Notes and thoughts: Children and Childhood in Western Society Since 1500, by Hugh Cunningham (Introduction) part 1

This post marks the start of my notes for Module 1: History of Childhood and Emergence of Children’s Rights. I’m starting my reading with Hugh Cunningham’s Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500.

Typing highlighted in bold denotes direct quotations from the book.

“I want to explore the lives of children. Both ‘children’ and ‘childhood’ appear in my title because we need to distinguish between children as human beings and childhood as a shifting set of ideas” p1 – good point.

“The issue which has underlain much recent historical writing about children has actually been more to do with parents than with children. Did parents in the past, it is asked, love their children? Whether or not children loved their parents is apparently not an issue. The question as posed is impossible to answer, partly because we simply do not know, and can never know, very much about the intimacies of relationships between parents and children, and partly because it assumes that we would recognise love if we saw it, and record its absence if it was not there, as though it were a material object like a table; in fact, of course, it may have expressed itself in very different ways in different societies.” p2

– For me the key question isn’t whether or not parents in the past ‘loved’ their children, or if children ‘loved’ their parents, and whether we can discern or prove that historically. The problems associated with defining ‘love’, as alluded by Cunningham, are explored by bell hooks in her book: ‘all about love – new visions’, as are the issues associated with understanding and awareness of the experience of love and abuse.

The family is where our belief system about ‘love’ begins to form. So, in effect, we don’t need to be able to prove if parents in the past loved their children or not. What is more interesting I think, and useful, is to unpick what model for a ‘loving relationship’ has been modelled by parents historically, and how internalisation of that has potentially influenced and effected generations. As hooks says, “love and abuse cannot coexist” (p6), and “love will not be present if the gown-ups who parent do not know how to love” (p9) – however we know that in families parent child relationships framed as ‘loving’ can in fact be abusive – considering the absence of children’s agency in childhood it’s interesting to consider how broadly that applies.

bell hooks goes on to say “One of the myths about lovelessness is that it exists only among the poor and deprived. Yet lovelessness is not a function of poverty or material lack. In homes where material privileges abound, children suffer emotional neglect and abuse.” (p23) This I think is a necessary awareness when considering the nature of parent/child relationships historically. The idea and impact of parents modelling ‘love’ is such an important point I’m going to post a photo of this whole page from bell hooks’  book, which includes reflection on how families teach the rules and behaviour about love from John Bradshaw:

bell hooks – All About Love, New Visions, p25

In terms of the potential of translating historical sources of parent child relationships, I think it important to remember that parents were/are also children, and the manifestation of their attitudes and behaviour towards their own children can potentially tell us about their own experiences of ‘love’, whether that be through their resistance and change to the model they were given, or through it’s perpetuation. Are adults as parents mirrors of their own experience of parental love as children? What influences that?

In addition to the emotional barriers, the nature of inheritance based family relationships (I skipped forward a bit in Cunningham’s book the other day, more on that later), in which there is a great dependency of children on the good will of parents for their future survival, can make rejecting and challenging parenting models problematic – this is a modern day phenomomen also. Which I think means you can expect parenting patterns to be quite repetitive, aside from the impact of external social/economic factors.

Anyway, back to Cunningham.

“Childhood cannot be studied in isolation from society as a whole. It is arguable that the the factors which have had most impact on it, both as a set of ideas and as a phase of life, have been primarily economic and demographic, and in second place political… we need to embed their history in wider economic, social and political developments.” (p3)

I agree with Cunningham, although I an inclined to think, at the moment at least, that it is patriarchal/authoritarian systems and beliefs, affecting the lived experiences of men, women and children, that have had and continue to have the most influence on the experience of childhood – patriarchy/authoritarianism of course influencing all of the above mentioned spheres.

p4-5 interesting references to Phillipe Ariès and Norbert Elias:

“Elias argues that ‘The distance in behaviour and whole psychological structure between children and adults increases in the course of the civilising process.’ This was the precise point underlying Ariès book. For Elias ‘the civilising process’ involved a control of the instincts.. In the early modern period a plethora of advice books told adults how to behave, marking off the distance between adult and child” (p4)

Well this sounds interesting, and oppressive – who was writing these books and for whom? Straight away my thoughts turn to colonialism, and also to the ‘civilising’ of childbirth and women’s identities. And also to little boys being ‘civilised’ into not showing their emotions. This is really interesting and I’m looking forward to exploring it more.

“The assumption by the end of the eighteenth century was coming to be that adults, in the social classes who might be assumed to read the advice books, would already have acquired good manners, but that children needed to be taught them” (p5)

This attitude is still very common in parenting culture today.

Speaking of which, I need to break here because my family need me. I’ll finish these ‘introduction’ notes tonight…



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