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Presumed Innocent

December 31, 2002

Mary Ann Travis
Michael DeMocker

Foggy memories, emotional pitfalls and more myths than Grimms Fairy Tales-- that's the stuff of which childhood is made. In a time when researchers study everything from the esoteric to downright bizarre, academics have remained remarkably quiet about childhood. We've all been children, after all; many of us have children. What is there to know that experience doesn't teach us?

But Linda Pollock, professor of history and associate dean of the faculty of the liberal arts and sciences at Tulane University, knows a lot more than most of us. She, along with April Brayfield, associate professor of sociology, and Marilyn Brown, professor of art, are leading the way into the hitherto unexplored field of childhood studies.

Using the tools of their disciplines, they're deciphering a new understanding of childhood and, thus, a further understanding of humanity, separating the real from the constructed, the complex from the simple, the accessible from the hidden. Childhood, it turns out, is much more complicated than we thought.


You're not going to find expressions of grief in an account book, says Linda Pollock. That would be like looking for sorrow in a checkbook. But an account book is exactly what historian Lawrence Stone cited in his 1977 book The Family, Sex and Marriage in England 1500 to 1800 as a source to prove that parents were not bonded to their children and therefore did not grieve at a childs death. A 17th-century man wrote, Paid for my loving son Johns funeral, 2 shillings and six pence.

From this, Stone argued that parents of that era were indifferent to the deaths of their children. And this troubled Pollock, a student at the University of Saint Andrews in Scotland in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I thought material was being taken out of context, rather than explored thoroughly. I decided to do a wider database, look at more diaries--both published and manuscript. I wanted to have not just five or six anecdotal diaries. I wanted to have hundreds of them, so that I could compare them. So Pollock set out to accurately put children into history. She read diaries, scoured letters, pored over record books.

The two books that resulted from her painstaking research--Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1800 (Cambridge University Press, 1983) and A Lasting Relationship: Parents and Children Over Three Centuries (University Press of New England, 1987)--upset the prevailing opinion, held by historians such as Stone and the influential Philippe Aries, that a concept of childhood did not exist before the 17th century. The books also made Pollock famous as a historian of childhood and sowed the seeds for the current scholarly interest in childhood studies.


As a sociologist April Brayfield doesnt put much stock in personal anecdotes as sound empirical evidence. She takes a more quantitative approach. And she looks for macroscopic concepts. Sociology is a field that only lately--the 1990s--began to pay attention to the social and cultural construction of childhood. What I usually like to say is that sociologists turned their backs on children a long time ago, says Brayfield. Sociology came into its own as a discipline in the late 1880s, at just about the time the work of Sigmund Freud transformed psychology.

Sociologists then focused on the changes in society caused by the Industrial Revolution. They studied big societal developments. Sociologists turned children over to the psychologists, says Brayfield. But now sociology is changing, with a new interest in childhood and how cultures, societies, organizations and individuals think about children as a group. And Brayfield leads the charge.

At the moment, she's undertaking a major research project that is systematically looking at the whole discipline of sociology by analyzing scholarly articles written about children by sociologists in the leading academic journals since the 1940s. Brayfield's study proves what an adult-centered field sociology has been. By more closely examining the small proportion of child-oriented articles and essays--far fewer than 10 percent of all the ones sociologists have written--Brayfield also plans to tease out the state of sociological knowledge of children today.

She has questions: Why do we think about children in the ways that we do? How have we studied children? From where does our knowledge of children come? The first myth of childhood that Brayfield thinks sociology can dispel is that childhood is simply a biological stage of life. Childhood is much more than biology. It is a social and cultural construct that has changed radically over time and will continue to change, saysBrayfield.

Sociologists have started to study preschool and middle-school children, uncovering how they actively create their own peer cultures. Children are socializing each other, says Brayfield. Adults do not control the socialization of children in a top-down way. Instead, children make sense of their society and culture, take this information and act on it. A cherished notion about children is that they are--and we were--all innately, naturally innocent. But the idea of the innocence of childhood is a social construction, says Brayfield. We have not always thought of children as innocent.

Only since Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an Enlightenment thinker, wrote Emile in 1762 has the idea of natural childhood purity and goodness prevailed in Western thought. Children are born good until corrupted by society, wrote the highly influential Rousseau. And thats a fairly pervasive concept even today, says Brayfield. Its hard to escape, and its hard to argue against. But Brayfield says thats why the study of the past becomes so important. There were times before when we thought that if children were left to their own devices, theyd be evil.

Children arent naturally innocent --thats an ideology. And sometimes our inability to understand the ideology of childhood innocence blinds us to the fact that some children are culpable. Some children are problematic. And its not because of some immoral adult influence. Children are themselves individuals. Children can be overprotected, Brayfield asserts. You can stifle them in terms of allowing their creative capacity to flourish. Brayfield says that children can help produce knowledge about the changing world.

Although by most definitions theyre not children, the freshman students in Brayfields writing class can add to our knowledge base. They are investigating the status of children in countries worldwide, posting their findings on a Web site ( used by international researchers. And scholars value their findings. My students are not just consumers of knowledge, theyre actually helping create knowledge, says Brayfield. Brayfield started her academic career by writing her dissertation at the University of Maryland about the division of household labor from an adult-centered perspective-- men versus women.

After she earned her PhD in 1990, she went to work for the Urban Institute as a childcare demographer to provide perspectives for U.S. government social policy. She came to Tulane in 1992, still mainly seeing children as an obstacle in terms of womens unemployment and focusing on children as they relate to women. Brayfield spent her junior-faculty research leave in 1996 at the University of Surrey in England.

There, she met with British researchers who were studying the sociology of childhood much more from the social construction angle than Brayfield ever had before--looking at our images of children, how they change over time--almost like a sociology of knowledge. Thats when I started making this shift, says Brayfield. She moved away from placing children in the sociological box of burden to women and began to understand children as independent cultural agents. Brayfield began to look at European cross-national attitudes toward how important having children are to a meaningful life. In Lifes Greatest Joy? in Social Forces (1997), for example, Brayfield shows that Italians view children as much more central to a happy life than the Dutch do.

During that sabbatical year in England, Brayfield read a lot of books, including those by Linda Pollock. Whats so pivotal about her work is it was so thoroughly researched, says Brayfield. Its amazingly rich in detail. She is able to demonstrate that parents have always cared about their children. Maybe childcare practices have changed somewhat over time, but she would argue that what parents did was motivated out of a concern for their children. So thats really what her book is about.


Brayfield only learned when she went to an academic conference in England that Pollock had been a Tulane faculty member since 1988. You know, Linda Pollock is quite famous in the history of childhood, says Brayfield. Marilyn Brown agrees. She is, I think, considered to be one of the top two or three historians of childhood in the world, she says of Pollocks importance to the field. And here she is, right at Tulane. Brown asked Pollock to write the foreword to the book she edited, titled Picturing Children: Constructions of Childhood Between Rousseau and Freud (2002).

In the foreword, Pollock wrote, Education did not exist [in the 19th century] to liberate minds but to preserve the gender and status distinctions of society. That kind of insight is useful to Brown, an art historian trained in the social history of 19th-century visual culture. Brown has long been interested in depictions of marginal people such as gypsies and vagabonds. And she says, I think children are in a sense socially marginal. Now, in terms of iconography, theyre at the center, but theyre still to a degree marginal in society. Art historians jumped on the now hot topic of childhood studies in art at the 1998 National College Art Association conference in Toronto, says Brown.

Pamela Edwardes, an editor from Ashgate Press in London, heard about the sessions that focused on 19th-century representations of children and sexuality of children in 20thcentury photography. Edwardes asked Brown to edit Picturing Children, a volume of essays by conference participants and other art historians. In her introduction to Picturing Children, Baudelaire Between Rousseau and Freud, Brown writes, Since children are usually assumed to be powerless, representing them visually can project adult questions and assumptions about the social order and can place children in a political (and often sexual) economy that is greater than the contingency of the individual child.

Brown says that adult projections about childhood are complicated. They carry with them the weighted baggage of adulthood. And sometimes the construction of an ideal of childhood innocence is nostalgia on the part of adults for a simpler state thats less complicated than their actual lives. But childhood, she argues, is just as complex as adulthood. Brown says that art historians current interest in visual representations of children is a logical outgrowth of feminism. I think the scholarship of my generation has first of all dealt with the issue of social class and then with gender, race and sexual orientation.

Now that baby boomer scholars such as Brown (she earned her PhD at Yale University in 1978) are aging, she says, and have had children or are wondering why they have not had them, childhood studies are booming. And, face it, the visual images of children in popular culture are provocative. American culture is a youthful culture. We never grow up, says Brown. Or we dont want to. The distinctions between adulthood and childhood are blurred. Sculptor Charles Ray portrays this idea of everyone being the same age in his Family Romance (1993), in which two adults and two children--all nude--are all the same height--a young adolescent height. So the adults are brought down and the children brought up. In our society, children grow up early and meanwhile adults are always looking for their inner child, says Brown.

Brown put the finishing touches on an essay, Images of Childhood, for the Macmillan History of Childhood this summer. In the essay, she sweeps through an interpretation of representations of children from the 15th to the 21st century. The historical venture, Brown says, is an attempt to see how children were visualized in earlier centuries. Maybe we can better sort out what is going on now, by looking at the past. Before the 18th century, children were often depicted as miniature adults in paintings, says Brown.

That's one reason the historian refuted by Pollock--Philippe Aries--in his Centuries of Childhood (1962) mistakenly deduced there was no concept of childhood then. Separate from his missing the boat about parents caring for children, Aries is still influential because he was the first historian to look at changing conceptions of children over time. The cult of innocence began in the 18th century. Sir Joshua Reynolds, a British portrait painter, painted a sweet, adorable child in his The Age of Innocence. Such paintings of elite children were common.

Brown writes in the Macmillan essay that in this era, the idea of childhood innocence as a sheltered realm, fragile and susceptible to corruption, was elaborately invented and largely began to replace the notion of children as naturally immodest and uninhibited. Ironically, as artists mostly pictured children as purely innocent, Brown points out that the following century ushered in a period of unprecedented child labor in factories, and child prostitution among the lower classes was prevalent.

So, in many respects, the 19th-century idea of the innocent child was a kind of myth, says Brown. I think it was perhaps slightly less mythical at the middle-class level, but certainly for working-class children, this idea of carefree, childhood innocence was not a realm that was accessible. Nineteenth-century artists also attached femininity to childhood. Brown writes, The point is driven home by a portrait [Jean Renoir Sewing] by the French Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir of his own small son (the future film director) engrossed in the decidedly distaff act of sewing, complete with a bow in his hair.

By the late 19th century, the claustrophobic ideal of Victorian childhood began cracking. Mary Cassatt, the American painter, turned conventional deportment and etiquette on their respective heads in her 1878 Little Girl in a Blue Armchair, writes Brown. The girl in the painting seems to be expressing exasperation at social constraints as she sits sprawled in a chair with her skirt thrown up. Throughout much of the 20th century, painters moved increasingly away from children as subjects for their art because children were often considered trivial or sentimental--or too feminine.

Painters did not want to paint children, but to paint like children, says Brown. Photographers produced some of the most powerful representations of children as photography became an art form, beginning with Lewis Carroll, the author of Alices Adventures in Wonderland, who photographed his subjects --the Liddell sisters, especially Alice-- with a mingling of purity and sexuality, playfulness and relaxation. Documentary photographers such as Helen Levitt and Gordon Parks have registered their concern for child welfare.

In Black Children with White Doll (1942) Parks commented on racial discrimination through a poignant image of doll play, writes Brown. And Sally Mann has photographed her own children in ways that overturn our ideas of innocent childhood and bring us to what another art historian Anne Higonnet terms knowing childhood, says Brown. Manns Jessie as Jessie, Jessie as Madonna (1990) and The New Mothers (1989) rivetingly suggest that innocence and sexuality of children are not mutually exclusive and that bodily and psychological individuality can co-exist with the state of being childlike, writes Brown.

Another photographer, Mary Ellen Mark, has documented the child beauty pageant phenomenon with its contradictory messages of innocence and sexuality in girls. At the beginning of the 21st century, Brown says, sculpture and painting have shifted back to representations of childhood, but representations of it in its altered, excessive state. Its no longer innocent childhood that attracts artists, but rather knowing childhood as promoted by popular visual culture.


Linda Pollock knows best the historical children who lived before the ideology of childhood innocence and centuries before the current notion of knowing children. Instead, Original Sin permeated the children of Pollocks historical realm. But that didnt stop their parents from loving them. Linda Pollocks voice softens and almost cracks. A lot of these parents lost children. The 17th-century diarists form a world of personalities to Pollock.

It's as if Nehemiah Wallington, a London chairmaker who lived from 1598 to 1658, had spoken personally to Pollock about his sorrow at the death of his daughter Elizabeth, age 4. Its a tough time for a religious parent when a child gets sick. Parents from 1500 to 1800 could only watch and pray helplessly over an ill child because medical care was so ineffective. It was tough, but their religious faith assured them that a dying child was being called by God to a better place. They really believed in a better life, says Pollock. So theyre torn. She speaks softly, acting the part of an anguished 17th-century parent, You know, I dont want to stop my child from going to a better life.

On the other hand, Pollocks voice takes a defiant tone, I want my child to live. Pollock, the historian, analyzes. You can see them go back and forth here by these emotional pulls, pulling you apart. How could they dispense with Gods will when they were meant to be obedient to Gods will? Almost 20 years after she wrote A Lasting Relationship, Pollock sympathetically and vividly recalls--without referring to the book--what Wallington said, I did forget my God in this because my grief for this child was so great I couldnt stop myself from it.

Remarkably, Pollock's memory is on the money. Wallington actually wrote in his diary, The grief for this child was so great that I forgot myself so much that I did offend God in it; for I broke all my purposes, promises and covenants with my God, for I was much distracted in my mind, and could not be comforted, although my friends speak comfortably unto me.

Grief at the loss of a child is a basic parental emotion. Pollock says that parentchild relationships have some cultural differences and slight differences in degree, but, essentially, they dont change. I think they dont change because parents are enormously emotionally invested in their children. And always have been. If were going to argue that parental care changes so much to the degree that historians have argued-- that there really was no parental care in the past because you werent attached to your children--to me, were denying the basic capacity of human beings to handle emotional involvement, says Pollock.

Pollock dissected hundreds of letters and diaries to get credible, documented proof that in the past people formed close and loving bonds with their children. Parental attachment is not a new phenomenon. And she wonders, Why do we want to argue the past wasnt capable of it? Maybe, she speculates, were insecure and worried about our own emotional abilities today. To make ourselves feel superior, we think at least were better at emotional connections than people in the past. We do this, says Pollock, by saying that the pasts were not capable of parental love. Hogwash, Pollock might say in her Scottish brogue.

The pasts--old friends to Pollock, these 17th-century English parents, who were shopkeepers, ministers and the landed elite--cared deeply for and truly loved their children. I dont think we humans as a species can reproduce without an enormous amount of emotional investment. Pollock prods other scholars to follow up her work and further investigate childhood history. Its time to go back and look at the smaller changes and differences in different cultures and historical eras to become aware of how parents tried to fit their children into society, she says.

If historians look at the aims and goals of child-rearing in other cultures, other times, they might help us understand what were doing today, says Pollock. Rather than us assuming were better and more advanced just because were in the present, more examinations of childhood will help us understand why were doing what were doing.


Childhood studies--across the disciplines --opens up a field ripe with possibilities for new and useful knowledge, says Brayfield. When a new paradigm emerges, all understandings shift. Childrens perspectives have begun to penetrate scholars views of the world as they become as aware of adultism--the privileging of the adult perspective over the childs perspective-- as they are of racism and sexism. If were really going to understand the changing world, we need to understand children--culturally and socially, Brayfield contends.

Think of the possibilities in sociology: family dynamics with childrens perspectives taken into account, household work studied by sibling order, views of employment by teenage workers. Protecting children remains an adult responsibility. But Brayfield says, I dont think we want a society in which adults are in total control, all the time. Children are creative, thinking beings. Thats why, Brayfield says, They do not turn out just like we expect. And thats how we have social change. If children werent an important part of social change, then we wouldnt see any differences across generations. The world would not turn without children.

Mary Ann Travis is managing editor of Tulanian and the mother of three daughters. She can be reached at


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