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On the concept of childhood: Q&A with Dr. Jason Ramsay

As part of the Psychology Common Time initiative, the University of Guelph-Humber Psychology Program brings in notable guest lecturers to explore new ideas and research in the field.

Dr. Jason Ramsay is a registered psychologist, and lecturer at the University of Toronto Scarborough; he has been involved in social determinants of mental health research as a Fellow at the Centre for Research on Inner City Health, Li Ka Shing Institute with St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto.

In examining the history of developmental psychology and childhood, Dr. Ramsay explores the various factors affecting our definition of childhood – the subject of his public lecture at UofGH.

You look at the very idea of childhood as a concept in and of itself, with a natural history and evolution. Why?

There currently exists a very short history on the concept of childhood, but there exists all kinds of research on how early experiences in childhood can impact a person’s lifespan. You can argue that early philosophers were the first to make us aware of childhood – that the concept only formed when such philosophers became interested in studying childhood. But much has changed since then. We’ve gone through an industrial-based economy, and are now living in a knowledge-based economy. In the idea that we could look at the concept of childhood as being an issue in childhood development determines how we think about children – and this is integral to our responsibility toward ensuring we’re giving our children what they need in order to grow up and contribute to this society.

What constitutes childhood as a concept?

In Neil Postman’s book, The Disappearance of Childhood, the concept of shame is key. There’s an idea that we need to keep secrets from children in order to protect them; that children are defined as a class of people who must be sheltered from adult secrets, and specifically, sexual secrets. This connects to the general concept of children as a group that requires special protection from adults. But the concept of the child has really changed very dramatically, and more importantly, is ever-changing.

How so?

One of the big definers of childhood was the printing press. During the Middle Ages, you were generally assumed to be an adult once you could speak English fluently. This would mean my seven-year-old son would count by those standards. But with the introduction of the printing press, and as an extension of that, its implications on literacy, suddenly all business affairs required reading and writing skills.

Naturally, this meant that children would have to learn these skills before becoming an adult. Suddenly, one has to spend time learning whilst maturing in order to take part fully in human commerce. To quote David Olson’s The World on Paper, “To put it simply, writing has an impact on cognition through culture, a culture of writing.” Both Olson and Marshall McLuhan have argued that the advent of print literacy changed the structure of our thought. Literacy is a technology that fundamentally changes how people think.

Speaking of technology, this is likely a key factor in our ever-changing definition of childhood.

I believe the Internet is as revolutionary as the printing press. Children today, for better or for worse, are asked to grow up faster because of technology. You can put restrictions and child locks and passwords on everything – but in the end, that’s not the answer. My two-year-old can use my iPad.

But to the other end, it seems we hear endlessly about how certain elements of maturity are occurring later and later in life – that it has become the norm for people to move back home after university, to marry later, to have children later, etc. Does this not seem contradictory?

It does seem contradictory. Perhaps we could call this the ‘hurry-up-and-wait’ generation. You have to wonder – with technology, it certainly seems like children are growing up faster. But then it doesn’t seem like you have to make ‘grown-up’ or adult choices that quickly anymore. Perhaps adolescence has become extended. It’s impossible to know for sure, as the rate of change is increasing exponentially. You simply can’t keep up with it.

So in trying to figure out, Where is it all going from here? I’m not sure it’s something we can predict. We can certainly note the trends, but I don’t think we’ll be able to understand it, except in hindsight. Childhood is malleable – as are our definitions of childhood. To end with my favourite Marshall McLuhan quote: "We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t the fish."