Choose your parents carefully;Book of the week

17th September 1999 at 01:00
CHILDHOOD IN QUESTION: children, parents and the state. Edited by Anthony Fletcher and Stephen Hussey. Manchester University Press pound;40 hardback, pound;12.99 paperback.

Parents' expectations have risen throughout this century. Nicholas Tucker finds a path into ahidden history of childhood.

Any historian of childhood must enter heavily disputed territory. Children have left comparatively few records of their experience, and those that do remain are hard to interpret. Adults looking back on their childhood risk lapsing into either undue nostalgia or limitless self-pity. So-called objective records can also be full of contemporary prejudice.

Childhood in the past is also harder to reconstruct than childhood today, given that what children know at the time they are often quick to forget once they have reached maturity. Other than going back in a time ma-chine, there is no way to be sure.

Scholars in this field have traditionally tried to get round the problem by relying on diaries, letters and autobiographies. Childhood in Question, a collection of papers originally presented at a conference at the University of Essex, draws instead mainly on legal and welfare records. The result is a series of fascinating glimpses into previously hidden areas.

Elizabeth Foyster describes the input of child witnesses in 17th-century defamation cases and marriage separation suits, revealing a world as dramatic as anything dreamed up in today's soap operas. Julie Gammon looks at the recorded testimonies of child victims in cases of rape during the 18th century. Louise Jackson reviews cases of child sexual abuse that came to court in London between 1870 and 1914. All three present unfamiliar material in a scholarly context that neither evades nor blunts its frequently shocking content.

Sexuality in all its various forms has often posed a problem when it comes to defining adult expectations of what children should and should not know about.

The point is well made in Anna Davin's opening chapter, "What is a child?". She says the concept of a dependent childhood largely sheltered from adult concerns - sexual or otherwise - had become the middle-class norm by the second half of the 19th century. Reformers tried to extend this notion to what working-class children should also be able to expect from life. Yet this was a time when the great Victorian recorder Henry Mayhew could, in London Labour and the London Poor (1861-62), describe an eight-year-old street watercress seller as "having entirely lost all childish ways ... indeed, in thoughts and manner, a woman".

One solution to this problem was to ignore the experience of the poorest children when it came to defining childhood and instead substituting a middle-class, protected vision of pre-adult life backed up by art and children's literature, sharing the same blinkered outlook. Troubling thoughts about exactly how much some children must still know about adult realities, including sexual ones, could thereby be safely relegated to the back of a nation's consciousness.

This sometimes helped foster the very fears it was designed to relieve. Suspicions of a hidden world of incest, rape and under-age sex were rarely checked by any more objective view.

In fact, in the majority of child sexual abuse cases in London courts a hundred years ago, both complainants and defendants were working-class. Convicted offenders were branded as monsters and mobbed by the same type of angry crowds that gather around notorious cases of child abuse today.

Trying to live a respectable family life in appallingly over-crowded premises was certainly very hard, but a strong sense of morality often proved an effective safeguard. The view that incest was once a fact of life accepted by the poorest (a view still put forward by historians as late as 1978) receives short shrift in these pages.

In their introduction, the editors say that adult ideas about childhood needs have changed more in the past 50 years than they had in the previous 300. The need for psychological stability now has to be taken on board along with concern for children's physical and moral welfare.

This development is charted in two further chapters. Elizabeth Buettner examines a family correspondence at the turn of the century between the Talbot family in India and their oldest daughter, Guendolen, at the English boarding school she attended from the age of five. There was nothing unusual in this arrangement, which persisted among upper-class families up to the Second World War, but it had always been less common for girls.

In a letter to her parents, Guendolen laments the fact that there was "no one to comfort her" at her boarding school. In another letter she writes, "I feel as if you were kind of locked up toys that one could not have ... some beautiful thing one caught a glimpse of now and then".

Solitary holidays were particularly hard: like birthdays, these events were becoming particularly meaningful to children with expectations about their emotional needs and how these should be satisfied.

While all four Talbot children regretted their enforced separation, the feeling was that this represented an unfortunate necessity. Middle-class children were the first to enjoy the luxury of expectations, but as the 20th century progressed, children of all backgrounds came to want more from childhood.

Lynn Abrams looks at this development in her paper on first-hand accounts of growing up in local authority care in Scotland, mostly in the first half of the century. Interviewing adults about the experience of growing up away from their families, Abrams taps into their bitterness over what they see as a lost childhood.

Children who were poorly treated in institutions or within foster families may have accepted what was happening to them as normal. Looking back as adults, they register a very different picture. "I didn't know how much I'd missed until I had kids of my own," one says.

As always, the best advice for any unborn baby is: "Choose your parents carefully." Those who make an unwise choice can end up feeling doubly deprived at a time when many parents are so much more openly understanding and affectionate than in the past. One child's gain can be another child's perceived loss. How to help improve this situation remains an intractable problem.

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