Concepts of Childhood: What We Know and Where We Might Go

Article excerpt


The history of the history of childhood begins, as everyone knows, with Philippe Aries, whose Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life--an evocative mistranslation of the original title, L'Enfant et la vie familiale sous l'Ancien Regime--burst on the scene in 1962. Poor Aries: surely he could not anticipate that his imaginative essay would become the premier site of contestation, as one says, in this little corner of our collective enterprise, and his views both pilloried and defended by Anglophone knights of the monograph over the course of a generation.

Aries was right, at least in this regard: the modern concept of the child, the sentimental concept of childhood, of which there were glimpses in Renaissance Italy and Reformation Germany, first crystallized in seventeenth-century England, more or less, and then, in the eighteenth century, in France and more highly urbanized regions of Europe and the Americas. At this juncture, as some of the studies discussed below inform us, elite mothers embraced their destiny to breastfeed, swaddling clothes disappeared, obstetrical science trumped old wives' tales, the children's-book industry was born--along with children's clothing, children's furniture, and children's games--and middle-class parents, publicly expressing their love for children and their grief at child death, dedicated themselves to the welfare and advancement of their offspring in a surge that culminated in today's so-called "helicopter parents."

It is not this argument, of course, that especially energized Aries's critics, but rather the hypothesis that high rates of infant and child mortality discouraged parents from investing emotionally in children. Lawrence Stone (1977), looming large among others, agrees; Linda Pollock (1983, 1987) disagrees, along with Alan Macfarlane (1970, 1986), among others: most volubly, Steven Ozment (1983, 1990, 1999, 2001). The argument has petered out, although the obligatory review of the whole Ariesian debate is still performed in the introductory chapter of volumes pertaining to childhood: among recent roundups, Steven Ozment's in his Ancestors (2001) and Nicholas Terpstra's in his Abandoned Children of the Italian Renaissance (2005). It is time to reach closure on this: the rates of infant and child mortality were horrendous (between 25 and 50%), but levels of parental affection for children varied with region, setting (urban vs. rural), and class. In terms of their investment in children, bourgeois and professional families of the fifteenth through eighteenth centuries quite nearly resembled our own--which is to say, bourgeois and professional--families today.

Aries's greatest contribution, however, is his insistence on the historicity of childhood: that childhood was not an essential condition, a constant across time, but something that changed--or, if childhood itself, bound by biologically-and psychologically-determined phases of development, is constant, then the understanding of it differed, as did the way it was experienced by both adults and children. A modest successor to earlier overviews of this sort, including those by Hugh Cunningham (1998), Richard Vann (1982), and Adrian Wilson (1980), this essay reflects on the study of the history of childhood (often embedded in studies of household and family) since Aries. Focusing primarily on the early modern period, but making, where appropriate, occasional forays beyond its boundaries, it maps out some of the main lines of inquiry and suggests issues that remain unresolved.


Aries's assumption of the historicity of childhood was the platform for the important work that followed in a first stage from the mid-1960s through the mid-1980s. The key figures are Peter Laslett, singly (1965, 1983a, 1983b) and with collaborators (1972, 1977, 1980), David Herlihy and Christiane Klapisch-Zuber in collaboration (1978, 1985) and singly (Herlihy, 1978, 1985; Klapisch-Zuber, 1985), Alan Macfarlane (1985), and Michael Mitterauer (1992) singly and in collaboration with Reinhard Sieder (1982). …