The child’s individuality, dated

When did children become individuals?

Two years ago last week, I was looking at the Social Security name database, and made this historical assertion:

Two centuries ago, the vast majority of European Americans were not looking for a unique name, or a name that was coming into vogue, or a name that matched a popular cultural figure — or trying to avoid a name that had jumped the shark. They almost always named children after their parents. Besides the sad fact that many children died at young ages — and that there were too many children to keep track of (the average White woman had 7 children in 1800) — it just didn’t occur to people that children were priceless individuals. And naming wasn’t a way to make a statement about character and identity, it was just a family brand.

I’ve picked up this theme again recently with the Mary naming fiasco, and have been giving some thought to the “evidence” issue. Using the fabulous (and fabulously frustrating) Google ngrams tool has been a great help — so far shining the language light on the birth of adolescence, changes in family structure, and the explosion of “parenting“. Could it help here, too? I think so.

Based on Stanley Lieberson’s work, the first place to look was the late 19th century. That’s when children’s names started to look like subjects to the whims of fashion. That led to Viviana Zelizer’s Pricing the Priceless Child, which I somehow never read before. She tracks children’s value transition to that period as well. Before that, orphans, for example, were either handy little workers or burdens to be shed, and mortality rates in orphanages were astronomical; after that, they (or, some of them) were expensive objects of priceless value for infertile couples. And also in the late 19th century there were bursts of activity in the production of parenting advice and in the professionalization of elementary education.

Somewhere in that reading I came across the phrase “child’s individuality,” and it seemed like a flag planting for the birth of modern childhood. Ngrams concurs:

The graphs shows the percentage of books in Google’s database that use the term “child’s individuality,” from 1800 to 2000. That’s about 1880 where the term explodes into view. A read through the citations from that period shows they are concentrated in the parenting advice and education fields. Here’s an example from the advice literature:

A child is liable to be looked upon as if he were simply one child among many children, a specimen representative of childhood generally; but every child stands all by himself in the world as an individual, with his own personality and character, with his own thoughts and feelings, his own hopes and fears and possibilities, his own relations to his fellow-beings and to God. — H. Clay Trumbull, Hints on Child-Training, written in 1890.

And one from the education literature:

“The child’s individuality and freedom should be sacredly respected. All educational processes are to be based on a careful study, not only of child-nature in general, but also of the idiosyncrasies of the individual pupil.” –Thomas J. Morgan, What is the True Function of a Normal School?, 1886.

But maybe this is just the rise of individuality, not something unique to children? Not quite, says ngrams: Man’s individuality predates children’s by 40 years or so.

(The convergence of man’s and woman’s individuality in the 1970s presumably reflects the decline of “man” as the generic.)

2 thoughts on “The child’s individuality, dated

  1. What about the super funky Biblical names? Or did that start later?

    What is ‘individuality’ in this context? You imply it is distinctness from others but that seems like such a low bar. How would people not be aware that one person was distinct from another?

    So ‘special’? Is individuality about value rather than separateness?

    The pricelessness idea reminds me of Kant’s view about the humanity in a person. This shift followed the Enlightenment and the rise individual rights and I wonder if there is a connection between them.


  2. Distinctness is a pretty low bar, but we’re comparing it to a culture where some parents just gave all multiple sons the same name. You have to assume everyone knew kids were not actually all the same person, but the variation didn’t seem very meaningful – at least at young ages.

    Those education texts go into great detail on the need to identify what is unique about each child — from head shape and size to gait, posture, sensory ability, etc., all things they thought were crucial to understanding how each child learned differently, starting in kindergarten (which was a new idea, too).

    I agree it’s hard to pin down the concept, though. That’s why I like name practices as a concrete practice, though you could think of others.

    FORGOT to answer about the Biblical names. My hypothesis about those is that people are looking for “unique-sounding” names that are nevertheless legitimate names, or “real names.” The Bible is a good source for these, as is old literature, sometimes non-English names, old family names, etc. That’s also why people vary the spellings of “normal” names — trying to thread the needle between originality and bogusness.


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