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  • Print publication year: 2020
  • Online publication date: October 2020

1 - Cultivating Childhood

Summary

The interactions between age groups are an integral aspect of family life. Yet, the intergenerational nature of families, and how this relates to the process of change over time, has attracted little attention. A generational perspective, therefore, provides an opportunity to reassess experiences of childhood, while exposing the chronology of change that underpins the wider investigation. Attention is focused upon the new style of children's literature that emerged during the 1740s, and the chapter follows the children who first read these books into early adulthood, by which time they were buying such reading material for their own offspring. This reveals two generational shifts that, in combination, transformed perceptions of childhood.

It is more than half a century since Philippe Ariès wrote of the ‘discovery of childhood’ in early modern Europe, and this pioneering work has been as influential as it is contested. Following in the footsteps of Ariès, Lawrence Stone argued that in England the ‘true nature’ of childhood emerged alongside ‘an era of growing individualism and permissiveness’ from the late seventeenth century onwards. This was then followed by a wave of moral reforms that began in the 1770s, leading to more austere paternal authority. Stone provoked controversy from the outset and virtually every pillar of his thesis has been demolished, but his underlying assertion that familial relationships were changing fundamentally has proved stubbornly resilient. Claims of continuity tend to focus upon either end of the century, disregarding the intervening period, or concluding that any change was superficial when compared to an underlying stability in childhood experiences. Mapping generational transition challenges any such notion of continuity, but no attempt is made to identify the moment at which the ‘modern child’ was born, or to seek out ‘modern’ aspects of childhood. Many of the features we associate with children were evidently present long before 1700, including the idea that they should be loved and protected by the adults around them. This is not to suggest that parallels with earlier times can be used to assume an unchanging biological imperative, nor should they be reduced to teleological stepping-stones on a linear path to modernity. The meanings ascribed to cultural habits are historically contingent, and a generational perspective brings this temporal specificity to the fore.

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