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The aim of this piece of research is to discuss whether societies have concerned themselves with issues of child abuse and child maltreatment in the past or if it is a recent phenomenon. The assignment also intends to determine if the notion of childhood existed in previous years or if it is a relatively new concept. The essay begins by mentioning the history of childhood and child abuse. Following on, there will be mention of various views on childhood. Then the assignment will move on to highlight the view of Philippe Aries (a very influential and popular writer on concept of childhood). Soon after his work will be critiqued and evaluated. Following on the essay will focus on A New Sociology of Childhood (NSC). This will then lead us to summarise the whole assignment.

Child abuse, Childhood & history

According to cawson (2001) the existence of child mistreatment in history is indisputable, but Scraton (1997) feels that the extent of such mistreatment and the interpretation of it within the societies where it took place are issues of greater contention.

As we shall see, some historians consider that the vast majority of children in the past were carelessly treated and that this was seen as relatively normal because there was little sense of childhood as a protected status (Lindenmeyer 1997). Other historians take the view that extreme ill-treatment of children was not as common in recorded history as argued by the above and that while general standards of care for children were lower than what we expect today, largely because of harsh economic conditions, gross maltreatment was never accepted as normal (Merrick 1996). From this point of view Scraton (1997) argues that within the prevailing standards of each age there have been cruel and loving parents and those children who had cruel parents were likely to be abused, but society did not necessarily condone or accept such abuse.

Various Views on Childhood

The three main theories on the history of childhood have been recapitulated by Orme (2001) as:

(a) Aries, Hoyles, Hunt, Shorter, Stone, Tucker, hold the opinion that before the 17th century there was no concept of childhood and children were regarded as being at the very bottom of the social scale and therefore unworthy of consideration.

(b) Another view is that shared by De Mause, Pinchbeck & Hewitt, Plumb, Stone, and Thompson who all consider that there was a formal parent-child relationship, but parents were distant unapproachable beings and children were something inferior, whose demands and needs were not sufficiently valuable to be met.

(c) Up to the 18th century, and again in the early 19th century, children were often brutally exploited and 'subjected to indignities now hard to believe,' This belief is shared by Aries, Sears, Hoyles, Hunt, Lyman, De Mause, Pinchbeck & Hewitt, Lumb, Shorter, Stone, Tucker.

Cunningham (1991) then mentions that the above authors then go on to argue that a concept of childhood appeared from the 17th century on, due to a ‘renewal of interest in education’, developments within the family, the rise of capitalism, the emergence of some indefinable spirit of benevolence and the increasing maturity of parents. They then go on to discuss that the concept of childhood became more elaborated during the 18th and 19th centuries until the child was accorded a central role in family life and his rights were protected by the state (Mayell 1994).

However, James, Jenks & Prout (1998) points out that these theories are not universally accepted. Hanawalt (1993) and Kroll (1977) have demonstrated that there was a concept of childhood in the middle Ages. Similarly Beales (1975), Cohen and Stannard (1974) have also verified the concept of childhood with reference to the early Puritan colonies. On the other hand Morgan (1944) and Macfarlane (1970) totally disagree with the view that children were ill-treated on a large scale.

Besides the views mentioned above there are many other opinions. However given the amount of words in which this topic has to be covered it is not possible for the writer to scrutinise the opinion of all those people mentioned above. However the work of Philippe Aries has been very influential and the popular view put forward by social work writers of Aries’s ideas is that the notion of childhood is a relatively recent one. Hence the following paragraphs intend to look specifically at his work in more detail.  

Evidence Provided For Aries Thesis

During what Aries terms the ‘acien regime’ he claims that there was a different pattern of age stratification to the present day norm and unlike today, children joined the adult world after a relatively short period of infancy and were conceptualised and treated as small adults (Aries 1962). He also mentions that there was an indifference towards children, and that if children were ill, injured or died these events were faced with far less sentimentality than is the case today. This point is highlighted by James & Prout (1997). Whilst reading the work of Aries summarised by Lee (2001), it would be right to say that in his view there was a degree of coldness in parental-sibling relations. Aries draws on several sources of evidence to justify his case, all of which seemed to indicate that in the past there was a different way of relating to and perceiving children. Aries provides the following evidence to indicate that young children dressed the same as adult:

“As soon as the child abandoned his swaddling-band….he was dressed just like other men and women of his class” (1962: 48).

He then goes on to suggest that children not only witnessed, but undeniably participated in various sexual activities. He asserts:

“The lack of reserve with regard to children surprises us; we raise our eyebrows at the outspoken talk but even more at the bold gesture, the physical contacts, about which it is easy to imagine what a modern psychoanalyst would say………Nowadays the physical contacts (typical of the early seventeenth century)..Would strike us as bordering on sexual perversion and nobody would dare to indulge in them publicly” (1962: 101).

Furthermore Aries argues that if we look at pictures of the period there is no evidence to illustrate that children were perceived as children:

“Artists were unable to depict a child except as a man on a smaller scale” (1962: 10).

With regards to discipline and control Aries argues that severe forms of discipline, appeared at the same time as the concept of childhood that is during the 17th century. Aries mentions that:

“Inflicted on him (child) the birch, the prison cell- in a word, the punishments usually reserved for convicts from the lowest strata of society” ( 1960: 413).    

However the source Aries makes most use of is a diary of Heroard, the court physician during the reign of king Henry IV of France, which provides details of the life and experiences of the ‘Dauphin’, the future King Louis XIII. Heroard’s diary portrays a childhood quite different from that ordinarily associated with the present-day norm (Hopkins 1994). Aries (1962) also points out that all the royal children, legitimate or illegitimate, were treated in the same way as all aristocratic children and there was as yet no real difference between the king’s palace and the gentry’s castle, and that young Louis XIII was brought up like his companions’.

Taking into consideration all the evidence put forward by Aries, Jenks (1996) comes to the decision that without doubt Aries’s argument is powerful. The evidence gathered by Aries clearly shows a world where children were treated differently to the norms and expectations of the modem world. The difference so extreme that it is difficult for us to comprehend the ways in which children lived and were apparently treated in the past. But before we accept the Aries case we need to look at a number of criticisms that are made of his argument before coming to a balanced assessment.

A Critique of Aries Thesis

Aries’s work has been subjected to considerable critical evaluation (Corby 2001). As we noted, Aries places considerable emphasis on the inability of artists to paint children - depicting them as miniature adults. Yet powerful critiques have questioned the validity of this claim. Fuller (1979) argues that these paintings clearly had a social and political role. He mentions:

Even when they had some other function, they were designed to express what the parents of the child hoped he or she would become. The way the child was made to appear in the present was always an appeal to a future, which was projected onto the child, from the outside…. When we look at such pictures we should remember that what we are seeing has little, if anything, to do with the point of view of the child, or with the child's experience of the world.

Fuller (1979) also mentions artists such as Velazquez, Crivelli and various others who did paint children as children. Macfarlane (1979) also states that even today we are often confronted by images and photographs that portray children ‘as adults’ - what are often thought of as ‘cute’ images of children performing adult tasks, or dressed as adults, or rather more disturbingly, posing ‘provocatively’ to help sell clothes, fashion accessories or cosmetics.

Jackson (1982) declares that attitudes to sex and sexuality were however viewed differently in the past. This was due to the crowded living conditions which made children more aware of adult sexual activity. Kroll (1977) asserts that regardless of such atmosphere evidence doesn’t prove that sexual abuse of children was widespread in the past there.

Another point worthy of mention is the fact that contrary to what Aries mentioned evidence does not agree that children were harshly, even cruelly, disciplined, but reveals that brutality was the exception rather than the rule (Pollock 1983). Stevenson (1998) goes on to say that physical punishment was infrequently used by parents as a last resort. Nevertheless, a range of sources such as newspaper reports, suggest that cruelty to children was not as widespread as has been claimed.

With reference to the diary of Heroard, Postman (1983) argues that it is not written about a typical child but a privileged one; therefore his life certainly had similarities with other children in his social class but was a world away from the lives of the vast majority. Furthermore Jenks (1982) has made a note of the fact that in all the sources cited by Aries, the poor and the dispossessed, along with their children simply do not appear. As a result Corsaro (1997) has suggested that the sources used by Aries are class biased. Wilson (1980: 139) remarks, “One may ask how the illiterate would record their ideas and feelings; how the poor would commission works of art”.

Another critic was Lloyd DeMause (1974). Goldson (1997) feels that DeMause has provided the theoretical case for what was termed the ‘psychogenic’ approach to childhood. DeMause holds the view that childhood had gradually evolved over thousands of years as a consequence of a closing of ‘psychic’ distance between parents and children. Furthermore Hendrick (1994) has gone on to say that DeMause also believes that while a minority of children are abused in the world today, if we were to go back we would reach a point where most children were abused. Hendrick (1994) then takes us to conclude that gradually, this psychic gap closed and which brought about a more progressive set of parent-child relations. Pollock however is not very convinced with the work DeMause has provided and she has criticised him for having a simplistic theory of psychological development.

The work of Aries has also received heavy criticism from Pollock (1983), most of these criticisms she has stated in her book. She is very critical of the indirect or secondary evidence used by Aries. Pollock also suggests that when primary evidence such as autobiographies and children's diaries is utilised a much more familiar picture of childhood comes into existence. From her own research she concludes:

Nearly all children were wanted such development stages as weaning and teething aroused interest and concern and parents revealed anxiety and distress at the illness or death of their children (1983: 268).

The work of Pollock has also been subject to much criticism. The use of diary and autobiographies in her work indicates that she has relied on children of the upper classes as her main source and hence she is open to the accusation of class bias.

Summary of Aries Work  

Without doubt Aries’s work has been very important in the field of childhood (Corsaro 1997). Piaget (1995) opinion is that Aries’s work has focused the sociological imagination on childhood and helped us understand that childhood is not a motionless life-stage but has altered across time and space. However Lee’s (2001) view is that the work produced by Aries has been shown to be inaccurate partly because he claims that childhood was ‘discovered’, whereas in actuality childhood is a phase which changes in different settings and at different times. This has been proven by the work of Pollock and Hanawalt, who clearly explain that in pre-modern societies people understood and recognised that there was a difference between children and adults and that children have there own distinct biological and psychological needs - these were expressed and experienced through ‘childhood’, albeit a radically different childhood from the dominant one within Western societies today.

After reading much of the work Aries has put forward on childhood I would agree with Pollock (1983) who feels that what Aries has actually done is identified the development of a more recognisably ‘bourgeois’ childhood, but this was a process that affected a minority of children of the period, whereas childhood for the majority of children in this era is radically different.

A New Sociology Of Childhood (NSC)

According to Jackson (1982) historical research has allowed sociologists of childhood to establish the fact that childhood is not a motionless, biological, phenomenon, but is affected and shaped by wider social and cultural elements. However recently there has developed what Alan Prout and Allison James (1997) have outlined as a ‘new sociology of childhood’ (NSC). The approach is engaged to studying the worlds of children and emphasising their rights, needs and interests. The prime aim of NSC is to bring the study of childhood to the centre stage of sociology.

Within this new childhood framework one key element is the view that children should be viewed as ‘social actors’ who are creating themselves in a range of different social contexts (Leacock (1981). By doing this children are then removed from the role of ‘objects’ who should be studied and emphasis is put on the fact that children’s views and experience can provide insight into the nature of childhood (Callinicos (1993). In other words research is carried out '’for’ children rather than ‘on them’. Prout and James, (1997) however remind us that the implication of such an approach is that our methods of research need to place children as the central focus. Hence the view that children must be accepted as accurate reporters of their own worlds remains fundamental (France, 2000).

Four discrete orientations have been identified by Allison James (1999) towards ‘the child’ these have been reflected in research strategies. The different ways of ‘seeing the child’ are the (a) developing child (b) the tribal child (c) the adult child and (d) the social child.

The perspective of ‘the developing child’ views as having different social competencies in comparison to adults (Qvortrup 1994). This framework according to David (1996) allows the voices of children to be elicited but their views would be treated with some mistrust. Secondly the ‘tribal child’ perspective accepts that children have social competencies that are comparable to adults, but views children as different research subjects from adults (Qvortrup 1994). Thirdly, we find the 'adult child' model, which according to James (1999) suggests that an emphasis is placed on gaining the perspective of the child and listening to their observations on the adult world around them. However, James suggests that this tends to tell us about children's views of the adult world around them rather than that of childhood itself. The final model explained by James is that of the ‘social child’ where she argues that children are viewed as comparable to adults in terms of their status within research, but there is an acknowledgement that they have different social competencies.


From the research that has been provided it would be right to suggest that in previous eras there was much harsh treatment of children that would not be tolerated now. Nevertheless there is much academic controversy about the historical development of the notion of childhood. Some researchers such as Pollock (1983) have taken a biological essentialist line whereas researchers such as Aries (1962) have adopted a social constructionist stance. The former hold the view that childhood is biological given which governs and determines the behaviour of children and parents. Contrary to this there is the opinion of the social constructionists who believe that the notion of childhood illustrates a way thinking about the young. This thinking is determined by both social and economic values. Unlike most social constructionists Aries has taken an extreme approach and has gone on to say argue that until the sixteenth century there was no concept of childhood and that the difference between children simply didn’t exist. Although the research provided by Aries has contributed a lot in the sociological imagination on childhood the work above shows that his findings are not absolutely correct and it must be accepted that in different epochs and societies the lived experience of childhood has been different from that which we consider to be the norm in the twenty-first-century Britain. Thus by taking a general approach we can compare and contrast childhoods in different eras and societies


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The writer has clearly carried out quite a lot of research into childhood studies. The introduction is really good because it sets out what the writer is going to cover and the essay is well structured. There is an historical perspective that explains why and how changes took place and some of the main writers on childhood have been discussed and critiqued.

Marked by teacher Linda Penn 01/04/2013

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