Vijai P. Sharma, Ph.D
Some anthropologists say that the quality of a culture can be measured by how it treats its children and the handicapped.
Incredible as it may sound, many historians believe that in times past, most children were physically abused throughout the world. Today all developed societies, through education and more humane laws, attempt to define how we should treat our children. In America, we have tough laws against child neglect and abuse. In some communities, child abuse was nearly eliminated through "parenting centers" when they were freely available to everyone.
In prehistoric times, the days of hunting tribes and nomadic food gatherers, children didnt have two parents. They had only one parent, their mothers, who might not have had any parenting responsibility beyond infancy. Fathers played no role at all in child rearing. Most children, perhaps, didnt even know who their fathers were. A childs existence depended on his or her economic usefulness. If they were inconvenient or a burden on scanty food resources, they were eliminated against the wishes of their mothers. It was the age of infanticide.
Later, when our ancestors learned farming, they began to live in one place rather than wander as nomads. Chiefdoms, fiefdoms, and other organized dwelling communities began to emerge. The institution of marriage came into place. Men became "husbands" and "fathers." Fathers began to be more involved with the teaching of survival skills to their male offspring. Child sacrifice was still rampant to appease angry gods and hostile forces of nature.
Infant restriction devices such as swaddling and craddle boards appeared at this time. The practice of slavery began and children of poor and weak homes had one and only one career, being someones slaves. Children were battered universally in the name of discipline. However, children became somewhat emotionally closer to fathers who utilized them for farming and hunting. Children received more care because older siblings and servants began to be involved in childcare.
With the birth of religions, the idea of the "soul" or the "spirit" evolved. Once the child was thought to have a soul, as in Christianity, the practice of infanticide became morally unacceptable. When infanticide was no longer an alternative, unwanted children were abandoned, given for foster care, or sent away to monasteries. However, throughout the middle ages, among rich and poor alike, there was high rate of infanticide, abandonment, sexual exploitation, and physical abuse. Being a child in those times could be very risky.
However, the western world by the 12th century began to show elements of more humane and compassionate treatment of children. Historical records from some European countries indicate the following positive measures for protection and care of children: punishment of child rapists; more lenient laws for offending children and expansion of child schooling and childcare. Children began to be viewed as soft wax or clay who could be shaped the way parents wanted them to be. The idea that you can make something, even though it was a carbon copy of a parent, was a significant development from the perspective of child rearing practices.
Records from 16th century England show that the wealthy, instead of sending children away for childcare, began to hire wet nurses and other help to come into their homes. This allowed closer emotional ties between parents and children. Children were allowed to crawl and toddle around the house rather than being swaddled and hung on pegs. Many homes had separate beds for children. This newly found freedom of movement by children must have driven mothers of those times crazy.
These changes are believed to have contributed to such social practices as marriage at a later age, fewer births, reduction in child slavery, and greater emphasis on teaching children crafts and trade.
Historians say that in the 18th century, most women of western Europe had fewer births. The number of children per family dropped from seven or eight to just three or four. It appears that parents of those days wanted to give more care to fewer children, rather than less care to more children. Parents of those days attempted to mould their children into the type of social and moral beings they themselves were.
In the letter half of the 20th century, parents became "helpers" for their little ones. They began to view children as little persons in their own right rather than as extensions of parents. They recognized that children needed help not for the realization of their parents ambitions but for their own aspirations. We now, at least in theory, subscribe to the ideal of equal involvement of both parents. Whether we put it to practice or not, we understand that children deserve unconditional love. This is a big milestone that our society has achieved, but we have to do more.
Ninety percent of American parents still hit their children. Eight European nations have outlawed the practice of hitting children.
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