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How Has the Role of Children Changed?

The role of children has changed dramatically over time. Children in the twenty-first century are treated as an important, if not central, part of the family unit. That was not always the case!

Circumstance and environment had a lot to do with how children grew up. In the Middle Ages up to one-quarter of infants died before the age of one, mostly due to accidents and diseases. The poorer the family, the less likely medical attention was available. On the other hand, healthy infants were seen as a special gift from God; they were usually named after saints or biblical characters. Babies were often swaddled, which involved strips of linen wrapped around their arms and legs. Parents did this so the limbs would grow straight. The practice had the added benefit of keeping the child out of trouble. Once the child was able to sit up independently, the wrappings would be removed. The mother remained the primary caretaker who fed the baby. If the mother should die, a nurse would be found to feed the baby. Richer families could employ a nurse to provide affection, bathe, sing lullabies, console, and take care of the baby when sick. Some nurses even chewed the meat for the baby before feeding, much like a mother bird. The wealthiest families kept a nurse through early childhood because these women spent much of their time at society events like banquets and court affairs.

A glance at art and literature of the period reveals few references to children. It indicates the prevalent attitude toward children. In general, childhood was simply a period of immaturity when a person was not productive enough to do much useful work. When, and if, a child reached adolescence, he might become an asset. The poorer the family, the more work the children performed. Chores might include feeding the livestock and animals, washing dishes, and caring for younger siblings. There was little time for play. Toys were handmade dolls, blocks or tops. Older children told myths and stories learned from their elders; some of these might include heroes like Robin Hood. The younger children played dress up, perhaps becoming princesses or lord of the castle.

Little formal education was available. Most parents taught their children by word of mouth. Those who had money brought their children to clergy members who could teach the child to read and write in Latin and their native language. Until the end of the eleventh century, clergy were the educators. Later on as the universities sprang up, wealthier male children might have a lay tutor to teach law or the administrative professions. Boys who were interested in learning a trade would be apprenticed with a trade master like a mason or a blacksmith in the profession. Few women were formally educated.

Life for children remained pretty much the same until the twentieth century when technological and medical advances freed the adults from many of the limitations imposed on the family. As societies began to protect the rights of individuals, children began to be seen as important to the future of the family and society and assumed a dignity in their own right.

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