, and having a first-world elementary schooler employed in a factory would be unthinkable. Still, parents are fighting to get their children into the preschools that will best train them for the ivy leagues, while simultaneously trying to protect their children from the horrors of the adult world. Instead of kids being allowed to use their imaginations to play amongst themselves, playtime is structured around "enriching" activities that will either educate them or somehow increase their IQ. We seem to have reached a middle ground between the Victorian ideals of childhood and the demands of the modern world.

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