Oh Idiot! What should I want more Children for?

One of the less well-lit areas of human history is the history of children. Today, there are television channels, endless videos and photographs, schools of every description, as well as the occasional well-publicized story of a child who built a business or a charity. Our contemporary view of childhood is very different from the views held in the past, but I’ve always been insecure about the details.

Looking for a good book about childhood’s past, I waited for the new Second Edition of A History of Childhood, written by a Professor Emeritus from the University of Nottingham named Colin Heywood. Although written with scholarly correctness, it’s accessible, and it turns out to be a pretty good story, too.

He gets started in the Middle Ages, “a society which perceived long people to be small scale adults. There was no idea of education… and no sign of our contemporary obsessions with the physical, moral and sexual problems of childhood. The ‘discovery’ of childhood would have to await the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Only then would it be recognized that children needed special treatment, ‘a sort of quarantine’, before they could join the world of adults.” These early years are complicated because religious belief dominated; Puritans, for example, “did not necessarily have a high opinion of infants, the more zealous brethren assessing they were born as ‘filthy bundles of original sin’…

The Age of Innocence by painter Joshua Reynolds, circa 1788

By 1788, there are lovely paintings of innocent children, representative of romantic view, if not of all children, then certainly the fortunate upscale among them. She seems to be the perfect child, but parents remained conflicted about just what they were raising. There were constant ideological conflicts between innocence and depravity, superb and dreadful behavior, honorable and horrifying treatment, nature and nurture, independence and dependence.

To begin his fourth chapter, Professor Heywood begins with a provocative question, “To begin at the beginning, were children wanted?” Happily, the answer through the ages seems to be yes… but not too many! There were critics opposed to the whole idea, including the fourteenth century poet Eustache Dechamps, who write “Happy is he who has no children, for babies mean nothing but crying and stench; they give only trouble and anxiety.” In the throes of motherhood, Hester Thrale (1741-1821) wrote in her diary, “this is a horrible Business indeed: five little Girls, too. & breeding again, & Fool enough to be proud of it! Oh Idiot!’ What should I want more Children for?”

After leading us through history of delivery, naming, godparents, and other ceremonies, we’re faced with the unfortunates, the unwanted children and their unhappy parents, and deepening the despair, the common death of infants and young children, no less a tragedy then.

Still, children survive and thrive. There are more and more of them, especially after we determine that they are better educated than put to work as small versions of farm hands and factory workers. In fact, they thrive, leading first to the astonishing 3 billion people on earth by 1900 (just as public education is beginning to take shape), then (beyond the scope of the book), taking us to 8 billion by about 2025.

As we begin toward the modern age, fathers have more time at home, so childcare, and the love of children, shifts from primarily a mother’s role, to an increasingly common model of shared parenting.

Heywood provides much more than a historical overview. He takes us into the room with the child as he or she grows up. Example: learning to walk, children were discouraged from crawling. Why? Indoors, floors were often shared with animals, and there was a certain discomfort in seeing one’s offspring propelling himself or herself in the same manner as a pig. There was also the cold of those floors, and the filth. Better to walk up on two legs–but not too soon, lest the child become crippled or otherwise deformed, as so many others seemed to be.

There have always been toys, and games, and nursery rhymes, too. And questions about gender stereotypes. “In antebellum America, for example, many girls preferred outdoor activities such as skating and sledding to playing with dolls. Toward the end of the century…three quarter of boys studied [were] playing with dolls, while girls sometimes acted more aggressively than their parents might have hoped.”

For those with mobility, some money and parents who would take them, there was “an impressive array of entertainments designed to instruct as well as amuse in eighteenth century England in the form of ‘exhibitions of curiosities; museums; zoos; puppet shows; circuses; automata; horseless carriages; even human and animal monstrosities.” Working class families made do with “cheap and cheerful entertainments such as dancing on the streets to a barrel organ or enjoying the hustle and bustle of a street market.”

There is evidence of children’s books in England as early as the 1470s–before Columbus visited the Caribbean. By the 1770s, there were plenty of children’s books, along with enough literate children to make good use of them.

Along the way–and beyond the frame of this article–we determine that children are worthy of their own education on a large scale, and that health care specific to childhood is a good idea, too.

Of course, I want to time travel, to talk to children and teenagers at the time they lived, in the places they lived. Even the best book on this subject–and this one is quite a good one–provides only snapshots and excerpts from earlier descriptions or diaries. Considering the great progress we have made on their behalf, I can only hope that someday, through some miracle of human genius, we’re able to travel back and understand the story more completely.





Small Atlases Make Intriguing Gifts

Sometimes, it’s difficult to understand an idea without seeing a picture. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why I like the idea–if not always the execution–of infographics.  Give me a good map with abundant legend, little boxes with big information, arrows to guide me, and I’m more like to understand a complicated idea. The book publisher Dorling-Kindersley, also known DK, has developed a brilliant style based upon the visual display of encyclopedia information (you know their Eyewitness Travel Guides, for example).

Given sufficient free time, I’ll wonder about just about anything. One thing thing I’ve always wondered about is how mankind managed to populate every corner of the earth. Think about it–a small population in central east Africa with extremely limited resources, no meaningful transportation, little protection from the elements or from one another, somehow ended up in Siberia, South America, even Australia. How? Well, mostly, they walked. (Along the way, they struggled to invent the needle so that they could sew animal skins together, astonishing tech in their time).

You can learn a lot about the world by studying migration maps. For example, just about everybody knows that a large portion of the U.S.’s black population came from Africa. Now Africa’s a big place. Where did they come from, exactly? Yeah, well, I had no idea until I checked a map in People on the Move: An Atlas of Migration by Russell King. There were two main “collection points”–one was Luanda, still the largest city in Angola (many of those slaves were controlled by Portuguese interests, so they ended up either in Brazil or the U.S.). Slaves leaving from Accra and El Mina (or, Elmina) mostly traveled to Brazil, Virginia or Louisiana. Some African slaves ended up in Portugal, too. The British, French and Dutch colonial slaves more often traveled to the Caribbean Islands.And that’s just part of the story: lots of African slaves were sent along Arab trade routes and up into Turkey–a much earlier system of human trade based upon ancient tradition.

MIGRATION_GreatSo that’s one migration. There’s another 13.5 million people moving during the period 1815-1915. Those people are moving, mostly, from Europe to America. Lots from Ireland, England, Scandinavia, and later, Spain, Italy, and eastern Europe–the peopling of America.

Migration is still a robust human endeavor. The oil boom in the Persian Gulf has been a magnet for several million people (the population of the United Arab Emirates [capital city: Dubai] has increased from 180,000 in 1966 to 4.4 million four decades later, with most of the new people foreign nationals). Lots of movement in the USA, too, first from to the west, then from the south, then from the rust belt to the south. People migrate for marriage, careers, college studies, so many reasons. Never really thought much about it, but this book has been fascinating.

And it’s part of a series. All are published in the U.S. by the University of California Press, but they’re made by Myriad Editions and they’re available from other publishers in other languages in other parts of the world.

I first encountered the series through The Atlas of Global Inequalities by Ben Crow and Suresh K. Lodha. If you’re fascinated by headlines like “2% of adults possess more than 50% of all global wealth” and “50% of people possess only 1% of all global wealth,” this book is your next birthday present. The authors go very deep into graphing of statistical information, lavish in their use of shapes and colors to clarify confusing points, so this book requires, and rewards, quiet and attentive reading. The relationship between life expectancy and household income is striking–live long and prosper in New Zealand or Iceland, or live a few less years but live somewhat richer in the U.S.A, Norway, or Luxembourg. Life expectancy in Africa is 54 years, but in North America, the average is 79 years. Children born in central Africa are likely to live only half as long as children in western Europe.

There is, in fact, a wide range of topics covered in this series. I’ve been through these two, plus a more challenging topic, The Atlas of Human Rights, which tracks, mostly, violations of freedom.

Myriad-BooksOf course, I want to browse every page of every one of these 100+ page mini-atlases. I suppose The Real State of America and The State of the World ought to be the next ones that occupy a quiet afternoon, but The Atlas of  Water  and The Atlas of Food are no less intriguing.

Closing out this article, here’s an spread from The State of the World Atlas:


Teach Your Children Well

Madeline Levine, Ph.D. is a California psychologist, a woman who understands child development with refreshing clarity. Her candor may upset parents and children whose focus is abundant personal accomplishment. Her priorities reside elsewhere.

For example, she addresses the vitality of self-esteem as the positive result of a child’s own decisions and accomplishments. In opposition, she expresses grave concern about the distortion of self-esteem as narcissism, self-indulgence and materialism, which results in a higher level of distortion related to entitlement, grade inflation, and sad misconceptions about self-worth.

She takes on present day insanity: “…the kind of overblown panic I am seeing today has its roots in an extraordinary marketing campaign designed to convert normal parental concern into frenzied anxiety about what it will take to be successful in the twenty-first-century global economy.” she continues: “We have been sold a bill of goods and that bill of goods has clouded our common sense and judgement.”

And here’s the core idea of her book:

Here’s the reality: kids who are pressured, sleep-deprived, and overly focused on by parents convinced that without significant oversight and intervention, their children are not likely to be successful, [and] are at high risk for emotional, psychological and academic problems.”

Inexplicable trends tied to seemingly boundless cheating, stress behaviors including substance abuse and cutting, family ties stretched beyond their limits, the overwhelmed, overworked, consistently unhappy patterns now commonplace… They all make sense when explained in context. It’s time to stop this madness.

So begins a refreshing 21st century course in child development that acknowledges, incorporates and often celebrates technology, learning differences, and natural processes that hyperactive parental meddling are not likely to overcome. Teach Your Children Well: Parenting for Authentic Success is a brilliant book, essential in the ways that What to Expect When You’re Expecting has become for the first years of life.

It’s all about helping children to find and nurture friendships; to encourage them to maintain the connection between learning and fun; assisting in the construction of self-identity; and practical specifics about, for example, the healthy benefits of sufficient sleep. Often, Dr. Levine’s sane advice makes sense not only for children and teens, but for adults, too. Her advice regarding good sleep habits:

– Consistent bedtime
– A quiet half-hour ritual prior to bedtime, with dimmed lights
– No caffeinated drinks in the afternoon or evening
– No digital device use before bedtime
– Absolutely no social networking before bed

Dr. Levine insists upon appropriate roles for children and for parents, appropriate relationships that may differ from the daily realities in your home or in the households of relatives, neighbors or friends. She’s clear on the ways in which technology can, should, and ought not be part of the picture. And even though you, me and our kids rely upon our modern tools, she makes it clear that neither these tools nor the social interaction nor the increased productivity are worth much…certainly not nearly as much as the direct, moment-to-moment personal interactions that matter so much more than anything else in the world.

Gee, I really like this book. It’s the kind of book I want all of my friends to read, that I want every parent and student to read. Given that her previous book was reprinted some seventeen times, maybe everyone will.

And on this Rosh Hashanah evening, I can think of no better way to begin a new year than to recommend a book by an caring author who is making a difference. L’shana tovah.

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