What Does It Mean to Be a Child?

A long time ago, children were thought of as mini-adults. Childhood was not a concept that was understood. So when did children become children and what exactly does it mean to be a child?

It happened in the middle ages. It became necessary for middle class parents to train their children in a trade so that the family could have that extra income. During this period of apprenticeship, it became apparent that childhood was a distinct period of life. Before the twelfth century, there really was no definable period of life known as childhood.

The rise of the middle class and the education of children into a trade changed, or perhaps created, the modern definition of what it means to be a child.

Another significant shift that helped define childhood came about during the Industrial Revolution. Those in power at the time began to define and reinforce issues of privacy in order to secure a workforce. Thus, the privacy of home life, and the home as a place of retreat after a hard day of work was illustrated and reinforced. As such, the child became the centre of a family in a new way.

All of this led to the golden age of children’s literature, which spawned books written entirely for the entertainment of children. Which of course today has spawned into TV programs, video games, and all sorts of consumer products.

It seems that the definition of childhood has changed over the years. This definition varies by culture as well. Yet no one seems to question the modern definition of childhood. Maybe it is time we did. Childhood is ready for a redefinition. What do you think?

7 responses to “What Does It Mean to Be a Child?”

  1. I don’t know, Chase, Paul the Apostle seemed to have a definite concept of childhood in mind when he wrote those well-known lines about thinking like a child and putting away childish things.

    And children’s toys are as old as humanity.

    I do wonder about the state of childhood in the modern world — within a generation, parents have become omnipresent in their children’s lives, ever hovering, ever fearing, overscheduling, fearing to discipline, fearing to teach a love of good, hard work and of good, solid morals such as not cheating in school.

  2. Hi Chase,

    What an informative post. I didn’t know that.

    I think it’s sad how in some countries children are still working to help support the family. Although the US has child labor laws, I’d be curious to know how many countries don’t.

  3. Hi ECD,

    I think you might be right. I actually got this idea for a post by flipping through my old university notes.

    I took a course on Children’s Literature. Parts of this post came from an essay I wrote as part of the final exam. I got a good mark on it too.

    Hi Barbara,

    Child labour laws are a good thing. But I think children do need to have something to do on the weekends and in the summer. Chores, sports, or hobbies are essential. It never hurt anyone to do some honest work. Not even a child.

  4. Some of my best childhood memories are of working, of feeling like a strong little man as I helped my grandpa work in the woods behind his house, or cleaning up the house to give my mom a break and experiencing the pleasure that accompanies a sense of accomplishment.

  5. Great point ECD. Me too. I used to love following my dad around and “help him”

    I’m sure that I actually slowed him down and made the job longer, but my dad always had patience and let me “help”

    I will be eternally grateful for that.

  6. Mr. March,

    I am a college student and am currently enrolled in several feminism courses. We have covered material that, in turn, led me to your blog. What you have posted seems to be correct, but lacking the continued molding and reshaping that our society and culture has brought to "childhood."

    The Industrial Revolution brought forth many changes to the standards of child labor, some greatly needed and others not so much. As you said for the better half of human existence children were "little adults" and were treated and taught as such. There was not a period of adornment and lavish spoiling that has become characteristic of today's definition. Perhaps this could be because we were not yet a capitalist society. But with the Industrial Revolution, stemmed a "new" class of citizens to target for a profit.
    I believe this change was ultimately for the worst. Child labor laws, yes of course we needed them, and although I think they were created with the best of intentions and with the interest of the children in mind; they have evolved into a method of control rather than merely protection.
    The elaborateness of "childhood" today has functioned as an oppressive factor for mothers, children, and even fathers. All driven by the cultural emphasis of materialist "needs" of eight year-olds and the assumed "innocence" of children.
    I completely agree with you Mr. March, "childhood" is in desperate need for a redefinition. Perhaps this time society will take a materialistic point of view rather than a patriarchal and capitalist one.

  7. Hi Anonymous,

    Thanks a lot for taking the time to comment.

    Here's another thought. In this day and age, many children have their own bedrooms. A few generations ago, this wasn't the case at all. In fact, a lot of families still have to have two or three children share a bedroom.

    I have even heard some parents squabble over this fact. Divorced mothers get upset that their ex-partners don't have two or three bedroom apartments to accommodate their children on the weekends.

    This seems silly to me. The best thing a child can have is two parents who work together for the best interest of the child. Even if those two parents are divorced.

    Thanks for the comment!