Notes and thoughts: Children and Childhood in Western Society Since 1500, by Hugh Cunningham (Introduction) part 3

So here we go with Part 3 of the introduction notes (you can find part 1 here, and part 2 here). Just a little comment on unschooling and intrinsic motivation, no joke – I woke up and was so excited to get back to this – Alfie Kohn knows what he’s talking about.

Here’s my intrinsically motivated little face this morning, PJs and all, ready to hang out with Hugh Cunningham again (I’m listening to Sia if you are interested):


OK so where were we…

“The key to success in parenting for de Mause is to have the ability to regress to the psychic age of your child, and he believed that each generation of parents was likely to be better than its predecessors in this respect, though the mechanism which drives this evolution is not clear.” p8

Firstly ‘regress to the psychic age of your child’ I think means empathise. The ability to consider a situation and experience from the point of view of another. I agree with de Mause here – empathy is the antidote to authoritarian parenting. The ability of a parent to empathise with their child demonstrates respect for their child, and a belief in their personhood – they are no less a person than the adult, worthy of empathy, understanding, respect, being listened to.

I think the mechanism that drives this is the deterioration of authoritarianism, increase in democratic thinking, social emancipation. As people begin to experience greater agency, autonomy, voice, sense of dignity and respect themselves, their expectation of relationships and personhood shifts, and they become able to extend this to children. Each generation is likely to be better than it’s predecessor, on the basis that we are experiencing social progress. As we question more and more the validity of the limiting of freedom of one group by another, we come to question the ‘naturalness’ and validity of the control and oppression of young people by those older than them. And if you can reach a point where the oppression and marginalisation of children is not socially justified, hypothetically you will then see the undermining of all oppressions and prejudices that are based on a feature (age, sex or gender identity, skin colour, sexuality, ability etc). Our experience of childhood will be one of empowerment rather than oppression, and may result in the internalisation of universal empathy and personhood.

This is why I also think that women’s history is really essential in understanding childhood experience, and tracking women’s emancipation and social experience is a strong indicator of childhood experience. If we look to Finland, which has arguably the most learner centred and children’s rights incorporated system of education in the world, you also find a country with significant gender parity. Its interesting to consider the Scandinavian countries, where attitudes towards children are far more progressed that in the UK – Sweden being the first country in the world to ban smacking, compared to here in England where it is still legal for parents to hit their children (and advice I have received from children’s rights organisations here is that due to the ‘culture’ of our politics, England may be one of the last countries in the world to give children equal protection under the law).

“‘But most importantly, the continuous growth of a democratic, egalitarian ideal meant that more and more Swedes felt that all people – children too – should enjoy equal protection from violence’, he (Staffan Janson) says.”

Cunningham continues: “The psychogenic theory of history has never won much of a hearing amongst historians, to a degree doubtless because of an instinctive hostility on the part of the historians to concepts with which most of them are unfamiliar, but also because of the inherent implausibility of a theory which attempted to schematise and explain the course of human history by exploring parent-child interactions” (p8)

This is really interesting, and something I am looking forward to exploring more. My experience is that internalised authoritarianism can prevent people from being able to access the argument that de Mause is making. Mistreatment can be invisible if a person believes it to be necessary or natural. Our own experiences of childhood can prevent us from being able to see what needs to be seen. I also think it is interesting, the idea that the course of history being explored through parent-child interactions is considered by some to be implausible. That to me flags up the misogyny and adultism that often undermines the importance and relevance of childhood experience, and the significance of what can happen between a mother and child in terms of wider social impact.

Cunningham moves on to consider Edward Shorter’s work, offering this quote of Shorter: “Good mothering is an invention of modernisation. In traditional society, mothers viewed the the development and happiness of infants younger than two with indifference. In modern society, they place the the welfare of their small children above all else.” (p9)

An interesting theory. I would like to know more about how the history of medicine intersects with this. There are still those today who see babies and young children as being less than human, in terms of their emotional and physical experience – we only need to look to attitudes regarding infant circumcision, and sleep training for examples of that (although these attitudes a increasingly criticised). Perhaps before children were able to verbally articulate themselves, they have historically been considered with indifference – frankly that still exists in some areas of parenting culture today.

I would expect a shift in that to be in keeping with increasingly democratic ideals, and also increasing status for the voice of personhood of women. I’m interested to see if that ties in with Shorter’s timeline and ideas.

“Shorter found signs of a surge of sentiment amongst the middle classes in the mid-eighteenth century, marked by maternal breastfeeding and an end to the system of sending children off to a wet-nurse.” (p9)

This is another interesting point, especially considering that in current feminist and children’s rights type advocacy, the opportunity and value of breastfeeding is very present.

Right, I need to take a break. Looks like we are heading for a part 4!


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