Are we facing the disappearance of childhood?

Today we give massive importance of childhood, which is considered as the crucial phase in our life course because it sets the basis for the position we will occupy in our entrance to the job world. The new generations are seen as the future of our community, so we are prompt to protect them, but […]

Today we give massive importance of childhood, which is considered as the crucial phase in our life course because it sets the basis for the position we will occupy in our entrance to the job world. The new generations are seen as the future of our community, so we are prompt to protect them, but at the same time, we want to give them a rigorous education and make them learn much as possible. Therefore, reflecting the multitasking attitude of modern children, can we agree with some modern sociologist that this is a return to the medieval-type childhood, where the separation between the adult’s sphere and the child’s sphere was practically insistent? Can we argue that the Western conception of childhood, as Postman states, is vanishing due to the elimination of the gap in adult’s and children’s knowledge?

The society evolves with time and culture, and also, the conception of childhood has incredibly changed through the centuries. The first author who looks at childhood in a historical perspective is Philippe Aries; indeed, In his book “Centuries Of Childhood” he has studied the development of this critical period of life in the centuries and the different societies. His survey starts with the medieval era, where through the analysis of that age portraiture, in which children were rarely present and if they were, they appeared with the same features as adults and in the same environment; he reached the conclusion that during the medieval time children were seen as “miniature adults.” Indeed, they took part in adults’ work and leisure activities, with a little separation between the two worlds. Therefore, childhood was not a “distinct phase” of life as nowadays.

Probably the most significant difference, was the little emotional involvement in the relationship with children, due to the high mortality rates. Usually, children were not named till they were three or four years of age, but most of them probably weren’t even recognized by their parents, as a matter of fact, the uncontrolled nature of reproduction made difficult for the parents know how many children they had. A relevant aspect of the conception of childhood during the medieval era was also the belief in children lack of sexuality. Indeed, it was common not to have a particular discretion in talking about that topic with kids; they were seen as completely unaware of sex. If we think of the current situation, where parents are usually very protective and affectionate towards their children and childhood is associated with innocence, we can understand how big was the difference in the relationship between the parents and their children.

The 16th century brought, according to Aries, a progressive separation between adults and children and the “invention” of the concept of childhood. Anyhow, the great change arrives with the industrial revolution between the 17th and 18th century, and the two spheres are actually isolated one from the other. A very relevant book about children’s education, written by Jean Jacque Rousseau at that age, is the “Emile; Or, On Education.” Rousseau, who consider the education as the basis to create a new man in a new society, outlines a very interesting image of the educational methods, which is mostly a practice of negative education.

Indeed, it is during the industrial revolution that we see a growing importance of schools. Governments start to make the education compulsory and to design a law against child labor. Not only the relationship inside the family changes, but the state begins to worry about a possible failure of parents through the establishment of institutions and places in charge of child’s education and protection. The propelling of this change inside families, which became separated nucleus, was primarily caused by the wrecking of the public sphere from the private sphere. People also start to associate child figure with the image of purity and innocence, leaving, according to Aries, the belief of their self-reliant capacity present in the past. The notion of the mother in charge of housework and children’s education and the father as the breadwinner becomes the central middle-class idea of the division of roles inside the family. During the 19th century, thanks to the development of science and medical knowledge around children, their mortally rates decreased, and this took a more investment in children, with also the creation of a proper environment, books and toys. As sociologist Viviana A. Zelizer observed, converse of previous times, children “became economically ‘worthless’ but emotionally ‘priceless.’”

In the 20th century, the familiarization of children massively increased and they all mostly become reliant on parents for the welfare and standard of living. It has begun a process called “privatization of childhood. Indeed, in the public place, it was uncommon to see children unsupervised as happened in the past where children spent much time in workplaces and fields, this is also because parents began to have legal responsibilities on children’s misdemeanors in most of the world countries. A central role in that century was played by organizations promoting children’s rights, after The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1989. This has taken to the controversy around child figure, if from one side, they are judged ad-dependent and vulnerable, as necessitous of protection, from the other side, they have gained citizens’ rights as adults, so considered as people with their autonomy. This cultural conflict is also perpetrated in child learning manuals, on one hand, they want parents to exercise discipline and control on their children, on the other hand, they want to give autonomy and representation to children.

From what I can remember of my childhood, my parents had never acted as if I was a fragile object that could have been broken by everything and they tried to let me play in freedom scolding me when I was doing something wrong. Probably, the fact that I had an older brother and two younger brothers, therefore my parents were more expert on how to deal with a child, played an important part in the freedom I had in the games with the other kids and being more autonomous in this. I believe that if you are only child parents are usually more protective of you and wanna try you to prevent doing games that can dirty your clothes or tire you a lot.

An interesting analysis of the modern society is given in the book “The disappearance of childhood”, written by Neil Postman. In his work, Postman talks about the strong relevance of media in causing the disappearing of childhood due to a non-discrimination between its viewers. In fact, it gives access also to children to a high amount of information, which are usually considered as part of adult’s cultural heritage. On one side, this has prompted children to be more “adult-like” and, on the other side, to a “childified” adult’s mentality through the quick response demanded by television, which makes them less thoughtful around a particular subject. According to Postman, also children’s books have had a shift in their content, they are less focused on fairy tales and more on reality, limiting children’s imagination and deprive them of their innocence. This is another aspect that helps to eliminate the gap between children and adult knowledge, making children reflects more on reality and useless their imagination.

Honestly, I do not agree with this vision around media effects on children education. On television, there are many channels that are only for children and that broadcast only cartoon or children television program, furthermore, on the other channels, there is also a warning if the program or the movie should not be seen by a child because of its content. What I think is the duty of the parents to ensure that their children watch only the right television programs and that they do it only for a short time per day, alternating this with the reading a good book.

In conclusion, I think we cannot really affirm that childhood is disappearing since it is only changing its characteristics to adapt to the modern society, which grows and develops quickly. Each country has his history in the development of modern educational methods, but children are rights are protected in most of the world regions and people spend much more time for children education than in the past. Even modern children have to face more challenges, and the society requires them to grow faster, this does not mean we are facing the disappear of childhood; this concept will just keep on changing its structure and evolving, as it has happened to the adolescence, the increase of the lasting of this period and so the late entrance in the job world.


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