Parent Category: 18th Century History Articles
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Ah, childhood. Those fleeting days of innocence and joy. Childhood should be precious because our children are precious. They’re the future. They’re that rarefied variety of human: the same as us but also different. Special. Pure. New and wholly unspoiled by the troubles of the world.

At least, that’s how we tend to idealize childhood today. But it wasn’t always that way. Today’s idyllic image of childhood wasn’t even a thing until around the mid-18th century. Before that time, society’s views of childhood tended to take one of two forms: one quite mundane and the other borderline sinister.

Little Adults in Short Pants

Nowadays, we’re apt to think of children not as little miniature adults but, really, as a breed apart, distinct from and more special than their fully-grown counterparts. And that leads us to take particular pains with the kind of childhood we try to provide for our children. We see childhood as a unique and precious stage of life, one in which the adult the little one will someday grow to be is taking shape.


We now recognize, for instance, the pivotal role that childhood experiences play in determining personality, both for good and for ill. We have a keener appreciation, for instance, of the roles that childhood traumas can play throughout the lifespan, causing wounds that can last well into adulthood.


In the 18th century, though, the prevailing view of this stage of life was much different, particularly for the lower classes. There was not much understanding of how childhood experiences might impact the little ones throughout the remainder of their lives. Instead, childhood was not treated as a unique and special phase of life distinct from adulthood and, so children were often treated like smaller adults, like little men in short pants and little women in tiny dresses.


And that attitude often meant that a lot of burdens were placed on particularly small shoulders. Childhood was not demarcated as a time devoted to learning and playing. Like adulthood, childhood was dedicated to work, to responsibility. Lower-class children received little, if any, education. Instead, from the moment they were big enough to do so, they were tasked with helping in the upkeep of the home and family: from working on the farm to taking care of household chores, minding younger siblings, and caring for aging relatives.


Among the poorest of the poor, though, contributing to the upkeep of the family wasn’t always such a noble undertaking. Childhood was not a time of innocence when children were protected from the harsh realities of life.  Children were often trained by older relatives or peers to commit crimes, such as pickpocketing and shoplifting, just to help keep bread on the family table. After all, tiny fingers and wide, innocent eyes could make for a skilled petty thief.


Even for those who weren’t driven to such measures, there were still some pretty heavy burdens children were asked to carry. By the time boys reached their teen years, many had already been apprenticed, learning a trade to support the family, even as they prepared to start their own. For upper-class children, life might have looked a bit more like our own childhoods, but there were still marked differences as well.


Kids from affluent families were likely to receive more education, typically from in-home tutors. Many upper-class boys would be prepared to continue to university. But for boys and girls alike, childhood was a time devoted to planning and preparation for adult life, for marriage and family. Such preparation would begin almost from the day they were born.

Angels and Demons?

However, it wasn’t only that growing up in the 1700s meant you would have more responsibilities and less education, especially if you were among the lower classes. It also meant that the adults around you might well perceive you differently than they do today. And that was not exactly a good thing.


You see, the 18th century was a time of transition. Our understanding of the world, each other, and ourselves was changing. And, for some, the older Puritanical view of childhood still endured. This perspective was very much in keeping with the “spare the rod/spoil the child” worldview. In this mindset, children bore the taint of original sin, and it was the responsibility of the adults to discipline and to chastise the child until the stain of rebellion and immorality was purged.


Fortunately, by the mid-18th century, perspectives on childhood were beginning to change, inspired primarily by Romantic art, literature, and philosophy. Writers such as Jean Jacques Rousseau began to conceptualize childhood as a state of primordial innocence, a precious stage of life where the pure human soul has yet to be corrupted by society.


But even with these more idealized views of children and childhood, the Romantics were not completely averse to corporal punishment, especially if, as in Locke’s view, it was necessary to subdue a particularly recalcitrant spirit. Unfortunately, though, what might have been perceived as necessary, even loving, discipline would now likely be understood to be abuse.


Today, parents are more cognizant of the psychological effects of “spanking,” hitting, and other forms of physical punishment. Many children growing up in the age of Enlightenment, sadly, weren’t quite so fortunate.

The Takeaway

For many of us, envisioning children as pure innocence and childhood as perhaps the most precious time of life feels as natural as breathing. Yet it hasn’t always been this way. In the 18th century, children were often treated like little adults, made to carry some pretty heavy responsibilities on those young shoulders.  


About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho, and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.