Notes and thoughts: Children and Childhood in Western Society Since 1500, by Hugh Cunningham (Introduction) part 6

Yesterday I didn’t do my morning work because I was busy preparing for the first morning back of World Explorers, which is our weekly creative play/community event for home educating families. We visiting Poland, it was so nice to see everyone after a 6 week summer break.

Back to the critiques of Ariès, de Mause, Shorter and Stone.

Linda Pollock’s ‘Forgotten Children: Parent-child relations from 1500-1900 (1983)(p11). A female historian shows up for the first time in Cunningham’s intro. Cunningham describes “a head of steam was building up which was to critics the key writings of the 1970s as methodologically unsound, technically incompetent, and in their conclusions, whole mistaken.”(p12) – this is interesting seeing as I liked some of these ideas. Lets see what the criticisms are…

So Pollock’s work, Cunningham says, established a new paradigm for history of childhood in the 1980s, focusing on the actual experience of parent-child relationships, rather than the ‘ideas about childhood’, her key argument being that historically, continuity rather than change was more important in understanding this (p12). So I guess she’s considering the ‘history of children’ rather than the ‘history of childhood’ as highlighted as being distinct at the start of the introduction?

Where Stone argued that high infant mortality meant that parents made less emotional investment in their babies/children, Pollock argues that “‘no change in the extent of parental grief over the centuries and no support at all for the argument that parents before the eighteenth century were indifferent to the death of their young offspring, whereas after the eighteenth century they grieved deeply.'” (p12) On discipline, Pollock again is in disagreement with the ideas of earlier writers saying “‘the evidence does not agree with the arguments of writers such as Ariès, de Mause, or Stone that children were harshly, even cruelly, disciplined, but reveals that brutality was the exception rather than the rule'” (p12). 

This is really interesting to me as it goes agains my own hunches and experience, which is more aligned with the early writers. Lets find out more…

Pollock argues that ‘there is little, if any, connection between attitudes and behaviour’ (P12). She studied autobiographies and diaries in Britain and North America re: childrearing in the period 1500-1900. She argued that Historians who spend time reading advice books/sermons/general treatises on childhood won’t learn about the actualities of childrearing or child life (p12-13).

This is really super interesting and something I have been considering recently. The difference between ideas and beliefs and behaviour. Also, the documents that Pollock mentions –  advice books/sermons/general treatises – are likely to be aspirational, ‘this is what you *should* do’, rather than a documentation of the challenges and opportunities that families/parents faced and a documentation of what actually happened. What is the point of a parenting advice book unless it gives new ideas/suggestions about what parents could or ‘should’ do other than what they are currently doing.

Different forces influence peoples thoughts and their behaviour. Socialised habits are difficult to break, environments can be prohibitive in people behaving as they believe is ‘right’. I’ve been considering recently, for example, the phenomena of people voicing anti-authoritarian beliefs, but then behaving in authoritarian ways, and the reasons for that. It’s complex.

Cunningham mentions Keith Wrightson: ‘there seems no reason to believe that parental attitudes towards or aspirations for their children underwent fundamental change in the course of the seventeenth century’ and Ralph Houlbrooke: there ‘is much direct evidence of the reality of loving care in some families and of parental grief in face of the loss of children’ p13. For me this raises questions again about parental love and the experience of love by a child. I again want to bring this back to gender history, and consider the idea that a husband can ‘love’ his wife, and believe that she doesn’t deserve the vote, believe other false trust about the status and identity of women.

Cunningham moves on to talk about demographic approaches to the history of childhood and children. “The Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure had been arguing since the 1960s that certainly in England and probably elsewhere – at least in northern Europe – household size had typically been small, with a nuclear family as the dominant norm. This work undermined the old sociological assumption that there had been a transition, generally associated with industrialisation, from extended families to nuclear families; the nuclear family now came the norm. It thus became possible to argue that loving relationships within nuclear families had a perdurance in history and a power to withstand the onslaughts and intrusions of church, of state, and of economic change.” (p13)

This is something really interesting to me. My experience is that the nuclear family is detrimental to families, and especially to mothers (but as a result to all family members and particularly children). Since becoming a parent I’ve become aware of the need of mothers to find community, tribe, village, to build their support structure. Perhaps in some cases this is provided today by extended family – even if that family doesn’t live under one roof. But I have often asked myself the question: when did it become the norm for families to live in this dysfunctional model of nuclear? It doesn’t make practical or emotional sense to try to parent in a nuclear environment. So I want to know when that became the dominant model of family, what caused that, because I really don’t believe that given the opportunity, mothers would design that model themselves. I don’t believe that mothers would choose to bear all of the burden of family life themselves when it makes so much more sense to work collectively and collaboratively.

A few years ago when I was pregnant and my daughter was 2 1/2, I went to the visit with two of my closest girlfriends in the US. Between us there were three mums, with our three children, and let me tell you, that week was one of the easiest and most enjoyable weeks I have had as a parents. It worked – we provided comfort and camaraderie to each other, we could share the cooking and caring, it was just much more fun, for us and the children.

So what was the force behind the social norm of the nuclear family? I just sniff patriarchy in the air and I want to get to the bottom of it. Divide and conquer is what comes to mind, rather than the idea that nuclear families best “withstand the onslaughts and intrusions of church, of state, and of economic change”. Reading The Butterfly Mosque by G. Willow Wilson was really useful to me in thinking about how Western family structure exists and functions vs. norms and values in other places. It raises some interesting points.

Cunningham mentions Anderson’s work, that via the demographic approach you can examine ‘family strategy’, “the underlining assumption is that families make rational responses to the situations in which they find themselves….The family strategy or household economics approach places the emphasis on the economic more than on the sentimental value of children” (P14). This ties back in for me to the idea of beliefs vs behaviour, and how important environment and social norms are in terms of influencing the behaviour of parents and the lived experience of children.

“… it is timely to consider in more depth the role of philanthropy and the state in relation to children. The emphasis on studying the experience of childhood within the family – an emphasis common to the demographic, sentiments and household economics  approaches – has led to neglect of the wider political and social structures which had an impact on childhood.” (p14-15) – I agree with Cunningham here.

“…there is also little doubt that the introduction of compulsory schooling, normally in the late nineteenth century, did more than any other factor in these five centuries to transform the experience and the meanings attached to childhood by removing them, in principle if not immediately in fact, from the labour market, now reserved for those who were no longer ‘children’. It was this which eventually brought about in the twentieth century an emotional valuation of children much greater than anything accorded to them in previous centuries.” (p15)

Schooling and the experience of children and childhood. I will be fully exploring this in module 2. The evolution of education and it’s social consequence, I am fascinated.

My 2 hours are up, my children have been incredibly patient. And Cunningham’s Introduction is finally finished. Onwards.




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