Toronto Metropolitan University

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The Eighteenth-Century Child

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posted on 2024-02-29, 17:05 authored by Andrew O'MalleyAndrew O'Malley

Some histories of childhood and family life, such as those of Philippe Ariès and Lawrence Stone, have pointed to the “long” eighteenth century (c.1688-1832) as the period in which children took on the attributes and qualities we tend now to take for granted. During this time, they argue, people began to define children as inherently different from adults: as impressionable, unformed beings who require much protection and attention from adult caretakers, who are in turn expected to regard youngsters with deep affection and nostalgia. The explosion of books, toys, games, schools, and services directed at children led historian J. H. Plumb to characterize eighteenth-century England (particularly the second half) as a “new world of children.”

Recently, though, critics have usefully questioned both the idea that childhood was “new” to the eighteenth century and that children were generally neglected in earlier historical periods. Not all the attitudes Plumb describes were new, and the kinds of goods and services he describes were available mostly to a more affluent and male minority of children. Moreover, the “old” problems of abuse, neglect, and child labour by no means vanished in the face of this kinder new world. The more copious expressions of interest in children, their maintenance, and their future prospects had more to do with the dissemination of Enlightenment modes of thought, and a social order being transformed by an emerging middle class, than with a sudden discovery that children were worthy of attention. Enthusiasm and optimism for how the newly rationalized sciences could “enlighten” humanity suggested the possibility of a brighter world in which the next generation would live; the greater wealth and leisure time enjoyed by a growing middle class resulted in more resources—of both time and money—being devoted to their young. As the figure of the child became associated with progress, possibility, and mobility, actual children enjoyed or were subjected to (depending on your point of view) unprecedented adult efforts to educate, reform, and improve them.



Essay commissioned for Representing Childhood website, Marah Gubar



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