Jean-Jacques Rousseau was a writer and philosopher during the Romantic period. His writing, according to the Stanford Encycolopedia of Philosophy, focused on several issues including child development and child education (Bertram). Rousseau’s focus on child development and education were new concepts during the Romantic period. His autobiography Confessions and his book Emile include a number of his early life experiences and his thoughts on the effects those experiences had on his adult life. In Emile Rousseau also explains his concept of the correct way to ensure the proper education of children. Although Rousseau wrote his books well over two-hundred years ago scholars continue to study his work and his philosophies continue to have an influence on society to this day.
1. Rousseau’s Influences
Rousseau’s childhood had a major impact on his adult life. His childhood was not typical for the period in which he was raised. In Confessions Rousseau describes being raised by his father after the death of his mother shortly after his birth. By the age of ten Rousseau was left in the care of the clergy at a church, who then passed him onto an engraver as an apprentice. At the age of sixteen Rousseau began living on his own, roaming from place to place, staying with anyone who would care for him (bk. 1). He subsequently begins a series of jobs including household servant, writer, and musician (Bertram). Rousseau writes Emile after a friend seeks his advice on educating a child (Bertram). Later in life Rousseau began to reflect on his early life experiences which lead to the writing of Confessions.
2. Treatment of Children Prior to Rousseau
In order to understand the impact Rousseau had on child development and child education it is necessary to understand how children were being treated and educated during Rousseau’s lifetime. The birth of a child during the eighteenth-century was not the joyous occasion it is now. Some parents would call the child “it” until he or she reached a point where they would likely survive (Newman and Smith). Surviving infancy and making it through the toddler years was only the first step in a long journey to adulthood. Around the age of seven, children were made to being working. Boys typically worked in fields or they were given hazardous jobs such as chimney sweeps. Girls worked indoors as many as fourteen hours per day helping with all types of household chores (Newman and Smith). The long hours of work left little time for the education of children. Hard work and the lack of education were not the only issues facing children, discipline for even a minor error could result in a child being beaten severely (Newman and Smith).
Unfortunately for the children of this time period writers had not yet taken on the task of authoring books dedicated to the proper education and treatment of children. The books that were written during this period did nothing to help the plight of children. In her article Barbara Abrams writes, “most literature from classical times to the renaissance ignores the child with great vigor” (Abrams 85). These and many other obstacles made it very difficult to be a child during the eighteenth-century.
3. Rousseau’s Influence on Childrearing
There have been numerous articles written by scholars that identify the long-term impact Rousseau has had on the treatment of children. In her article “Rousseau’s Courageous Confessions” Abrams specifically mentions Sigmund Freud and Michael Foucault using Rousseau’s work as a basis for their theories on child development and childrearing (86). Rousseau’s influence was due, in part, to his writing style. Rousseau wrote in great detail about his and others’ experiences as a child and how each experience affected him or her as an adult.
One example of this is Rousseau’s description of the distribution of wealth among many children in one family. Rousseau stated that, “My father's share of a