"Childhood was invented in the seventeenth century."

So begins chapter seven of Neil Postman's Building a Bridge to the 18th Century. I highly recommend the entire book, but this chapter in and of itself deserves special consideration. Postman was a brilliant writer and social critic, rest his soul, and I wouldn't presume to improve on his presentation. What I can do is summarize and tantalize enough that you'll head out to the nearest library and pick up a copy of the book yourself. Or at least internalize and spread the meme.

Of course children existed prior to the seventeenth century, but that's not the same thing at all. Childhood is a social construction, a collective agreement to set aside some time between infancy and adulthood largely free of responsibilities that is enforced by behaviors, social norms, and laws. (What this time is for is a major question that we'll get to later.)

To illustrate this idea, let's head to time before the 17th century, when children were seen as "yet unformed adults." There were:

  • No special clothing for children, only smaller versions of adult clothing.
  • No literature for children (even though we're 2 centuries—almost 10 generations—after the Incunabula and the spread of moveable type.)
  • Graves of young children are unmarked (Postman concludes it was thought that they did not yet have their own individuality)
  • Apprenticeships, starting in early adolescence, for the acquisition of work skills.
  • No special laws for the treatment, crimes, or schooling of children.
  • (He also notes that in much art children were depicted as malformed adults, but a quick glance at my art history books shows examples of realistically proportioned children in sculptural works dating as far back as the 14th century, and fairly common in painting by the 16th.)

But by the 17th Century and the Age of Reason, two particular, influential theories of what it was to be a child emerged from the philosophers John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

In Some Thoughts Concerning Education, Locke observed that while language was a naturally-acquired talent, literacy had to be taught. He extended this to his idea of the human as the tabula rasa, i.e. a blank slate onto which culture must be written. To this end Locke stressed self discipline, physical fitness, and everything towards the development of reason, in the interest of becoming a better citizen. Because we needed time to add these things to blank children, he said that we should put time aside to do just that.

On the other end of the spectrum, Rousseau believed the child in and of itself is valuable, not just as a citizen. He posited Romantic ideas about children being closer to a "State of Nature" than adults. To Rousseau, civilization and its ugliness polluted the innate goodness of children, and should be put off as long as possible. So, we should put aside the time to do just that.

It is with a blend of these two philosophies that Western civilization came to form its concept of childhood. Postman characterizes this concept as a time when self control, deferred gratification, and logical thought are taught, but not at the expense of individuality, which must be nurtured. It was only in the 18th century that society began to respond institutionally to this concept of childhood. As evidence, it was in the 18th century that we see the emergence of:

  • Children's clothing, distinct in style from adult's clothing
  • Books published especially for children
  • Games for young children (jigsaw puzzles and traveling games with dice were invented during this time)
  • Graves were marked for children who died in childbirth or had only lived a few hours
  • Laws establishing the right of the State to protect children as a particular class, including
    • Laws distinguishing adult crimes and children crimes
    • The prohibition of child labor
    • The prohibition of forms of child abuse

So what?

Postman brings us this concept of the invention of childhood not for the historical trivia, but because we're in danger of losing childhood. We've become inured to these institutions. We accept childhood as a given. (Recall your own cognitive dissonance upon reading the first sentence of this writeup.) We've forgotten about why we made it in the first place, and as a result, it's slipping away.

He argues that besides our cultural habituation, two things are eroding childhood: unfettered information technologies and the commercialization of American life. (Postman only critiqued his own cultures. Others will have to decide if his arguments apply to their other cultures.)

In the age of information children are gaining more and more access to adult secrets. Specifically he lists sexual secrets, political secrets, social secrets, historical secrets, and medical secrets. Why are they secrets? Children don't have the capacity to properly understand and incorporate some information. They should not be allowed to freely roam and encounter this information without a framework for understanding it. These secrets must be kept partially hidden until the child is ready, until they can be shown these things and discuss them.

Lil' Consumers
Even Adam Smith would be disgusted at the modern corporate treatment of children as "evolving consumers" and of the adult complacency in the face of it. As evidence, Postman cites the rise of career training in younger age schools and the grotesque Channel One. Postman notes that the marketization of childhood is in effect returning us to medieval times. Back then there were only two stages to life: infancy and adulthood. When a child achieved language, they were put to work. Today, when they achieve language, they are put to consume.

Before he gets to some suggestions on how to deal with these two problems, he asks us to wonder: was childhood really invented or was it instead discovered? He cites Piaget's genetic epistemology and its assertion that there are biological imperatives for the development of certain mental faculties. With this in mind Postman offers an integrated analogy. Like language, childhood has a biological basis, but must be socially supported and nurtured or it is lost. The society that wants children to learn specialized, complex skills and attitudes to prepare them for adulthood will maintain childhood. The society whose communication needs don't require such specialization will let it erode. It is for this reason that he maintains that in as much as we could have invented childhood, we did.

So, if it's under attack, what can we do about it?

Parents are losing control over the information environment. They let kids put TVs in their rooms. They let kids have computers with internet connections in their room as well. In these circumstances, kids can take in any information without guidance on how to frame it. (He does not mention parental control software, but I'm not sure of its effectiveness in this regard anyway.) Parents must buck the trend and move information technologies into the public areas of their home. Yes, let the kids watch what interests them. But pause it after the interesting parts and discuss it. For this reason, he describes parenting as an act of rebelling against culture. Only in this way can we nurture language, a discipline of delayed gratification, modesty in sexuality, self restraint in manners, and even style.

The school is the only social (and legal) institution left that admits to the specialness of childhood. Though it feels entrenched, the Channel Ones and Cokes and Pepsis of the corporate world are invading along with a trade-school mentality. All citizens (not just parents) must aggressively protect childhood by encouraging curriculae that support the goals of childhood. He mentions computers in a terrific example. It is a step backwards, (towards medieval concepts of apprenticeship) to teach computers as merely a collection of skills to be used in later employment. But if instead we teach programming and the differences in computer languages, to question the world view that computers impose, how they alter definitions of judgment, and how they change our concept of knowledge, then our children will be gaining a deep understanding of the technology that prepares them for wise participation in the adult world.

This is his least complete and convincing part of the chapter. He mentions weakening of child labor laws (modern international outsourcing is a version), the special categorization of children's crimes, and doubts of mandatory schooling as weaknesses in government's protection and recognition of childhood, but does not offer any suggestions on what to do about it.

In a sort of a sad ending, Postman goes officially on record that he doubts childhood will survive the 21st century with anything but a knee jerk Romanticism, a style of the products they consume. He doesn't explain why he feels this way. I suspect it's because television-and-prosperity-doped citizens don't have much incentive to bite the corporate juggernaut hand that's feeding them. But he offers a little hope in his closing words:

    "After all, the printing press shattered the cohesion of a world religious community, destroyed the intimacy and poetry of the oral tradition, diminished regional loyalties, and created a cruelly impersonal industrial system. And yet, Western civilization survived with some of its humane values intact and was able to forge new ones, including those associated with the nurturing of children. There is some ironic comfort in our remembering that we are still suffering from the shock of twentieth century technology, which has numbed our brains so that it is difficult for us to notice some of the spiritual and social debris that our technology has strewn about us. We can expect the shock to wear off as we get to the other side of the bridge. When and if that happens, we may yet think of ways to preserve at least some form of childhood."

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