Defining childhood

One of the books that shaped my thinking about media was the late, great Neil Postman’s The Disappearance of Childhood in which he argued that ‘childhood’ — viewed as a protected period in a human being’s life before s/he was deemed fit to play a full role in society — was a social artefact rather than a fact of life. Postman argued that childhood was effectively extended by the invention of printing, because it took longer to get kids to the point where they could fully participate in a print-based society, whereas in an oral society full competence could be achieved by about the age of seven. (Which, incidentally, is probably why the medieval church defined the ‘age of reason’ as seven. When I was growing up, this was the age at which one made one’s First Communion.) His book was mainly about the social impact of broadcast television, which he argued was pushing down the age of competence to lower than medieval values. In a memorable passage, he claimed that American children had become ‘competent’ television viewers by the age of three (which was why one never saw remedial classes offered in television viewing!)

What brought this to mind today was an interesting review by Joyce Carol Oates in the Times Literary Supplement of HUCK’s RAFT: A history of American childhood by Steven Mintz (Harvard University Press). If I didn’t already have a pile of books-waiting-to-be-read a yard high, I might even buy it.