Down with Childhood, Part 1 of 3

This, and the next two posts in this series, will be an attempt to grapple with perhaps the most radical part of The Dialectic of Sex, the argument that our construction of childhood is oppressive, and that children have an interest in ‘liberation’ from it. I will proceed in three steps, two in this post and the third split between the next two.

Step 1: Make childhood conspicuous.

The issue is not whether we should treat people who are very young differently from peope who are older – obviously we should, we should respond appropriately to their distinctive features. But this response could take many forms, only one of which is childhood – childhood defined here as something like “a set of institutions such that two categories of people emerge, each with their separate ‘world’ – separate clothes, activities, expectations, forming more-or-less complete environments more-or-less physically separated from each other.” Firestone mentions in passing the more recent development of ‘tennagers’ as an intermedate grouping, but doesn’t discuss them in much detail.

Think of it like this: if I say ‘I saw someone on a unicycle today’, most listeners would feel misled if I then revealed that person to be 6 years old, but not if I revealed them to be 20, 30, 40, or 50. ‘Person’ can be understood as a single idea which does not include children but which does include 20-year-olds together with 50-year-olds. We can understand ‘person’ or ‘woman’ or ‘man’ without knowing whether the person in question is 20 or 70, but we find it perplexing to speak of a ‘human’ without knowing if it is 8 or 28. We see an image of ‘man, woman, boy, girl’, four stick-figures, two large, two small, two with trousers and broad shoulders, two with dresses, as an image of ‘completeness’. Yes, we think, those are the types of people that there are.

Plenty of alternative categorisations are possible. For example, if in many past societies voting rights belonged only to those ruling-class people above the age of 30, and given that plenty of people in their 20s are very immature, we might have two classes split around the 30-mark. Or, to emulate most historical societies, we could abolish ‘teenagerdom’ and treat 13-year-olds as adults – after all, Jewish  boys still have a Bar Mitzvah, an ‘initiation into manhood’, at that age.

Or, to use the most obvious and probably the most sensible approach, we might contract ‘childhood’ down so that the key transition was around the age of two: that is, there are babies, who cannot walk, or speak, and then there are people, whose skills and emotional maturity vary greatly (remember, “growing old is mandatory, growing up is optional”).

Or we might have any number of other approaches. After all, the difference between a 15-year-old and a 20-year-old, one legally a child and one legally an adult, is hardly greater than that between 2 and 5, 5 and 8, 8 and 12, 12 and 15. Not to mention that individuals mature at very different rates.Why force them all into one standard anyway?

Step 2: Discuss the history. Firestone devotes a lot of time to trying to show that childhood is a relatively recent invention, existing in Europe for only a few centuries. Since this helps to put things in context, I’ll try to briefly run through the account she gives (based on work by someone called Phillipe Ariés).

In the Middle Ages, she says, there was no such thing as childhood. Young people  were not the equals of adults, but they moved in adult society. They did not play children’s games, they played society’s games. They did not listen to children’s stories, they listened to society’s stories. They did not wear children’s clothes, they wore the clothes appropriate for their station and sex.

They pursued those activities that would prepare them for the task they would fulfil in adulthood, activities designed to bring them into that task as soon as possible. Usually this involved, for boys, some form of apprenticeship in a craft under a master. Higher-born boys would become novices in a monastic order, or would be attended by tutors and instructors. In every case, to learn specialist knowledge, they would enter into the specific institutions of that specialism, and mingle with adults who could instruct them in it.

The family was correspondingly looser – its principal task being to pass the land and wealth of a certain name down its line, it was both large and open, but also fixed into the general structure of society. The son of the local lord didn’t need to spend all their time around his mother and father (indeed he probably spent more time with his instructors, wetnurse, servants, and other family members) in order to distinguish him from the sons of the local serfs, because he was a little lord, and they were little serfs, and they all knew that this was what they were going to do in their lives.

With the rise of the bourgeoisie, starting in the 14th, 15th, and 16th centuries and then only advancing, there emerged the nuclear family. In place of large, sprawling families that formed stable enduring parts of a static social order, there were small, tight families that moved as little ‘atoms’ in a social order based on constant change and ‘rational self-interest’. Only by creating this smaller but correspondingly more intense version of the family could the sexual division of labour (public work, politics, and culture vs. childrearing, housekeeping, and reproduction) be maintained.

But with a so much smaller family, so isolated from surrounding society, children, who still had to carry on the family name and property and bring their fathers ‘immortality’, were at risk of being insufficiently rooted in their family, of being too independent of it. They needed to be made more dependent on it. Social structures needed to actively strengthen and reinforce their natural weakness and dependence, rather than trying to mitigate and overcome it as fast as possible.

As a result, ‘childhood’ emerged. Special toys for children, special games, special books, special clothes. A special way of talking (baby-talk, patronising sing-song) and not talking (‘not in front of the children’, ‘babies are brought by a stork’, ‘I’ll tell you when you’re older’). An ideology that emphasised children as innocent, vulnerable, and fragile, not to mention completely asexual.

To institutionalise childhood, the school emerged. Firestone argues that schools had little relationship to existing centres of learning, like the monasteries, or the guilds, which brought children and adults together in their shared specialism, nor to the renaissance culture of humanism, science, and art. Rather, she says, they grew out of the moralistic discourse of discipline and purity, of children as needing to be both protected in their innocence and moulded into obedience from their natural unruliness. Clergymen and social reformers railed about the risks of masturbation and delinquency, and the need to simultaneously protect and control children. This paralleled the development of modern prisons, asylums, and workhouses.

Something Firestone emphasises is that this processes was applied first of all only to some children – male, upper-class ones. They were the first to have special clothes, they were the first to go to school, often by a gap of several centuries. Firestone argues that this is not simply because going to school was a ‘privilege’ that only the most powerful received. Rather, it is because the purpose of chilhood was to create an oppressed class, and so it was need principally for those who were not already members of an oppressed class. Girls didn’t need a new set of clothes to differentiate them from women, because they shared women’s oppression. Boys did (indeed for a while young boys would wear female clothes before ‘graduating’ to male ones) because their oppressed child-selves needed to be differentiated from their privileged adult selves. As women and the working class successfully agitated for greater power, they too came to be included in ‘childhood’ – but even today, the greatest freedom belongs to lower-class children, children of the ghettoes.

Step 3: Argue.

This post is long enough, so I’ll leave an actual engagement with the case against childhood for my next couple of posts. The two primary justifications for our various ways of segregating children are that 1) children are ignorant and need to be taught, and 2) children are vulnerable and need to be protected. Firestone argues, as I will argue, that in fact childhood retards children’s development, and does more damage to children than it protects them from. The next post will deal with the learning issue, specifically in relation to schools. The one after that will then deal with the protection issue, specifically in relation to the legal status of children: minority, guardianship, age-of-consent, child labour, etc.

6 Responses to “Down with Childhood, Part 1 of 3”

  1. kb Says:

    “After all, the difference between a 15-year-old and a 20-year-old, one legally a child and one legally an adult, is hardly greater than that between 2 and 5, 5 and 8, 8 and 12, 12 and 15” I’m going to call bull on that one. there is a much bigger mental and physical difference between most 2 and 5 year olds than 15 and twenty. a 5 year old has over double the life experience of a 2 year old, where as a 20 year old only has a third more than a 15 year old. While there can be differences in what that expereience matters, especially for very young children, this huge difference in experiences can’t really be avoided. Only minimized with time. There are some very interesting reconceptions of childhood here, but that one disconnects with reality.

  2. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “there is a much bigger mental and physical difference between most 2 and 5 year olds than 15 and twenty”

    Right. Which is why it’s odd to have 2, 5, and 15 in one category and 20 in another.

  3. kb Says:

    but the argument as written was that there wasn’t a greater difference. anyway. You’re right it’s odd-and that’s a weakness of laws in general. they have to be written such that they can apply equally to everyone and such that you can tell how they apply to you and or to people you come in contact with without getting to truly know them. Which leaves you with trying to pick an simple trait-age-to stand in for the more complex one of maturity and development and life experience. Did Firestone offer a different way to figure out what developmental level we should be responding with?

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    The argument, which may not have been totally clear, was that the view embodied in our social practices, that the 15-20 difference is bigger than the 2-5 difference, is perhaps a bit silly, and certainly not obvious. The point was not so much to argue in any direction, just to try and illuminate that the way we deal with childhood is not the sole possible, obviously necessary, way, but a contingent system among other possibilities, so that it could then be discussed as such.

  5. yahia Says:

    “But with a so much smaller family, so isolated from surrounding society, children, …, were at risk of being insufficiently rooted in their family, of being too independent of it.”

    I don’t really see the link between the first and the second part of this sentence… In fact I think the consequence expressed in the second part would rather be the opposite, am I wrong?

  6. rockwell sonicrafter Says:

    Thank you for sharing the details. I found the details very helpful.


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