Book Review: Images of Childhood


Eds: C. Philip Hwang, Michael E. Lamb and Irving E. Sigel
1996, ISBN 0-8058-1702-6 (pbk)


This book has a most explicit Introduction in which it states its aims (which I quote in abbreviated form):

“1. Delineate images of childhood in diverse cultural, subcultural and historical contexts. Images of childhood are expressed in myths, proverbs and beliefs about children’s nature…

2. Illustrate how these images of childhood are manifested in popular proverbs as well as in distinct patterns of child-rearing…

3. Indicate how these images of childhood are manifest in the development and implementation of educational and social policies…

4. Consider whether children are believed to have a privileged place in society…

5. Evaluate the extent to which cultural images affect the ways in which developmental processes are viewed or understood…”
In order to accomplish these enormous tasks, it includes work written from several different perspectives – the disciplines of history, theology, social anthropology and psychology are all represented – but due acknowledgement is also made in the introduction that “The sampling of cultures and images is by no means exhaustive.” This would seem to be bringing the art of understatement to a high point. The collection of essays straddles the different perspectives but really lacks any cohesive principle which would make them work well in relation to each other. Thus in the end, the reader is interested in this article or that article, but the project of reviewing (for instance) “whether children are believed to have a privileged place in society” is beyond the scope of the collection to accomplish.

Having said that, I found several of the essays exceptionally interesting from the point of view of challenging the simplistic notion of childhood as a state of nature. The chapter on ‘The History of Childhood’ by the English historian, Hugh Cunningham, I found fascinating from this perspective. He lucidly, though briefly, analyses the development of the romantic idea of childhood from the time of Rousseau and through its forms in Victorian philanthropy:

“Amy Carpenter, (a) leading campaigner on the issue of juvenile delinquency, believed that there were certain things without which no human being could be said to be a child. The first of these was love: ‘to children, it is an absolute necessity of their nature and when it is denied them they are no longer children.’ The second was life within a family, ‘the true position of childhood’.” He brings out the ambivalence of this approach, which conceals within itself ‘a very low status for children… This ambivalence in the image of the child… is almost certainly not confined to that period,” he comments drily. He makes it clear that there is a real need to study and understand ‘the history of childhood.’

In a detailed study of the Head Start programmes for young children in the States, Maris Vinovskis gives a long, hard look at a scheme which might seem at first glance to be an unalloyed good thing. The attempt to bring on ‘disadvantaged’ children at pre-school or early school age might seem to be an entirely laudable political initiative, but its effects were disappointing: “the evidence… dispels the idea that any one year of early intervention will have substantial lasting impact on reading achievement. There is no ‘magic bullet’ that sets students on the road to success…” Vinovskis concludes that: “One cannot study the perceptions and treatment of young children apart from the larger concerns of the adult society that provides for their nurturing and support.” The chapter does not spell out, but I feel it does imply, that in terms of social policy, the notion of childhood may be more political than real.

Perhaps the most unfamiliar perspective came in a chapter about the image of childhood in Japan. It is explored using the metaphor of a bridge across a river which the child must cross. “In some societies (eg the Chinese or the Western)… the task of crossing the river is considered the task of the child and his or hers alone. In contrast…..Japanese adults assist their children by, as it were, being themselves on the same side as the children first, and walking the children through the bridge to the side of the adults. The task of river crossing by the child is considered too risky and lonely to be carried out by the child alone…” This is also the only chapter in the book which looks at the way in which the deaths of children are regarded – “the image of the child as being helpless, with a loneliness-prone existence so that the adults wanted to be near them even when the children are dead…” – which is in itself an interesting indicator of the deep and largely inarticulated differences in the ways which various different cultures and societies view children.

Strangely enough, it is only in an essay about children in Brazil that the question of the influence of psychological theories on the image of childhood is raised. In this essay, the discrepancy between the ‘ideal’ of childhood in a secure family setting (which is viewed as ‘normal’ in psychological theories) and the facts of social fragmentation in Brazil is vividly highlighted. The picture of young children’s lives in Brazil is quite frighteningly similar to the one conjured up in Hugh Cunningham’s essay on nineteenth century Britain. However, this comparison is not drawn out (interesting though I think it would be) for the simple reason that the essays have been written separately, probably for different occasions and contexts, and they do not refer to each other at all. This is probably the single most unsatisfactory quality of this book – the items in it, many very interesting in themselves, are quite insufficiently bedded in a clear context. The enormous aims which the editors set out in the introduction cannot possibly be met by a mere collection of essays, no matter how good they may be individually. I feel it is a pity that the overall effect of this collection is really much less than the sum of its parts.

Mary Montaut