#YNaijaEssays: It is time we squared up and deconstructed the concept of childhood


Over the weekend, a tweet with an image from a children’s book was shared widely on Nigerian Twitter.

In the page, which was clearly taken out of context (as we do not know what kind of book it was) was a page explaining sexual intercourse within the institution of marriage.

The general sentiment behind the image especially on Nigerian Twitter was that the author’s intent was to corrupt the child somehow, a sentiment that was escalated by the argument that had sprung up on the internet (as it does every year) that paedophiles were trying to advocate that paedophilia was a legitimate sexual orientation and should be added on to the LGBT spectrum. In light of the widespread sexual assault that is perpetrated against children in Nigeria, the fact that child marriage is legal across the nation and protected by lawmakers and molestation of female children is considered a rite of passage, perhaps we need to understand what childhood as a concept is and what its limitations are. But first, we must understand childhood as we know it now, didn’t exist until 100 plus years ago.

Childhood as millennials and Gen X know it now is a luxury children born in the medieval age could not fathom. According to Philippe Ariès’, the first historian to study the history of childhood, the use of the term child was as imprecise as the concept of childhood itself was unrecognised. Counting the years of age or attributing age to stages of development were virtually non-existent. Children were considered “little adults” and were treated as convenient tools for the labour market. They were introduced to sex (and marriage) at a very early age and because of the strenous activity, the lack of innovation in medicine and education and general prejudices; very few children pre-Victorian era made it into adulthood.

By the time the 16th century rolled around, however, the term “childhood” began to be used to describe the mid-point between birth and adulthood. By the 18th century, there was growing appreciation for childhood by society as a “stage of life and the existing societies at the time, began to recognise childhood in a number of ways. This involved the invention of clothing specifically made to suit the needs of children (baby napkins, detachable trousers and britches), an end to their being depicted as small adults in books and illustrations, as well as the appearance and wider recognition of children’s games and pastimes and a growing sense of the innocence of childhood. However, children were still exploited for the workforce. There were simply too many labour intensive jobs and not enough people to do them. 

This was eventually disrupted by the industrial revolution which began in the late 1700s and early 1800s, replacing hand labour with machines. Children didn’t immediately get phased out of active labour, they were the first to run the simple machinery that the revolution created, and often were the only demographic small enough to clean many of these machines.  Here’s a visual, from scholastic.com depicting how bad child labour got.

Children had always worked, especially in farming. But factory work was hard. A child with a factory job might work 12 to 18 hours a day, 6 days a week, to earn a dollar. Many children began working before the age of 7, tending machines in spinning mills or hauling heavy loads. The factories were often damp, dark, and dirty. Some children worked underground, in coal mines. The working children had no time to play or go to school, and little time to rest. They often became ill.

“By 1810, about 2 million school-age children were working 50- to 70-hour weeks. Most came from poor families. When parents could not support their children, they sometimes turned them over to a mill or factory owner. One glass factory in Massachusetts was fenced with barbed wire “to keep the young imps inside.” These were boys under 12 who carried loads of hot glass all night for a wage of 40 cents to $1.10 per night.”

But when the uproar over the forced labour of kids and their horrible working conditions began to result in the gruesome deaths and maiming of minors, the newly formed ‘first world’ was forced to do something about it. Britain led the way with a series of laws promulgated between 1802 and 1878 which stipulated the age at which children could work, reduced working hours and improved working conditions. Whereas other European countries followed Britain’s example, America was reluctant to make any amendments. It took a labour coup by children themselves to get America to review its stance on child labour. The year was 1899 and paper boys were the backbone of big media. The pay was near worthless and life, hard but America’s steady diet of immigrants ensured that big business owners reluctant to deal with the newly formed American labour unions could exploit immigrant children instead. This practice was allowed to thrive until the business owners increased the rates from 50 to 60 cents for a day’s worth of papers, setting into motion a groundswell of protests by children. These children organised a strike that closed down Brooklyn bridge for several days, finally forcing the American government to initiate reform in labour laws.

That year, 28 states passed laws regulating child labour but a national child labour law was yet to be passed. Two attempts by the United States Congress in 1918 and 1922 to pass a national labour law were declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. The third attempt was in 1924. Congress proposed a constitutional amendment prohibiting child labour, but the states did not ratify it. Come 1938, however, Congress passed the Fair Labour Standards Act, which stipulated among other things, the minimum age at which children could work: 14 for after-school jobs, 16 for work during school hours and 18 for dangerous work. The law also introduced a minimum wage and “time-and-a-half” overtime pay when people work over forty hours a week.

Today, not only do almost all the states in the U.S. have laws regulating child labour, most countries do as well. There’s even a global watchdog attending specifically to the protection of the rights of children. In 1999, over 160 countries approved the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) agreement to end the worst forms of child labour, which took effect in 2000. But not all forms of work are not regulated. “Children of migrant workers, for example, have no legal protection. Farmers may legally employ them outside of school hours. The children pick crops in the fields and move from place to place, so they get little schooling.”

No discourse on the evolution of childhood (as we know it today), will be complete without a cursory look into the argument on children and cognition.

While medieval societies believed that children were capable of adult thinking and responsibilities once they passed infancy and early childhood, our society has raced to the other extreme, suggesting that children are incapable of processing the world around them with an adult chaperone. Studies have shown especially from the works of French psychologist, Jean Piaget, who in 1952 published a groundbreaking theory on cognitive development in children, that the thinking on children having no cognition until they are old enough to learn to speak, is far from the truth.

Believed essentially to be a product of his curiosity about how children react to their environments, the theory illustrates that there are four cognitive stages of childhood development namely:

Sensorimotor Stage: Birth through about 2 years. During this stage, children learn about the world through their senses and the manipulation of objects.

Preoperational Stage: Ages 2 through 7. During this stage, children develop memory and imagination. They are also able to understand things symbolically and to understand the ideas of past and future.

Concrete Operational Stage: Ages 7 through 11. During this stage, children become more aware of external events, as well as feelings other than their own. They become less egocentric and begin to understand that not everyone shares their thoughts, beliefs, or feelings.

Formal Operational Stage: Ages 11 and older. During this stage, children are able to use logic to solve problems, view the world around them, and plan for the future.

Post-Piaget research has however expanded our understanding on the subject as research work like the Information Processing Model have further explained how and when a child’s core cognitive skills are developed, to include the fact that such skills include attention, short-term memory, long-term memory, logic & reasoning, auditory processing, visual processing, and processing speed, as these are the skills used by the brain to think, learn, read, remember, pay attention, and solve problems.

While Piaget’s theory explains what a child is capable of doing at different stages in his or her development, the Information Model brings us closer to understanding the specific cognitive skills at work behind the scenes and further breaks it down for us to understand that attention, short-term memory, and long-term memory are developing between the ages of 2 and 5.

Auditory processing, which is critical for good reading skills, is developing between the ages of 5 and 7. Logic & reasoning also becomes more established during after 5 years of age as a child becomes better able to make connections between ideas.

The Piaget’s theory as at today, however, remains the most well-known and influential theory of cognitive development.

Needless to say, these theories somewhat renders invalid the age-long debate on nature versus nurture, attempting to decide whether human behaviour is determined by the environment, either prenatal or during a person’s life, or by a person’s genes.

This argument which had started with thinkers like John Locke’s whose ‘An Essay Concerning Human Understanding’ (1690) is often cited as the foundational document of the “blank slate” view.

Centuries after, several other scholars challenged the philosophy and have led us to understand that we are only learning the extent of children’s intelligence and ability to grasp the world, as research has shown that children’s brains are different, wired to learn and unlearn behaviour. But more importantly they express the reality that childhood, while tumultuous for children, is something they experience actively, not a series of events that happen to them.

During the 1940s to 1960s, Ashley Montagu a notable proponent of the purist form of behaviourism established by John B. Watson in the 1920s and 1930s and which allowed no contribution from heredity whatsoever had remarked:

“Man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned, acquired, from his culture … with the exception of the instinctoid reactions in infants to sudden withdrawals of support and to sudden loud noises, the human being is entirely instinctless.”

By the late 1990s, however, an overwhelming amount of evidence had accumulated that amounts to a refutation of the extreme forms of “blank-slatism” advocated by Watson or Montagu. All of the research into child cognition points to the duality of childhood being a period where children learn to exercise their own free will and shape their identities based on personal experience, but it also emphasizes the danger fraught existence that is childhood and the need for guidance and surveillance, not just from immediate and extended family, but also from the much larger society.

This is in part why the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF), a specialised agency of the universal body of countries, United Nations Organisation (UNO) was created after the violent aftermath of WW2, to usher in a new dimension to the discourse about childhood and the universal needs of children everyhwere, as it majorly represented an unexpected consequence of the move to dependence on immediate and extended family for children, by way of its role in the infantilisation of children.

With an initial objective to provide emergency health care and food to children and mothers affected during World War II, UNICEF as it is today, exists not only to improve and save the lives of children globally by providing basic needs in the forms of healthcare, clean water, immunisation, sanitation, emergency relief and education to children in need; but to cater for a new generation of dependent children who were formerly an easy resource during wars and famines and generally mistreated for their inability to advocate for themselves.

Its expanded objectives now includes eradication of child mortality due to malnutrition, hunger, unsanitary conditions and preventable diseases, and in a bid to to effectively save the lives of children around the world, records show that it could go through lengths in achieving its aims in ways that include; negotiating ceasefires in war zones to deliver food, medicines and water to locations that are difficult to assess as well as collaboration with professionals and volunteers across the walks of life, to bring assistance to children in need.

Indeed, the birth of the UNICEF in 1946, ushered-in a new era in the evolution of childhood, as the period witnessed (and which runs to date), promulgation of extensive laws to ensure that children’s rights are protected and punishment meted out to guardians who fail to protect children.

The structures of adult society limit children’s opportunities for asserting their autonomy. Children live in a world in which the parameters tend to be set by adults, especially in relation to children’s use of time and space (Ennew 1994).

According to Paula Fass, adolescence as an idea and as an experience grew out of the more general elevation of childhood. Fass adds that: “Progressive societies cared for their children by emphasising play and schooling; parents were expected to shelter and protect their children’s innocence by keeping them from paid work and the wrong kinds of knowledge; while health, protection and education became the governing principles of child life.”

With the concept of adolescence, parents could now predict the staging of their children’s maturation. Adolescence soon became a yardstick for development that was applicable to all youth – (connecting childhood and adulthood).

It is necessary to understand how children negotiate the lines between childhood and adulthood in a world that is more or less a bounded world (putting into consideration the so-called support of parents) – adventurous is the word that most people use in sentences when this kind of debate crops up. Understanding some of the complexities of childhood, we can begin to explore their strengths and how they (children) strategise to negotiate with that overwhelming adult society – especially as it relates to such things as sex.

The ways that parents handle adolescent strivings for autonomy have been consistently linked to both the quality of parent-adolescent relationships and to numerous aspects of adolescent adjustment (Allen, Hauser, Bell, & O’Connor, 1994; Allen, Hauser, Eickholt, Bell, & O’Connor, 1994; Collins, 1990; Steinberg, 1990).

You may think they’re tuning you out when the discussion turns to books, religion or other more supposed serious issues, but they’re not, according to two studies by the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy (NCPTP) which reinforce the role of parental advice and role-modelling in determining the sexual behaviour of teens.

A lot of parents wonder when to have ‘the talk’ with their kids,” says Ingrid Sanden of NCPTP.

This impasse started when parents began to understand that, indeed, children – growing up to be adults – might acquire their sexual behaviour in a rather unusual way. Besides, with the start of the 21st century, the innocence of children (before adolescence) is quite difficult to protect. Successive generations understand that there is a period when youthful exuberance sets in and it is that time that, between childhood and adulthood, that children begin to try out new things – adventures, as mentioned earlier.

During this time, the child or adolescent, as the case may be, is aware that the space, the room where their autonomy is restricted is no longer a ‘safe space’. The child begins to consider freedom from adult-set boundaries as an option. And the advent of automobiles set that course.

Adolescence comes up with the desire to have fun, to show off, to be free. When there are utilities to use to do these adventures; then there is no holding back. Automobiles offered a very good option for sexually excited teenagers – although that is no longer the case now. It started with sex-aware teenagers wanting to hang out with friends and show their driving prowess, but that space (the car away from home) also offered teenagers the opportunity to ‘see’ if they could practicalise their desires; their jump from childhood to adulthood.

Adolescence as a concept and as a reality changed the way the world viewed the transition period and convolutions from childhood to adulthood but it also created an enabling environment for paedophiles; with some scholars already making the case for paedophilia.

As defined by the fifth Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, paedophiles are individuals who are preferentially or solely sexually attracted to children, generally 13 years or less. Those who find children on the border from babyhood to puberty sexually attractive are known as “hebephiles”. “Ephebophiles” are individuals who are sexually attracted to children who have reached puberty.

There is an argument that the abuse is a matter of occasion: the child is a sexual surrogate for an unavailable adult or the abuse represents a need to dominate and control another human being. But we must not throw out the fact these set of adults embolden their sexual cravings such that marriage becomes an opportunity to possess the child for a longer period than a one-night stand.

There are other arguments though, that child marriage is rooted in gender inequality and the belief that girls and women are in a way inferior to boys and men. The practice varies across regions and countries, even within the same country.

Though progressively frowned upon across the world since the inception of the 20th and 21st centuries, throughout history adolescent marriages have been commonplace in many cultures. This act has been the subject of thousands of debates and controversies worldwide where those favouring child marriages have fought both vehemently against those not favouring it. Both young boys and girls have been imperilled to child marriages over the years – some with the flimsy excuse of betrothal.

…Economic problems have been one of the primary factors that have forced parents to marry off their young girls. The system of dowry prevailing in many countries where parents of girls have to bestow hefty sums of money or expensive goods and ornaments to the in-laws’ families of their daughters have led to the consideration of the girl child as a burden in such households World Atlas.

We already know that in countries like Nigeria, child marriage is ubiquitous. Some explanation can be based on the fact that the country is divided along religious lines. The South is predominantly Christian while the North is mainly Muslim. And so, even though the country is bounded by Federal Laws (that prohibits marriage below 18), some Northern states prefer to refer to Sharia Law or at least their own revised version of it.

Poverty, and the fact that the female child is seen, almost as, dispensable property is one of the main reasons why child marriage is predominant in Nigeria. In places like the earliest known India, young men and women embraced the open-minded concept of love. They also had the freedom to choose their partner, no matter how young. However, from the Middle Age, as states and government developed, the political system modified the Indian system gradually.

The public often feels intense loathing and anger towards paedophiles and those who sexually abuse children. What the public thinks about the causes of child sexual abuse is important, because what people think causes a problem informs what they believe should be done – Kelly Richards.

The reality is that we know little about children. Majority of the medical research done has been centred on adult males, leaving out females and children. This has in no way helped our understanding of children. Marcia Stefanick, an obstetrics and gynaecology professor at Stanford said, “For just about everything in medical science, we’re still very male-focused. Our basic understanding is missing a key ingredient, and that is the sex difference.”

However, this should not deter us from protecting children from child marriage, paedophiles, hard labour, slavery, etc, but should rather spur us towards providing a safe haven where they can discover and express themselves. This discovery should be done with the children given a level of autonomy void of stifling their curiosity, awareness and creativity. Children should be allowed to come to an understanding of who they are while adults should act as guides and guards, not masters who force their thoughts and opinions upon them.

Most importantly, adults need to take a look back and begin to investigate their assumptions of childhood. This investigation should, in turn, lead adults to ensure that they stop projecting their expectations, biases and prejudices onto children.

One comment

  1. Ahh long like through history. I read it all

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