Prior to the 19th century the role of children had been steadily growing in cultural importance. From the middle ages to the enlightenment the nature of the child and of childhood itself was debated in both religious and social circles with varying degrees of interest. The first books that can be safely said to belong to children came out of this period. These were highly didactic, moral works designed for the benefit of the child’s souls and his (and to a lesser degree her) proper standing in a Christian society. By the end of 18th century renewed emphasis was placed on the study of childhood with the eras greatest minds turning their attention to the issue of what to do with the child. This was no simple question as childhood itself had never been defined in any meaningful way. For the most part children were either ignored or understood to be little different from adults in anything other than intellect and capacity for work.
In 1762 Jean-Jacques Rousseau published what he considered his masterwork, Emile, or on Education. Emile was intended to be a philosophical and political study of the nature of the individual and his society and as such was not so much concerned with childhood as with the proper way to rise up a child. To accomplish this Rousseau employed the narrative of a boy, Emile and his tutor making it the first Bildungsroman (a novel of education and growth). Emile was met with public scorn and was publically burned. However its lasting legacy is that it inspired a new way of thinking not only about education but about children in a more secular temperament. High toned moral instruction would last another 100 years but from 1762 onward interest in childhood as a special state of being would only increase.
By the middle of the 19th century this interest had reached epic proportions. It has rightly been dubbed the nursery age or the age of childhood as the entire focus of society began to withdraw inward towards the family, taking for its example Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s domestic habits and at the center was the child. This new place of prominence along with the rising middle class and its accompanying leisure time and a marked decrease in child mortality meant that the child could focus on being a child for the first time. And parents could focus on their children in ways never before possible, or imagined.
None of this happened in a vacuum. There were many factors in which contributed in ways both large and small to the culture of childhood. I have selected seven contributing factors which I believe to be the most important for the creation of and perpetuation of the concept of childhood that is familiar to us today and will discuss each in more detail in days to come.
Religious upheavals diminished the importance of dogmatic morality.
Social awareness created child protection legislation.
Scientific Advancement fueled exploration.
The emergence of the Middle Classes and its constituent leisure time.
The re-emergence of imperialism which took the exploration fostered under the scientific revolution and pushed it into the 20th century.
The monarchy of Queen Victoria.
Increased quality of life and decrease in child mortality