The first stage of childhood and the “civilizing process”

Shulamith Shahar*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


“Do he what somever he wyll no man doth blame him”. This statement from a fifteenth-century sermon for the “Boy Bishop's” feast referring to the child in the first stage (which according to the accepted view lasted until the age of seven) expresses in a nutshell the medieval theory regarding socialization at this stage. The dominant attitude was in favour of lenient treatment and of granting small children freedom to act in accordance with their natural inclination without imposing demands for discipline or self-control. Education proper was expected to commence only at the age of seven, which was perceived as a turning point marking the end of indulgence and pampering. This theory gradually began to change from the seventeenth century onwards. The idea that development and learning start early in the human being and that drives manifest themselves already in infancy, developed in the context of various philosophical and educational theories. There was also a stronger emphasis on the role of impressions in early childhood in personality formation. Those thinkers who transferred their ideas from the theoretical plane to the practical, advocated an early beginning of socialization involving a demand for self-restraint and regulation of drives from early infancy. The “civilizing process” described and analyzed by Norbert Elias might help explain this change. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries hand in hand with the social, economic and mainly political transformations of the time, there was an increase in the demand for self-restraint and regulation of drives. During this period, gradually the “civilized person” emerged, whose main characteristics are restraint of drives and control of bodily functions. It is probable that the change in the modes of behaviour of Western man and woman was not only caused by the effective threat of sanctions by the powerful state discussed by Elias, but also by changes in socialization modes in early childhood. It is impossible to assert whether these changes were a cause or rather an effect of the other transformations. There has always been a discrepancy between theory and behaviour. There has definitely been a great variety in the degree and manner of adoption of the theories by parents. There has been, however, also a gradual change in actual socialization modes. The small child was disciplined more strictly after the Middle Ages. The innate pessimism of Freudian theory notwithstanding, it was only with the establishment of psychoanalysis that came once more a reversal to a more lenient and permissive mode.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)163-178
Number of pages16
JournalPaedagogica Historica
StatePublished - 1996


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