Insights: Prof. Peter N. Stearns Modern Patterns and its influence on Childhood

A gleaning of some of the insights shared during the talks during the conference on Children and Youth in an Interconnected World, presenting a broad range of distinguished speakers, all talking about the role of children and youth in this fast-changing world.

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Modern Childhoods: Adjustment, Variety, and Stress

Professor Peter N. Stearns from George Msaon University talks about the modern patterns that influence the experience and role of children in society. According to him, the four basic modern changes are the following: first the transition from children as a source of labor towards children as students, with the primary obligation to learn. Secondly, the reduced birth rates. Thirdly, the reduction in children’s death rates. And the fourth change, although all these shifts are interconnected, government interest in children, whereas before responsibility for children was left to parents and educators.

These changes result in striking comparable issues throughout the world. These shifting modern patterns have led to new distresses and vulnerabilities. For instance, the social horizons of the child have changed, as not only siblings but same-age peers have become more important as they are found in educational settings.


Photo Credit: danielfoster437 via Compfight cc.

There are challenges to this model of modernization. It is widespread but not universal, as these patterns don’t apply everywhere and in some geographical areas these are actually reversed. It also tends to assume that all pre-modern societies were alike, which is problematic. The variety needs to be added to the complexity of the model.

Another problem is that these changes do not start at the same historical period everywhere, in Europe for instance the birth rates dropped before the death rate did. So the patterns do not work in a similar way throughout the world – not in the same order and in the same pace, and even in specific geographic and cultural areas specific topics have gone through a very different development, even though they adhere to the main changes and the four modern patterns as identified before. It might be too Western a model, although Prof. Stearns shows how the varieties from all over the world can be added to the model itself, without altering the basic premises.

Yet this changing modern pattern can help us to explain and analyze the rise of the concept of the rights of children. Also aspects of childhood can be analyzed through understanding of these patterns, for instance gender. These patterns explain a change in gender differentiation, although what can also be seen is that gender is not defined by these modern changes. The same is true for other topics, like adolescence as a modern phenomenon, and the rise of the child as an individual. Another issue to study, which might be approached through the modern patters, is for instance the focus on the happiness of children in the present age.

A further embellishment that Prof. Stearns asks for is to look at the problems and stresses that the modern pattern has brought along, for instance the stress and anxiety experienced by modern children in the educational systems. Also the fact that children have become optional and the increasing amount of couples who decide not to have children. These modern pattern of birth rate reduction, can cut in two different directions: children become rare and more precious, doting on them more and more, and more competition between social groups. Or are children simply becoming less important? A question of modernity!

Read more about the conference here, organised by the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace taking place at the University of Maryland, 28-29 September 2016.

About the author

Nicole des Bouvrie_n_ is a continental philosopher and a visiting scholar during autumn 2016 at the Bahá’í Chair for World Peace. She works as a freelance philosopher all around the world, applying structures of thought to practical problems. She is interested in radical change and feminine thinking.
For more information about Nicole: personal website, Twitter.

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