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May 10, 2005

Outline: New Framework for Historical Research on Adulthood

[NOTE: This document was added to the blog on May 22, 2005]

...A new outline, designed to help guide actual research

I. Youth as property / Adults as property owners

At my current stage of research, property seems to be the essential idea for understanding the evolution of adulthood. The model that best allows me to understand this comes from early Rome -- and I am expecting to find further support in periods prior to this. Family life was organized in a way where the father was essentially the king of his own kingdom, his home his castle. Women, slaves, and youth all had a similar status as living property. The father was the only person who was allowed to own anything at all. Thus, inheritance laws bore great importance.

Saying the "father" was in charge isn't quite correct. It was the oldest male, sometimes an uncle, who was in charge. Control passed down the male line via primogeniture (the oldest son). Women were like a separate species: excluded from inheritance, and subject to being sold off (literally) or married off (for profit or alliance) at the will of the male head of the house.

At the outset, fathers had the right even to murder their offspring -- and they seem to have maintained control of both sons and daughters even into adulthood. This absolute power seems to have been altered by the evolution of the state -- in its early stages, a monarch overseeing a city state comprised of many male heads, whom in a sense owned them all.

At the outset, discussing youth as property, we need to distinguish between several "slave-like" statuses. Reading "From Father's Property to Children's Rights", the author discusses at least three states: (1) enslaved children (not necessarily black); (2) children who were "bonded out" (essentially given to other parents as laborers); and (3) normal children, obligated to obedience. [A variation of this third state is apprenticeship, wherein the obligation of obedience has been transferred to another party, now responsible for educating the youth.] The author makes a big deal out of discussing how parents had a mutual obligation to provide youth with (1) food/shelter, (2) literacy, (3) vocational training, and (4) religious training. However, even if true slavery is defined by the absolute right to abuse and even murder a person without penalty, I do not think that this erases the property-like status of all youth. The obligation to give absolute obedience (and suffer punishment for disobedience) makes one property-like, even if parents are obligated to give some care to higher-status property. Consider how house-slaves were treated in the South; perhaps better than those in the fields, but as property nonetheless.

There are three relationships that we must be considering: parent-child, state-parent, and state-child. My current hypothesis is that the state initially saw parents as being liable for the actions of their child-property. As the state became more sophisticated, seeing that it had an interest in children growing up to be good citizens, parental responsibilities were formalized. As the state grew further sophisticated still, the warlord-monarch was slowly replaced by the diplomat-monarch, primarily in charge of overseeing peaceful commerce between and within nations. Merchant organizations contributed to democratization -- a means to having a permanent foothold in the nation's power structure.

As the government was increasingly controlled by the people, it was increasingly expected to provide services, rather than simply act as an autocratic, god-descended power. Parents, who now had a fair number of responsibilities for caring for their children, began to diversify and specialize the state institutions for dealing with managing children. The fundamental sense that children are the property of their parents persists; a tension exists between the government's property claim on youth as "our most valuable resource", and parent's property claim (I made it, I own it).

The origins of property itself seem to go back to owning land and owning a house. Being severed from the filial bond, meant to be cast out from the house and the land -- exposed to the elements. The male head-of-house's power seems to originate in being a warrior, fighting off those who would claim the land and house. Women, children, and slaves having a similar status seems to go back to tribal times, when women and children were taken as slaves. The ability to take men as slaves seems to be a later development, as it takes greater sophistication to control them (see Gerda Lerner's book on the Origins of Patriarchy). Taking human slaves at all, then had a profound effect upon the entire family, leading to relationships with native women more slave-like.

"Adulthood" seems to become a meaningful concept once there is a strong state apparatus, which needs to be able to distinguish between "freemen" and the non-free dependents (women, children, slaves). It appears that adulthood in itself was not originally enough to make one free, even among men. In Rome, adulthood came around 14, the age at which one could procreate. Men at 14 could become adult citizens of the state; women at 12 could become adult wives (property of a different man). Males remained under the control of their fathers until 25 it seems. [None of these points should be considered accurate yet -- I am still assembling information. Some information (e.g. freedom at 25 vs. being owned by the father until he dies) seems to conflict.]

Adulthood prior to Rome, e.g. in Mesopotamia, seems to be strongly related to becoming married. It looks like marrying and moving out of a parent's house may constitute adulthood. If so, that reinforces the link between adulthood and being, foremost, the owner of land.

II. Defining Adulthood

1. Biological... Give this equal attention to detail

  • full height
  • puberty = ability to procreate
  • baby / adult teeth

2. Adulthood as membership organization
My premise in this work is that contemporary adulthood is like a membership organization. Certain criteria govern who may be considered a legal adult, and the status of adulthood grants certain privileges. The line between members and non-members of the organization is actively policed.

I am interested most of all in the origins of this organization. What is the first instance of an "age of majority"? Where do specific artificial age-lines first originate, e.g. 14, 16, 18, 21, 25? For how long have children been legally obligated to give obedience to their parents? How did parental responsibility to provide for one's children come into being -- and how precisely have those responsibilities been enumerated in law? How has the state's interest in intervening in parent-child relationships evolved? And what is the process by which the government has come to provide specialized services concerning youth (e.g. schooling, juvenile justice, child protection, youth labor laws, etc.) -- services perhaps benefiting parents, by relieving them of certain responsibilities?

Throughout my exploration of this organization's development, I shall be most interested in the role of adults as property-owners -- and owners of youth as property. I shall also be extremely interested in the command-obey relationship (the obligation of youth to be obedient to their parents). [Whereas most YL authors would be primarily concerned with winning youth the privileges that adults enjoy, I am most concerned with elevating youth from property to person status -- which I believe is a prerequisite to winning the privileges of citizens, and which I believe is strongly connected to delegitimizing the command-obey relationship.]

3. Age as character / culture
Maturity, as emotional control and a set of mannerisms could be more than simply a "virtue" that people are supposed to aspire to. It could also be viewed as a culture. By this perspective, adulthood is about what clothes you wear, what words you use, what arts you are interested in. This is in line with how the Romans had boys "put aside childish things" upon entering adulthood, and literally gave them new clothes -- the uniform of adulthood. That youth are capable of seriousness might be demonstrable through the reports on the behavior of children in the Sudberry-Valley School.

It might be argued that childhood is developed into a (mandatory) culture, which is sometimes given a sort of respect: as femininity is revered, so too the privilege of having a childhood is something to be protect. A child who is forced to behave in a mature fashion is said to have had their "childhood stolen".

The culture of adolescents, though largely produced by adult commercial interests -- and fueled by the attempt to steal the fashions of those with higher status -- is seen as a marker of inferiority. It is customary for adults to put down the musical and fashion tastes of teens. Notice how Aristotle (?) made very similar complaints about the youth of his era.

4. Mental age / stages of development
The Aries debate about whether children were viewed simply as "little adults" could be recast as debate about whether or not "children" was seen as having subcategories during previous periods. The essence of this theory is that there are a set number of stages, and one must go through each of them progressively in order to arrive at adulthood. Barring getting stuck in one of the "mental ages", adulthood is an inevitable realization. The "wisdom of experience" is both inescapable, and impossible to achieve early through effort. Note how "developmentally delayed" adults have "the mind of a child".

Prodigies are seen as abnormal exceptions, with adult abilities. However, a great deal of these skills are present or not-present simply based upon availability to practice. Note how "wiz kids" on computers were treated for a while; or how in earlier centuries, Mozart had musical instruments much more integrated into his environment.

I am dubious about attempts to create a "biological determinism" theory of youth. Recognize how biological determinism has frequently been used to justify subordinate statuses -- for blacks, for women. "Age-appropriate" guidelines (such as those that one may link to via the US government's websites) are helpful to parents; however, there is also risk for youth's equality. Note how several of Piaget's notions about youth inferiority (e.g. his belief that infants think a thing ceases to exist when it disappears) have been disproven. It seems that the new frontier for this field is brain development. Note how there was a spate of news articles following Columbine about teen brain development.

If youth are different than adults, then what we must put the weight of our attention is not on competency, but on accommodations that can maximize youth participation.

III. Adulthood through history

  1. Prehistory
  2. Mesopotamia
  3. Athens
  4. Rome
  5. Byzantium
  6. Medieval
  7. Early England
  8. Colonial America
  9. Early United States
  10. 20th Century United States

NOTE: These historical periods are necessary for the purposes of research. They will assist me in making sure that my understanding of each period is adequately detailed. However, the actual telling of the history of adulthood may ultimately proceed more via theme (e.g. parental responsibility, children's obligation to obedience, state oversight of parenting, etc.).

Posted by Sven at May 10, 2005 12:00 PM


Hi Sven, I've enjoyed browsing your site on a break from work I've just taken. Interested in young people's and adult liberation here in Aotearoa/NZ. Any favorite websites or other writings you can turn me onto? Thanks for putting yourself out there (here). Are you undertaking research onthe above outline? If so I look forward sometime to your findings.
Cheers! Lance

Posted by: Lance Cablk at August 2, 2005 08:56 PM

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