Rights and childhood


Discuss the contribution made by Locke and Rousseau to changing ideas on childcare and education during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The late seventeenth century marked a change in society known as enlightenment. The Puritans had taught the absolute authority of the church and believed children were born sinful. According to E. J. Hundert in Ashcraft (1991) Mercantilist writers believed the working classes were lazy and work shy because of their inherited lazy nature. They did not believe anything could be done to change them. 'The eighteenth century ushered in new approaches to childhood' Cunningham (2006 p102). Growth of industry in England raised it to global dominance, which changed the way children were perceived. The theories of Locke and Rousseau on childcare and education had a major impact on changing attitudes to childcare and education that still impact on how children are viewed in the 21st century. David Archard (2004) says that John Locke and J.J. Rousseau were 'the first to suggest a manifesto for a child centred education'.

The debate about the best way to raise and educate children was down to Locke's 'tabula rasa' or Rousseau's idea that children are naturally born innocent. These views were in sharp contrast to the Puritan view. Inborn sin or Godliness were no longer considered factors that shaped individuals. Muller suggests that Locke believed in educating children to help them overcome difficulties they would face in the changing social environment. He saw children as blank slates to be written on to fit them for a good life. This was not actually a new idea according to Cunningham (2006). He tells us that Erasmus had spoken about children being 'moulded like wax' two centuries earlier but this idea still endures to the present time.

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Locke wrote in his book 'Some Thoughts on Education' (1693: section 54)) that the basis for training good adults was all down to reason; that is sensible thinking based on reasonable logic. He was against the harsh beatings but instead suggested that parents should reason with their children and recognise their needs and interests. Locke believed that a person's character was formed in the early years. According to Archard (2004 p1) Locke denied that knowledge was inborn and learning depended on reason. However, Archard (2004) believes there would be problems trying to teach reason to a blank slate so the child must be born with the instinct to seek pleasure and avoid pain.

Cunningham (2006) says Locke believed that the parents should provide the education in the home. It was all down to learning good habits. According to Houswitschaka in Muller, the Lockean child's education was based on learning to think sensibly by being set a good example by parents but he rejected the view that parents 'owned' their children. He did, however, think parents should be 'Absolute Governors' (Cunningham 2006: p110).

Learning was based on using logic, 'we are born with faculties and powers capable of almost anything' Locke (Archard p3). Children could experience things during sensory play. Like Piaget, Locke believed that the first learning experiences are linked to the senses and these give the infant the opportunity to develop reasoned thinking. He did not believe in having 'rules' because they stifle freedom of thought. Instead he advocated that good behaviour would be achieved by learning good habits. He was against giving children books with stories that might frighten them. He recommended Aesop's Fables as suitable reading material. He thought the wrong books could corrupt children but Cunningham says parents still bought cheap books and enjoyed them as much as children and middle class boys were covertly introduced to books about sex. This would have met with approval by Rousseau but Locke was against any knowledge that might make boys less than perfect.

Locke believed there should be a ban on corporal punishment as it trains children to look for things that give pleasure and avoid situations that cause pain. It was better for children to behave because they reasoned that it was the only way forward and they understood why some things were forbidden. However, Cunningham (2006) says that children continued to be beaten during this period but it was less severe so not everyone took notice of Locke's theory.

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Locke's believed 'knowledge is cumulative and progressive, the necessity of communication and curiosity about cultural variety 'Aarsleff (Muller p83). 'As children will not have time and strength to learn all things, most pains should be taken about that which is most necessary' (Ashcroft p452). This has endured today with the National Curriculum being developed. Children should be allowed lots of time to play so that they do not become bored. He said children should 'be tenderly used...must play, and have playthings' Locke, but parents should take care not to spoil their children by giving them too many toys. Cunningham believes Locke was one of the first to discuss 'pester power'.

Toys were to be carefully chosen and given one at a time. Things like smooth stones or keys were all that was needed. The toy should be exchanged before the child got bored. Locke's views on toys were supported by the educationalist Maria Edgeworth the following century. Cunningham (2006) says, however, there is evidence that many toys were commercially produced during this time so not all parents took any notice of Locke. He says there is evidence to suggest that Locke's views actually encouraged toy manufacturers to make more toys though toys like playing cards and jigsaws that taught children about maths and geography were introduced. Using apparatus to help children learn skills are still used as valuable teaching aids. Cunningham says children were given wooden letters to help learn reading. We still use these today. Locke believed children would return to their studies with renewed enthusiasm after a break and schools follow this theory today. Locke believed that education must be for the good of society as a whole so there was still no complete freedom of thought.

Cunningham (2006) also says Locke had some suggestions about childcare. He advocated washing children's feet in cold water every day and providing them with thin shoes that let in water. This was presumably to toughen them up but Cunningham believes there is little evidence to show many parents followed this recommendation. Today this would be considered neglect. He also had strong views on how children were clothed. Clothing was for warmth not vanity. Allowing children to choose clothes that were considered fashionable was wrong.

Rousseau also had some suggestions for parenting skills. He believed children were born innocent and should be raised to be at one with nature. They should not have their innocence tainted by society. They should be allowed to do anything they wanted and to learn from experience. Piaget would support this. Rousseau had an imaginary boy called Emile who broke a window and learnt by experience that this made him cold. Children would soon learn that fire burns. Rousseau tells us that it was common to swaddle babies from birth, 'man was born free and he is everywhere in chains' (Rousseau in Grimsley 1973). They could not use their hands to touch things. Infants were bound so tightly that they could barely breath and it hindered growth and strength. He was concerned that the first feelings an infant experienced were pain and stiffness. It led to infants being frustrated and bad tempered. The pain from trying to move warned them not to try moving. This was unnatural as it stifled natural instincts. The practice also enabled women to hang infants out of the way from hooks so that they could get on with other jobs. Today we would consider this practice as abuse.

Rich mothers often claimed they were too weak to breast feed their infants and used wet nurses. Rousseau said children needed their mothers care and that there was no substitute for a mother's love. Schaffer conducted research in 1976 and found that children bond to mothers who respond to their needs quickly. Rousseau appears to have discovered this in the eighteenth century. He said the mother should breast-feed the infant. Milk from wet nurses might be in short supply because the lack of feelings for the child would hinder the flow. Rousseau claimed that when the wet nurse left, the mother could not expect the child to suddenly bond with her. The infant death rate could have reduced in the 18th century because more mothers took Rousseau's advice to breast- feed. Rousseau, like Locke, warned mothers against spoiling their children by doing everything for them. This would hinder training them to cope with unexpected dangers in the future. This statement would suggest that mothers did love their children even though parenting skills were questionable.

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It was common practice at the time for the wealthy to send boys to a tutor at age seven to have their heads 'filled with knowledge' (Rousseau). Rousseau advocated that tutors should do the job for the love of it rather than for money. Many would regard this as sensible advice. Education should be natural. Tutors needed to be able to become children themselves, that is, able to relate to the child. The child must be taught as an individual but like Locke, he also advocated teaching skills that are for the common good.

Children who were sent away to be educated would return to see the family as strangers. Rousseau, like Locke, believed that parents should teach the young child. Children should have freedom of natural thought. 'The poor may come to manhood without our help', (Rousseau 1792). Learning could not be speeded up in the same way that learning to walk cannot be hurried. 'It matters little to me whether my pupil is intended for the army, the church or the law... Life is the trade I would teach him. When he leaves me, I grant you, he will be neither a magistrate, a soldier, nor a priest; he will be a man' (Rousseau 1762). However, this would only be possible for the rich. Muller says that Rousseau believed pleasant experiences would balance out unpleasant experiences. This would apply to all. 'Make the citizen good by training and everything else will follow' (Rousseau 1792).

Grimsley (1973) says that Rousseau believed that education could maintain the original innocence of the child. The teacher should be a facilitator (as in Piaget's theory). Like Freud and Piaget, Rousseau thought childhood passed through age related stages and knowledge should not be above the child's grasp. Children should reason their way to their own conclusions. Darling (1994) argues that today's 'child centred' education theory is a result of Rousseau's ideas. We also believe the same theory today that Rousseau advocated in the eighteenth century, that children need good, healthy food, 'the body must be strong enough to obey the mind' (Rousseau 1792 ). He stressed that children should have good hygiene and plenty of exercise. These theories are the same as those promoted today by health professionals. Cunningham (2006) says a number of guides on how to bring up children were published and this could have contributed to the fall in the infant death rate.

One thing that would be argued today is Rousseau's thoughts on books. 'Reading is the curse of childhood' (Rousseau). He thought we should not stimulate the imagination because it can lead to unhappiness. The aim in the 21st century is to stimulate children. Cunningham tells us that children were taught from early in the morning until late into the evening. "The idea of perfectibility by education marked a crucial change to modern society" (Muller p82).

According to Cunningham (2006) the changes in how children were reared might have been political because the nation saw itself as 'free' and this would have rubbed off on parents but the teachings of Locke and Rousseau have had a major impact on how children are looked upon in the 21st century. Neither Locke nor Rousseau had first hand experience of raising children and their ideas were very different, yet the ideas were ground breaking. Locke was a bachelor and Rousseau gave away all his children to a foundling hospital. It is universally agreed that children must be educated to be good citizens and the best way to do this is for parents to teach them skills for the good of society. Rousseau saw children as being naturally born free from sin but tainted by society. 'It is no part of a child's business to know right and wrong' Rousseau (Cunningham p114). Rousseau's suggestion of leaving children to find things out for themselves could put children in danger and might be considered child neglect today but many of his teachings are still followed. Locke's ideas on toughening children up like washing feet in cold water would also be frowned upon.


  • Archard, D. (2004) 2nd Edition Children: Rights and Childhood, Chapter 1, John Locke's Children, Oxford: Routledge.
  • Ashcraft, R (ed. 1991): Locke: Critical Assessments, 'The Making of Homo Faber: John Locke between Ideology and History', E. Hundert (pp438-457), London: Routledge.
  • Cunningham, H. (2006) The Invention of Childhood (pp79-130), London: BBC Books
  • Cunningham, H. (2005) 2nd Edition, Children and Childhood in Western Society Since 1500 pp58-72, London: Pearson Education
  • Grimsley, R. (1973) Philosophy of Rousseau (pp45-51), Oxford: Oxford University Press
  • Muller, A. (Ed 2006) Fashioning Childhood in the 18th Century: Age and Identity, 'Locke's Education or Rousseau's freedom' C. Houswitschaka (pp81-88), Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing
  • Rousseau J.J. (2007) Emile: Or on Education, Nu Vision Publications: Google Books www.infed.org/thinkers/et-rous.htm (accessed 15.02.2010