September 2018 Print

The Quest of Literature to Define the Child

by Jane Spencer

“All children, except one, grow up,” wrote J.M. Barry of his young hero, Peter Pan. The child’s transformation into an adult—which Peter cleverly sidestepped—is usually unavoidable. In the past two hundred years, children’s authors influenced by the philosophies of their eras have treated the process of “growing up” from widely differing standpoints. Their work reflects evolving and often bitterly contending opinions regarding the adult that the child is meant to become; what does it mean to mature, and what is the child in relation to the adult? The Catholic answers that maturing is the development of a “sound mind in a sound body,” sound because the whole child is being trained to achieve Heaven. This article will examine a few opposing philosophies about growing up which arose around the critical time of the 18th century, and how these were manifest in children’s literature.


The early Puritan would emphasize (often morbidly) that the child must be trained to fight against his inherently sinful nature; the adult is the guardian angel who guides him in this spiritual purification. Later Enlightenment thinkers, however, rejected the supernatural, focusing instead on training the child to think and act rationally. Following the Enlightenment, late 18th century children’s literature began to glorify the child’s own natural freedom and imagination. Rejecting the idea of original sin, it often portrayed the child as a pure being untouched by corrupt society who should, in fact, be imitated by adults instead of instructed by them. Children’s literature as a medium of education reflects this evolving concept of childhood, becoming less an authoritative guidance for the child, and more a celebration of his innocence.

The Puritan Child

For the puritan parent of the late 17th to early 18th century, to celebrate the child’s innocence would be to ignore the glaring reality of his original sin. In her Critical History of Children’s Literature, Cornelia Meigs describes the puritanical influence on children’s schoolbooks, which urged the young student to “be sensitive to [his] Original corruption…[and] groan under it and bewail it as Paul did.” The saintly young heroine of one story says before her premature death: “Who am I but poor dust and ashes?”; Meigs claims that the era’s high rate of child mortality coupled with the puritan emphasis on original sin produced an urgent atmosphere of religious training. Keenly (and often morbidly) aware both of the child’s mortality and inherent sinfulness, Puritans plainly warned their children of death and its eternal consequences. Literary critic Peter Hunt summarizes “children’s duties as Puritans saw it—to read their Bibles, think on death and hell, avoid idleness and evil company, and obey their parents.” Conversely, one preacher described hell as the dark abode of children who “make light of their parents.” The child could save his soul only if he obediently respected authority.

The Child as a Future Citizen

Protestant children’s literature influenced by John Locke, however, reveals a less spiritual motive for inspiring the child to respect authority. Locke, whose Some Thoughts Concerning Education strongly impacted both British and early American children’s literature, emphasizes the training of the child not only as a safeguard of the child’s soul, but also as a benefit to the state. Locke saw the child’s soul as a tabula rasa, or a blank slate, in contrast to the Puritan belief that the soul was stained by sin even at birth.

In her article, “Nurseries of Good and Wise Men,” Stacy Nall describes that it was the task of education to write carefully upon this slate so that “the child, through learning to control his own desires, would become a self-regulating, selfless citizen.” Nall claims that late 18th century American children’s primers, while encouraging the virtues of obedience and industry, did so for both “moral and political” reasons; “the ultimate goal of eternal life through obedience to God is replaced with a hybrid goal consisting of religious, economic, and political consequences.”

Locke claimed that the good of the nation depended on training children to respect their parents, who were “their Lords, their Absolute Governors.” Strong parental guidance would strengthen the State by planting habits of rational thought and action in young future citizens. Locke focused on the need for an authority to train the child because without it, the child is “guided more by self-love, than by reason or reflection,” and makes a poor addition to society.

The Child as a Rational Animal

This is suggestive of a belief which Darren Howard claims was widely accepted in the 18th century: that the child was close to an animal, and required education to replace animalistic passions with cultivated reason. In his essay, Talking Animals and Reading Children, Howard describes a new movement in children’s literature: animal stories which impressed on the child the similarities and differences between himself and beasts without reason. In a story written in 1749, a child whose cat has passed away is instructed by her mother: “consider, my child, that you are not meant to give way to any passions that interfere with your duty; for whenever there is any contention between your duty and your inclinations, you must conquer the latter, or become most wicked and contemptible.”

Howard comments: “an excess of feeling for animals, the mother implies, renders the child more like an animal.” These books taught the child to appreciate a natural hierarchy in which man is more noble than beasts because of his unique intellectual powers. Reasonable behavior—including devotion to duty, industry, obedience to authority and charity towards inferiors—was seen as the virtue that defined the child as distinctly human. To sum up the confusion that followed, Howard claims that “children’s literature…develops into a site for exploring the identity crisis of the Enlightenment, which defines the human as an animal whose difference from other animals lies in its self-definition as not-animal.” In other words, Rationalist philosophers cheapened the human soul by valuing it only because of its natural power to reason. Replacing the supernatural language of sin and grace with the natural language of rationality or brutishness, they rejected original sin as the child’s fundamental flaw only to replace it with the “sin” of irrationality.

The Child: Naturally Pure?

In France, Locke’s successor Rousseau also taught that fostering reason was paramount in a child’s education. Completely rejecting the idea of original sin, Rousseau further claimed however, that the child was naturally pure, and most perfectly educated by learning from his own experiences. Rousseau deemed Robinson Crusoe the best children’s book because, as Meigs states, it “showed man reduced to a state of nature and gradually building up out of his own spirit and ingenuity a workable scheme of living and security.” This suggests a more individualistic approach to education, and a lessened presence of a guiding authority.

Rousseau’s theories, however, are strangely incongruous with his own work for children, Emile. Emile is a boy supposedly given the freedom to learn through experience, guided by his intrinsic morality; still, in practice the freedom is “illusory.” Rousseau as the author “seeks to control the child’s experiences invisibly in order to inculcate specific patterns of thought…Emile learns the lessons of self-denial and self-control through a circumscribed physical freedom and staged social interactions.” While in theory Rousseau might have meant to free the child from supposedly overbearing adults, in practice he didn’t hesitate to exercise his own authority.

John Bewick’s popular illustrations of children’s books such as The Oracles exemplify this strange phenomenon; These depict a mother and father hang speaking pictures, or oracles, in the nursery to which their children can turn “for advice and moral guidance…illustration and text show images of children controlled by strings and enclosed by clothing, curtains, walls, and then frames,” according to researcher Hilary Thompson. Bewick’s strict use of constraints and borders in his illustrations of The Oracles exemplifies that in some cases, a restrictive, heavy decorum and the constant presence of a guiding adult resulted from Rousseau’s efforts to weed out anything hinting of irrationality in the child.

Romanticizing Children

The child’s freedom from constraint that Rousseau had advocated in theory if not in practice was achieved more successfully, however, by romantic writers who reacted against the heavily correctional approach of the rationalists. In his article, “Politicizing the Nursery,” Matthew Grenby claims that the Romantics saw in the child “a state of natural innocence that should be protected from contamination by adult issues.” Like Rousseau, romantics rejected the doctrine of original sin and saw the child as a pure being; however, they scorned the rationalist method of education and emphasized instead the child’s imagination.

Romantic poets often believed that the most profound truths were experienced within the human soul through its own individual reflections. The child, with his artlessness and impulsive imagination, seemed to express these truths more purely than the adult. Years of maturity elevate a person by increasing his power to reason as the rationalists believed, instead lessened his original purity and weighed him down with contamination from corrupt society. Grenby claims that poets like Wordsworth “argued that childhood should not be seen merely as a preparation for adulthood, which was essentially still Rousseau’s position, but that it was a state to be valued in itself…from which adults could derive their spiritual and moral values.”

The Romantic poet William Blake expresses a similar sentiment in his Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, two sets of poems which contrast childhood and experienced maturity. Rather than portray this change in the positive light of acquiring reason, as Rousseau might have done, Blake’s poems about growing up are heavy with a sense of lost innocence. While the Songs of Innocence begin with the laughter of a happy child listening to a song about a Lamb, the Songs of Experience begin with weeping, and the desire to renew a “fallen light;” the imagery throughout darkly depicts the cruelty and selfishness of men and ends by lamenting the “clouds of reason, dark disputes and artful teasing. Folly is an endless maze…” Innocence, Blake implies, is too often lost with experience, and reason can become a mere tangle of folly. Thompson’s claim that illustrations in more Romantic children’s books “appeal [partly] to the adult’s nostalgia for lost innocence and lost freedom” applies also to the Romantic philosophy that childhood was a treasure that should be protected from the evil of “growing up.”

Hunt suggests that Blake’s Songs of Innocence foreshadowed the direction that children’s literature would take. Over time, the Romantic emphasis on imagination flourished, resulting in the popularity of fairy tales and fanciful stories. He summarizes, “Wordsworth…saw childhood as characterized by freedom and vitality of imagination…only too often, growing up diminished this capacity, and conventional education frequently hastened the process of loss. Writing that stretched the imagination—fairy tales of the Arabian Nights—was thus more nourishing for the child than facts or tracts.” A shifted perception of the relation between the adult and the child led Wordsworth to famously call the child “father to the man” in his Intimations on Immortality, a poem which urges adults to keep close to the innocence of their childhood. The Romantics’ often cynical disenchantment with adulthood is perhaps a reaction against the Rationalists’ re-definition of what it meant to grow up.


The early Protestants held the Christian view that the child’s maturing was a process of spiritual growth towards God; nevertheless, their morbid emphasis on sin destroyed the attractiveness of religion. Enlightenment philosophers rejected spirituality, worshipping instead the goddess Reason. To them, the purpose of a child’s education—and thus his literature—was not sanctification, but rationalization. Romantic poets sensed that reasonability alone could not be the essence of adulthood; they tried to re-connect with the spiritual by glorifying the innocence and imagination of the child, the person least contaminated by a society which had rejected faith. While they reach for spirituality sadly in the wrong direction, the sense of wonder and beauty which fills many of their works is true, and no child could truly mature without absorbing it. Going through many warped attempts to understand the process of growing up, we are reminded of the wisdom of G.K. Chesterton: “Take away the supernatural, and what remains is the unnatural.”