Notes and thoughts: Children and Childhood in Western Society Since 1500, by Hugh Cunningham (Introduction) part 2

This is the second section of my notes and thoughts regarding the Introduction. The first can be found here, bold denotes direct quotes, the rest is my thoughts.

“Ariès did not disguise the fact that he was seeking to understand the particularity of the present by comparing and contrasting it with the past” (p5) – this has always been my reason for studying history, how can you understand the now without not having an understanding of what has come before?

On Ariès’ observations: “The key change was the development of the idea that schooling was for children only than for people of all ages; childhood and adulthood were being separated out. Once schooling became something confined to children, it became possible to impose on it an order and discipline, including corporal punishment, this discipline separating ‘the child who suffered from it from the liberty enjoyed by the adult’.” (p6)

This is making me wonder if André Stern‘s parents were influenced by reading Ariès. I agree with Ariès in this view cited by Cunningham. Schooling as we know it is only possible because it exists in a period of age during which our social constructs deprive children of agency, consent, full personhood. ‘Adults’ simply would not tolerate the conditions of schooling. In fact – many decide that they can’t or won’t – teacher recruitment and turnover is described as being in crisis in the UK.

More on Ariès: “His overall conclusion was that by the seventeenth century there had developed in France two concepts of childhood. The first was to be found within families; parents began ‘to recognise the pleasure they got from watching children’s antics and “coddling” them.’ The second its origins outside the family in moralists who stressed how children were fragile creatures of God who needed to be safeguarded and reformed. It was these moralists who were increasingly to argue that school must work with the family in carrying out this task.” (p6) – A tension of sorts, similar to this, exists today I think – the parent’s view of their child’s best interests vs the view of the ‘expert’ – which rarely centres the child’s actual needs or voice. The reference to the ‘safeguarding’ and reformative perceived function of schooling reminds me of a piece that I wrote a few months ago ‘Fear of women, attachment to schooling’.

Cunningham goes on to mention the “trio of books now often grouped together as marking a peculiarly 1970s approach to the history of children and childhood: Lloyd de Mause, The History of Childhood (1974); Edward Shorter, The Making of the Modern Family (1976); and Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500-1800 (1977).”(p7)

He comments on de Mause: “The evolution of of the relationship between parent and child was.. central to what de Mause called the ‘psychogenic’ interpretation of history. This interpretation had ramifications far outside the history of childhood, for the quality of parent-child relations was seen as the motor force of history; as de Mause put it, ‘the central force for change in history is neither technology nor economics, but the “psychogenic” changes in personality occurring because of successive generations of parent-child interactions’.” (p7)

This is an extremely interesting perspective to me. It resonates with what I have come to deduce myself, via observation and the research I have been doing over the past years. Children form their belief systems via their interaction with their environment, the family and parent child relationship being absolutely key in this. I have come to see authoritarianism being the common thread that runs through this – and the parent child dynamic (as well as schooling) is precisely where authoritarianism is practiced and internalised over many years, during the period of childhood in which a person is at their most highly vulnerable state – literally dependent for life on others.

My hypothesis is that when authoritarianism is experienced in childhood as the basis of what relationship looks like, it becomes internalised as a ‘natural state’ and normalises and perpetuates authoritarianism in all other spheres – social, political, economic etc. A big part of this project for me is to explore the history of authoritarianism in adult/child relationships and in the history of childhood. What is interesting I think is also remembering that authoritarianism can also look ‘nice’. You can have ‘romantic’ authoritarianism – all you need is one person misusing their power over another, perpetuating a notion of ownership and control i.e. depriving agency/voice/personhood – how that manifests can be varied and may appear as ‘kindness’. The notion of a ‘benevolent patriarch’ – interesting to consider the ‘benevolent master’ in this piece by Jenny Wapner –  she comments: “Paternalism transformed the relationship of slave and master into one of child and parent.”

This also I think ties into what was being discussed in the first part of these notes about the experience of ‘love’. What is our collective experience of love when we believe that it could be a ‘loving act’, in the best interest of people, to be bombed? And yet that is the justification that is often given and accepted for violent foreign policies. ‘Love’ learnt via authoritarianism is highly problematic.

OK, this is going to have to go to a part 3 because it’s my bed time. This studying process is going to be interesting if it is going to take me so long to get through even the introduction of a book – I’m only on page 8!


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