In 1900, Ellen Key wrote the international bestseller The
Century of the Child. In this enormously influential book, she
proposed that the world's children should be the central work of
society during the twentieth century. Although she never thought
that her "century of the child" would become a reality, in fact it
had much more resonance than she could have imagined.
The idea of the child as a product of a protective and coddling
society has given rise to major theories and arguments since Key's
time. For the past half century, the study of the child has been
dominated by two towering figures, the psychologist Jean Piaget and
the historian Philippe Ariès. Interest in the subject has been
driven in large measure by Ariès's argument that adults failed even
to have a concept of childhood before the thirteenth century, and
that from the thirteenth century to the seventeenth there was an
increasing "childishness" in the representations of children and an
increasing separation between the adult world and that of the
child. Piaget proposed that children's logic and modes of thinking
are entirely different from those of adults. In the twentieth
century this distance between the spheres of children and adults
made possible the distinctive study of child development and also
specific legislation to protect children from exploitation, abuse,
and neglect. Recent students of childhood have challenged the ideas
those titans promoted; they ask whether the distancing process has
gone too far and has begun to reverse itself.
In a series of essays, Beyond the Century of the Child
considers the history of childhood from the Middle Ages to modern
times, from America and Europe to China and Japan, bringing
together leading psychologists and historians to question whether
we unnecessarily infantilized children and unwittingly created a
detrimental wall between the worlds of children and adults.
Together these scholars address the question whether, a hundred
years after Ellen Key wrote her international sensation, the
century of the child has in fact come to an end.
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