02 May

The Evolution of Childhood

When discussing education, it is important to first understand the context and environment as well as the forces--physical, social, political, and psychological-- operating within in that environment. For this post, we take a quick look across the history of the childhood and how it was perceived over the course of the last few centuries. We focus on Western (and predominantly American history) to create a frame of reference to help us build pertinent and effective educational materials that address the needs of the current environment many of us find ourselves living in.

What we find is that a history of changing ideologies of parents and parenting in the West, have produced a psycho-class perpetuating the crisis of self. With issues of anxiety, depression, trust, and self-esteem, the children of today and the adults of tomorrow increasingly struggle to develop personalities with a durable sense of self that is both independently secure and socially compatible. For Muslim children living in the West, we add on layers of added confusion. (read more in "A Ghazalean take on Personality Development.")

Politicizing Childhood

Families have always been a crucial institution of society and civilization because of their role in socializing children, who are the future members of any society. It is through child-rearing that individuals adopt a worldview—i.e. the cultural norms, mores, and notions about the self and its relation to society. Children are habituated with structures and routines to build ontological security (the mental stability that comes with the ability to find meaning and purpose in life) as well as social empathy.

Many researchers even “believe that children’s attachment to their parents, and then to others, is the beginning of morality”—that the sense of self and social awareness as a young child is instrumental in his future ability to be a harmonious member of a community. It is as a young child that humans learn prosocial behaviors—i.e. to “protect, cooperate, and even sacrifice for each other.”[1] 

As a logical result, child-rearing has always carried ideological weight. Disconnected from broader kinship networks and with diminishing trust of traditional knowledge, modern parents have lost confidence in themselves and their ability to raise healthy, stable, and moral children and increasingly seek advice from external ‘professional’ sources. However, political and economic ideologies have historically worked their way into child-rearing advice particularly in the West where, without a stable moral basis, advice has changed to reflect the most immediate issues and tensions experienced by a society at large.[2] 


A Quick History of Childhood

According to Hugh Cunningham, an expert on social history, the history of childhood more than any other branch of history “has been shaped by the concerns of the world in which historians live in.” It is the anxiety about how children are raised, “about the nature of children (angels or monsters?), about the forces, primarily commercialism, impinging on them, and about the rights and responsibilities that should be accorded to them” that have preoccupied the Western world for the last few centuries.[3] 

While contemporary discussions on childhood often veer into liberal discussions on the agency, rights, and freedom of children, historically discussions of childhood have been heavily influenced by Plato who said learning is a recollection of previously known Forms, and Aristotle who believed child-rearing was essentially the basis of moral development. These two philosophers emphasized the role of child-rearing as the basis of building an ideal community—raising a future citizen of the state. Child-rearing for both philosophers was an intentional process of education in the home and in society to instill a particular character in line with social harmony. A principle that is harmonious with Islamic thought in terms of the purpose behind early childhood tarbiyya. 

After Plato and Aristotle, the most famous childhood theorist was Philippe Aries with his central claims that “parental investment” varies over time and space, and that the actual behavior of parents is dependent on the way they themselves have been socialized in their cultures. Aries’ suggestion that cultural influence determines the meaning for ideas like childhood, parental responsibility, abuse, and neglect.

In medieveal society, Aries debates whether the concept of childhood even exists. He suggests that it wasn’t until the rise of modernity that education paired with religious reform altered the concept and approach to childhood and childrearing to something more akin to what we would recognize today.

The historian Steven Mintz examines contemporary American childhood. He focuses on how “every aspect of childhood—including children's household responsibilities, play, schooling, relationships with parents and peers, and paths to adulthood—has been transformed over the past four centuries.” He categorizes the changes of childhood in the last four hundred years in three broad categories:

Chronologically speaking, the concept of ‘modern’ childhood emerged in the middle of the 18th century with a set of new attitudes that saw it as a distinct stage of life requiring special care and institutions to protect it.

Changing Perceptions of 'Children' in Western History 

18th Century:

  • Enlightenment encouraged & normalized advice-giving and -seeking in child-rearing matters—beginning of expertly written advice manuals being published for the masses
  • With the influence of John Locke, there was a break from the traditional Christian idea of original sin and a pivot to perceiving children as a tabula rasa (a blank slate) whose development into a socialized adult depended on the environment of his upbringing.[4] 


19th Century

  • Industrialization and urbanization of life led to separation of life into 2 spheres: public and private.
  • Growing acceptance of the concept of sheltered childhood: i.e. prolonged residence of young people in the parental home, longer periods of formal schooling, invention of the stages of adolescence at the turn of the 20th century. 
  • Darwin’s influence--child-rearing began to be seen as ‘a hazardous activity’ where one mistake could result in the failure of a child to evolve into a mature adult-->parenting becomes a "science" with experts
  • The Age of New Imperialism—new compulsory systems of education with the aim of creating literate, useful and law-abiding citizens with a strong sense of nationalism is implemented in Western countries--> introduction of early childhood education programs to expose children to socialization process at an increasingly young age (i.e. preschool, nursery school, day care, pre-primary, and Montessori) 

20th Century 

Postmodern childhood – debates on proper and successful parenting & increasing responsibility created anxiety within society— recurrent moral panics over children's wellbeing (i.e. 1950s polio outbreak, late 1960's and early 1970's –the so-called sexual revolution, the drug epidemic, the women's movement, the breakdown of the conventional two-parent family, the spread of psychoanalytic thinking and the proliferation of television, the internet, social media).

These panics were “more metaphorical than representational” and children have been used “as a lightning rod for America's anxieties about society as a whole.” Society projects its “fears and anxieties onto the young and [has repeatedly] instituted desperate measures to protect them from exaggerated menaces.”[3]

  • Moral Panics[5] (see more on the MuslimBlog post The Evolution of Family)
    • Ex. the Pilgrims who were fearful that "their posterity would be in danger to degenerate and be corrupted" in the Old World.
    • Ex. 1920s-1930s: self-help books became all the rage as American confidence was at a catastrophic low. A new trend of mothers’ abandoning historic forms of ‘maternal instinct’ as doctors, psychiatrists, and other authorities meticulously regulated child-parent contact condemning “maternal overprotection” and urging “parents of respect the child’s emotional independence.”[1] A major consequence of experts taking child-rearing out of the hands of parents is the interference with traditional stages of attachment, especially to the mother.
    • Ex. the (often justified) panic in response to illnesses like polio in the 1950s or the current panic and debate over vaccines in the US 
    • Ex. women’s liberation movement, women rejected “their roles as child-women and objected to being protected and treated” as such. In projecting their own desire to be emotionally independent from their husbands, women began, “perhaps unconsciously at first, to encourage their children to be independent and assertive.” As such, the child was gradually “enlisted as an accomplice in his own upbringing” and childrearing transformed from “the benevolent despotism it had been for centuries” into “a more perilous, more collaborative, more democratic process, one that [parents] felt instinctively was beyond their powers to pull off successfully.”[6]
  • Culture war-pitting advocates of a "protected" childhood, seeking to shield children from adult realities, against proponents of a "prepared" childhood seeking to expose children to adult realities indiscriminately to prepare them for the future 
  • Default into Age of Preparedness--> society inadvertently expedites integration of children into adult culture through media outlets
  • Increased outsourcing of parenting to professionals (therapists, self-help books, television, youtube, early schooling etc.)

Today, much more than in the past, guilt-ridden, uncertain parents worry that their children not suffer from boredom, low self-esteem, or excessive school pressures. Fear over a new set of modern anxieties related to children’s personality development, gender identity, and their ability to interact with peers have been added to a list of growing concerns for modern parents.

A Timeline of the Changing Conceptions of Childhood in the West

Scholars in the West continue to debate whether it is better to view childhood as a distinct phase of life necessitating parental protection, or to prepare children to deal with the inevitable world of smartphones and social media where parental supervision is limited if at all possible. In other words, Western scholarship is still arrested in defining childhood.

By mapping the turbulent history of childhood in the West, we find a long-standing inability of modern Western society to understand themselves and children.The MuslimTeach perception of childhood and child-rearing takes from a rich Islamic history and scholarship on the nature of man, the fitra, and the stages of human development from our own faith tradition (particularly the hadith and sunnah) that not only addresses the contemporary protection-versus-preparation debate, but also provides a more stable conception of childhood.

Subscribe to the MuslimTeach blog to learn more on how Muslims over the last millenium have understood, defined, and dealt with childhood as well as how the evolution of family affects our ability to be parents.

This blog post was adapted from Arif, Sarosh. (2018) “Ghazali’s Personality Theory: A Study On The Importance Of Humility In Early Childhood,” (Masters Thesis).

[1] Berger, K.S.(2012).The developing person through childhood (8th edition). New York, NY:Worth Publishers. p296

[2] Fass, Paula S.(2004). Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood: in History and Society, Macmillan Reference USA

[3] Cunningham, Hugh. (1998). “Histories of Childhood.” The American Historical Review, vol. 103, no. 4, p. 1195

[4] Gill, Natasha. ( 2010). Educational Philosophy in the French Enlightenment: From Nature to Second Nature. Farnham: Ashgate.

[5] Mintz, Steven. (2006). Huck's Raft: a History of American Childhood.

[6] Winn, Marie. (1983). “The Loss Of Childhood. “The New York Times. www.nytimes.com/1983/05/08/magazine/the-loss-of-childhood.html


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