The History of Childhood

Part of the Working-Class Marriage Project research focuses on the role of the family within experiences of childhood, and the way in which the family may affect the history of childhood and our understanding of childhood experiences. The following is a brief discussion of some of the key texts that help to form a foundation for anyone interested in the history of children and childhood.

The history of childhood, like many sub-genres of social history, has been of increasing interest to historians since the 1960s, 1960 itself seeing the publication of one of the most influential books in the genre – Philippe Ariès’ Centuries of Childhood. Ariès’ book came at a time when there was no other book on the history of childhood in print in English or French; in fact, it had only been preceded by one other work, long forgotten, The Child in the History of Progress (1916) by George Payne.

In Centuries of Childhood, Ariès made the contentious claim that the concept of childhood is entirely modern, and that within medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist. Further to this, he also made the claim that childhood was not understood as a distinct stage of life until the 15th century, and prior to this point children were seen merely as ‘little adults’. Ariés’ work faces a comprehensive critique, and several individual works have been dedicated to directly refuting his claims (for examples see Shulamith Shahar’s Childhood in the Middle Ages, and Medieval Children by Nicholas Orme). However, despite the decline in the significance of Ariès’ work, Centuries of Childhood did offer, for the first time, the idea of an ‘invention’ of childhood, as well as drawing attention to the role of children within society and the family, and changes in the parent-child relationship.

The idea of a ‘discovery’ or ‘invention’ of childhood has been used by a number of scholars who argue that childhood was discovered in line with a “surge of sentiment” and the emergence of the nuclear family in the eighteenth century (Edward Shorter, Making of the Modern Family, 1976). Prior to this, historians such as Edward Shorter and Lawrence Stone (The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500 – 1800, 1977) argue that early childhood and parenting were characterised by a lack of emotional attachment between parents and their children due to the high infant mortality rates, alongside formal and affectionless rearing techniques, such as the practices of swaddling and wet-nursing. However, the majority of these arguments have been both contested and countered by a number of historians, not least of which is Linda Pollock, who stated in Forgotten Children: Parent Child Relations from 1500 to 1900 (1983) that loving relations between parents and children were the historical norm.

One of the main criticisms of the works of Ariès, Shorter and Stone stems from their use of secondary material in assessing childhood, leading to a common problem in the history of childhood: the difficulty in accessing the direct experience of children themselves. This issue was partly addressed by Paul Thompson, a pioneer in the field of oral history, who stated in his seminal work on the topic, The Voice of the Past: oral history (1978), that the use of oral history meant that “the history of childhood as a whole becomes practicable for the first time.” The 1980s witnessed a new direction in studies of the history of childhood, with the likes of Stephen Humphries taking Thompson’s approach in his Hooligans or Rebels? An Oral History of Working Class Childhood and Youth, 1899-1939 (1981), and John Burnett accessing the experience of the child via their own writings in Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s (1982). The increasing use of primary materials in the history of childhood reveals a much less repressive experience of childhood. The importance of understanding the lived experience of children is an on-going issue in the history of childhood and one that my own research is also seeking to address in relation to the impact of family life.

Despite this emerging interest in the history of childhood as a distinct historical genre, there was still an observable shortage of works by the early 1990s. Writing for the Economic History Society’s ReFRESH in 1992, Harry Hendrick argued that while women had been “hidden from history”, children had been “kept from history” and had still received inadequate attention in the field. Whilst there had been child-centred research in to particular topics, the history of childhood itself was still a relatively understudied area. Family history (itself an arguably under-studied topic), Hendrick continues, remained the only subject to consider children as serious, albeit passive, historical figures. Hendrick’s brief article, ‘Children and Childhood’, is an engaging short piece that discusses and reviews emerging and established histories on the concept of childhood, the position of the child in society and the family, and changing parent-child relations – offering a concise overview of the history of children and childhood.

In addition, Hendrick built on his brief assertions in the article with the publication of Children, Childhood and English Society, 1880-1990 (1997), just a few years later. Taking a thematic approach, Children, Childhood and English Society draws not only from historians and historical material in its evaluation of the evolution of some of the most important developments in adult-child relations during the 20th century, but also utilises sociological, anthropological, and psychological theories in its findings. Hendrick’s work not only offers an overview of the existing literature on children and childhood at that time, but also highlights the necessity of an inter-disciplinary approach when attempting to understand our ‘modern’ ideas of childhood.

In a similar approach to Hendrick, Hugh Cunningham’s Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500 (2005) goes beyond the earlier question of whether parents loved their children, and offers an insight into the role of society in our understanding of children and childhood, looking at the impact of: religion, the Reformation, the Renaissance, and industrialisation. The Invention of Childhood (2006), which accompanied a six-part radio series produced by the BBC for Radio 4, goes further and draws extensively on primary materials such as letters, diaries and oral histories in an attempt to offer a chronological overview of the experience of childhood in Britain over the last 1,000 years. Narrative in its treatment of the topic, Cunningham’s book highlights the importance of primary material in offering a much-needed depth to the history of childhood, but also raises interesting questions in regards to the future of the concept of childhood. Together, Cunningham’s two main publications offer a comprehensive chronological survey of childhood in Britain and the West since the Middle Ages.

The history of children and childhood is still a burgeoning field and the above is far from a comprehensive list of the books on the topic. There are still some considerable gaps in the historiography, not least of which is the role of the family in experiences of childhood, alongside a general understanding of childhood experience in Scotland.

Further Reading

Ariès, Phillipe. Centuries of Childhood: Enfant et la vie familiale sous l’Ancien Régime. Translated by Robert Baldick. London: Cape, 1962.

Burnett, John. Destiny Obscure: Autobiographies of Childhood, Education and Family from the 1820s to the 1920s. London: Routledge, 1994.

Cunningham, Hugh. Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500. 2nd edition. London: Longman, 2005.