Changing Concepts of Childhood: Children's Folklore Scholarship since the Late Nineteenth Century

By Tucker, Elizabeth | Journal of American Folklore, Fall 2012 | Go to article overview

Changing Concepts of Childhood: Children's Folklore Scholarship since the Late Nineteenth Century


Tucker, Elizabeth, Journal of American Folklore


This essay examines children's folklore scholarship from the late nineteenth century to the present, tracing key concepts from the Gilded Age to the contemporary era. These concepts reflect significant social, cultural, political, and scientific changes. From the "savage child" to the "secret-keeping child," the "magic-making child," the "cerebral child," the "taboo-breaking child," the "monstrous child," and others, scholarly representations of young people have close connections to the eras in which they developed. Nineteenth-century children's folklore scholarship relied on evolutionism; now evolutionary biology provides a basis for children's folklore research, so we have re-entered familiar territory.

since 1977, when the American Folklore Society decided to form a new section for scholars interested in young people's traditions, I have belonged to the Children's Folklore Section. It has been a joy to contribute to this dynamic organization, which has significantly influenced children's folklore scholarship and children's book authors' focus on folk tradition. This essay examines children's folklore scholarship from the late nineteenth century to the present, tracing key concepts from the Gilded Age to the contemporary era in the English language. These concepts reflect significant social, cultural, political, and scientific changes that have occurred since William Wells Newell, the first secretary of the American Folklore Society and the first editor of the Journal of American Folklore, published Games and Songs of American Children in 1883. They also reveal some very interesting commonalities. Those of us who pursue children's folklore scholarship today may consider ourselves to be light years away from nineteenth-century scholars' research but may find, when reading nineteenthcentury works, that we have stayed fairly close to our scholarly "home base."

B efore examining concepts of childhood that folklorists have developed, I will offer a working definition of this life stage and briefly explain the beginning of childhood studies. I will also summarize the Children's Folklore Section's work during the past thirty-four years. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, childhood consists of "the state or stage of life of a child; the time during which one is a child; the time from birth to puberty" (2011). Scholars of childhood tend to draw a line between childhood and adolescence, which begins at puberty and follows pre-adolescence. The folklore of young people certainly changes from pre-adolescence to adolescence, as Sue Samuelson's "Review of the Distinctive Genres of Adolescent Folklore" (1995) demonstrates. There is also a relationship between adolescent folklore and the folklore of young adults, as I found when writing a book on college ghostlore (2007). In this essay I will use the terms "childhood," "pre-adolescence," and "adolescence." Childhood involves both formal and informal education. Formal education tends to come from adults, while informal education comes from peers. Peer-based learning gives children the traditional acquisitions that folklorists call children's folklore, children's lore, or childlore.

B oth children's folklore and childhood have become subjects for scholarly analysis relatively recently: the former in the nineteenth century and the latter in the early 1960s. In 1962, the French demographic historian Philippe Ariès published Centuries of Childhood, in which he asserts that "there was no place for childhood in the medieval world" (1962:33). Much of his evidence consists of paintings in which children look like small adults. Since the medieval era, Ariès claims, our world has become "obsessed by the physical, moral, and sexual problems of childhood" (1962:411). Although many scholars agree that childhood had become an obsession for adults, they may not accept the suggestion that parents and other adults did not conceptualize childhood until the end of the Middle Ages. Post-Ariès research has explored adults' conceptualization of childhood in earlier eras. …

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