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It seems that the notion of childhood is not (and has not been) a fixed concept. Actually, it does vary greatly throughout history and cultures. A 1960’s book I’ve been fascinated about, “Centuries of Childhood: a Social History of Family Life” by Ariès, argues that before the seventeenth century, childhood was not a recognized concept. It was only sometime between 1600 and the twentieth century that the term child started to, somehow, have its current meaning.

The author explains that in medieval society, children at the age of seven acted as –and were treated as- smaller versions of the adults around them (he writes “mini adults”). While in modern post- medieval society, childhood meant a stage of life with specificities -neither infant nor adult. Before modern times, children were not associated with certain specific manners of speech, or activities (such as games, songs, exploration) and were rather introduced to an adult world at a very early age through both sexual and labor exploitation.

Thus, the status of the child as a distinct phase of human existence is relatively new and emerged around the seventeenth century, connected with decreases in infant mortality, changes in the educational system and the appearance of a separate isolated family unit.

For most of human history it was common that a significant proportion of infants did not survive to adulthood. Seven out of ten children did not live past the age of three in the Middle Ages! This high mortality rate was one of the reasons children were treated with emotional indifference. When survival rates increased, parents began treating children with more interest and affection.

Some anecdotal evidence from our region shows some emotional indifference even in recent times. The book “The History of Childhood in Republican-Era Chile” tells us that in 1833, children did not have a proper funeral and it was only in 1877 that physical punishment would be legally banned. Before then, parents thought that physical punishment for young children was acceptable and even desirable! This perception, however, varied across cultures: the Mapuches, for instance, thought that children should not be punished as this would weaken their strength.

Later, the impact of industrialization in the eighteenth century intensified the exploitation of many children. Although children always worked in the pre-industrial society, the emergence of the factory system only made things worse for working children: many of the tasks they did were dangerous and work conditions were unhealthy.

This situation led to a relatively new construction during the nineteenth century: the child as the object of pity or of philanthropy. Politicians were alarmed at the conditions in which children were working in the factories and set about the establishment of legislation which would control those practices. This was the first serious engagement of the state in its modern form with children: by controlling the conditions of their employment and seeking to set minimum standards, the state set itself up as the ultimate arbiter of the well-being of children.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the lives of most children were still dominated by poverty and illness, however, the idea of children as a key focus for policy had firmly taken root, paving the way for the twentieth century’s intense focus around the wellbeing of children.

During that century, a clear view emerged in the sense that the welfare of children was not just a family responsibility. Increasingly, children were seen as the responsibility of the state, which intervened in their education, health and upbringing to improve the national well-being via the development of their future citizens.

This twentieth century paradigm shift was reflected in some landmarks in children’ rights. In 1924, the Geneva Declaration on the Rights of the Child was the first historical text that recognized specific rights for children, although the statement was not binding on states. Later, in 1946, the United Nations Fund for Children (UNICEF) was created. Following the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1959, childhood becomes a central issue in international cooperation programs and children began to be seen as right-holders.

Only in 1989, 140 States signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) which is the most widely ratified human rights treaty in the world and is the basis on which many social policies towards children rest today. 

How are children seen and treated in your country? Do you think Latin America and the Caribbean have been making progress in this respect? Let us know in the comments’ section below or in Twitter.

Para leer este artículo en español, haz click aquí.

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