Anne here. Most of us would assume that childhood was more or less the same for kids no matter what time or place they were born in, and while in one sense that's true, there's also a theory that childhood is a modern invention.
This theory first arose in the 1960's, when a French historian, Phillipe Ariès (and others) presented arguments that it was only in recent times that children were treated quite differently from adults, and that in medieval times, for instance, they were treated as small adults. "In medieval society, the idea of childhood did not exist." It's an interesting theory, I think, and worth exploring a little.
In his book Centuries of Childhood, Ariès presented the case that "attitudes towards children were progressive, and evolved over time with economic change and social advancement, until childhood, as a concept and an accepted part of family life, came into being in the seventeenth century."
Partly this was because of high rates of infant and child mortality — children were regarded as too weak to be counted and could disappear at any time. But as soon as as soon as they could live without the help of their mothers or other carers, economic, cultural and social forces caused children to be regarded as small, slightly inferior adults.
Today we think of childhood as a time to play, a time where young minds should be encouraged to explore and grow and where, above all, children's innocence should be protected and valued. Children in the past didn't have this luxury. Their lives were full of duty and work and responsibilities, whether they helped their family in the fields, or at home, in workplaces, or the streets, or sent away to sea — many went at the tende age of seven.
If from a wealthier background they might be sent be "fostered" in another noble household, also at seven years of age. Imagine being sent away to "seek your fortune" at such a young age. Today we think of children that age as still almost babies. Girls were trained in the domestic arts from the moment they could hold a broom or a needle, and the daughters of the aristocracy could be sent away, betrothed from childhood to find their place in a foreign household or land, often thrown into an atmosphere thick with politics.
Philosophies began to emerged in the 17th century that described childhood as a time of precious innocence. They asserted that children were vulnerable beings who should be protected and guided by the adults around them.
But despite these theories, life for most children did not noticeably change. The children of the poor continued to work for their daily bread (or not) and the children of the nobility continued to be bargained in marriage and sent out into the world to do their duty and manage as best they could.
In the 18th and 19th centuries modern notions of childhood had begun to emerge. Rousseau described childhood as "a brief period of sanctuary before people encounter the perils and hardships of adulthood." Educational and cultural innovations and the arts of the day reflected these new enlightened attitudes toward young children. In the Victorian era, the middle and upper classes emphasized family values and the sanctity of the child.
Schools were opened, children were trained, and asylumns like the Foundling Hospital in London were established in an attempt to protect unwanted and abandoned children, who would otherwise grow up —or not—on the streets.
Toys were invented — special child-oriented items, made especially for children to play with — radical idea! In the Victorian era, there was a boom in factory-made toys; tin toys, clockwork toys, train sets, toy soldiers. There were rocking horses, dolls and doll's houses, tea-sets and toy shops with toy fruit and vegetables—there were even meat shops, toy shops selling hats and medicines.
There were educational toys like alphabet bricks and counting games. Sailing boats were popular, the manufacture of jigsaw puzzles boomed. In many homes, children were not allowed toys on Sundays – except Noah's Ark, because that was in the Bible.
Paintings idealizing childhood, and portraits of children pursuing childlike pursuits became extremely fashionable. This 1788 painting by Sir Joshua Reynolds was called The Age of Innocence and was immensely popular with the public.
Yet the reality of life for thousands of children in Victorian England was utterly, horribly different. And child mortality for the poor remained high. It took a long time for the laws to change and for children in the western world to be protected under the law.
Consider this description: "Children became the city’s most visible laborers, because they worked in the city’s most visible place: the streets. The boys sold newspapers, blacked boots, scavenged for junk, and shuttled messages and goods. Girls scavenged, too, and watched their younger siblings from the stoop. “Little mothers,” they were called."
Sounds like a third world country, doesn't it? It's New York at the turn of the century. It wasn't really until after World War 2 that children in most developed countries ceased to be regarded as economic assets and expected to earn their way.
There are several articles here that you might find interesting: this one, which explains how important child slavery in England was to economic development. And this one about how a bunch of kids, aged 7-12 took on William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.
Childhood is indeed a modern "invention." It's also a developed world phenomena; millions of children in poor, third world countries are still living much as children did centuries ago, working, being exploited, having responsibilities, earning their daily bread and more. History is not all in the past —it remains with us still, if you know where to look.
So cast your mind back to when you were a child. Were you expected to do chores or work from a young age? Tell us about it. What was your most hated chore? And what was your favorite toy?