The Roots of Child Study: Philosophy, History, and Religion


by David Kennedy - 2000

This paper offers an approach to child study that moves beyond the traditional modern domains of medicine, education, and the social sciences, to explore the representation and symbolization of the child in philosophy, social and cultural history, myth and spirituality, art, literature, and psychoanalysis. It considers childhood as a cultural and historical construction, and traces the ways in which characterizations of children function symbolically as carriers of deep assumptions about human nature and its potential variability and changeability, about the construction of human subjectivity, about the ultimate meaning of the human life cycle, and about human forms of knowledge. The child as limit condition--as representing for adults the boundaries of the human--that is, "nature," animality, madness, the "primitive," the divine--is re-evoked continually in modern and postmodern symbolizations, and the tension between reason and nature or instinct, or Enlightenment and Romance, is never far from their surface. Finally, the extent to which the construction of "child" also implies a construction of "adult" is explored in the context of the history of culture and of child rearing, particularly in the rise of the modern middle-class European adult personality, which defined itself on the basis its distance from childhood--both the child before it, and the child within. An ideal of adult maturity that includes rather than excludes childhood is capable of transforming our notions of optimal child rearing and education.

This paper offers an approach to child study that moves beyond the traditional modern domains of medicine, education, and the social sciences, to explore the representation and symbolization of the child in philosophy, social and cultural history, myth and spirituality, art, literature, and psychoanalysis. It considers childhood as a cultural and historical construction, and traces the ways in which characterizations of children function symbolically as carriers of deep assumptions about human nature and its potential variability and changeability, about the construction of human subjectivity, about the ultimate meaning of the human life cycle, and about human forms of knowledge. The child as limit condition—as representing for adults the boundaries of the human—that is, “nature,” animality, madness, the “primitive,” the divine—is re-evoked continually in modern and postmodern symbolizations, and the tension between reason and nature or instinct, or Enlightenment and Romance, is never far from their surface. Finally, the extent to which the construction of “child” also implies a construction of “adult” is explored in the context of the history of culture and of child rearing, particularly in the rise of the modern middle-class European adult personality, which defined itself on the basis of its distance from childhood—both the child before it, and the child within. An ideal of adult maturity that includes rather than excludes childhood is capable of transforming our notions of optimal child rearing and education.

INTRODUCTION: WHAT IS THE PHILOSOPHY OF CHILDHOOD?


Child study as an academic activity is usually thought of as the natural domain of pediatrics, psychology, sociology, and education. But with the exception of education, none of those disciplines are more than a few hundred years old, and children have been around somewhat longer than that. Some philosophers of childhood go so far as to see the historical hegemony of psychology and sociology in child study that arose at the turn of the twentieth century as an impediment to genuine inquiry, because, like their hard science counterparts, they are so implicitly wedded to socially instrumental aims. Valerie Polokow, for example, speaks in The Erosion of Childhood (1982) of “the plethora of social psychological epistemologies” that “all attest in varying degrees to the impositional structures of consciousness that an adult world of ‘experts’ has unquestioningly brought to bear upon this life phase of childhood . . .” (p. 21). Gareth Matthews, in a recent book entitled The Philosophy of Childhood (1996), warns us about the epistemological status of scientific models of childhood. “We should be on the lookout,” he says, “for what a given model may encourage us to overlook, or misunderstand, as well as for what the model may help us to understand better” (p. 26).


Neither Polokow nor Matthews is objecting to the scientific study of childhood per se, but to a form of human science that is not philosophically reflective—that does not examine its own assumptions, and thereby becomes a form of cultural imposition. One task of the philosophy of childhood is to reveal and clarify those assumptions. To do so promises to disentangle the study of childhood from its institutional matrix in the scientific establishment, at least to the extent to which the latter naively serves the prevailing social, economic, and political order. The outcomes of this project of disentanglement have potentially far-reaching practical implications for the future of child rearing, education, and the way adults think about children’s rights.


The philosophy of childhood may be thought of as a subregion of the philosophy of persons. It emerges at a moment in the history of the field when the critique of Western metaphysics is paralleled by the critique of white adult male hegemony in the philosophical tradition and by an opening to “voices from the margins,” including those of women and of non-Western forms of knowledge.


The philosophy of childhood tends to fall within two realms of discourse. First, it is an inquiry into what adults can know about children and the experience of childhood. This is represented by questions like: What is it to be a child? Just what kind of difference is the difference between children and adults? To what extent is childhood as we know it a historical and cultural construct? What are the hidden or unexamined assumptions underlying the explanatory constructs that adults apply to children? How does the construct “childhood” function in adult self-understanding, and in the history of culture and thought? What are the similarities and differences between the ways children and adults know the world?


The second realm of the philosophy of childhood is related to the first through this last question about knowledge. If children, for whatever reasons, do know the world differently—if children’s knowledge is not just a weaker, or sketchier, or more rudimentary version of adults’—then what can they tell us? This is where the notion of child as a voice from the margins, hitherto excluded from adult discourse, and therefore from adult self-understanding, comes in.


The concepts “child” and “adult” are a mutually necessary contrastive pair. As there is no notion of “old” without a notion of “young,” “child” is unthinkable apart from “adult.” If everyone were born and remained “children,” the term would no longer have any meaning; the same is true if we were all born and remained “adults.” Thus, any philosophical inquiry into childhood is also necessarily an inquiry into adulthood. The concrete implications of this reflexive aspect of the inquiry into childhood are particularly significant, for they suggest that the adult who understands children and the conditions of childhood better understands him-or herself. Improved self-understanding leads to the possibility of a positive evolution of the adult-child relation in society; and it follows from the polar structure of the relation that adults who learn to identify and serve the needs of children with more sensitivity and precision learn to do so for each other as well.


The philosophy of childhood is both enriched and complicated by the discovery that childhood has meant and can mean different things to children and adults in different cultures and historical periods. The widespread documentation of variations in the cultural meanings of childhood began with the rise of cultural anthropology early in the twentieth century; the historical dimension has only begun to be investigated in the last 30 years, in the new field of study called history of childhood (Bellingham, 1988; Elder, et al., 1993; Hunt, 1970; Sommerville, 1982). To discover that “childhood” is at least to some degree a historically and culturally mediated social construct is to question, first of all, to just what degree it can be mediated. How much can childhood change over time, or differ from culture to culture, and still be what we call childhood? Are there clear and unambiguous universal criteria for calling someone a child? Is childhood a “hard” category, or could we imagine a culture or historical period in which either children thought, felt, and acted more like adults, or, conversely, adults thought, felt, and acted more like children? Just what do we mean by the current phrase, “disappearance of childhood” (Postman, 1982)?


The questions raised by our contemporary situation of ever-increasing cultural and historical intervisibility also touch on gender construction. Are children “male” and “female” in the same way that adults are? What are the limits of difference in the gendering of the two sexes, and what is the role of childhood in the gendering process? Then there is the question of just what drives and patterns historical change in the way adults construct and reconstruct childhood. Can we call the change we have noticed so far an “evolution”? (deMause, 1974). Can we make normative judgments about what constitutes positive change? Finally, if “child” and “adult” are indeed in polar conceptual relation, it follows that if childhood changes and varies, so necessarily does adulthood. If this is the case, what is the calculus of that mutual change? Is there some normative balance between the two that we recognize as inherently good, ethical, healthy, functional, etc.? Is there an inherent teleology of the adult-child relation? Is there a “model” adult? Is there a “model” child? If so, how are the two related?


The questions triggered by historical and cross-cultural inquiry into childhood move us beyond the philosophy of childhood in any narrow academic sense of the term “philosophy.” They imply a further inquiry into the representation of children and childhood by adults in social and cultural history, in mythology and the history of spirituality, in the history of art and literature, in psychoanalytic theory, and in the history of science and of education. The images of children that we find in these fields are myriad and suggestive—for example the “divine child” archetype of ancient myth and Jungian psychology (Jung, 1963); the character of Pearl in Hawthorne’s (1994/1850) Scarlet Letter; the representation of children in the photography of Ralph Meatyard (1970), or Sally Mann (1993); Freud’s notion of the psychosexual stages of early childhood (Freud, 1957), or Emerson’s (1965) characterization of infancy as the “perpetual Messiah.” All of these images have an iconographic function: in each characterization, “child” functions symbolically as a carrier of deep assumptions about human nature and its potential variability and changeability, about the construction of human subjectivity, about the ultimate meaning of the human life cycle, and about human forms of knowledge.


What follows is the result of a historical inquiry into the iconography of childhood in adult Western representation. It traces out only one region of the philosophy of childhood, but one which it seems to me to be necessary to explore before finding our way into others. It establishes a historical and cultural context for further inquiry, and reveals to us the wealth of prejudgments that we bring to any form of child study. It is a probe into the deep assumptions—the symbolisms—that we carry into our everyday dialogue with the child’s forms of life. It demonstrates in a vivid, direct way both our distance from and our nearness to childhood, not only in terms of our relations with children as parents, teachers, caregivers, and researchers, but in terms of our own adult subjectivity. I will concentrate on representations of childhood in philosophy, social and cultural history, and mythology, religion, art, literature and psychoanalysis. One might as easily focus on child symbolization in the history of educational thought and practice, the history of science, legal history, or the representation of children in the media. Each area of focus can lead us to better see how children have been and are imagined differently by adults. It is assumed that the deconstruction of the images that we so often take as foundational in our contemporary approach to children has implications for the way we construct the world for them: in our day-to-day relationships, our institutional structures, our educational theory and practice, and our deliberations on and formulation of policy.

THE CHILD OF THE PHILOSOPHERS


Looking back to the foundations of the Western philosophical tradition, the child does not fare particularly well in adult male construction (we do not hear from the females). Plato (1941) considered children—along with women, slaves, and the “inferior multitude”—to be liable to the “great mass of multifarious appetites and pleasures and pains” (p. 125) of the naturally immoderate. In his influential construal of the human soul as a dynamic combination—or “community”—of reason, will, and appetite, children are exemplars of the untamed appetite and the uncontrolled will. “They are full of passionate feelings from their very birth” (p. 138). The “boy, . . . just because he more than any other has a fount of intelligence in him which has not yet ‘run clear,’ . . . is the craftiest, most mischievous, and unruliest of brutes. So the creature must be held in check. . . .” (1961, p. 1379). For Plato, children’s only virtue appears to be that they are “easily molded,” that is, they are capable of being made into adults.


Aristotle (1962) develops Plato’s argument by showing just how the community of self is skewed in children. The preponderance of the appetitive nature in childhood either leads to or is a result of the lack of the capacity of choice, or “moral agency,” meaning the ability to deliberately engage in an action toward a final end, or “some kind of activity of the soul in conformity with virtue.” For this reason the child cannot be called “happy”; and if we do call him happy, “we do so by reason of the hopes we have for his future” (1962, p. 23).


Aristotle seems to be engaging in something like what Erik Erikson (1965) called “subspeciation,” or the attribution of ontological difference to racial, ethnic, or cultural variations, by the application of qualitative rather than quantitative distinctions. If the differences between adults and children are differences of kind rather than of degree, the child does not so much turn into an adult as be made into one. Aristotle’s and Plato’s analyses are first statements of a perennial symbolization of the child as both deficit and danger. Aristotle’s might even be read as an implicit theory of monsters, in the sense that children are “like” humans—“human” understood as adult, male, free-born, and governed by reason—but are not. They combine the same elements in a different—and deficient—mixture. It is true that the child, if not born a slave or a female, has the chance of becoming an adult—that is, a being in which reason is in right relation to will and appetite—whereas the woman and the slave never will. But the presence of deficit and danger make that transition problematic. So Erasmus (1990/1529), 1800 years after Aristotle, tells parents:


To be a true father, you must take absolute control of your son’s entire being; and your primary concern must be for that part of his character which distinguishes him from the animals and comes closest to reflecting the divine. . . . Is there any form of exposure more cruel than to abandon to bestial impulses children whom nature intended to be raised according to upright principles and to live a good life? (p. 67)


We can be virtually certain that the tendency to place children on a lower rung of the great chain of being was challenged—if not in common sense or theory, then in practice—time and time again throughout history by sympathetic parents, educators, and other adult observers. But nothing remains, to my knowledge, in the Western philosophical, medical, and educational record to decisively challenge what we might call the “deficit theory” until the publication of Rousseau’s (1979) Emile in 1763. Rousseau’s challenge is fitful and ambivalent, but it opens a space for the reversal of the deficit theory. This reversal finds full expression in the Romantic reformulation of the image of the child in the early nineteenth century as a type of “genius,” that is, a unified or integrated human being, not yet fallen into the psychological division that is characteristic of adulthood. The genius symbolization reoccurs continually in Romantic literature (Abrams, 1971) but is developed most forcefully by Wordsworth, Schiller, deQuincey, and Coleridge (Plotz, 1979). One of Novalis’ (1989) aphorisms is representative:


The first man is the first spiritual seer. To him, all appears as spirit. What are children, if not such primal ones? The fresh insight of children is more boundless than the presentiments of the most resolute prophets. (p. 50)


For the Romantic imagination, the child prophecies the highest goal of adult development. If the life cycle is understood as procession from a state of unity into division, and through division to a higher unity, then the child foreshadows and represents that higher unity. So Schiller (19660/1795), in Naive and Sentimental Poetry, says:


They are what we were; they are what we should once again become. We were nature just as they, and our culture, by means of reason and freedom, should lead us back to nature. They are, therefore, not only the representation of our lost childhood, which eternally remains most dear to us, but fill us with a certain melancholy. But they are also representations of our highest fulfillment in the ideal, thus evoking in us a sublime tenderness (p. 85).


In fact the Romantic reformulation of childhood in the early nineteenth century was not new to the history of the image of the child. As any powerful symbolic image is ambivalent, the counter-image of the child that Romanticism seized and developed was also present as early as Plato, and before that in Taoism and Christianity. It is the other side of the deficit/danger symbolization: the child as somehow more in touch with spiritual reality than the adult. In ancient Athens, for example, a child selected by lot played an important role as intermediary in the Eleusinian Mysteries, where he or she went before the initiates, making the first contact with the gods (Golden, 1990). As Mark Golden says of this practice, “It is children’s very marginality which makes their role appropriate. Not yet fully integrated into the social world of the polis, they are interested outsiders, a status they share with the gods with whom they intercede” (p. 44). Jesus’ sayings in the New Testament regarding young children, in which they were held up as exemplars of open spirituality, brings this counter-image squarely into Christianity. As early as 600 B.C., The Tao de Ching (Lao Tzu, 1990) identified the infant with the spiritual master: “He who is in harmony with the Tao is like a newborn child. Its bones are soft, its muscles are weak, but its grip is powerful.” And Pierre Erny (1973) summarizes African images of the child found in folktales: “Insensible, innocent, careless, unconscious, well-acquainted with the full condition of man, since he lives it, an ignorant being close to supreme wisdom, the child is thus a complete being, but closed, sealed, and impenetrable” (p. 88).


So there is a fundamental ambivalence—a double image—in the adult symbolization of childhood and children. Both sides of the image turn on the child as a liminal form of life, that is, a being at the threshold, still connected with “other worlds,” whether it be the world of the animal or of the god. It must be noted that this is characteristic of the prejudgments that cultural insiders—in Western patriarchy anyway—bring, not just to children, but to other forms of human difference. There is also a long tradition in the West of seeing women, the insane, and “natives” as embodying both deficit/danger and a connection with other worlds, whether those worlds be represented as extreme sensuality, extreme spirituality, or some combination of the two.


The perennial power of this projective relation of cultural insiders to the culturally marginalized is demonstrated yet again in recent postmodern formulations of childhood. In Derrida (1976) for example, the child appears to assume the same position of limit condition of the human, except that in this case it is in the interests of the deconstruction of the modern subject:


Man [sic] calls himself man only by drawing limits excluding his other from the play of supplementarity: the purity of nature, of animality, primitivism, childhood, madness, divinity. The approach to these limits is at once feared as a threat of death, and desired as access to a life without difference. (p. 245)


In his concern to deconstruct the notion of human subjectivity, Derrida makes a synthesis of the child of Aristotle and the child of the Romantics, while escaping the implications of both. For Aristotle, “man calls himself man” because he is ruled by reason. Aristotle’s “man” occupies a particular station on the hierarchical chain of being, and to both fear and desire “nature, . . . animality,” etc., would not be appropriate to the (true) nature of that station. For the Romantics on the other hand, “rational man” is merely a shrunken image of himself unless he is able to widen his subjectivity to the point where it incorporates “nature, . . . animality,” etc., if in a sublimated form. Derrida, on the other hand, sees the human subject as constructed in contrast to what it is not—its “other,” that is, “nature, . . . animality,” etc. Therefore it is never itself, but only the production of a paradoxical relation. His “child” symbolizes both the ultimate possible unification of the human subject—an “access to a life without difference”—and its loss to itself through that very unification. Lyotard (1992) evokes the Romantic side of this paradox without mitigating its pathos in his formulation of “infancy” as


. . . something that will never be defeated [by Western “emancipation” or “Enlightenment,” or “reason”], at least as long as humans will be born infants, infantes. Infantia is the guarantee that there remains an enigma in us, a not easily communicable opacity—that something is left that remains, and that we must bear witness to it. (p. 416)


The image of the child as limit condition is re-evoked continually in modern and postmodern conceptions, and the tension between reason and nature or instinct, or Enlightenment and Romance, is never far from their surfaces. The most influential philosopher of childhood of the twentieth century, Freud, combines the two interpretations of childhood that I have been tracing by identifying early childhood as the site of a struggle between what he calls primary process and secondary process, or the pleasure principle and the reality principle. For Freud, infantile narcissism, although doomed to disappear in adulthood, represents a state of psychological unification—of self and world, the within and the without—which is thoroughly, if perversely, Romantic. Perversely because in adult terms this unification appears as psychosis, that is, “a life without difference.” To become a functional adult, the child must be eradicated, if need be through psychoanalysis, which he describes as “a prolongation of education for the purposes of overcoming the residues of childhood” (1957, p. 48). On the other hand, Freud’s symbolization inevitably evokes the counter-image of childhood as original wholeness, spelled out, for example, in N. O. Brown’s (1959) classic interpretation of Freud’s basic meaning: “Our indestructible unconscious desire for a return to childhood, our deep childhood-fixation, is a desire for a return to the pleasure-principle, for a recovery of the body from which culture alienates us, and for play instead of work.” And he adds, “The possibilities adumbrated in infancy are to be taken as normative” (p. 66).


Freud’s insights, ambivalent as they too were, did manage to synthesize the two perennial themes of child symbolization of deficit and wholeness. The power of his symbolization is suggested by the dramatic extent to which Freudian and post-Freudian theory and practice have contributed to contemporary Western understanding of actual children, as well as to our understanding the “residues of childhood” in adults. This, in turn, has influenced education—particularly early childhood education—and our appreciation of the significance of play for psychological, social, and cognitive development. Freud’s philosophy of childhood has also changed adult self-conceptualization, in showing us the role of primary process in development throughout the life-course. Since Freud, we understand more consciously that, as Ashis Nandy (1987) has said of his influence, “Childhood and adulthood are not two fixed phases of the human life-cycle (where the latter has to inescapably supplant the former), but a continuum which, while diachronically laid out on the plane of life history, is always synchronically present in each personality” (p. 71).

THE PSYCHOHISTORICAL CHILD


My account of the “child of the philosophers” would seem to imply a projective and ambivalent relationship lying at the heart of the adult view of childhood. Beneath a surface of commonsense familiarity (what could be simpler than a child?) there is for the adult a marginal other, the not-I in a primal form, and as such, a natural screen for projections. One way to test this account is to ask whether we find this ambivalence in operation in the history of the adult-child relation. The evidence available for this is sketchy and inconclusive—the record must be assembled from a wide variety of sources, such as journals, legal and demographic records, tracts, stories and legends, etc.—but we do have several strong (and controversial) theories that interplay with the account of child symbolization I have just outlined.


The first originated with Phillipe Aries’ (1962) seminal volume on early modern social and familial history, Centuries of Childhood. Aries makes the case that childhood as we know it today did not exist in the medieval world, and is in fact a cultural invention of early modernism. Aries supports his arguments with accounts of representations of children in art—in which, he claims, they are portrayed as “little adults”—as well as records of children’s dress, and the absence of differences between adult’s and children’s pastimes.


Aries’ analysis focuses on a moment in Western history at the end of the High Middle Ages in which a confluence of social, demographic, economic and commercial, scientific, technological, religious, and political forces combined to produce a sea change in emergent Western middle-class culture. He attempts to show us how the psychosocial atmosphere of public and private life began a transition into a form of life that we recognize today as “modern.” He is joined in the general tenor of this analysis by several major works in social history, historical sociology, psychohistory, and the history of culture and technology (Elias, 1978; Foucault, 1979; deMause, 1974; Ong, 1982). Some of them speak directly of children and childhood, some do not, but all of them have major implications for the study of childhood in the early modern period.


The change in personality structure that marks the emergence of the middle-class modern individual can be summarized as the rise of the self-contained, boundaried self. The change involves the same psychosocial shift that children undergo in “growing up”—a shift between internal and external locus of control. From the standpoint of historical sociology, Elias (1978) calls it “a change in human affect and control structures taking place over a large number of generations in the direction . . . [of] the increased tightening and differentiation of [emotional] controls” (p. 182). The medieval personality, in Aries’ words, lived in a psychosocial world of “polymorphous sociability.” Not only children and adults, but different classes, occupied the common spaces of home, street, and marketplace. This is demonstrated, for example, by the domestic architecture of the period, in which space was common and multifunctional. Canopy beds could be moved from room to room, and often more than one person slept in one bed. Expressions of both sexuality and violence were comparatively less restrained (Elias, 1978; Gottlieb, 1993; Huizinga, 1969; Shahar, 1990).


The adult “polymorphously social” personality of the medieval world represented a different ratio between self and community, inside and outside, private and public. European subjectivity had not, in Elias’ words, begun to understand itself as “closed,” separated off from all other people and things “outside,” as is more characteristic of modern persons, and perhaps was also more characteristic of participants of the ancient Stoic and Christian worldviews (Martin, et al., 1988). Modern middle-class persons’ increased identification with the “I” in relation to society parallels the shift in the cosmological picture from a heliocentric to a geocentric universe, which began in Renaissance times. The “spontaneous and unreflecting self-centeredness of men” (Elias, p. 208), the human experience of living at the center of the cosmos characteristic of the geocentric world picture, had begun to fade (Koyre, 1957). The new world picture demanded “an increased capacity for self-detachment” (Elias, p. 208) and objectivity; persons increasingly found themselves alone and decentered in the universe (Pascal, 1962/1670), which correlated with “a new attitude . . . toward themselves, new personality structures, and especially shifts in the direction of greater affect control and self-detachment” (Elias, p. 209).


The significance of this shift for our understanding of the history of the psychology of the adult-child relation is indirectly suggested by studies of young children’s thinking beginning with Piaget in the early part of this century. What Piaget (1929) called “realism,” “participation,” “artificialism,” “finalism,” “animism,” and “egocentrism,” match in broad outline the social psychology and epistemology of the geocentric world picture. This analysis is further confirmed by the research of historians of literacy such as Harold Innes (1951), Marshall McLuhan (1962), and Walter Ong (1982), into what the latter calls the “psychodynamics of orality.” Ong characterizes cultures like the medieval, in which the information environment is primarily oral, as “close to the human life world,” “empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced,” “situated rather than abstract.” The oral personality understands language as whole sentences and stories rather than as individual words: his thought “is nested in speech” (p. 75). These noetic modes also characterize, to a great extent, the child, and especially the young child. This should not be surprising, given that most children are ten years old or more before they are able, for example, to read a newspaper comfortably.


Ong next characterizes the “psychodynamics of literacy” that resulted from the dramatic transformation of the information environment triggered by the invention of moveable print in 1450. This characterization matches, in turn, the shift in the boundaries of the self described by Elias and Aries. The increasingly common activity of silent reading, which “fostered a silent relation between the reader and his book, were crucial changes, which redrew the boundary between the inner life and life in the community” (Chartier, 1989, p. 111). The psychodynamics of literacy—along with a host of other material and social influences—began to redraw the boundary between child and adult as well. The child remained the same while the adult “grew up.” Stories previously enjoyed by everyone became “fairy tales,” now considered suitable only for children, and the same was true of what we now think of as children’s games. From the sixteenth century on, countless manuals of etiquette were produced, and it is now “extremely difficult,” Aries claims, “to distinguish between those intended for adults and those intended for children” (p. 119). They emphasize a new modesty, privacy, and self-restraint in eating at table, in sleeping habits, and in the performance of bodily functions. In short, the modern middle-class adult was being constructed as a “reader” in the wider sense of the term: she read both social situations and her own interior state with a new sense of care, an act requiring a new self-detachment and self-restraint. As this happened the relatively undersocialized, instinctually unrestrained child was separated off, and increasingly understood as a person whose most salient characteristic is that she is not an adult. As Neil Postman (1982) put it, “. . . the new adulthood, by definition, excluded children. And as children were expelled from the adult world it became necessary to find another world for them to inhabit. That other world became known as childhood” (p. 20).


That “other world” of childhood was not constructed by adults as a positive world, with its own characteristics—for this we must wait until the twentieth century, and the rise of a genuine interest in the child’s construction of the world. Rather, it was a world of deficit, of need, and even of danger. For the new task of turning children into adults, a new institution became necessary: the school. Not that the school had not existed before, but it was transformed into a dimension of what Foucault (1979) has called “the great confinement,” or the rise of prisons, schools, and insane asylums for purposes of “moral reform and constraint” (p. 138) in the early and mid-modern period. Just as the new “disciplinary technology” developed for the criminal and the insane involved confinement in institutions, harsh and systematic punishment, constant surveillance, and “treatment” in the form of rigid, objectifying psychologies and pedagogies, so the same regime of description and classification for purposes of control and manipulation was applied to the child. Like the insane and the criminal, the child was understood to be in need of being forged, as Foucault put it, into a “docile body that may be subjected, used, transformed, and improved” (p. 198). What Polokow (1982) refers to as “the impositional structures of consciousness that an adult world of ‘experts’ has unquestioningly brought to bear upon this life phase of childhood” (see pp. 514–515 above) is heir to this form of discourse.


What prompts the adult to need to control and manipulate the child—to transform her into an adult through force—whether in the rigid, punitive form of schooling of the early modern period, or regular corporeal punishment in the home? If we return to Elias’ account of the rise of the modern adult as a shift in the economy of instinctual life toward repression, at least one explanation presents itself. The child, who is relatively unsocialized, had come to represent that world of instinctual freedom from restraint that the modern middle-class adult had, generation by generation, increasingly foresworn. Therefore a new task was imposed on the adult—that of conscious, intentional, even “scientific” child-rearing. This, according to Elias, was not so much out of concern for the child—although that is certainly not lacking—as from the adult’s new construal of the child as a dangerous representation of the “nature” which she has left behind in her cultural “coming of age.” Elias puts it this way:


The standard emerging [in the early modern period] is characterized by profound discrepancy between the behavior of so called adults and children. But precisely by this increased social prescription of any impulse, by their repression from the surface of social life and of consciousness, the distance between the personality structure and behavior of adults and children is necessarily increased. . . . The children have in the space of a few years to attain to the advanced level of shame and revulsion that has developed over many centuries. Their instinctual life must be rapidly subjected to the strict control and specific molding that gives our societies their stamp, and which developed very slowly over centuries. . . . The more “natural” the standard of delicacy and shame appears to adults and the more civilized restraint of instinctual urges is taken for granted, the more incomprehensible it becomes to adults that children do not have this delicacy and shame by “nature.” . . . The children necessarily touch again and again on the adult threshold of delicacy, and—-since they are not yet adapted—they infringe the taboos of society, cross the adult shame frontier, and penetrate emotional danger zones which the adult himself can only control with difficulty. . . . In this situation the adult does not explain the demand he makes on behavior. He is unable to do so adequately. He is so conditioned that he conforms to the social standard more or less automatically. . . . Anxiety is aroused in adults when the structure of their own instinctual life as defined by the social order is threatened. Any other behavior means danger. This leads to the emotional undertone associated with moral demands and the aggressive and threatening severity of upholding them, because the breach of prohibitions places in an unstable balance of repression all those for whom the standard of society has become “second nature.” (p. 167)


Elias’ account of the widening divide between adult and child in the early modern period is corroborated in some recent scholarship on the history of child-rearing modes in the West. Lloyd deMause (1974) has proposed six such modes. He bases his argument on social, cultural and family histories, memoirs, instruction books for parents, letters, the history of pediatrics, ancient documents, biographical accounts, and other sources. He proposes a cultural-evolutionary theory, according to which the fundamental ambivalence that adults feel toward children is gradually overcome, generation by generation, through “a series of closer and closer approaches between adult and child” (p. 3). DeMause’s account is, as we shall see, only apparently in contradiction with Elias’s.


DeMause finds the psychological locus of the adult-child relationship in what he calls—following a Freudian defense-mechanism account (Freud, 1946)—a “projective relationship.” Adults are prone to use the child as a screen or vehicle for their own repressed instinctual affects of sexuality and aggression, or, as deMause puts it, as “containers for dangerous projections” (p. 51). The crucial moment in the adult-child relation comes when that repressed instinct is aroused through confrontation “with a child who needs something”—that is, who is making an instinctual demand. Adults can react in one of three possible ways to the anxiety triggered by this expression of instinct. In the “projective reaction,” the adult “voids feelings” onto the child, and sees the child as threateningly aggressive, sexual, manipulative, or selfish. In the “reversal reaction,” the adult uses the child as a substitute for an adult figure from her own childhood, and punishes the child for not meeting the needs that that adult did not meet. In the “empathic reaction,” the adult, in deMause’s words, is able to “regress to the level of the child’s need and identify it without an admixture of the adult’s own projections. The adult must then be able to maintain enough distance from the need to be able to satisfy it” (p. 7).


The six modes identified by deMause—Infanticidal (antiquity to fourth century), Abandoning (fourth to thirteenth centuries), Ambivalent (fourteenth to seventeenth centuries), Intrusive (eighteenth century), Socializing (nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries) and Helping (mid-twentieth century on)—are proposed as phases of a cultural-historical evolutionary scheme. With each stage, the child is allowed to “enter into the parents’ emotional life” (p. 51) further. The evolutionary status of the theory has been questioned by Petschauer (1987, 1989), who understands all modes to be present in all periods, with one emphasized more than the others. Societal changes in attitudes toward children are the result of a complex, interactive web of economic, demographic, technological, medical, religious, political, and ideological causal factors. But this does not discount either the possibility of an “advance,” or the plausibility of an account of cultural change from the standpoint of depth psychology, or “psychohistory” (Cocks & Crosby, 1987; Lifton, 1974) What is particularly interesting about this theory in its relation to Elias’ account of the early modern adult is the suggestion that the empathic reaction is made possible not through identifying with children through being like them, but through separation, which is necessary for the withdrawal of projection. Only when the adult is able to deal consciously with the anxiety produced by the “emotional danger zone” that children trigger through their relative lack of instinctual repression can she learn not to be emotionally contaminated by the child’s raw instinctual expression or demand. When she has the ability both to “regress to the level of the child’s need” and to maintain separation, she can avoid projection and correctly identify that need as other than hostile, demonic, sinful, manipulative, etc. The ability of more and more adults to see children as separate individuals—rather than as split-off aspects of their own sexual and aggressive unconscious material—is the central force in this advance.


This would seem to indicate a dialectical historical movement: the possibility of a closer psychological approach to children on the part of adults is only created as a result of an initial psychological separation. That separation reaches a noticeable level in the West in the early modern period, and the rise of the “shame frontier” traced by Elias—that is, the new balance of instinct and repression in the modern middle-class adult. For it is through that new balance that the modern adult becomes a hermeneutical, or interpretive being. The interpreter must interpret because he is removed from the situation. But it is only this situation of removal, or relative disentanglement, that makes dialogue possible; and dialogue results in rapprochement (Ricoeur, 1987), or a “closer approach.” Applied to the adult-child relation, the hermeneutical process is what deMause refers to as withdrawal of projection through a newly acquired psychological distance, followed by identification, or the ability to “regress to the level of the child’s need,” followed by new understanding.


The historical moment (late fifteenth to early eighteenth centuries) of differentiation between adult and child that Elias and Aries describe falls across the centuries covered by deMause’s Ambivalent and Intrusive modes. The Ambivalent Mode is contemporaneous with a reevaluation of childhood in the High Middle Ages suggested by the increase of the cult of the Virgin and the infant Christ who, on a cultural level, comes to represent the child in general (Aries, 1962; McLaughlin, 1974). The Ambivalent adult sees in the child both the amoral, uncontrolled energies of “nature”—leading him to reject him—and the possibility for making him over, through fear, shame, guilt, punishment, and the process of education. The child is both contemptible and newly representative of the promise of the future. The adult feels the need, as Aries describes it, “to love children and to overcome the repugnance which they arouse in thinking men” (p. 114). Yet children are still routinely given up for oblation, abandoned to the newly burgeoning foundling hospitals, and farmed out to wet nurses in the countryside for the first few years of their lives (Boswell, 1988).


The Intrusive Mode appears paradoxical, in that it represents both a closer approach to children and a systematization and institutionalization of the discipline that is its hallmark. As illustrated both in Calvinist theology and the more liberal views of John Locke (1968), the child is understood by his elders to be exemplary of the fundamental depravity that characterizes the whole human race. On the other hand she is—as is the adult—a free moral being, as capable of conversion, whether to God or to Reason, as is the adult (Sommerville, 1992). For this reason the child needs to be both loved and forcibly dealt with, or, as deMause describes it, “prayed with but not played with, hit but not regularly whipped . . . and made to obey promptly with threats and guilt as often as with other methods of punishment” (p. 52). The Intrusive mode may be characterized as a calculated assault on the child’s will, with a view to “breaking,” “subduing,” “conquering,” or “subjecting” it (Sommerville, 1992, p. 106)—but for the child’s “own good,” that is, with the goal of internalization of the culturally normative adult superego.


Rousseau’s Emile (1979/1763) is the first public, popular statement of the Socializing Mode, which calls for “shaping” and “channeling of impulses,” rather than direct confrontation with the child’s “nature,” which is characteristic of the Intrusive. Lawrence Stone (1979) identifies the change as beginning in England around 1660, during the post-Puritan period, and associates it with “a new interest in the self, a . . . recognition of the uniqueness of the individual,” and “decisively change[d] attitudes towards authority, affection and sex within the middle and upper ranks of society” (p. 15). Around 1800, it becomes associated with the Romantic reformulation of childhood mentioned earlier. The Romantic parent and educator show a new respect for the child’s energies, and a concern that education not sacrifice the child—that, as Coleridge put it, education function to “carry on the feelings of childhood into the powers of manhood” (quoted in Plotz, 1977, p. 68), rather than forcibly replacing childhood with adulthood.


Psychohistorically speaking, the Romantic reversal marks an important moment in the history of the Western adult-child relation. It comes when adult self-understanding has traveled furthest from its own “child.” From a dialectical point of view, this would be the moment when the overcoming of this division through a new synthesis is most insistently latent. The adult rapprochement with childhood of Romanticism is expressed as both a nostalgia for a lost unity of self—a return to one’s instinctual life from isolation in a “civilized,” “Enlightened” repressive subjectivity—and as a prophetic developmentalism. The first half of the nineteenth century also witnessed the invention of the Kindergarten—the first institutionalized example of child-centered, constructivist education, by the Romantic philosopher/educator Froebel (1974/1830), whose watchword, “Come, let us live with our children,” perfectly expresses the sense of return.


Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Romanticism’s child has found her tortuous way, often in ambiguous, even ambivalent forms, into twentieth-century psychoanalysis and art—most particularly in the contribution of Freud, for whom the inevitable passional conflicts of childhood became the key to adult self-understanding. Freud’s influence has led, in turn, to a problematization of that repressed “adult,” which it was the project of early modernism to produce and reproduce. After Freud, the Western adult begins to reinterpret her idea of a healthy balance between instinct and repression, and raises the possibility—in spite of Freud’s own conservative protestations to the contrary—of “instinctual liberation” (Marcuse, 1966).


In terms of changing modes of child rearing, the recognition of the value and importance of the child’s instinctual life leads to an adult who is now more able to enter into dialogue with the forms of life of real children. As the adult comes to understand the real and symbolic power of childhood experience in his own psychosocial development, the child assumes a psychological presence that can compel the adult’s recognition. So deMause (1974) identifies the Helping Mode of child rearing as characterized by adults who “invest significant time and energy, . . . especially in the first six years, [in] . . . helping a young child reach its daily goals [by] continually responding to it, playing with it, tolerating its regressions, being its servant rather than the other way around, interpreting its emotional conflicts, and providing the objects specific to its evolving interests” (p. 52).


In summary: starting sometime in the fifteenth century the child became an increasingly un-understandable other to the modernizing culture of the West. The emancipated middle-class adult of a Europe “come of age” constructed his self-understanding on a strong sense of individuality, subjective privacy, and the suppression of affect, none of which are particularly salient aspects of the developmental stage of childhood. But this very psychological separation carried its antithesis within it, and at the height of “enlightenment,” the adult began turning back to the child. Through dialogue with the child’s form of life, he received the “word” of the child as a new message about himself. The outcome of this fusion of horizons is both a new ability to really pay attention to children as children and as individual human beings, and—necessarily—a new self-understanding of what an adult is. The empathic reaction to children would appear to lead to a felt need to reintegrate children into the psychological world of adults; to accord, in spite of differences, the respect due all humans to children, and to clarify and institutionalize their rights and privileges.

THE CHILD IN MYTH, ART, LITERATURE, AND PSYCHOANALYSIS


As a form of archeological inquiry into the image of the child in adult understanding, another aspect of child study is that rich intermixture of images and themes of childhood that we find scattered through the history of Western art and literature. These themes also suggest an inherent teleology in the adult construction of childhood, and by implication the adult-child relation: their development parallels the evolutionary movement that I have just traced in the literature of psychohistory, psychosociology, and emotionology (Stearns & Stearns, 1987).


We find some children in pre-Hellenistic Western art, but starting about 300 B.C., the most characteristic representations of childhood are in the form of a multiplicity of young children, known to us as “cupids,” but to the Greeks as eroti, and to the Romans as amoretti. These Hellenistic eroti, in distinction from the early Hellenic god Eros—who was represented as a youth—are young children in a variety of poses and activities, most of them having to do with nature, the elements, love, and death. They are the little “godlets” who accompany the more instinctual human activities of life. Josef Kunstmann (1970) says of them:


The erotes are to be found throughout the seasons; they make the flower wreath of spring and tread the grapes of autumn; they bustle about in Vulcan’s forge and among the slaves working in cloth-mills; they sail on the high seas and go hunting merrily; they watch over the sleep of young lovers and provide old age with crutches. The erotes combine the most unlikely contrasts and hold together body and soul, heaven, earth, and the underworld. (p. 13)


Kunstmann’s interpretation of the erotes as liminal figures between conscious and unconscious, sacred and profane, instinct and repression, matches the tradition I have already traced, which understands childhood as being in a different relationship to instinctual life than adulthood is. The erotes evoke that child—present from Aristotle through Derrida—who is on the boundaries between the animal, the human, and the divine. They also evoke the childhood of the god, of which we find several representations in Greek statuary, most frequently Dionysius and Hermes (Jung & Kerenyi, 1963).


What is distinctive about the myths associated with these figures—and with child heroes like Taliesen in Irish mythology, or King Arthur, or the storied biographies of saints of the Middle Ages—is that they typically are represented as not only of miraculous birth, but as illegitimate, orphaned, or abandoned, foundlings, apparently insignificant outcasts who are actually possessors of tremendous hidden or future power. Jung and Kerenyi called this figure the “divine” or “primordial” child. Such children are often hermaphroditic—a symbol of divinity that unites opposites. In many stories they are pursued by malevolent adults such as evil kings or jealous stepparents, and are taken in and protected by nature figures, such as nymphs, or animals, where they grow up in bucolic solitude. Although they are delivered into the hands of powerful enemies, they are found ultimately to be invincible.


With the rise of medieval Christianity the eroti disappeared from Western art for a time, and all the mythic elements of the divine or primordial child were taken into the figure of the child Jesus who, like these prototypes, is also of mysterious birth, “illegitimate,” pursued by malevolent figures, protected by natural forces, etc. But it was a matter of centuries before the figure of Jesus reencountered the divine child. Although there are some naturalistic representations of Jesus in the Roman catacombs, the first images of the child Jesus that began to proliferate after the triumph of Christianity are found in Byzantine icons from the ninth century onward (Forsyth, 1976; Lasareff, 1938). Rather than resembling the eroti of Hellenistic art, this Christ child is very much a little adult: he is stiff and hieratic, seated rigidly on his mother’s lap, often holding up one hand in a triumphal gesture. Here is the word of god arrived in triumph from afar, seated on the mother’s—the theotokos, or god-bearer’s—lap as if on a primal ground out of which he arises, the male god who is only coincidentally a child. Somewhere in the thirteenth century, amidst the beginnings of the Italian Renaissance, this royal child begins to soften. An examination of the representations of the divine pair from 1300 or so onward reveals a gradual increase in physical and psychological realism. The child who was first dressed in a flowing robe is now represented in swaddling clothes, and later in garments appropriate for a child. During the 1400s the Christ child begins to be represented with fewer and fewer clothes, and by 1500 he is shown with either a brief, gauzy piece of material around his loins, or completely naked. With each development, his body is portrayed with greater sensuous realism, as his pose and gesture are well. Eventually we find him playing on his mother’s lap, reaching for her mouth or her breast, or twisted in familiar infant kinaesthetic poses. By 1500, the baby Jesus begins to be represented with his head in its correct ratio to the rest of his body—one fourth, rather than the one fifth of the full-grown adult.


Coterminous with the humanization of the Christ child, the Hellenistic eroti also reenter Renaissance painting, under the influence of the rediscovery of ancient pagan texts and antiquities (Kunstmann, 1970). We find eroti hovering in clouds around the heavenly Father, or accompanying the angels at the nativity, or present at the mystical appearance of the Virgin and Child to devotees. They are also present in the increasing representations of pagan themes such as the trysts and dalliances of the now resurrected Venus/Aphrodite, or in her emergence from the ocean. Whether in Christian or pagan settings, eroti continue to function as transitional figures between the spiritual and the earthly, the sacred and profane. They appear at the margins between worlds, both announcing epiphany and embodying an element of it. Kunstmann describes the two eroti who occupy the boundary of the picture plane in the well-known Sistine Madonna of Rafael as a “pictorial profession of faith. No abyss opens in the background where life in the foreground comes to its end; on the contrary, it is just here that the divine wisdom becomes manifest, playing in the shape of an angel-child” (p. 23).


The confluence of pagan and Christian motifs in Renaissance art results in a child who may be characterized as a synthesis of Christ and Dionysius, or of the spiritual and the instinctual life—a recapitulation of the Hellenistic eros and the childhood of the god in the Christ child. As Western art passes into Mannerism, Rococo, and early modern realism, this same child increasingly assumes aspects of flesh and blood, and even extreme sensuality, as in the paintings of Parmigiannini. The Mother/Child pair is often replaced by the holy family in familiar, homelike scenes. Eventually, with increasing secularization, the aristocracy of Europe takes to commissioning family portraits in which their infant child reclines in naked, divine child splendor on their laps. If we look at this process from the point of view of the changing image of the child in the West, it represents the transformation of one relatively minor ancient pagan motif among many—the divine child—into a central mythic structure of Christian European culture. In the cult of the child Jesus are united the childhood of the god, the divine child, the child hero, and the ancient countertradition of the child as “first spiritual seer” or “primal one.” And this image preoccupies the European imagination for at least a millennium.


C. G. Jung (1963) characterized the divine child as an archetype of the collective unconscious, that is, as a “structural element of the psyche” (p. 70), which represents certain developmental themes and potentialities in each individual human being. Following Jung, students of the relationship between mythology, dreams, and the human unconscious (Franz, 1979; Jacobi, 1959; Kerenyi, 1977; Neumann, 1969) have traced the presence of numerous motifs that occur in mythological narratives to that common store of spontaneous symbolic images called the “collective unconscious.” Each motif—the male and female figures called the “anima” and “animus,” the “wise old man,” the “mother,” the “shadow,” the “maiden,” etc. (Jung, 1959)—represents an element of the human psychic structure, and is expressed in dreams, fantasy, and art. They also appear as unconscious projections in our relationships with others.


Jung found that the archetype of the divine child emerged at a particular point in the psychotherapeutic process among adults. The child appears as a symbol of anticipated wholeness, of the synthesis of opposites within the personality, and the integration of conscious and unconscious elements of the psyche, a process that he refers to as “individuation.” He concludes that the divine child is the “representation of an as yet incomplete synthesis of the personality” (1963, p. 84). As a first announcement of the unification of the self through psychological development, those aspects of the divine child already noted—his apparent insignificance, exposure, abandonment, danger, as well as his invincibility—signal both the fragility and the strength of this emergence. The child archetype represents that overlooked part of the self—“smaller than small but bigger than big,” a place where subject and object, conscious and unconscious, are not differentiated, an experience of unity out of which a higher differentiation will develop.


Jung’s interpretation of the divine child has interesting parallels with the child of the Romantics. The perennial myth that Romantic thought translated into modern, secular terms was that of an original fall from unity into differentiation, followed by a process of development whose outcome is the regaining of the original unity on a higher level (Abrams, 1971). The Romantics translated this myth from theological into psychological terms. The child represents the original unity of consciousness and the unity with nature, “before the fall”—a fall into the internal divisions that characterize adulthood. This “fall” into divisions is necessary for the higher unity to emerge. The child represents not just the “beginning,” but the end, the goal of the life cycle being a reappropriation of childhood on a higher level. As Schiller said (see p. 519 above), “They are what we were; they are what we should once again become.”


If we connect the Christ figure—who in Jung’s formulation is the archetype representing the unified self—as divine child with Jung’s child archetype, the historical movement appears to be toward the increasing psychological integration of the archetype over time by adults. This is represented culturally in the emergence of the infant Christ as the divine child and socially in the evolution of child rearing modes, which deMause refers to as a series of “closer and closer approaches” between adult and child. It is also confirmed in Gaston Bachelard’s (1971) interpretation of the archetype as the “permanent child” that is a part of every adult’s psychic structure. The permanent child, according to Bachelard, is that “nucleus of childhood” that is not necessarily a reflection of one’s actual childhood. It seems to represent, if not a Jungian archetype, the psychological residue of the experience of another sort of relationship to self and world, a “fusion with the world” (p. 136) in early childhood. This adult experience is still part of the adult psyche—“an anonymous childhood, a pure threshold of life, original life” (p. 125). Nor is it much of a step from Bachelard’s permanent child to the “inner child” of contemporary psychotherapy.


The archetypal child that I have been tracing through Western art and psychoanalysis also finds its way into the secularized, complex, embodied mythmaking of Western literature, where it confronts the fundamental adult ambivalence toward childhood that I described earlier in this paper. Reinhard Kuhn (1982) has identified numerous texts in which there appears what he calls an “enigmatic” child, that is, an ambivalent and mysterious character who brings some important but incommunicable meaning to the adults who surround her. These children, Kuhn says “seem to have a message to convey that they forget just as soon as they are old enough to transmit it” (p. 64). The enigmatic child figure can be, in Kuhn’s terms, either “menacing,” “redemptive,” or some ambiguous mixture of the two. We find these characters in authors from Goethe to Hawthorne, to Hardy, to Gide, to Salinger. The character of Pearl in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1994/1850) is exemplary. Pearl acts as a vehicle for numerous dimensions of the enigmatic child. She is an involuntary truth teller—an uninvited, unconscious spiritual master; she is an embodiment of vitality, or new life, and of elemental energy; she is her mother’s alter ego; she is in an intimate relationship with nature, the playmate of animals and the elements; and she bears traces of the demonic, the “fiendish.” Pearl is a mysterious mixture of the “redemptive” and the “menacing” child, embodying and expressing in a unified form the instinctual nature that the adults around her, locked in a repressive libidinal economy, struggle with tragic inquietude to master.


In summary, the history of Western art and mythology may be said to express and symbolize the history of the Western cultural unconscious. Images of a mythic child already appear in Greek myth and art, but culminate in the figure of the Christ child, which comes to dominate European Christian iconography from about the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. This child represents for adults the instinctually unrepressed in its psycho-spiritual—that is, sublimated—dimension. Psychoanalysis understands the modern, relatively repressed adult to be in dialogue with her instinctual self, and the appearance of the child figure comes to represent a stage in the maturation process that is inherently oriented toward conscious integration of unconscious contents. The implications of this process for actual relations between adults and children are suggested in the psychohistorical account of the adult-child relation as evolving toward greater differentiation and integration, leading in turn to greater capacity both for objectivity and empathy on the part of adults toward children.

CONCLUSION: WHITHER CHILDHOOD?


The implications of an archeology of Western childhood for those adults concerned with contemporary children are as varied as the disciplines this inquiry has traversed. The primary message of this material is that adults construct childhood, on the basis of deep-seated prevailing cultural images combined with the residues of their own childhoods. The parent or caregiver brings her construction into dialogue with real children, who, in turn, construct a world within the opportunities and limitations provided by the adults’ construction (Wartofsky, 1983). Children bring to the dialogue what Dewey (1916) referred to as an extraordinary (relative to adults) “plasticity,” or “the power to modify actions on the basis of the results of prior experiences, the power to develop dispositions” (p. 44). The child brings the power to grow—a power that adults, more often than not, have lost to one degree or another.


Perhaps the word “dialogue” is inappropriate, given the greater power of the adult’s positioning in the interaction. But it is just in this disparity that the opportunity for growth among parents and caregivers lies. It seems to be the case that the more adults recognize that aspect of themselves that is still a “child,” the more mature they become—i.e., the more both objective and empathic they are able to be in relation to children themselves (Misgeld, 1985). The more adults are able to recognize that the human life cycle involves a dialectical interplay between “adult” and “child,” the less they see childhood as something to be outgrown or eradicated, and the more they are able to relate to children as persons, rather than as screens for projection.


A second, related implication of this inquiry is that there may be a historical movement—if not an “evolution” then a progression of some kind—in the history of the adult-child relation. This movement has radically affected the actual history of childhood per se—that is, the way adults construct the world for children, the attention they pay to them, the care they exercise for them, the extent to which they seek their good. If our new ideal of adult maturity includes childhood rather than excluding it, then our notions of optimal child rearing and education will change.


The most significant metaphor uncovered by thinking about childhood in this way seems to be a hermeneutical one. The adult is a “hermeneut” or interpreter of childhood. Through dialogue with the forms of life of childhood, the adult reappropriates, recreates, and reconstellates childhood as an element of the teleology of her own life-cycle. This makes not for more “childish” adults, but perhaps for more “childlike” adults—a new relationship to one’s instinctual and affective life, and to one’s sense of integration of the various elements of one’s self. The adult’s increased ability to overcome the ambivalence that the child’s relative instinctual freedom produces leads to a reconstruction of the child construct, which allows the latter a greater voice in the adult-child dialogue, which leads to a further reconstruction, etc. Adults who are in dialogical relation to their own “child” have greater capacity to “grow,” in Dewey’s terms, and therefore to raise children who have that same capacity.


Are there more of these adult “hermeneuts” in the world today than there were in the past? It may be true that we cannot postulate a global evolution. There may be just as many murdering, abandoning, ambivalent, and intrusive adults raising children today as there are socializing and empathic ones. But if the psychohistorical processes that have led to the empathic mode have increased by even a small amount there is reason for hope, not only for childhood, but, necessarily, for human adulthood as well.

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DAVID KENNEDY is Associate Professor of Educational Foundations at Montclair State University.




Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 102 Number 3, 2000, p. 514-538
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10532, Date Accessed: 10/24/2021 2:00:48 PM

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