All SHCY members receive the Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth. Published three times a year, it features scholarly research and critical book reviews.

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Jun  29

Guest Post: Margaret Cassidy on Digital Kids, Helicopter Parents, and 21st Century Childhood

Margaret Cassidy is Associate Professor of Communications at Adelphi University, where she teaches courses in media history and criticism, communication theory, and media and children. Her research focuses on the role of media in the lives and education of American children, past and present. She is the author of BookEnds: The Changing Media Environment of American Classrooms (2003).

“Text me when you get there”—Digital Kids, Helicopter Parents, and the Promises and Perils of Twenty-First Century Childhood

In 1858, a minister named Alfred Beach delivered a sermon entitled “Our Children: Their Dangers, and Our Duties.” He talked about the difficulties of raising children “at a time and in a place filled with obstacles and perils.” In particular, he objected to the new media of his day, the mass press, which he felt produced “a constant flood of poisonous matter” to tempt, distract, and corrupt youth.

Reverend Beach was neither the first nor the last adult to worry about the fate of children in changing times with changing media. From Socrates’ objections to writing to contemporary adults’ worries about smartphones and social media, a common theme in media history is that new media change children’s access to information and ways of interacting with others, and adults are not sure this is a good thing.

I study media history because I like the way that historical context helps put our present experiences into perspective. As an academic and a parent, I see how badly in need of perspective we are right now. It’s a peculiar time to be a parent—at least, a middle class American parent. We are a notoriously anxious bunch; we are the helicopter parents. We coach our kids’ sports teams, we serve on PTA committees, we bring our work to the park so we can keep an eye on our kids while they play.   And while we hover, we talk nostalgically with one another about the freedom we enjoyed as kids, walking to school by ourselves, leaving home on a summer morning and not coming home until dinnertime, gathering in the park for afterschool ballgames without adult supervision. And then comes the melancholy commentary on how “things have changed,” “it’s a different world now,” “kids grow up too fast these days.” We nod understandingly and make sad faces, as if these statements are so obviously true that there is no point in questioning them.

But what are we talking about? Where is the evidence that times are so bad? Would a nineteenth century working class parent really think now is a worse time to be a kid than when their children had to work in factories or stay at home to care for younger siblings or boarders, when measles, polio, and other now-rare diseases were likely to kill some of their children? What about parents raising children today in parts of the world that are torn apart by war, disease, terrorism, or natural disasters—what would they think of our reluctance to allow our children to walk a few blocks to school every morning? There is probably much more evidence supporting the claim that middle class American childhood is safer now than ever before than there is evidence to the contrary. So what’s really going on? Do kids really grow up too fast these days? Because sometimes it feels like we’re not allowing them to grow up at all.

We seem to be living in a time when the changing media environment is upsetting adults in several ways. New media give children extensive, private access to all kinds of information. They put our kids in touch with all kinds of people. We don’t always know who they’re talking to, what they’re sharing, who is talking about them, or what they’re learning.

New media are also unsettling because of the way they skew our perception of the world. They show us every horrific thing, every freak occurrence, every bizarre situation that we never knew existed. We learn all about what is possible without really understanding what is probable. Even when we intellectually understand the (relative lack of) risk, we can’t quite dismiss the possibility. Of course it isn’t all bad news. There are plenty of ways that new media might be used to cultivate a happy, healthy experience of childhood. But these possibilities are too often obscured by all the news that makes the world look like a terribly dangerous place.

I recently re-watched the movie ET: The Extraterrestrial, and I couldn’t help but think that this movie would never be made today. Think about it. Elliott, the film’s protagonist, is a ten year old boy. Now think about the freedom he enjoys in that movie. What mother doesn’t realize her son is outside, in the middle of the night, playing catch with some unidentified creature in the shed? Who lets their kids ride their bikes in the woods? Without helmets, no less? If ET were to be stranded on earth today, he’d never get home because no kid would ever be outside, alone, at the right time to find him.

Whenever the media environment shifts in a way that affects children, adults wonder what to think, what to do, what this shift will mean for their children. This is not “history repeating itself” in some futile way; it is a process that we have to go through whenever there is a change in the media environment. Back in 1858, Reverend Beach decided that “These dangers are such that we cannot remove them. Our children will have to meet and encounter them…..They must then be, in some way, prepared to meet them…and this must be our care,–this is our work.” This is still very good advice. Maybe we should try to focus less on protecting children and more on preparing children for the world they face, and the media they will use to understand that world and interact with others in it.

Jun  29

Recap of #SHCY2015

The biennial conference, held June 24-26 at the University of British Columbia, resulted in a robust twitter stream. Here is a Storify of the content presented. Many thanks to all those that tweeted and made the conference accessible in part from afar!

Jun  24

Guest Post: Phillip Buckley on Challenging Nostalgic Visions of the Public School Students of Yesteryear

Phillip Buckley is an assistant professor at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville and an interdisciplinary scholar interested in law, rights, childhood, and politics in the context of education. His current work focuses on the relationship between law, childhood, and citizenship. He spent five years in Serbia, Ukraine, and Poland, teaching and working with higher education faculty on various projects related to legal English.

In my article, “Conceptions of Childhood, Student Rights, & the Citizenship Crusade: Meyer, Pierce, and the Pledge of Allegiance Cases,” I examine a set of legal opinions through the lens of childhood. In the article, I argue that the opinions shed light on how judges understood childhood toward the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. However, this set of cases also provides insight regarding the relationship between public schools and their students over this period. Although not the focus of my article, one of the most interesting aspects of this project has been reading about the sorts of student behavior educators attempted to restrict and what circumstances led students and/or their parents to reject such restrictions. Here, I highlight two examples.

Dritt v. Snodgrass (1877): Fighting for the Right to Party

Over a century before the Beastie Boys proclaimed, “You gotta fight, for your right, to parrr-ttty,” seventeen-year-old Joseph Dritt did just that, suing his teacher and the local school board for “wrongfully, illegally, oppressively, willfully and maliciously, and in abuse of their authority” expelling him for “attend[ing] a party composed of the young people of said town, and participat[ing] in the amusements thereof.” In his complaint, Dritt claimed that “he had a right to attend said party, and that the defendants had no right or authority to dictate to or control him in the premises.” Four of the five judges on the court agreed that the school board had overstepped its authority (with one deciding the case on other grounds). However, for these judges, the policy was problematic because it “invaded the right of the parent to govern the conduct of his child,” not because it invaded Joseph’s right to party. This case provides an example of how judges’ conceptions of childhood may reframe a legal conflict from one that pits the school against the student to one that pits the school against the parents.

Despite this reframing by the Missouri Supreme Court, the facts of the case and the wording of the complaint suggest that it was the student, Joseph, who saw his rights being restricted, not his parents. This conflict, involving a school, a student, and parties, sheds light on the lived experience of children and adolescents at the time and reveals some fascinating details. First, that the school was so concerned about student parties. Second, that the school felt it had the authority to control students’ behavior outside of the school by forbidding students from attending such parties. Finally, that a student resisted this authority and that his parents supported his resistance. In the end, Joseph’s victory preserved the right to party for future generations of Missouri students. More seriously, the decision in Dritt served as justification for future legal decisions that curtailed the authority of schools over students. Interestingly, although the court struck down the policy, neither Joseph nor his parents sought to have him readmitted to the school, so it is unclear if he ever finished.

Pugsley v. Sellmeyer (1923): Fighting for the Right to Use Talcum Powder

The facts included in the opinion in Dritt don’t tell us exactly how concerned Joseph and/or his parents were about Joseph’s right to party. Perhaps their complaint was motivated by the fact that Joseph had been punished (and a desire to recover damages for that wrongful punishment) rather than by a desire to assert that students had a right to party or by a concern that the school was overstepping its authority. In contrast, the facts included in Pugsley v. Sellmeyer, decided by the Arkansas Supreme Court half a century later, are clear. In that case, the student, Pearl Pugsley, was concerned with challenging the following rule: “The wearing of transparent hosiery, lownecked dresses or any style of clothing tending toward immodesty in dress, or the use of face paint or cosmetics, is prohibited.” As retold by the court, Pearl “infringed this rule by the use of talcum powder, and the teacher required her to wash it off and told her not to return again with it on her face.” Undeterred, Pearl returned to the school “a day or two later,” again wearing talcum powder. Upon being told she could not attend school if she violated the policy, “she refused to submit to or to obey the rule, and was denied admission to the school.”

In other words, Pearl knowingly resisted this particular rule and risked punishment for doing so, suggesting that she was motivated by the principle at stake in the case. This is further supported by the fact that the policy was rescinded after her appeal was filed and yet Pearl did not drop the case. (The lower court had agreed that the rule was arbitrary and unreasonable but had nonetheless ruled against Pearl because she had not first gone to the district board with her complaint against the principal.) However, the Arkansas Supreme Court, with one dissenter, upheld the policy as a reasonable means of “promoting discipline in the school” and imparting “respect for constituted authority and obedience…an essential lesson to qualify one for the duties of citizenship.” The dissenting judge scolded the others on the court: “‘Useless laws diminish the authority of necessary ones.’ The tone of the majority opinion exemplifies the wisdom of this old proverb.”

Students’ Resisting School Authority

These two cases, along with others from this period, provide examples of students challenging school rules. They provide evidence against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s assertion in the 2007 Morse v. Frederick (“Bong Hits for Jesus”) case that “in the earliest public schools, teachers taught and students listened. Teachers commanded, and students obeyed.” If Thomas’s description of the “good old days” is accurate, Joseph Dritt and Pearl Pugsley were outliers. However, these two cases suggest that Justice Thomas may have oversimplified the history of the relationship between public schools and their students.

Jun  22

CHC Episode 15: Violence & Power, part 2

CHILDHOOD: History and Critique (CHC) is a series of interviews, commentary, and happenings in historical studies of childhood presented by Dr. Patrick J. Ryan, Kings University College at Western University, Canada.

Conversation Transcript
Transcript coming soon!

Commentary by Patrick J. Ryan
This installment of CHC offers the second part of an inquiry into violence and generational relations. CHC Ep14 – part 1 introduced a Foucauldian perspective on power and the notion of “wicked” problems to make sense of troubling stories about the treatment of a prisoner in Maine and the use of cage-fighting in a Dallas public high school. It included an interview with Peter Kelly of RMIT University in Australia and a leader in critical youth studies. I argued that these and other incidents and programs suggest that measured physical violence and the disciplinary arrangement of space, time, and bodies operate together, dialectically to frame generational relations of power.

In Part 2, we will begin with a review of institutionalized corporal punishment of children in American and Canadian law, policy, and practice. This includes a brief commentary on how historians have contributed to our understanding of these structures and concludes with a reading of the 1669 “Children’s Petition” – an anonymous appeal for the English Parliament to regulate corporal punishment in schools. I discussed the long-term continuities and changes in corporal punishment with Ben Parsons, Lecturer at the University of Leicester, who is engaged in a project on ideas about violence, discipline, and learning in late-medieval and early modern pedagogical discourse.

Elaborate statistical analyses and case-by-case reviews of children’s corporal punishment are widely available. Here it is sufficient to begin with the obvious. Today most adults in the world appear to assent to using moderately painful and humiliating punishments to raise and educate children and youth.[1]

This majority support for corporal punishment seems stitched together as a patch-work of varying ideas and practices; certainly regional variations are suggestive of diversity. For example, the geography of American corporal punishment policies in schools closely replicates the distribution of blue states (Democratic) and red states (Republican) in U.S. Presidential elections. Each year the schools of the American South formally paddle hundreds of thousands of students, while just north of the Mason-Dixon line the practice has been (largely) prohibited in public schools. In light of the tensions between punishment and interrogation examined in CHC Ep14, it is almost too rich to report that purportedly anti-government American Republicans overwhelmingly favour encouraging public school teachers and administrators to corporally punish disobedient students and allowing government agents to secretly water-board suspected terrorists.

Without discounting diversity, there is an impressive global pattern of support for the corporal punishment of children by parents and other custodians.[2] The U.S., U.K., Ireland, Canada, and Australia are only five among well-over one-hundred countries not joining forty-four mostly European nations (led by Sweden in 1979) who have enacted general prohibitions of children’s corporal punishment.[3] A 1980 study of Scotland found that supermajorities (up to 95%) of boys were tawsed at least once in school. A 1995 survey of American parents reported that 94% had used it to control toddlers.[4] In 2007, a school board in Quebec hired a psychologist to teach parents how to spank correctly. More recently, significant majorities of English parents reported they support it and/or use it. In our correspondence, Ben Parsons pointed-out to me that popular coverage of the 2011 urban riots in the U.K., which included headlines such as “Feral Children Run Wild,” ignited calls for a renewed emphasis on corporal punishment.

The ongoing global prevalence of corporal punishment makes it difficult to dismiss the practice as a relic of a pre-modern past; nor do I think it is fair to explain it as a product of mass media sensationalism playing to the lowest common denominator. In fact, Canadian and American scholars have identified the foundational sources of corporal punishment’s legitimacy in Anglo-American law. These include: (1) child custody and family privacy doctrines, (2) current practice and community standards, and – above all – (3) the argument that when the practice is controlled, moderate pain and shame may alter a child’s view of themselves, others, and the rules when subtler methods have failed. This third argument has been especially important, because it defends corporal punishment as a disciplinary technique – in the Foucauldian sense.[5]

Consider what courts in North America have typically demanded while upholding the right to corporally punish children. They stipulate how severe the damage can be, which bodily zones are available, what instruments might be used, the numbers of blows that can be delivered, the ages of the children who can be struck, the emotional-states of the participants, and who should execute, witness, and document the punishment, and sometimes what should be said. Several scholars have argued that this elaborate architecture makes it more difficult to police violence against children, and that the complexity of the rules themselves insures that more children will be seriously harmed. These arguments are compelling (even conclusive), but for the purposes of this inquiry, the formal stipulations are themselves significant because they locate an interdependency between disciplinary interrogation and bodily pain within generational power relations.[6]

Let’s outline the common institutional rules. Blows meted out to children are supposed to be delivered by or with the approval of a custodial parent in combination with techniques that encourage the children to reflect upon themselves. School codes of conduct sometimes state that corporal punishment will be used “if and after other forms of correction have failed,” or “administered to any student who indicates open defiance for authority…”[7] The punishment is supposed to “sting” without overwhelming the subject.[8] It is common to find policies instructing officials that students “shall be advised why they are being paddled and be provided with the opportunity to present their side of the story prior to the administration of corporal punishment.”[9] Even more telling is the stipulation that students “will be questioned as to reasons why corporal punishment should not be administered.”[10] Interrogation and the threat of bodily pain are partnered. These regulations seem to follow the logic captured in the famous line, delivered with a strap, in the movie Cool Hand Luke: “what we’ve got here is failure to communicate,” if we “can’t reach” you, pain awaits as a “last resort” to get your mind right.[11]

In sum, court rulings and school policies often outline precisely how children’s self-examination and communication should be integrated into practices moderate bodily pain delivered by adults who know them well. Each time the exchange between punishment and interrogation is written, practiced, threatened, remembered, narrated, mandated, disputed, opposed, defended (etc.), it pushes a little deeper into the framework of modern generational power relations.

How long has the punishment-interrogation dialectic been operating on the landscape of childhood and how has it changed over time?

In Flogging Others: Corporal Punishment and Cultural Identity from Antiquity to the Present (Amsterdam UP, 2014), Guy Geltner makes a case that corporal punishment is ubiquitous; it has not declined with modernity and it is not declining today. Corporal punishment has been resilient in the face of reform, he says, because it helps us close-off liminal possibilities (it sets group boundaries), and because it allows us to place others on the “periphery of humanity.” One possible implication of Geltner’s argument for childhood and youth is obvious. Corporal punishment of children remains strongest against critique, because young people are exemplars of liminal possibilities and this is enhanced by the fact that they are positioned as ‘not yet’ fully human (or as human becomings).[12]

Geltner’s call for us to think in terms of dynamic continuities (rather than by narratives of modern transformation) may be difficult for some childhood historians entertain. A diverse line of scholarship has identified over-arching stages moving European cultures from the sovereignty of patriarchal fathers and masters toward what Elizabeth Pleck called, more “psychological methods of discipline.” Think of the contributions of Bernard Wishy, Lloyd de Mause, Edward Shorter, Lawrence Stone, Philip Greven, Peter Stearns, Mary Ann Mason, Joseph Illick, Jacqueline Reinier, and others.[13] Studies concerned with matters as different as household devices (Karin Calvert) and legal thought/practice (Holly Brewer, CHC Ep 10) have delivered persuasive evidence of a profound early-modern reorientation in generational relations.[14] Collectively, these historians have outlined a long-term movement away from sovereign punishment toward disciplinary techniques since the early sixteenth century.

The story of modern transformation has been told in numerous ways, but rarely without a sense of irony. For Philippe Ariès, the rise of the well-regulated school and the domesticated parlour from the 16th to the 18th centuries constituted a loss of liberty.[15] The closer historians looked at 19th- and 20th-century attempts to institute enlightened childhood ideals, the more ambiguous the project seemed. Perhaps Joe Hawes put the best face on it when he summarized the children’s rights movement as a series of cycles between periods of progressive energy followed by ones of apathy.[16] Studies by Anthony Platt, Jacques Donzelot, Viviana Zelizer, Linda Gordon and many others since have suggested something more problematic – modern child protection and family investigation often served as ideological tools for maintaining class, gender, and racial hierarchies.[17] Whatever these scholars intended and whatever influence their works exerted, the picture of misused police power has helped maintain the right of care-giving adults to corporally punish children and youths. The operative slogan is “don’t criminalize spanking.”[18]

Which is to say that historical studies likely produced varying sensibilities and applications. For some, these books offered grounds for reading the history of children’s corporal punishment as a halting movement toward enlightenment, even if that progress was waylaid by ideological manipulation. In Michael Donnelly’s view historical research supports calls for continued efforts to finally liberate children and youth from corporal punishment.[19] Old generational ideologies are about to fall, as a ‘new’ paradigm of childhood emerges.[20] For other readers, this literature carved a janus-faced figure of modern childhood – a picture more amendable to my questions. In Nikolas Rose’s words, today’s young inhabit “the most intensely governed sector of personal existence.”[21] From his perspective, echoed variously on CHC by Karen Smith and Ansgar Allen, modern childhood itself was made through the govermentalization of the state and the rise of an unprecedented regulatory framework.[22]

Bruce Curtis‘ work in the history of education (Ruling by Schooling Quebec and Building the Educational State) sharply captures this double-sense of the dynamics of punishment and discipline. In a wide-ranging, well-argued 1997 chapter on corporal punishment he concluded:

“Lancaster’s [early-19th-century disciplinary innovations in classroom design] are remarkable in that corporal punishment no longer appears as a means of moral discipline. From a necessary good in the 16th-century, to a necessary evil in the 18th, the beating of students had, in theory, disappeared by the 19th…”

Curtis completed his point with two key admissions: (1) the shift was never fully manifest because practices of inflicting pain continued; (2) the movement from punishment to discipline played with “tactics in a social politics of domination and subordination [more] than an unambiguous indications of ethical advance.”[23] It seems to me that both of these acknowledgments become logically consistent with the narrative of the rise of modern disciplinary institutions – (rather than caveats necessary to sustain the narrative) – if we accept that discipline always-already relies upon physical punishment. In other words, what Curtis and many others have found makes more sense if we more completely abandon the assumption that we are headed for a disciplined world without punishment, and consider the possibility that bodily violence exists in generative tension with disciplined self-examination.

To explore this possibility further, I called Ben Parsons to help me read the oldest English document (of which I know) calling for statutory regulation of corporal punishment in schools. Early English Books holds a “Children’s Petition,” author unknown – dated 1669, which offers a plea to Parliament for statutory limits upon the school-masters’ rights to strike their students (boys of gentry and noble status).[24] The petition did not result in legislative action, but there is no reason to discount its serious intent.[25]

Childrens Petition_1669

Ben observed that the title sounded a lot like religious dissenter Simon Fish’s (d. 1531) “Supplication for the Beggars” – a early 16th-century satirical attack on clerical intercession and the doctrine of purgatory – and “The Song of the Husbandmen,” a 14th-century poem lamenting the toll of taxes on small farmers.   He explained that all three traveled the literary vane of “representing a larger mass, despite the fact that what is being vocalized is the opinion of a privileged few.” If this is so, perhaps the universal term “children” could become more visible as a group through the rise of grammar schools – even though the attending students were limited to a select class of boys.

Ben thought the novelty of the “Children’s Petition,” lay constructing corporal punishment as a legal problem. He knew of at least three cases where teachers had been prosecuted for excessive beatings of students (Thomas Fosse at Bristol, John Roberdson at London, John Depupp at Nottingham); yet in these it was less than clear what law had been violated. The limited legal discourse upon schooling in the late-medieval/early-modern eras seemed more concerned with the pursuit of heresy (or the defence of capital T – Truth), rather than the establishment of discipline.

It seems to me that the document might be read as an off-shoot of a larger humanist critique of corporal punishment. Enlightened opinion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries reiterated, but also troubled the Latin aphorism – Inititum sapienteae timor domini – the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the master. Ben affirmed this reading and added in correspondence,

“…indeed a lot of sixteenth-century material in the wake of Erasmus’ De pueris statim ac liberaliter instituendis: Montaigne’s ‘De l’Institution des Enfants’, Mulcaster’s Positions, and Ascham’s Schoolmaster all have extensive remarks on the practice [of corporal punishment]. Being humanists, they tend to associate flogging with ‘bad’ established practice, although many of them (especially Mulcaster) still see it as fundamentally beneficial if implemented correctly. Certainly their efforts did nothing to sever the link between physical discipline and formal education: thus Swift writes in a letter of 1708 of his time at Kilkenny: ‘I formerly used to envy my own happiness when I was a schoolboy…I never considered the confinement ten hours a day to nouns and verbs, the terror of the rod, the bloddy [sic] noses and broken shins’. Pope’s portrait of Dr Richard Busby in The Dunciad (4.139-64) is even less forgiving. Both were at school when the Petition appeared.”

Perhaps humanist educational ideas unsettled the corporal punishment of students – and the relationship between bodily pain and learning – and helped open a more intense arena of debate. Ben Jonson was not complementing a rival when he called him a “pedantic schoolmaster, sweeping his living from the posteriors of little children.”[26] The image underlying Jonson’s insult served as the starting point of “The Children’s Petition.” School masters lacked civic virtue and economic independence in a society that had seized monastic property a century earlier. As a result, their authority was “derived” and “subordinate,” unlike that of natural fathers or agents of the King, and therefore it became subject to regulation by Parliament. During our conversation, Ben offered some interesting notes about the tensions between parents and teachers as the grammar school regime became established in the late-16th and 17th centuries.[27]

The subordination of clerical class opened the way for the petition’s primary attack: such little men whipped the exposed buttocks of boys as a form of sexual debauchery. We find illusions to the traditions of Jesuit education which may have closed a circle from whipping to buggery to schooling for the petition’s presumed readers.[28] If punishment is “self-pleasing” by the punisher, its origins would rest in the desires of the master and “not in the punished to help it.” Students would be fashioned in a “hell,” where “they arise from an unquenchable fire, in the appetite of the Master.”[29] A reissue of the petition in 1698 concluded by referring to the biblical story of the wickedness of Sodomites in Genesis 19.[30] For these reformers, the fundamental problem with corporal punishment of students was not what it allowed anger and fear to do, but what it allowed pleasure to do. It is a “procurer of vice,” with a “root more deep perhaps in the flesh then is seen.”[31]

It seems to me the petitioners are profoundly undermining the key Christian justification of corporal punishment as a practice of pastoral care. In the 10th-century, Anglo-Saxon translators of Pauline texts helped insure for centuries that the Benedictine monastic reforms would include beatings and forced fasts as requirements of spiritual transformation. The cornerstone of this transformation (via St. Paul) rested on the clerical renunciation of the body, sex, and family life (thus the priority given to monastic life).[32]

Of course, the monastic order would fall in the 16th-century and clear the way for the rise of the grammar schools. Here we have 17th-century grammar school petitioners reversing the relationships between violence upon the body and the purification of the soul. Corporal punishment must be regulated in order to redirect the human propensity to seek pleasure and avoid pain. For the disciplined student, “…[it] is not the necessaries of his Meat & Drink, no not his Balls and Boundingstones, his Top and his Bandy, [that] would be delicious to him, as the time he was thus suffered to be with his Master…” Before Locke would make this argument famous in Some Thoughts on Education, the petitioners are assuming that children’s concern for how they are viewed by others (that is their capacity to take themselves as objects of vision) could be used as a means of control without arousing the corrupting passions of bodily pleasure. This idea stands as a pillar of governmental rationality. If discipline is established within, we will find students “chearfully striving with themselves and fellows in understanding, who shall excel, and wear the Wreath of their Masters commendation.” Schools should be something like a “Boys Olymicks, or so many Games of the Muses…”   Promising students should “not only be admitted to higher degrees of exercise, but to some more intimate conversation of their Master in reading of History, or other delightful studies.”[33]

In Foucauldian terms, the petition asked for a regime of government rather than a sovereign doctrine. The ability of a master to manage students, “keep a company of Youth in obedience, without violence and stripes,” is more important than his skill at Latin or Greek.[34] Students who are unsuitable for school should be expelled, not beaten. Children are not “mad,” a school is not “bedlam.” [35] Whipping should never be visited upon a boy for academic failure.[36] Corporal punishment should be rare and regulated. It should never be delivered to a boy’s buttocks with drawers dropped.[37] The 1698 version added that pubescent youths (boys over 13 and “the Female sooner”) should be exempt completely.[38]

To further prevent the procedure from being mixed with “the Masters heat of passion,” two procedures are recommended. Time between the offending incident and its punishment should pass (an hour or a day). In the interim, the school should convene a “solemn kind of Judicature” (a review by masters and fellows). Here justifications, extenuations will be heard. Candour will be encouraged. The offender must speak, confide, confess. Fellow students will hold the right to condemn.[39]

The significance of the “The Children’s Petition” lies in the structure of thought it reveals. I read it as an attempt to widen the pathway for disciplinary techniques within a compromised seat of pastoral power – the school-master’s relationships with students. This pathway became clearer over time, not by abolishing children’s corporal punishment, but utilizing it to construct ever more subtle connections between physical pain and interrogating discipline. As this happened, to conclude with Foucault’s words, the sovereign found “himself responsible for, entrusted with, and assigned new tasks of conducting [men]…. this is why there is a problem that assumed an even greater intensity than others in this [early-modern] periodThe pedagogical problem of how to conduct children… The education of children was the fundamental utopia, crystal and prism through which problems [of governmentality were perceived].[40]

In seems to me that the task of conducting the conduct of children has not – over the intervening three centuries – untangled itself from the sovereign bond of bodily punishments.

Recent Publications by Ben Parsons:
“Beaten for a Book: Domestic and Pedagogic Violence in the Wife of Bath’s Prologue,” Studies in the Age of Chaucer 37 (2015).
“The Way of the Rod: the Functions of Beating in Late Medieval Pedagogy,” Modern Philology 113 (2015).
“Bloody Students: Youth, Corruption and Discipline in the Medieval Classroom” in Blood Matters ed. by Bonnie Landers Johnson and Eleanor Decamp (Penn State UP, 2015).
Comic Drama in the Low Countries, 1400-1560, with Bas Jongenelen (Boydell and Brewer, 2012).
‘”In Which Land Were You Born?”: Cultural Transmission in the Historie van Jan van Beverley’, with Bas Jongenelen, Medieval English Theatre 36 (2014): 30-76.
“Scarring Roles: Trauma and Temporality on the Medieval Stage”, Romard 51 (2013): 43-50.
“The English Fabliau in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries”, Literature Compass 10 (2013): 544-58.
“Sympathy for the Devil: Gilles de Rais and his Modern Apologists”, Fifteenth-Century Studies 37 (2012): 113-38.
“To Sir, With Loathing: Student Revenge Fantasies and the Middle English Lyric”, PEER English (Special Issue) 7 (2012): 24-45.
‘”Verray Goddes Apes”: Troilus, Saint Idiot and Festive Culture’, Chaucer Review 45 (2011): 275-98.
“No Laughing Matter: Fraud, the Fabliau and Chaucer’s Franklin’s Tale”, Neophilologus 95 (2011): 1-16.
‘”A Riotous Spray of Words”: Rethinking the Medieval Theory of Satire’, Exemplaria 21 (2009): 105-28.
‘”For my synne an for my yong delite”: Chaucer, the Tale of Beryn, and the Problem of Adolescentia’, Modern Language Review 103 (2008): 940-51.

[1] To obtain global information on corporal punishment from around the globe see This essay focuses on English-speaking cultures; for the global prevalence and institutionalization of corporal punishment of children and youth in Spain, Ghana, South Africa, Romania, Israel, China, Japan, India (respectively), and in world-South see: Enrique Gracia and Juan Herrero, “Beliefs in the Necessity of Corporal Punishment of Children and Public Perceptions of Child Physical Abuse as a Social Problem,” Child Abuse and Neglect v. 32 (2008): 1058-1062; Frances Hunt, “Policy in Practice: Teacher-Student Conflict in South African Schools,” in Education, Conflict and Reconciliation: International Perspectives edited by F. Leach and M. Dunne (Peter Lang, 2007); Vusi Mncube and Tshilidzi Netshitangani, “Can Violence Reduce Violence in Schools? The Case of Corporal Punishment,” Journal of Sociology and Social Anthropology vol. 5, no. 1 (2014): 1-9; Afua Twum-Danso Imoh, “Children’s Perceptions of Physical Punishment in Ghana and the implications for Children’s Rights,” Childhood: a journal of global research v. 20, n. 4 (2013): 472-486; Adrian V. Rus et al, “Severe Punishment of Children by Staff in Romanian Placement Centers for School-Aged Children: Effects of Children and Institutional Characteristics,” Child Abuse & Neglect v. 37 (2013): 1152-1162; Zeev Winstok, “Israeli Mothers’ Willingness to Use Corporal Punishment to Correct the Misbehavior of Their Elementary School Children,” Journal of Interpersonal Violence v. 29, no. 1 (Jan 2014): 44-65; Meifang Wang and Li Lui, “Parental Harsh Discipline in Mainland China: Prevalence, Frequency, and Coexistence,” Child Abuse & Neglect vol. 38, no. 6 (June 2014) 1128–1137; Aaron L. Miller, Discourses of Discipline: An Anthropology in Japan’s Schools and Sports (Institute of East Asian Studies, 2013); N.S. Mumthas, Jouhar Munavvir, and K. Abdul Gaffor, “Student and Teacher Perceptions of Disciplinary Practices: Types, Reasons, Consequences and Alternatives,” Guru Journal of Behavioral and Social Sciences vol. 2 iss. 4 (Oct – Dec, 2014); Jennifer E. Lansford et al, “Attitudes Justifying Domestic Violence Predict Endorsement of Corporal Punishment and Physical and Psychological Aggression towards Children: A study of 25 Low- and Middle-Income Countries,” Journal of Pediatrics v. 164 n. 5 (May 2014): 1208-1213.
[2] Joan E. Durrant, Linda Rose-Krasnor, and Anders G. Broberg, “Physical Punishment and Maternal Beliefs in Sweden and Canada,” Journal of Comparative Family Studies vol. 34 (2003): 585-604.
[3] Analyses of Swedish penal and disciplinary regimes are particularly relevant. See Jonas Qvarsebo, “Swedish Progressive School Politics and the Disciplinary Regime of the School, 1946-1962: a genealogical perspective,” Paedagogica Historica vol. 49, no 2 (April 2013): 217-235; Vanessa Baker, “Nordic Exceptionalism Revisited: Explaining the Paradox of a Janus-faced Penal Regime,” Theoretical Criminology vol. 17, no. 1 (February 2013): 5-25. A more complete critique of the progressive narrative of penal reform relative to childhood was delivered by Agamben in Homo Sacer, see pages 130-131.
[4] Murray Strauss and Julie H. Stewart, “Corporal Punishment by American Parents: National Data on Prevalence, Chronicity, Severity, and Duration, in Relation to Child and Family Characteristics,” Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review vol. 2, iss. 2 (June 1999): 55-70.
[5] See Anne McGillivray, “Children’s Rights, Paternal Power and Fiduciary Duty: From Roman Law to the Supreme Court of Canada” International Journal of Children’s Rights vol. 18 (2012): 21-54; “Child Corporal Punishment: Violence, Law and Rights” (with Joan Durrant) in Cruel but not Unusual: Violence in Canadian Families edited by Ramona Alaggia and Cathy Vine (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2006): 177-200; “Childhood in the Shadow of Parens Patriae” Multiple Lenses, Multiple Images: Perspectives on the Child Across Time, Space and Disciplines edited by in Hillel Goelman, Sheila Marshall and Sally Ross (University of Toronto Press, 2004): 38-72. The outline given here is more sharply represented in Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law vs. Canada (Can. Sup. Ct, 2004); Katie Sykes, “Bambi Meets Godzilla: Children’s and Parents’ Rights in Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and Law v. CanadaMcGill Law Journal vol. 51 (2006): 131-165. The grounding British case was R v Hopley (1860) 2 F&F 202, several European Human Rights Commission rulings have narrowed what is permissible by parents under British law. See Rhona Smith, “To Smack or Not to Smack? A review of A v United Kingdom in an international and European context and its potential impact on physical parental chastisement,” Web Journal of Current Legal Issues 1999.   The most important American case is Ingraham v. Wright (U.S. Sup. Ct., 1977); Virginia Lee, “A Legal Analysis of Ingraham v. Wright” in Corporal Punishment in American Education: readings in history, practice, and alternatives edited by Irwin A. Hyman and James H. Wise (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1979): 173-195.
[6] There is strong evidence that statutes and policies that protect “mild” uses of corporal punishment from prosecution make it difficult to police more severe cases of abuse and humiliation. Whether these legal protections themselves cause measurable long-term damage to child and youth is a more difficult research question, but it seems likely to me that they do. See Bernadette J. Saunders and Chris Goddard, Physical Punishment in Childhood: the rights of the child (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010); Deana Pollard Sacks, “State Actors Beating Children: A Call for Judicial Relief,” University of California Davis Law Review vol. 42 (2008-09): 1165-1229; Joan E. Durrant, “Trends in Youth Crime and Well-being Since the Abolition of Corporal Punishment in Sweden,” Youth & Society v. 31, no. 4 (June 2000): 437-455; Anne McGillivray, “‘He’ll learn it on his body': Disciplining Childhood in Canadian Law,” International Journal of Children’s Rights vol. 5 (1998): 255-288.
[7] See examples from public and private schools Colorado and Georgia accessed online January 29, 2015. Appling County Middle School, Parent/Student Handbook of Information 2013/2014,; “Meeker School District No Re-1″ (Colorado); Appling County Middle School, Parent/Student Handbook of Information 2013/2014,
[8] Milford Christian Academy Student Handbook – Jan. 7, 2014 (Milford, CT) at See the defense of moderate usage in two Australian Christian Academies: (1) and (2)
[9] School District of Clay County, Green Cove Springs, FL, “Code of Conduct,” (2013-2014): 11 accessed on 02/03/15 at .   See also Sandra Himmel, “Citrus County Schools, Code of Conduct, 2012-2013,” page 19, accessed at
[10] The School Board of Union County (Lake Butler, Florida), “Student Code of Conduct, Union County High School,” (2010): 18. Accessed at
[11] See page 47 of Pendleton Heights (Indiana) High School Student Handbook, 2014-15.
[12] Guy Gelner, Flogging Others: Corporal Punishment and Cultural Identity from Antiquity to the Present (Amsterdam University Press, 2014).
[13] Bernard Wishy, The Child and the Republic: the Dawn of the Modern American Child Nurture (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1968); Lloyd deMause ed., The History of Childhood (New York, NY: Harper & Row, 1974); Edward Shorter, The Making of the Modern Family (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1975); Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800 (London, UK: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1977); Philip J. Greven, The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience and the Self in America (New York, NY: Knopf, 1977); Elizabeth Pleck, Domestic Tyranny: the making of social policy against family violence from colonial times to the present (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1987); Peter Stearns, “The Role of Fear in American Emotional Standards for Children, 1850-1950,” American Historical Review v. 96, no. 1 (1991): 63-94; Mary Ann Mason, From Father’s Property to Children’s Rights: the history of child custody in the United States (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1994); Jacqueline Reiner, From Virtue to Character: American Childhoods, 1775-1850 (New York, NY: Twayne Publishers, 1996); Joseph Illick, American Childhoods (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002).
[14] Karin Calvert, Children in the House: the material culture of early childhood, 1600-1900 (Boston, MA: Northeastern University, 1992); Holly Brewer, By Birth or Consent: Children, Law, and the Anglo-American Revolution in Authority (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).
[15] Phillippe Ariès, Centuries of Childhood: a social history of family life trans. by Robert Baldick (London, UK: Cape, 1962): 406.
[16] Joseph M. Hawes, The Children’s Rights Movement: a history of advocacy and protection (Boston, MA: Twayne Publishers, 1991); and, Children in Urban Society: Juvenile Delinquency in Nineteenth-Century America (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1971).
[17] Anthony M. Platt, The Child Savers: the invention of delinquency (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1969); Jacques Donzelot, The Policing of Families trans. by Robert Hurley (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1979); Viviana Zelizer, Pricing the Priceless Child: the changing social value of children (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1985); Linda Gordon, Heroes of Their Own Lives: the politics and history of family violence, Boston 1880-1960 (New York, NY: Viking, 1988).
[18] This was an important phrase in the government of Canada’s defense of statutory protections for parents provided by section 43 of the criminal code, and it was reiterated by the majority ruling. See Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law vs. Canada (Can. Sup. Ct, 2004). And it is widely used it support similar policies and laws in the English-speaking world.
[19] Michael Donnelly, “Putting Corporal Punishment of Children in Historical Perspective,” in Corporal Punishment of Children in Theoretical Perspective edited by Michael Donnelly and Murray A. Straus (New Haven, CN: Yale University Press, 2005):41-54.
[20] This said, research inspired by the so-called ‘new’ paradigm’s stress upon the evidentiary value of children’s perspectives does not necessarily result in advocacy for any particular policy; it can also complicate our understanding of the question. See especially the thoughtful article by Jean-Paul Payet and Vije Franchi, “The Rights of the Child and ‘The Good of the Learners,': a comparative ethnographical survey on the abolition of corporal punishment in South African Schools,” Childhood: a journal of global research v. 15, no. 2 (2008): 157-176.
[21] Nikolas Rose, Governing the Soul: The Shaping of the Private Self, second edition (New York, NY: Free Association Books, 1999): 123.
[22] See CHC Ep14. The specific tensions between the social study of childhood and governmentality studies are summarized nicely by Marit Haldar and Eivind Engebretsen, “Governing the liberated child with self-managed family displays,” Childhood: a journal of global research v. 21, no. 4 (2013): 475-487.
[23] Bruce Curtis, “‘My Ladie Birchely must needes rule,’ Punishment and the Materialization of Moral Character from Mulcaster to Lancaster,” in Discipline, Moral Regulation, and Schooling: a Social History edited by Kate Rousmaniere, Kari Dehli, and Ning de Coninck-Smith (NY: Routledge, 1997). Also see by Bruce Curtis, chapter 8 of Building the Educational State: Canada West, 1836-1871 (London, ON: Althouse Press, 1988); Ruling by Schooling Quebec: Conquest to Liberal Governmentality – A Historical Sociology (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2012).
[24] Author Unk, “The Childrens Petition, or a modest remonstrance of the intolerable grievance our Youth lie under, in the accustomed severities of the school-discipline of the nation. Humbly presented to the Consideration of the Parliament,” (London, Richard Chiswel, 1669).
[25] This is the approach of C.B. Freeman, “The Children’s Petition of 1669 and Its Sequel,” British Journal of Educational Studies vol. 14, no. 2 (May 1966): 216-223. Following a 1975 lecture delivered by Keith Thomas, the documents focus on sodomy appears to have caused Hugh Cunningham to conclude that it was pornographic rather than a “genuine petition” to Parliament. Other studies (see note 29) have shown that this concern part of a wider discourse on pedagogy in the early modern period, and should not be dismissed. See Hugh Cunningham, The Invention of Childhood (London: BBC Books, 2006): 84.
[26] Mark H. Lawhorn, “Taking Pains for the Prince: Age, Patronage, and Penal Surrogacy in Samuel Rowley’s When You See Me, You Know Me,” in The Premodern Teenager: Youth and Society, 1150-1650 edited by Konrad Eisenbichler (Toronto: Centre for Reformation and Rennaissance Studies, 2002): 131-150. (Jonson quoted on page 136)
[27] “Childrens Petition,” 4-6; 35-37. The petitioners do briefly refer to the Roman antithesis between corporal punishment and citizenship. But they do not develop this line of thought. “Childrens Petition,” 25, 27, 33. A good summary of the Greco-Roman sources of this idea is offered by G. Geltner, “History of Corporal Punishment,” in Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Justice edited by Gerben Bruinsma and David Weisband (New York, NY: Springer, 2014): 2106-2115.
[28] “Childrens Petition,” 22-23. The connection between pleasure, pain, pedagogy, and sex was part of a larger concern documented in Alan Stewart, Close Readers: Humanism and Sodomy in Early Modern England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997): 84-121; It is also suggested by the way the text uses Latin passages, especially the one taken from Juvenal, Satire II, lines 8-10. See “Children’s Petition,” 17-18, 20. The point was made infamous by Sade. John Phillips, The Marquis de Sade: a very short introduction (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2005): 1-2.
[29]“Childrens Petition,” 14-15.
[30] Unk, “Lex Forcia: Being a Sensible Address to the Parliament for an Act to Remedy the foul abuse of Children at Schools…” London: Eliz.. Whitelock, 1698): 30.
[31] “Childrens Petition,” 67.
[32] Nathan Ristuccia, “Ideology and Corporal Punishment in Anglo-Saxon Monastic Education American Benedictine Review v 61, no 4 (Dec 2010): 373-386.
[33] “Childrens Petition,” 58-60.
[34] “Childrens Petition,” 55.
[35] “Childrens Petition,” 50.
[36] “Childrens Petition,” 26.
[37] “Childrens Petition,” 34, 49, 61-63.
[38] “Lex Forcia,” 27-28.
[39] “Childrens Petition,” 61-63.
[40] Foucault, Security, Territory, Population, 231.

Ben Parsons

About Ben Parsons

Ben Parsons received his PhD from the University of Sheffield in 2007, and currently works as Lecturer in Medieval and Early Modern Literature at the University of Leicester. He has published papers on various aspects of medieval and Renaissance culture, including folklore, education, drama, exegesis, and notions of adolescence. Parsons is the co-editor of the critical anthology Comic Drama in the Low Countries, c.1450-1560 (Boydell & Brewer, 2012), and in 2013 was lead researcher on the AHRC-funded project “Violence in the Late Medieval Classroom”.

Jun  22

Guest Post: Saheed Aderinto on Education and Childhood Poverty in Colonial Nigeria

Saheed Aderinto teaches at Western Carolina University. He is the author of When Sex Threatened the State: Illicit Sexuality, Nationalism, and Politics in Colonial Nigeria (2015) and editor of Children and Childhood in Colonial Nigerian Histories (2015), among other books. His articles have appeared in leading Africanist and specialist journals including, the Canadian Journal of African Studies; Africa: The Journal of the International African Institute; Journal of the History of Sexuality; Journal of Social History; Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History; and Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, among others.

My article, titled “O! Sir I Do Not Know Either to Kill Myself or to Stay”: Childhood Emotion, Poverty, and Literary Culture in Nigeria, 1900-1960” uses letters composed by children of Lagos (Nigeria) in the 1940s to unlock the history of urban childhood poverty and emotion.[1] To the best of my knowledge, the letters is the largest and most comprehensive archival material on children’s history composed by children of colonial Nigeria. One theme I found really interesting as I researched my piece is the children’s emphasis on education as the solution to poverty and as a gateway to upward socio-economic mobility. The importance of education has featured prominently in academic and popular discourses of underdevelopment in twenty-first century Africa. It is intriguing to see that Lagos children of the 1940s realized the value of education to their personal, family, and community development. The children’s writings about the significance of education counters the assumption that it was mainly a prescription of adult, imposed on children. It is a truism that adults were mainly responsible for devising educational policy and curriculum; but how children of Lagos internalized it as a significant element of their socialization is fascinating.

Elementary school education was not only popular in urban Africa, it was also conceived by many (especially African educated elites and nationalists) as an enterprise in nation building. The exponential increase in school enrollment throughout the first half of the twentieth century was therefore tied to high demand for education. Yet, the available classroom space could not accommodate demand for the “white man’s knowledge.” Much of the decision to enroll children in school was made by parents and guardians. But, as some of the letters revealed, children did make personal decision to enroll in school in contravention of their parents’ wish for them to receive training in a vocational field or in agriculture. Hence, one sees a lot of children’s agency that contravenes the well-received notion that they were totally innate, especially in big issues such as education and intellectual empowerment.

The children’s letter tells the story of the contradiction inherent in the colonial education system. On one hand, education was viewed as a vehicle of civilization as professed by the colonialists, and as a prerequisite for sound nation building by the nationalists. Yet, access to education at all levels was a privilege. The restricted access to education was largely attributable to the unevenness of infrastructural development in colonial Africa and the government’s policy on public education. Most schools were located in the big urban centers, which had the facilities to support teaching and teachers. But more importantly, most colonial governments did not have free-education policy. Hence parents, guardians, and sometimes the entire community had to pay for children’s education. Some children, as young as ten, worked to pay their way through school—the letters revealed. When one reads about the numerous jobs children did to pay for their education, one is quickly alerted to the need to problematize such concept as “child labor” within the context of the difficult relationship between children’s economic activities in purely capitalist, unsafe, and exploitative environment, and what they did with resources accrued.

Moreover, the children’s letters render a window to viewing how location shaped childhood experience. It also introduces a scholar to childhood poverty, a less charted path in colonial African studies. Who was a poor child in colonial Africa? How did children define poverty? Lack of family ties, which manifested in vagrancy, homelessness, and lack of food, were elements of poverty peculiar to the city—a domain characterized by facelessness and lack of kinship system that sustained communal living in the villages. The children not only rendered the profile of a poor child similar to what obtained in most urban centers across the globe, they painted an idealistic image of a “normal” childhood experience. An ideal childhood to them was a childhood free from the dangers of the street, shielded from the agonies of hunger, and nurtured with “knowledge of book” in an environment controlled by respected teachers and adults. It was a childhood of responsibility, which allowed minors to share household chores and reciprocate the opportunity to have food, education, and shelter by performing tasks or being in charge of responsibilities, beneficial to their parents, mentors, and guardians. As I have shown in my book titled, Children and Childhood in Colonial Nigerian Histories, the notion of “modern” or “ideal” Nigerian childhood emerged alongside with other elements of colonial modernities of the first half of the twentieth century.[2] The proliferation of European-styled play-grounds, schools, and advice manuals on children were all informed by the assumption that African childhood must be modernized. It is one thing to make prescription about an ideal childhood, it is another for it to become institutionalized or accepted by children. Thus, the idea of modern childhood was a two-way traffic—both the adults and children appropriated it to suit their realities and aspirations.


[1] Saheed Aderinto, “O! Sir I Do Not Know Either to Kill Myself or to Stay”: Childhood Emotion, Poverty, and Literary Culture in Nigeria, 1900-1960,” Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth 8, no.2 (2015).
[2] Saheed Aderinto, “Introduction: Colonialism and the Invention of Modern Nigerian Childhood” in Children and Childhood in Colonial Nigerian Histories, edited Saheed Aderinto, 1-18 (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

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