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  • Conclusion:Change, Globalization and Childhood
  • Peter N. Stearns

Amid all the complications of dealing with globalization and childhood, including its great unevenness, a crucial issue involves its relationship to larger, or at least earlier, processes of change. No conclusion can hope to embrace the various findings of the essays in this collection, but a final comment on this relationship will help.

The fundamental transformation of modern childhood began before globalization, at least as the latter is usually defined. It took shape initially in Western Europe and the United States, in association with rapid industrialization; although the West added in some particular elements, including ideas about children derived from the Enlightenment and Romanticism, it was really the industrial process that predominated. Change involved three intertwined elements, all of which developed over several decades and were qualified by social class, but all of which constituted decisive contrasts with childhood past. First, schooling replaced work as the child's primary social obligation, a radical departure from the norms that had predominated, for most families, in agricultural economies. Initially affecting young children, this shift would spread upwards in age. Second, the birth rate dropped, which altered children's relationships with their parents and, even more obviously, with siblings. And third, the child death rate plummeted, again with impacts on parent-child relations, including, potentially at least, parental emotional investment in individual young children.

Relationships among these changes were obvious: with schooling, children moved from contributing to the family economy to drawing wealth from the family. Once realized, this in turn promoted a lower birth rate. Schooling for women also correlated strongly with lower birth rates because of new knowledge about options in life and potential birth limitation methods; this is a relationship first noted within the West, from one social group or region to the next, and later emerging worldwide. Lower birth rate and greater parental attention to individual children helped advance the lower death rate—which in turn encouraged further reductions in natality.

The implications of the three intertwined changes were also considerable. Relationships between young children and adults might intensify, for better or for worse; but schooling then could reduce family authority over children. Parental standards for children almost inevitably changed when the purpose of childhood was transformed away from work; explicit interest in measuring and encouraging intelligence in young children was a common concomitant. The same transformation gradually altered traditional gender distinctions among children, often amid considerable anxiety. Without eroding all distinctions, work divisions began to matter less, shared intelligence to matter more. The decline in the number of siblings reduced children's utility in child care (a significant change in responsibilities, particularly for girls). This meant more interaction between [End Page 1041] parents and young children OR greater use of outside caretakers (childcare centers or nannies), either of which could have further effects on child development. Schooling and reduced sibling sets tended to promote newly-intense links for children with non-family peers, usually along increasingly age-graded lines. With children now an economic burden, and with the numbers of children reduced, the purpose of childhood in the family had to be redefined. Having fewer children who were now more likely to live could heighten emotional expectations and ideals; but there were also new possibilities for seeing children as nuisances and making them less central to definitions of family success. These implications were complex, and of course they would be shaped in part by the prior cultural standards of any individual group or society. They would also take some time to work out; arguably, even Western societies are still adjusting in many ways to the radical transformations of childhood.

The initial global implications of these changes were fairly straightforward. Societies seeking to imitate Western developments, beginning in the later 19th century, had to include these fundamental changes in the purpose and context of childhood, initially through new schooling requirements but also through other developments like public health programs. Sometimes, at the least, this would generate additional and even more sweeping reevaluations of childhood, as in the case of Japan by the later 19th century.1 Western imperialism could also bring changes to childhood for some groups, particularly those exposed to...


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pp. 1041-1046
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