What is family? How are families portrayed in literature? Our unit “Literature As A Mirror of Reality: The Family In Historical and Sociological Perspectives” will attempt to give some insight into these questions. We would like our students to get a sense of what family is. This unit will have three parts.
First, we will present a historical framework which will be used to explore how families from early times to contemporary times acted and were changed by the forces of society.
Secondly, we will examine three modern plays concerning family issues in order to add some color, relevance, and substance to our historical framework.
The final third of our unit will concentrate specifically on our students and their families. In this section we will involve our students in writing about their own families, generating autobiographies, short stories, and poems from their own experiences.
The first third of our unit, the historical framework, will use several books pertaining to the history of the family (Stone’s “The Family, Sex, And Marriage in England 1500-1800, Ariés’s “Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life,” Ozment’s “When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe”) . These books will be supplemented by several articles relating to this subject, including Stone’s “Family History in The 1900’s: past Achievement and Future Trends”. These selections will be used as resources to develop lectures, presentations, and study units for the students.
Obviously, the study of family in historical terms is an enormous undertaking. This historical framework will not attempt on any level to produce a definitive exploration of an institution so varied and complex. Considering the selections we will use for our historical background, we will not attempt to cover all or even most of the information included but rather select and emphasize certain aspects we feel will lend themselves to an enjoyable and relevant teaching situation.
We do hope to touch on many of the dynamics involved with family in our focused overview, hoping to impart some sense of the evolution, complexity, and richness involved. This framework will concentrate mainly on four aspects relating to family, the first three dealing with the family in history and the final aspect with contemporary family issues.
The historical framework will first explore the issues of affection within the family, considering initially the family as a match of spouses and their relationship to each other. This will then lead to those issues surrounding the sense of affection displayed toward the children of the family, essentially the parent-child relationship.
Secondly, the unit will discuss the meaning of children and how society and family began to change from premodern times to the present in their consideration of children.
Thirdly, the unit will explore the patriarchal role in the family and the emergence of the women in the marriage/ family unit together with the subsequent rise of the companionate marriage.
The final exploration will be viewed from a more contemporary point of reference, namely the effects of those forces upon families (poverty, prejudice, changing values, etc.) which either weaken and pull families apart or strengthen and solidify them.
While our historical family exploration will concentrate on the European family, we will attempt to offer some insight into the collection of families that make up contemporary American society, notably Black and Latin American families.
After having explored the concept of family in both broad and specifically historical terms, the second third of the unit will attempt to accomplish two objectives. First, we hope that the collection of readings we have selected will help our students develop a more indepth understanding of family. The books we have chosen to study are
Death of A Salesman
A Raisin In The Sun
. We have chosen plays as opposed to short stories or novels because we feel plays offer a unique and easy opportunity for following and studying the characters, lend themselves to group oral reading, and offer possibilities for dramatization within the classroom (which is not only enjoyable but gives the students a greater insight into the characters and themes). These readings will be used to discuss the modern family across various cultures and times, and serve as a basis for comparing and contrasting the modern family to families of the past.
The second objective, apart from the study of family issues, is to offer our students an opportunity for an appreciation of literature for its own sake: good writing, well-developed story, richly detailed characters, and content that goes beyond family to address a great range of human issues.
The final third of our unit will concentrate on our own students and their families. Our attempt will be to draw on the study of the history of the family and our readings in modern literature to give our students a conceptual framework for thinking more precisely about their own families, and give them ways of exploring their thoughts. We would like to guide our students through the process of creative writing, having them think in terms of their own families, and possibly develop their own experiences into short stories, simple autobiographies, and poems. We feel this will serve to increase our students’ understanding of the theme of family in general and their families in particular, and give them a chance to develop their own writing talents by expressing themselves on a theme of great relevance to them.
As we work, live, and participate in a thousand different tasks with our students, we deal with them as both individuals and in groups. We attempt to help them grow in their individuality while retaining that importance of belonging to and working with others. We want to impart to them our feelings of love, responsibility, accomplishment, humor, independence, connectedness, and critical thinking while drawing from them the spontaneity, innocence, and insight that are uniquely the domain of children. Hopefully, we do not impose our value system on our students at the diminishment of their own, but rather help them clarify their emerging values as they begin to approach life as critical thinkers.
Every day our students bring into the classroom their sense of their own families. They do this unconsciously; it’s so much a part of their lives they almost never step outside of it or think about it critically. Yet, when they do have the opportunity to discuss family issues, whether it be their own or the idea of family in general, they are fascinated by it.
Our unit was developed with our unique class composition and class schedule in mind. Our students include 6th, 7th, and 8th graders who for the majority of the school day receive all their academic instruction from the same teacher. We envision teaching this unit over the course of two marking periods, using both our reading/language arts classes as well as our history classes to present and discuss the material. Obviously, not all teachers have this flexibility, and it would therefore seem reasonable for teachers interested in this unit to adapt it to their own unique teaching situations.
History of The Family
The investigation of history is never as neatly organized nor as unified as we might hope. Like members from the same family who reveal different realities about their family, historians offer us their evidence about the same phenomenon from different viewpoints, emphasizing those characteristics which provide a logical framework for their study. Truth is not always to be found in one scholarly study, particularly in a phenomenon as rich and as complex as the historical study of family, but in the study of several points of view, trying to locate where those points coincide or where one point has more logic or sense to it. That families have changed over the course of time, and that society’s view of children has developed to something different than what it once was, is beyond question. What needs to be answered is how much change has occurred and what were the changes?
Affection Within The Family
Lawrence Stone argues that there is a dramatic difference—between our modern family and the family of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries regarding legal arrangements, structure, custom, power, affection and sex.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, relations between spouses were often fairly remote. Living arrangements, particularly of the richer families, were often separate within the house, with husband and wife occupying separate bedrooms.
Stone emphasizes that marriages were usually arranged rather than consensual, essentially the products of economic deals or political alliances between two families. This transaction was sealed by the wedding and by the physical union of the two individuals, while the emotional ties were left to develop at a later date.
Steven Ozment in his book
When Fathers Ruled
feels this view of the premodern marriage is too cold and calculating. He cites evidence that agrees with Stone concerning the parents’ active involvement in selecting marriages. However, he also indicates that the law, the parents, and the churches worked toward an ideal compromise (not forcing children against their will into marriage, respecting a child’s freedom and wishes) while at the same time appreciating a parent’s legitimate self interest in the marriage. As Ozment states, “the official concern was to reconcile love and gain.
Stone obviously places particular importance on the monetary and property value of the early marriage. Ozment, while not rejecting this aspect, goes on to emphasize that early marriages did indeed include love. While one may argue the various points concerning the occurrence of affection in marriages (was it a prerequisite; did it develop after marriage, etc.) it is clear that affection was not the primary motivator in initiating many marriages, but rather a concern somewhat less equal than family interest.
One argument for lack of affection in marriages during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was the high adult mortality rate. This severely reduced the companionship element, and increased its purely reproductive and nurturance functions. There was less than a fifty-fifty chance that the husband and wife would both remain alive more than a year or two after the departure from the home of the last child, so that affection was hardly necessary.
Stone argues strongly that despite the arranged marriages for financial purposes, and the high adult mortality rate, marriages during this period may not have worked out too badly. The expectation of love, long life, and intense happiness during these times appears to have been much reduced in comparison to today’s intensified expectations, and as Stone says, “In a low-affect society, a low-affect marriage is often perfectly satisfactory.”
Ozment agrees that there is a distinct difference between early modern marriages and modern marriages. Yet, unlike Stone’s somewhat harsh view of no-affect or low-affect in premodern marriages, Ozment argues for affection in premodern marriages, but of a different kind than that which motivates most modern marriages. He feels that physical attraction and emotional love were not viewed as essential conditions for marriage, though they played a role; the love that drew husband and wife together was a mutual willingness to make sacrifices for one another; a duty that developed within the marriage.7
Some scholars feel relations between parent and child during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were also fairly remote. They attribute this to the very high infant and child mortality rates; possibly as many as one-third to one-half of all children died by age five.
They agree that parents simply could not invest considerable affection in children who would probably not be alive for any length of time.
Ozment disagrees with this viewpoint, citing the indepth writings of two men (a respected physician and an influential theologian) concerning child birth, child care, and general childhood medicine during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
To Ozment, the very sympathetic and detailed manner in which these books were written is proof that a positive and strong parental affection did exist in the premodern family in Europe.
Scholars cite another reason for lack of affection between parents and children. Parents generally saw very little of their children because of the common practice of “fostering out” children. Many of the middle and upper class parents sent their babies to wet-nurses at birth for twelve to eighteen months. The child re-entered the home only after he had survived the first extremely dangerous months of life elsewhere. After this period these children were mainly brought up by nurses, governesses, and tutors. Beyond this, children of an average age of ten were sent off to boarding school.
The poorer classes also sent their children out of the home. Between the ages of ten and seventeen, these children were sent off to work as domestic servants, laborers, or apprentices. These children did not live at home, but in the master’s house. As a result of being sent out to work, children from the ages of puberty until they married some ten years later were living away from home. This accounted for about two out of every three boys and three out of every four girls.
Consequently, both upper and lower classes saw very little of their children. This created a climate which did not promote strong affective relationships between parent and child. The family was held together, not by affection but by shared economic interests.
Between 1600 and 1800, there took place a change in affective relations between parents and children. Exactly why views changed is open to question. As with all advances of philosophy and ways of behavior, a time comes when society is simply more inclined to accept a new way of doing things. One important reason for this change may have been the beginning of the era of falling infant mortality rates, which began around 1750.
The reasoning is that if children lived longer, the chances for parental affection would have more potential for developing.
During the seventeenth century, political and religious changes occurred in Europe which gave way to an overall more relaxed and tolerant atmosphere throughout society. John Locke in England, in his influential views concerning education and child-rearing practices, argued against parental coldness and distance from children. Locke stressed the values of psychological manipulation as opposed to physical punishment, and he generally set a tone for an affectionate, less repressive way of raising children.
Locke’s writings coincided with the overthrow of Divine Right monarchy, the rejection of the Doctrine of Passive Obedience, the granting of limited religious toleration, and the passage of the Bill of Rights.
Society, at least in England, was becoming more open and less authoritarian, opening up new possibilities for more informality and affection between parent and child.
Beyond doubt, society became more child-oriented during the eighteenth century. Although all the reasons for this change are not always evident, the results are obvious. This can be evidenced by the following: the elimination of the practice of naming several children within a family with the same first name (insure the transmission of the name should an elder sibling die), the profusion of published books with specific detail to children’s themes, the development of educational games that combined instruction with fun, the proliferation of toy shops, the elimination of the use of restrictive swaddling clothes for infants, the growing popularity of informal, happy family portraits, the fading away of the formality of manners between children and parents, and the abandonment of wetnursing together with the increasing popularity of mothers breast feeding their own children.
This new and developing concern for a more relaxed, and more overtly affectionate attitude signals the modern era, where affection between parents, their children, and all members of the family is considered healthy and good.
Childhood: Society’s and Families’ Changing View
The concept of childhood has changed from medieval times to the present, paralleling, and very much a part of, the growth of affection within the family. The warm and affectionate feeling we take for granted today concerning the special needs and uniqueness of childhood has not always prevailed.
Childhood, that particular time in life that distinguishes the child from the adult, was not part of the medieval awareness.
Phillipe Ariés in his book
Centuries of Childhood
points out that prior to the seventeenth century, the words child and childhood had different meanings than they do today. The word child and the idea of childhood were bound up with the idea of dependence. One could leave childhood only by leaving the state of dependence. Especially in the lower, more dependent classes, childhood meant men of humble rank whose submission to others remained absolute.
Child was also a term used to mean friendship or flatter someone. At the same time, specifically in families of higher status, where dependence was only a consequence of physical infirmity, the term child and the idea of childhood, referred to the years of life from one to seven. This use became more frequent in the seventeenth century and began to develop the meaning as we use it today.
As a final point about language and childhood, Ariés states that even during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the English word ‘baby’ denoted a child of school age, and even into the nineteenth century, the French had to borrow the English term ‘baby’ (bébé) because they had no word to denote a child in its first months of life.
Other indicators that premodern society attached little distinction to the age of childhood can be seen in art. In medieval art until the twelfth century, childhood was not known nor was it portrayed. As Ariés says, “a painter would not hesitate to give the naked body of a child the musculature of an adult.”
This method of depicting children as little adults was the prevailing method, with some variations, even into the thirteenth century. It wasn’t until the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that art began to reflect children as having distinctly childlike qualities.
The important age for the emergence of evolutionary ideas concerning special themes of childhood is the seventeenth century. Again, using art as a reflection of society, Ariés points out that it is only in the late seventeenth century that we begin to see the predominance of the family portrait planned specifically around the child.
Children prior to the seventeenth century essentially dressed like little grown-ups. It was during the seventeenth century that children began to wear clothing especially designed for them, and set them apart from adults.
Another important clue that society was beginning to see childhood as a distinct period was in the quantity of children’s books published between 1750 and 1814. These books were becoming less concerned with moral themes and were written merely to amuse. Coupled with these new types of amusing books was the proliferation of the educational games that combined instruction with fun, as well as the rapidly growing toy trade.
Medieval children began school at a much later age than modern children. They began their schooling at about the age of ten, whereas the modern child begins at about the age of five or six. Until the twelfth century approximately, a pupil probably stayed in school not much beyond age fourteen. As a university system developed, it was more common to remain with schooling till the age of twenty.
In the medieval school all the ages were mixed together in the same classroom. Ariés cites this phenomenon as indicative of the medieval mind’s lack of differentiation between and indifference to age; as he says, “As soon as he started going to school, the child immediately entered the world of adults.”
It wasn’t until the eighteenth century that schools began the separation of children into specific classes based on age.
Discipline as a device for control and punishment in the schools was very hard during the period from the fourteenth to the seventeenth centuries. All children and youths were subject to the disciplinary system of being physically punished and humiliated.
Up to the sixteenth century there was no real concept of childhood. Through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries there emerged in society two concepts of childhood.
The first concept held that because of the sweetness and simplicity of children, the child’s main purpose was for the amusement and relaxation of the adult.
Whereas in earlier times, parents never expressed their feelings concerning children’s antics, people in the seventeenth century didn’t hesitate to express their feeling of affection. This attitude became known as ‘coddling’. This coddling was expressed by fussing over children, caressing them, spoiling them, and generally allowing children to perform antics for adult entertainment.
Many seventeenth-century moralists and pedagogues had an intense dislike for ‘coddling’. Their voice gave rise to the second concept of childhood. They felt that parent’s coddling and permissive attitude accounted for the presence in society of so many mercenaries, murderers, and criminals.
These moralists and pedagogues expressed their view of the specialness of childhood not in ‘coddling’ but in psychological interest and moral solicitude.
This idea is summed up in a quote from Balthazar Gratien in a treatise published in 1646. Gratien writes, “Every man must be conscious of that insipidity of childhood which disgusts the sane minds; that coarseness of youth which finds pleasure in scarcely anything but material objects and which is only a very crude sketch of the man of thought.”
Steven Ozment supports this claim in his assertion that the cardinal sin of Reformation Europe was the willful indulgence of children, and that too many parents thought childhood was only a time for fun and joy. These moralists were eager to ensure discipline and rational manners in children.
A new concern gradually developed about education and transformed society. The family ceased to be simply an institution for the transmission of a name and an estate; it assumed a moral and emotional function.
Over time parents took a different view of children. Parents began to expend more care on their children and this inspired new feeling and a new emotional attitude during the seventeenth century and became the basis for the modern concept of family. parents who had previously set up only a few of their children at the neglect of others, now were beginning to give all their children, not just the eldest, a training for life. The traditional apprenticeship was replaced finally by school. This new school of the seventeenth century was a consequence of the new interest taken by parents in their children’s education. Family and school together removed the child from the adult society.
Though these schools were very strict and relied heavily on discipline, it must be understood that they indeed marked the beginning of a serious and realistic concept of childhood. These schools, which grew out of the concept of childhood espoused by the seventeenth-century moralists, stressed that people should not accept the levity of childhood. In order to correct the behavior of children one needed to first understand it, and the seventeenth century abounded with articles written on child psychology. Though seemingly harsh in their strictness, these schools, in their philosophy that childhood was a time of weakness, felt that discipline was necessary in developing in children the faculty of reasoning.
From these concepts has emerged with obvious changes the child-oriented society of today.
The insistence on humiliating childhood, to mark it out and improve it, diminished in the course of the eighteenth century. Arie’s talks of this moving away from the brutal humiliation as a progressive awareness that was no longer associated with the weaknesses of childhood and no longer recognized the need for its humiliation but now was becoming a question of awakening in the child an adult sense of responsibility and dignity. This new concept would take root in the seventeenth century and triumph in the nineteenth century, becoming the basis for the liberalism of our education today.