We're still stuck in the Middle Ages

24th March 2006 at 00:00
Dr William Carey, a paediatrician at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, has recently published a fascinating review of how writers and experts have viewed childhood throughout history, and what advice they've given adults on how to deal with children.

His paper, published in the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, found that childhood seems to have been largely ignored by practically all those from ancient times whose writings survive. "Insights about Children for Parents from Eminent Writers: from Dante and Castiglione to Mark Twain and Bertrand Russell" points out that the oldest known paediatrics text in the English language, The Boke of Chyldren by Thomas Phaer in 1544, supports the belief that children's behaviour and problems must arise from biological or physical causes. If a problem is physical so must be the cure. The preferred treatment of nightmares, for example, was honey, peony seeds, treacle and milk. No advice is offered about looking into or assisting with the stressors in the child's life.

Citing the rise in the number of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder diagnoses, Dr Carey wryly comments that we don't seem to have moved on much. Implicit in these diagnoses is the view that problems in school are due to brain malfunction in the child, ignoring the impact of the school and home environment.

He questions how Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), who grew up on a farm in rural Virginia and whose father died when he was only 14, managed to achieve so much. Jefferson acknowledged two particularly inspiring teachers as crucial to his development: "I had the good fortune to become acquainted very early with some characters of very high standing, and to feel the incessant wish that I could ever become what they were."

Dr Carey also draws on the life of Eleanor Roosevelt, first lady from 1933 to 1945, who grew up in a dysfunctional, aristocratic New York household.

She showed no particular direction or prospects, but was transformed by her three years at Allenswood, a boarding school for girls near London where she was influenced by the headmistress, Marie Souvestre. Eleanor thrived to become one of the most admired women in the United States.

Dr Carey's paper highlights how one key influence, such as a teacher, can make a difference to a child's life. It's a difference many modern experts continue to ignore.

Dr Raj Persaud is consultant psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital in south London and Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry. His latest book is The Motivated Mind (Bantam Press). Email: rajpersaud@tes.co.uk

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