Beyond the Century of the Child: Cultural History and Developmental Psychology

Beyond the Century of the Child: Cultural History and Developmental Psychology

Beyond the Century of the Child: Cultural History and Developmental Psychology

Beyond the Century of the Child: Cultural History and Developmental Psychology


In 1900, Ellen Key wrote the international bestseller The Century of the Child. In this enormously influential book, she proposed that the world's children should be the central work of society during the twentieth century. Although she never thought that her "century of the child" would become a reality, in fact it had much more resonance than she could have imagined.

The idea of the child as a product of a protective and coddling society has given rise to major theories and arguments since Key's time. For the past half century, the study of the child has been dominated by two towering figures, the psychologist Jean Piaget and the historian Philippe Ariès. Interest in the subject has been driven in large measure by Ariès's argument that adults failed even to have a concept of childhood before the thirteenth century, and that from the thirteenth century to the seventeenth there was an increasing "childishness" in the representations of children and an increasing separation between the adult world and that of the child. Piaget proposed that children's logic and modes of thinking are entirely different from those of adults. In the twentieth century this distance between the spheres of children and adults made possible the distinctive study of child development and also specific legislation to protect children from exploitation, abuse, and neglect. Recent students of childhood have challenged the ideas those titans promoted; they ask whether the distancing process has gone too far and has begun to reverse itself.

In a series of essays, Beyond the Century of the Child considers the history of childhood from the Middle Ages to modern times, from America and Europe to China and Japan, bringing together leading psychologists and historians to question whether we unnecessarily infantilized children and unwittingly created a detrimental wall between the worlds of children and adults. Together these scholars address the question whether, a hundred years after Ellen Key wrote her international sensation, the century of the child has in fact come to an end.


William James tried unavailingly to warn them. From the modern birth of their discipline in the last decades of the nineteenth century, psychologists have aspired to study human behavior according to the norms of science. Most took physics for their model. Some, such as the developmental psychologists, took biology. But even the developmental psychologists idealized the quest for universal laws and aimed to devise theories as timeless as possible.

Classic studies in developmental psychology, such as Lewis Terman’s Study of Gifted Californians (1925; Oden 1968) and August Hollingshead’s Elmtown’s Youth (1949), did not even collect, let alone take into account, data linked to experiences of war or economic collapse. Neither did the well-known trio of longitudinal studies: the Berkeley Growth Study, Berkeley Guidance Study, and Oakland Growth Study (Eichorn et al. 1981; Elder, Modell, and Park 1993). Neither did the investigations of the next generation, which were predicated on the same scientistic premises and the same disdain for the historical dimension.

It was not until Glen Elder’s brilliant Children of the Great Depression (1974) that the crucial impact of economic hardship and military mobilization received its first theoretical elaboration. But in recent years he and an increasing contingent of his followers have produced a succession of revelatory studies of the connections between large historical developments and the development of individuals across the life course. The most influential of their works may be their 1993 collection, Children in Time and Place (Elder, Modell, and Park 1993).

That collection demonstrated convincingly that cooperation between historians and developmental psychologists was not only possible but also productive. It addressed old problems in new ways, posed new problems, and advanced innovative solutions to both the old problems and the new ones. Mike Zuckerman participated in the conference that produced the collection and wrote the historians’ concluding chapter for it. His position was a bit more radical than that of the other participants. As Willem Koops pointed out in a review of the book (Koops 1996), the agreements achieved by the historians and developmental . . .

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