The Massacre of the Innocents

The Changing Nature of Man: Introduction to a Historical Psychology (Metabletica) John Holt)

by J.H. van den Berg, translated by H.F. Croes
Dell (new edition scheduled for Spring, 1975, with an introduction by

Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life

by Philippe Ariès, translated by Robert Baldick
Vintage Books, 447 pp., $3.25 (paper)

Parents and Children in History: The Psychology of Family Life in Early Modern France

by David Hunt
Basic Books, 229 pp., $6.95

The History of Childhood

edited by Lloyd deMause
Psychohistory Press, 450 pp., $12.50

In the year 1974 one does not have to be a historian to sense that things are getting worse. Indeed, for the first time it is possible to see the face of Doomsday peering out just around the next corner, whether it takes the form of World Government by Universal Torture, or The Bomb, or Demographic Explosion, or just Running Out of Everything. But now comes Mr. deMause with some good news at last. With all the fervor and conviction of a nineteenth-century believer in the March of Progress, he tells us that in one aspect of human life, which he is confident is the key to all others, things have been getting better and better for the last two thousand years: this is the way we treat our children. He demonstrates this in Table 3—a graph of childhood felicity in which the curve turns upward after 1300, sharply upward after 1700, and is now rising almost vertically under the influence of books like A. S. Neill’s The Free Child and R. D. Laing’s The Politics of the Family.

DeMause’s basic thesis is set out in the first paragraph of his book: “The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused.” Not so very long ago I rashly offered a hostage to fortune by writing that “Freudian psychology has not been much use to the historian, who is usually unable to penetrate the bedroom, the bathroom, or the nursery. If Freud is right, and this is where the action is, there is not much that the historian can do about it.” In his editorial foreword to the first number of the challenging new journal The History of Childhood Quarterly, of which he is the editor, deMause used this quotation as a whipping boy, asserting that on the contrary, “an entirely new field of history is about to be born.”

Although three quarters of a century have passed since Freud first drew attention to the crucial effect of childhood events in determining adult character and behavior patterns, it was not until the 1950s that there appeared the first general history of childhood in the West. Of the four significant studies of this phenomenon, all have been written by non-historians, persons who with respect to the profession are marginal men.

In 1955 J. H. van den Berg, a Dutch psychologist, published Metabletica, of Leer der veranderingen (The Changing Nature of Man), a bold, overarching, psychohistorical study of parental relations to children, based mainly on philosophical sources like Rousseau. In 1960 Philippe Ariès, a French director of publications at the Institute for Applied Research for Tropical and Subtropical Fruits, published his now famous Centuries of Childhood. In 1970 David Hunt, an American psychologist working with disturbed children, reinterpreted some of Ariès’s French seventeenth-century material in Parents…

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