With all the grumbling about “kids these days”, one has to wonder: are kids worse now? Was there a golden age when children were well-behaved and sweet? How long ago was that? Maybe 500 years? What were children like in the 16th century?
I know who can tell us: Shakespeare. Take a look at this monologue from As You Like It:
Old Will, describing the “seven ages” of man, begins with the infant, “mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms”, followed by “the whining school-boy, with his satchel, and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school”. (If you keep reading, you can see that Shakespeare is a firm believer not just in bad children of history, but also in bad young men, hotheaded soldiers, annoying middle-aged guys, and helpless senior citizens.)
Shakespeare’s seven ages of man have inspired countless artworks, including a series of paintings by Robert Smirke, a totem-pole-like sculpture in London, a chaotic painting by William Mulready, and a woodcut by Rockwell Kent. They also inspired a series of colored lithographs by Henry Thomas Alken, printed in 1824 and released in book form.
The first print in Alken’s book is a beautiful representation of the innocence of early childhood:
Look at that smart little child methodically disassembling a doll! Look at the welcoming chaos of enriching reading material strewn about on the floor! Look at that energetic baby developing his motor skills, and that little boy getting his hair styled while his mother gives him some serious side-eye! Delightful, I tell you.
Alken shows an equally appealing scene of the next stage of childhood, when children begin to gain some independence and roam about the countryside unsupervised.
Here you can see a very young Uncle Sam carrying a sack and a chalkboard across a bridge. He’s maintained the inquisitive nature of early childhood, gazing thoughtfully at the water below him where a young scallywag and a shepherd without pants are rushing toward an unidentifiable swimming animal. (Is that a nutria? Is it about to get raked with some twigs? Why is the shepherd rushing from the river’s right bank while his pants are heaped on the opposite shore? What is that weird-looking tree to the left of the picture?)
I can’t actually confirm the badness of the children pictured above, aside from the fact that two of them are carrying big sticks and definitely don’t seem to be headed to school, “creeping like snail” or otherwise. But, hey, at least they’ve moved on from “mewling and puking”, am I right?