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The Lion and the Unicorn 26.1 (2002) 1-15

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Childhood Under Siege:
Lois Lowry's Number the Stars and The Giver

Don Latham

In Western society we tend to think of childhood as a discrete stage of life, separate and different from adulthood. However, historians tell us that the way we view childhood is not the way other cultures in other times and places have viewed it. In his classic work Centuries of Childhood, Philippe Ariés examines childhood in seventeenth-century France, and he makes the rather astonishing claim that in medieval society, childhood did not exist; instead, children were considered to be small adults and were depicted as such in the art of the period (33-34, 128). However, in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, this view began to change. During this time, two views of childhood emerged, both of which emphasized the child as being different from the adult. One view considered children to be sweet and simple and thus a source of amusement for adults (129). The other view considered children to be "fragile creatures of God who needed to be both safeguarded and reformed" (133). In the years since the publication of Centuries of Childhood, Ariés's thesis has been largely discredited by medieval and early modern scholars as a misreading of late medieval culture; what Ariés took to be the lack of a concept of childhood was actually a view of childhood radically different from ours (Adams 2-3). Nevertheless, Ariés's contribution to childhood studies lies not so much in the validity of his thesis as in his recognition of childhood as socially constructed and constantly reconstructed (Adams 2; Jenkins 16).

As Henry Jenkins says, "[O]ur modern sense of the child is a palimpsest of ideas from different historical contexts," including medieval, Romantic, Victorian, and modern (15). In the eighteenth century the concept of childhood was strongly influenced by the writings of John Locke, who held that young children were essentially blank slates on which the tenets of morality and reason could be inscribed (West 3). With [End Page 1] the advent of Romanticism, the idea of the innocent child was resurrected. This view, as propounded by Jean-Jacques Rousseau and William Wordsworth among others, considered the child to be innately good and in need of protection from the corruptions of adult society (West 4). This view of childhood as a time of innocence and goodness exerted a strong influence on child rearing practices at the time and, in many ways, still does today.

Several books published in the last twenty years, for example, have invoked the Romantic view of childhood as a time of innocence, and depicted contemporary children as being in dire need of protection. A sampling of titles indicates a common central concern among the writers: The Disappearance of Childhood (Neil Postman), The Erosion of Childhood (Dorothy Suransky), The Rise and Fall of Childhood (John Sommerville), and Saving Childhood (Michael Medved and Diane Medved). Postman, to take one example, laments the demise of childhood in American culture, blaming the situation on the "electric media" (99). According to Postman, childhood as a distinct stage of life separate from adulthood became possible with the invention of the printing press and the concomitant rise in literacy. In a very short time society began to consider those who could not read (young children) as being significantly different from those who could (older children and adults) (9-10, 18). Along with this perceived difference came an emphasis on protecting young children from adult (read "sexual") secrets (9). Now that reading has been replaced by passive interaction with electronic media, 1 the distinction between childhood and adulthood has become blurred. The disappearance of childhood, of course, means that children are no longer protected from adult secrets. Contemporary society, Postman says, is thus composed of "[a]t one end, infancy; at the other senility. In between there is what we call the adult-child" (99).

Suransky, Sommerville, and Medved and Medved identify other threats to...


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