Early 1800s: Rousseau

Diana Lang

Jacques Rousseau and Childlike Innocence

Painting of a woman holding a baby and a lamb, all symbols of innocence
Figure 1. Photo of a painting by Bouguereau: “L’Innocence”

During the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s views started to change parenting practices.  Rousseau contended that children were inherently innocent (not sinful, as Hobbes believed), weak, and easily tempted.  He believed that humans were born pure until one’s interactions with the environment caused negative effects on one’s development.[1]  Rousseau also believed that children needed protection from child labor and negative influences within civilization.

Rousseau’s work is credited as being the first developmental account of childhood via his emphasis on maturation and stages of development:[2]

  • Childhood (0 to 12 years): children are guided by simple impulses and simply react to their surroundings.
  • Pre-Adolescence (12 to 16 years): children begin to develop reason and are able to comprehend more abstract ideas.
  • Puberty and Adulthood (16 years and onward): children develop into adults that can navigate society and its moral issues.

These stages elicited guidelines outlining “developmentally-appropriate” practices in parenting and education.  Rousseau’s work also emphasized the importance of play and teaching within the early years of childhood education:[3]

“When the child flies a kite he is training eye and hand to accuracy; when he whips a top, he is increasing his strength by using it, but without learning anything.  I have sometimes asked why children are not given the same games of skill as men; tennis, mall, billiards, archery, football, and musical instruments.  I was told that some of these are beyond their strength, that the child’s senses are not sufficiently developed for others.  These do not strike me as valid reasons; a child is not as tall as a man, but he wears the same sort of coat; I do not want him to play with our cues at a billiard-table three feet high; I do not want him knocking about among our games, nor carrying one of our racquets in his little hand; but let him play in a room whose windows have been protected; at first let him only use soft balls, let his first racquets be of wood, then of parchment, and lastly of gut, according to his progress.”

Key Takeaways

  • Children were born innocent and exposure to certain circumstances resulted in them acting negatively.
  • Parents were to shelter children from negative circumstances and interactions.
  • Children mature over time throughout three stages–childhood, pre-adolescence, puberty, and adulthood.
  • Maturation and development worked alongside each other.

  1. Friend, C. (n.d.). Social contract theory. In Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. https://www.iep.utm.edu/soc-cont/#SH2c
  2. Rousseau, J. (1762). Emile, or On Education. (B.Foxley, Trans.). J.M. Dent & Sons. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/5427/5427-h/5427-h.htm
  3. Rousseau, J. (1762). Emile, or On Education. (B. Foxley, Trans.). J.M. Dent & Sons. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/5427/5427-h/5427-h.htm


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