Project BrainHeart

Illustrated brain development research

History of childhood

The history of childhood has been a nightmare
from which we have only recently begun to awaken –
Lloyd de Mause, historian

These are the introductory words of Lloyd deMause’s classic 1974 book “The History of Childhood”. “The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused.” Trauma typically trickles down generations, repeating itself as parents treat their children in much the same way they were treated, softening somewhat along the way. 

Just as in individual psychotherapy the act of linking symptoms with potential root causes in itself already leads to improvement, we are looking into history with a similar goal in mind:

  1. to seek understanding of
    • how past childrearing practices shaped communities’ cultures and history, and how they might still affect them today
    • how traumatic events that have affected nations in the past (e.g. slavery, genocide, etc) are playing out today
  2. to find examples of effective ways in which to replace harmful medical or cultural practices with ones that have better physical and mental health outcomes
  3. to share best practices found in certain cultures around the world

Questions of particular interest include (suggestions of readings and further questions welcome):

  • Birth:
    • What were the major changes in birth rates, infant survival and family structures between hunter-gatherers and early agricultural societies?
    • How did the use of contraception, abortion, and newborn exposure and infanticide co-evolve over time?
  • Infant care:
    • How did the practice of swaddling differ over the centuries and by regions, and what were its consequences for infant development?
    • What factors fueled the widespread practice of wet-nursing in some cultures (France, Italy, Russia) and what were the consequences?
  • Raising children:
    • How common was it to “put out” children in servitude / apprenticeships, and with what consequences?
    • How did different societies approach concerns with “hardening the body” and “breaking the will” of children, with what consequences?
  • Preparing for betrothal:
    • How has the age of betrothal evolved over time and across the world?
    • What factors have driven certain societies to become and remain polygamous versus monogamous?
    • What psychological dynamics made possible the spreading and normalization of practices such as foot-binding and genital cutting (including circumcision)? What explains their persistence and facilitated their disappearance?


Cultures of particular interest include (suggestions of readings and of other cultures welcome):

  1. Judaism
  2. Native American, Maya, Aztec, Inca
  3. African Americans
  4. Aborigene
  5. Japan
  6. Ancient Sparta, Athens and Rome
  7. Renaissance and Enlightenment in France, Italy, Germany, Russia and the US
  8. Scandinavia

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