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How have children been seen historically?

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Islamic researcher, graduated from Al-Azhar University, Islamic Studies in the English language. I also studied at Temple University in the US.
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In a Nutshell:
Children –as we define them by age- were part of the fabric of historical societies. They worthily participated in much of social activities; such as wars, marriage, labour, literature and so on. This is because the outcome of a child is nothing but a byproduct of social expectations.

Children in History

The way previous generations defined childhood, puberty, and marriage is also different from how we define them. We organize our societies whereby we keep our children financially dependent on their parents until the age of 18. We mistakenly assume our children somehow at that age become adults and develop capabilities to live independently at that point, extending this assumption that children's capabilities have been the same throughout history.

In the time of the Prophet (saw), we find so-called "children" participated in battles. His early followers were very young, around 10 and 14, and they participated in building the Islamic state after only 13 years; Mu'awidh ibn 'Afra' and Mu'adh ibn al-Jamuh (ra) who were 14 years old, fought against one of the biggest leaders of Quraysh, Abu Jahl, in the battle of Badr and killed him. Usamah ibn Zayd who was less than 18 led an army against the Roman Empire. When A'isha (ra) was 18, she was a scholar who the Muslim world for centuries followed.

In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet play, Juliet was 13 years old when she married Romeo and all the women in her circumstances and environment would get married earlier. In the dialogue with her mother, she told Juliet:

"Well, think of marriage now; younger than you here in Verona ladies of esteem are made already mothers: by my count, I was your mother much upon these years that you are now a maid." (Romeo and Juliet: Act 1, Scene 3)

There is no hint in the play this was considered to be exceptional, rather she was very late for reaching 13 years without being a mother.

People of the past were perfectly fine with it due to the circumstances the experience, History Professor Margaret Wade Labarge tells us:

"It needs to be remembered that many Medieval widows were not old, important heiresses were often married between the ages of 5 and 10 and might find themselves widowed while still in their teens." (Margaret Wade Labarge, A Medieval Miscellany, p. 52.)

A similar case of the Prophet (saw) who married A'isha at the age of 6 or seven of her age, where A'isha is expected by our standards to be a little girl; history proves A'isha was a brilliant mature woman when she married the Prophet (saw): She accomplished a great scholarship upon which most Muslims scholars and intellectuals now depend; she knowledgeably narrated each event she saw in the life of the Prophet (saw), over two thousand hadiths; after the Prophet (saw) passed away (she was only 18 years old), the companion scholars would come and ask her about difficult issue they face.

Professor Richard Wortley and Professor Stephen Smallbone narrated a similar case where people in history normally get married in that age:

"With documented cases of brides as young as seven years, although marriages were typically not consummated until the girl reached puberty." (Richard Wortley, Stephen Smallbone, Internet Child Pornography: Causes, Investigation, and Prevention, p. 10.)

The same thing is said by numerous history Professors, see for example:

  • Richard A. Posner & Katharine B. Silbaugh, A Guide to America's Sex Laws, p. 44;
  • Professor of Sociology Anthony Joseph Paul Cortese, Opposing Hate Speech, p. 85;
  • Merril D. Smith, Encyclopedia of Rape, 40;
  • Martha Rosenthal, Human Sexuality: From Cells to Society, [1st ed.: From Cells to Society, p. 422, and others.

Professor Mary Lewis warned against anachronistic thinking regarding childhood and maturity in the past:

"No matter what period we are examining, childhood is more than abiological age, but a series of social and cultural events andexperiences that make up a child's life ... TheWestern view of childhood, where children do not commit violenceand are asexual, has been challenged by studies of children that showthem learning to use weapons or being depicted in sexualposes...What is clear is that we cannot simply transpose our view ofchildhood directly onto the past." (Mary Lewis, ​The Bioarchaeology of Children, p. 4.)


Psycho-social Explanation

Childhood is nothing but a byproduct of the way in which society is formed. Society defines the role of each member in the society; at what age he should marry, vote, work, graduate, join the army, and so on. Societies even disagree on each of these issues as it varies from place to place and culture to culture. What is fascinating is that each societies' principles work and the expectations are accomplished.

From a psycho-social point of view, the stages in life, such as adulthood, childhood or manhood, are not only mental or physical signs but also historically and culturally different treatments and expectations. In our present time, the concept of childhood was widely invented and exaggerated because of the expectations we predict from children.

Neil Postman, a former professor at New York University in his book 'The Disappearance of Childhood' argues childhood was one of the great inventions of the Renaissance similar to much other social structures. He also argues, in oral worlds (such as Arabia, for example) there is not much of a concept of an adult nor a child. He states:

"In an oral world there is not much of a concept of an adult and, therefore, even less of a child. And that is why, in all the sources, one finds that in the Middle Ages childhood ended at age seven. Why seven? Because that is the age at which children have command over speech. …
It also helps us to explain why, until the seventeenth century, the words used to denote young males could refer to men of thirty, forty, or fifty, for there was no word—in French, German, or English—for a young male between the ages of seven and sixteen. The word child expressed kinship, not an age.…" (Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood, p. 18-20)

He adds, historically there were no such distinction or stages in people's lives, you could work, study, marry, have children and do all the social activities when you and your society expects you to fruitfully achieve something.

He argues:

"If a medieval child got to school, he would have begun as late as age ten, probably later. He would have lived on his own in lodgings in the town, far from his family. It would have been common for him to find in his class adults of all ages, and he would not have perceived himself as different from them. He certainly would not have found any correspondence between the ages of students and what they studied." (Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood, p. 21.)

He concluded the context arguing the illiterate European middle ages in which the concept of childhood was largely absent where everyone shared the same information and now it is all about talents and preference.

Postman says, "That is why there had been no need for the idea of childhood, for every one shared the same information environment and therefore lived in the same social and intellectual world." (Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood, p. 36)

Therefore, education is one of the key factors not only creates but extends childhood because of our expectations and the responsibilities we specified. Child labour was one of the cornerstones of American society, as it is still in many of the developing countries, but it is no longer a part because the American expectations for childhood have been changing.

Conclusion

Children –as we define them by age- were part of the fabric of historical societies. They worthily participated in much of social activities; such as wars, marriage, labour, literature and so on. This is because the outcome of a child is nothing but a byproduct of social expectations.

References

Postman, The Disappearance of Childhood;
Nuriddeen Knight, The Woman Behind the Number: The Irrelevance of the Age of Aisha (ra), 2018 Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research;
A. Ali and J. Brown, Understanding Aisha's Age: An Interdisciplinary Approach, Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research;
Margaret Wade Labarge, A Medieval Miscellany;
Richard Wortley, Stephen Smallbone, Internet Child Pornography: Causes, Investigation, and Prevention;
Mary Lewis, ​The Bioarchaeology of Children


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