History of Childhood

Benjamin B. Roberts

N. Ray Hiner
Joseph M. Harwes


With his 1960 L'Enfant et la vie familiale sous l'Ancien Régime (published in English in 1962 as Centuries of Childhood), PHILIPPE ARIÈS put the history of childhood on the map. Since then, this former terra incognita has become a well-trodden battlefield for historians and social scientists. In a nutshell, the childhoods that Ariès sketched in Europe's Middle Ages and early modern period were not happy. Childhood was a social construction that developed between around 1500 and 1800. According to Ariès, the major differences between contemporary childhood and childhood in earlier periods are a lack of sentiment for–that is, preparing children for adulthood (i.e., education) and making an emotional investment in them (i.e., affection, time, and attention)–and no separate activities assigned to children in the Middle Ages and early modern period. From birth to age seven, children were considered miniature adults: they dressed like adults and they were not sheltered from the adult world. By the age of seven, children were physically capable of helping their parents care for farm animals and work in the fields; cognitively, children had acquired the same vocabulary as their parents.

European medieval society was rural and its inhabitants resided in small villages and on farms. A formal education– learning how to read and write–was considered an unnecessary luxury for the majority of children, and after reaching the age of seven children were expected to follow in the footsteps of their parents as farmers and artisans. They only needed to learn these skills from their parents or from a master craftsman. The schools that did exist in the Middle Ages were a far cry from those that emerged in the nineteenth century, which children were required by law to attend. Medieval schools were attended not only by children. These one-room classrooms were for all age groups, from small children to middle-aged adults. The pupils learned at different levels and in the classical method, by reciting their lessons out loud. In addition to being noisy and difficult places for the pupils to concentrate in, classrooms were hard for teachers to manage. Discipline was physical and sometimes harsh. According to Ariès, both these conditions and the quality of education changed first under the auspices of the sixteenth-century humanists and then more fully over the course of the following three centuries. All this was accompanied by a growing affection for children.

Ariès detected a change in sentiment toward children in the seventeenth century, when painters started portraying children as individuals. In the Middle Ages, the only child painted was Jesus, who was portrayed as a stiff and unchild-like infant. According to Ariès, the seventeenth century was a significant benchmark in the attitude toward children in European history, and the beginning of modern childhood, which started to resemble twentieth-century childhood. With his negative conclusion about childhood in the past, Ariès launched a black legend into the historical community and the general public's mind.

The Black Legend

During the 1970s a wave of researchers investigated childhood from directions other than Ariès's but came to the same general conclusion. They agreed that childhood was a modern phenomenon but differed slightly on its exact discovery. Researchers probed and prodded the terrain of child ABANDONMENT, household structures, romantic LOVE between parents, and economic, social, and demographic factors in their quest to find affection for children in the past. In his 1974 History of Childhood, Lloyd deMause deduced that love for children did not exist in the antiquity, where child abandonment was common among the poor until the fourth century B.CE. He also saw a landscape of CHILD ABUSE and mistreatment continuing until the very modern period. Jean Flandrin determined in his 1976 Familles: Parenté, maison, sexualité dans l'ancienne société that the notion of the nuclear family (father, mother, and children) in France, with its special focus on children, came in existence in the course of the nineteenth century. He based his work on terminology in dictionaries and encyclopedias. A main reason for paying more attention to children was the increased availability of BIRTH CONTROL, which started in the late eighteenth century. Parents realized that they could care for their children better if they had fewer of them.

According to the Canadian historian Edward Shorter (1995), romantic love, economic independence, and the nuclear family were the key ingredients of modern childhood. Romantic love between partners was necessary before parents could have affection for their children. This condition began to be met around 1750, when marriages were no longer prearranged for economic reasons. As a result, parents became more caring and concerned about their offspring. Free choice in marriage came about as a result of the rise of capitalism and the onset of the Industrial Revolution, which enabled young men to find work outside the family farm or business and to become economically independent of their families. This individualism allowed for couples to start their own nuclear families, consisting only of parents and children, and providing a haven for children from the world of adulthood, where parents could devote their time and energy to their children without the influence of the extended family and neighbors.

However, for the English historian Lawrence Stone (1977), the nuclear family doting over its children has a longer evolution. In the period from 1450 to 1800, Stone detects a transition in the structure of English families from an open lineage household–one with three or more generations and open to neighbors and distant family–to the closed, domesticated nuclear family. This consisted only of two generations, parents and children, with the parents giving a great amount of attention to their children. The closed, domesticated nuclear family came into existence parallel with what Stone terms "affective individualism," which allowed for personal choice in marriage partners and resulted in a growing affection for members of the nuclear family (including a recognition of the uniqueness of each), and for children in particular. Stone detected that the free market economy (and eventual Industrial Revolution) and other social factors–such as the ability of more people to leave rural communities, where they had previously been dependent on family and neighbors, and move to cities, where they were economically independent, and to marry a partner of their choice–were important stimulants for the closed, domesticated nuclear family.

To these economic and social factors, Stone adds that the eighteenth century also witnessed a demographic change. Mortality rates, especially those for children, had started to decline. This was an important factor, allowing parents to feel more affection toward their children. Before then, the emotional burden of childhood death was considered a reason for parents to be cool and distant towards their children.

In her 1981 The Myth of Motherhood, the French historian Elisabeth Badinter elaborated on Shorter's and Stone's economic and social analyses and concluded that the Industrial Revolution brought about a separation of spheres and tasks between fathers and mothers. In the bourgeois society of the early nineteenth century, men moved to the public domain of the workforce whereas women retreated to the household and dedicated their time to being mothers and homemakers. In France, the mother no longer had to work outside the house and could breast-feed her children instead of farming them out to wet nurses in the countryside, which was a practice that black legend historians considered evidence of indifference. Badinter's bourgeois mother was able to give her children more attention and shelter them from the outside world. This idealized image of motherhood–and childhood–is often associated with the Romantic period, the 1830s and 1840s. However, Simon Schama (1987) discovered a paradise of childhood that already existed in the Dutch Republic during the seventeenth century among the middling sort. According to the iconographic interpretation and medical and pedagogical advice books, Dutch mothers of this period nursed their children themselves, showered them with love and affection, gave them toys, and provided them with a proper education according to their financial means. Childhood, according to these historians, was the gradual creation of the period from 1600 to 1850.

The White Legend

In the 1980s, the debate over childhood took a different turn. Historians focused on new sources and came up with different results. In his 1986 Marriage and Love in England: Modesof Reproduction, the English historian Alan Macfarlane showed demographic research indicating more continuity in household make-up and emotional investment in family members over a five-hundred-year period than the drastic changes detected by Stone. Macfarlane pinpointed the origin of the English nuclear family in the Middle Ages and argued, contrary to Stone, that the market economy and Industrial Revolution were a result of individualism and personal choice in marriage instead of being stimulants for them.

The notion of childhood as a modern phenomenon took another blow with the 1983 publication of Linda Pollock's Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900 and her 1987 A Lasting Relationship: Parents and Their Children over Three Centuries. Her conclusions, based on diaries and correspondence, were that parental affection and concern had remained steady factors from the late Middle Ages until the nineteenth century. According to Pollock, economic conditions such as prearranged marriages and demographic factors such as high mortality rates had less influence on affection in parent-child relations than black legend historians had claimed. When children were ill, parents showed great concern and used every means they had to cure them. However, the problem with sources such as personal documents is that they allow insight only into the higher echelons of society. The European masses could not read or write in the early modern period, so historians are left to speculate.

This new material stressing continuity in the early modern period reopened the discussion of antiquity and the Middle Ages. Despite having fewer sources to consult, historians have been innovative in their interpretations. In his 1988 TheKindness of Strangers, John Boswell readdressed child abandonment in late antiquity and argued that the custom of abandoning children at the doorstep of a monastery was not an act of indifference or lack of affection, as Lloyd deMause had concluded. It was usually done by the poor, who hoped their infants would grow up in the security of a monastery or be found and taken care of by kind strangers. In her 1990 Childhood in the Middle Ages, Shulamith Shahar examined medical treatises and finds that parents were quite concerned about the health of their offspring. Parental protection and care began during pregnancy, when mothers took precautions in their diet. Shahar, like Marfarlane and Pollock, drew positive conclusions about childhood; their stress on continuity in the history of childhood was responsible for creating a revisionist school, or white legend, in the debate.

Light Gray

In the early 1990s, the debate between historians of the white and black legends seemed to be deadlocked, because neither group was able to reach a general conclusion encompassing childhood in urban and rural environs, in all economic and social strata, and for all religious groups. The deadlock began to end after historians started investigating specific child-rearing practices, examining smaller social groups, conducting more longitudinal research, and experimenting with new interpretations. Louis Haas investigated the ruling elite of Renaissance Florence, studying early child care in medical treatises and personal documents and publishing The Renaissance Man and His Children: Childbirth and Early Childhood in Florence, 1300–1600 in 1998. In regard to the use of wet nurses, Haas's evidence might prove historians such as Badinter to be correct. Florentine parents did have their infants farmed out to wet nurses living in the surrounding Tuscan countryside, but according to the personal documents Haas examined, parents were not at all indifferent toward their children. On the contrary, in most cases wet nurses were hired when mothers was incapable of producing milk. In addition, the milk of wet nurses in the countryside was considered to be healthier than the milk of mothers living in the city. Living in the country was thought to have a positive influence on the quality of a woman's milk and thus to be better for the child's health. The letters from Florentine fathers illustrated great affection for their children and active involvement in their upbringing. Similar results were found in the Dutch Republic during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In his 1998 Through the Keyhole: Dutch Child-Rearing Practices in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Century, Benjamin Roberts followed child-rearing practices in the correspondence of urban elite families over four generations. By examining the physical, cognitive, affective, and moral aspects of education and comparing them to medical and moral treatises, the author was able to detect continuity and change within families. The most significant change occurred in how children were educated. Parents in the course of two centuries changed school types and demanded different curricula for their offspring, but the physical care, moral lessons, and affection for children remained stable from one generation to the next.

In 1994, Ilana Krausman Ben-Amos published the innovative Early Modern Adolescence and Youth and in 1996 PaulGriffiths published Youth and Authority in Early Modern England. By examining youth through personal documents and legal records, Krausman Ben-Amos and Griffiths showed Ariès to be incorrect about the nonexistence of ADOLESCENCE prior to the nineteenth century, but at the same time these authors agreed that some of Ariès' conclusions were not unfounded. Early modern youths worked and lived outside the nuclear family and were entrusted with more independence than they are today; however, sending children into the world at an early age was not a sign of indifference, they argued, and can be regarded as a way to educate and prepare them for adulthood.

The lack of affection for children in the Middle Ages and the early modern period has been the most disputed of Ariès's arguments. However, Ariès's hypothesis about the lack of affection shown in the education of children is correct. Prior to the late nineteenth century, when school attendance became mandatory and CHILD LABOR was prohibited, educational opportunities were largely directed at a small sector of the population. Since 1960, the historiography of childhood has developed in many directions as new studies color in the numerous facets of childhood. New research into the formation of gender, personal identity, and SEXUALITY are now extending the lines on Ariès's map. By examining smaller, homogenous groups of similar economic, social, religious, and geographic background, historians are drawing more reliable conclusions and making less sweeping statements. The history of childhood is neither black nor white but somewhere in between–perhaps light gray.

History of Childhood beyond Ariès

The vast majority of European historians of childhood who have followed in Ariès's footsteps have worked on periods prior to 1900. Curiously enough, the century that the Swedish educator ELLEN KEY named the CENTURY OF THE CHILD has attracted much less attention. A few historians expanded their studies to cover the 1930s, but the years after 1945 have until very recently, as a general rule, been colonized by sociologists. As a consequence, their understanding of the rise of modernity as well as the welfare states has had a certain impact on the historians now studying the history of twentieth-century European childhood. The century is understood as having had a unique role in the understanding and the shaping of modern childhood. In the interwar years, new sciences, especially CHILD PSYCHOLOGY, supplemented the old medical knowledge about children and with the rise of the welfare state this knowledge has been spread to parents through infant-care programs, visiting nurses, and popular books on child rearing.

The rapid demographic changes of the twentieth century–with lower INFANT MORTALITY, lower fertility, and especially after World War II growing divorce rates and a rising number of mothers working in the paid labor market and away from home–have led historians to study changes in the roles of mothers as well as fathers and also to study the development of the day-care system.

The British historian Eric Hobsbawm has called the twentieth century the "Age of Extremes." It is an age that has seen more people killed in wars than any century before. It is therefore not surprising that war has become an important subject in the study of childhood. These studies examine state and interstate programs for orphaned or destitute children after World War I as well as the "war children" of World War II–children born in occupied territories to native mothers and German fathers or children born out of wedlock in Germany during the Nazi regime and placed in the so-called Lebensborn homes. Others deal with the children of the HOLOCAUST or with children who were born in Germany after the capitulation but fathered by American soldiers–the so-called Afro-German children.

With inspiration from the sociology of childhood, where children are understood as social actors in their own right, the British historian Harry Hendrick has raised the question of the absence of children's voices within the history of childhood. Because children live in an oral culture, the written sources are scarce–and despite its name, the history of childhood tends to deal with adults' views of children to a much larger degree than with the actual lived lives of children. This awareness is not new among European historians of childhood. The British historian Ludmilla Jordanova became famous by stating, in 1989, that there is nothing like "an authentic voice of children," meaning that history is a result of the historian asking and not of past children speaking in their own right. This did not prevent historians from trying to access the voices of children. The British labor historian Anna Davin made extensive use of memoirs in her work Growing up Poor in London around 1900, with the explicit purpose of giving children a voice in history. Another fruitful source of children's voices is letters to foster parents or to caretakers at children's homes.

What is new in the present debate is the insistence on bringing children back into the history of childhood by a more systematic use of sources like letters, diaries, and memoirs, and by using the growing range of twentieth-century sources where children have been filmed, videotaped, or questioned about their lives.

See also: Comparative History of Childhood; Medieval and Renaissance Europe; Early Modern Europe; Enlightenment, The; Sociology and Anthropology of Childhood.


Ariès, Philippe. 1962. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Trans. Robert Baldick. New York: Knopf.

Badinter, Elisabeth. 1981. The Myth of Motherhood: An Historical View of the Maternal Instinct. London: Souvenir.

Boswell, John. 1988. The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. New York: Pantheon.

Cunningham, Hugh. 1995. Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500. London: Longman.

Dekker, Jeroen, Leendert Groenendijk, and Johan Verberckmoes. 2000. "Proudly Raising Vulnerable Youngsters: The Scope for Education in the Netherlands." In Pride and Joy: Children's Portraits in the Netherlands 1500−1700, ed. Jan Baptist Bedaux and Rudi Ekkart. Ghent, Belgium: Ludion.

Flandrin, Jean-Louis. 1976. Familles: Parenté, maison, sexualité dans l'ancienne société. Paris: Hachette.

Griffiths, Paul. 1996. Youth and Authority: Formative Experiences in England 1560−1640. Oxford, UK: Clarendon.

Haas, Louis. 1998. The Renaissance Man and His Children: Childbirth and Early Childhood in Florence, 1300−1600. New York: St. Martin's.

Haks, Donald. 1988. "Continuïteit en verandering in het gezin van de vroeg-moderne tijd." In Vijf Eeuwen Gezinsleven: Liefde, huwelijk en opvoeding in Nederland, ed. H. Peeters, L. Dresen-Coenders, and T. Brandenbarg. Nijmegen, Netherlands: Sun.

Helmers, Dini. 'Gescheurde Bedden': Oplossingen voor gestrande huwelijken, Amsterdam 1753−1810. Hilversum, Netherlands: Verloren.

Heywood, Colin. 2001. A History of Childhood: Children and Childhood in the West from Medieval to Modern Times. Cambridge, UK: Polity.

Krausman Ben-Amos, Ilana. 1994. Adolescence and Youth in Early Modern England. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Macfarlane, Alan. 1986. Marriage and Love in England. Modes of Reproduction 1300−1840. London: B. Blackwell.

Mause, Lloyd de. 1974. The History of Childhood. New York: Psycho-history Press.

Peeters, Harry. 1966. Kind en Jeugdige in het begin van de Moderne Tijd (ca. 1500−ca.1650). Meppel, Netherlands: Boom.

Pollock, Linda. 1983. Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Pollock, Linda. 1987. A Lasting Relationship: Parents and their Children over Three Centuries. London: Fourth Estate.

Roberts, Benjamin B. 1996. "Fatherhood in Eighteenth-Century Holland: The Van der Muelen Brothers." Journal of Family History 21: 218–228.

Roberts, Benjamin B. 1998. Through the Keyhole. Dutch Child-rearing Practices in the 17th and 18th Century: Three Urban Elite Families. Hilversum, Netherlands: Verloren.

Schama, Simon. 1987. The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. New York: Knopf.

Shahar, Shulamith. 1990. Childhood in the Middle Ages. Trans. Chaya Galai. London: Routledge.

Shorter, Edward. 1975. The Making of the Modern Family. New York: Basic Books.

Stone, Lawrence. 1977. The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England 1500−1800. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.



The historiography of childhood is a vast and largely uncharted field. In an entry of this length it is not possible to do justice to the field as a whole. Accordingly we have chosen to emphasize the founders of the field, list some of the ways historians can approach the field (with examples of current work highlighted), and conclude with some discussion of what might be expected of the field in the future.

One of the first scholars to draw attention to the history of children was PHILIPPE ARIÈS, a French demographer andcultural historian. In Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (1962), Ariès argued that childhood did not exist in the Middle Ages and since that time, adult-child relations had deteriorated. Ariès was convinced that in the sixteenth century when adults stopped seeing children as miniature adults and began to view them as helpless, vulnerable, and incompetent beings, the foundation was laid for the oppressive intervention of the state and the creation of separate institutions for children where they were subjected to harsh physical and psychological discipline. Ariès warned historians not to confuse "the idea of childhood" with affection, which was experienced in abundance by medieval children. Recent scholars have subjected Ariès' work to severe criticism, especially his heavy dependence on iconographic evidence, such as paintings, and his assertion that childhood did not exist before the early modern period. Even so, Ariès did as much as anyone to legitimize the history of children and can justly be called its founder. In addition, Ariès's contention that childhood as a social construct was part of the historical process seems undeniable and has helped to justify continued research into its historical development.

Another scholar who influenced the early development of the history of children was Lloyd deMause, who established the History of Childhood Quarterly and edited The History of Childhood (1974), one of the first major collections of scholarly work on the subject. DeMause, a vigorous advocate for a particular psychohistorical approach to the history of children, reached conclusions that directly contradicted those of Ariès. Whereas Ariès was nostalgic about the distant past, deMause was highly critical, arguing that "the history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken." "The further one goes back in history," asserted deMause, "the lower the level of child care, and the more likely children are to be killed abandoned, beaten, terrorized, and sexually abused" (p. 1). From the infanticide characteristic of the earliest periods of civilization, deMause claimed that humanity has moved inexorably toward more humane treatment of children, especially among modern advanced parents and caregivers who seek the full development of children as persons. DeMause also argued that at critical points the state was vital to improving the care and nurture of children. Medieval historians, especially, have strongly condemned deMause's psychogenic theory as an unjustified attack on the humanity of those whom they study. In spite of this widespread criticism, much of which is justified, it is important to recognize that with his strong commitment to the humane treatment of children, deMause played a very important role in promoting interest in the history of children.

Peter Petschauer commented in the late 1980s that historians who had studied child rearing could be divided into two groups, "those who find tears and those who find smiles in the past" (p. 3). This is certainly an apt description of the work of Ariès and deMause, but at the turn of the twenty-first century historians of children seem increasingly reluctant to accept either the optimism of deMause or the nostalgic pessimism of Ariès. In fact, Linda Pollock's book, Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900 (1983), directly challenged Ariès's and deMause's claims that radical changes have occurred in parent-child relations in Europe and America. After drawing on sociobiological theory and reviewing almost 500 diaries and AUTOBIOGRAPHIES, Pollock observed that the evidence "does not support the evolutionary theories on the history of childhood" (p. 283). Parental care for children, she concluded, has been curiously resistant to change. Pollock's continuity thesis has itself been questioned, so the issue of adult-child relations, which generated so much of the early research on the history of children, remains unsettled among historians and seems unlikely to be resolved in the near future.

In retrospect, it is clear that much of the early, pioneering work in the history of children, though indispensable in stimulating interest in the field and establishing its legitimacy, suffered from a serious lack of definitional and theoretical clarity. If the history of children is to reach its full potential, more attention should be devoted to clarifying the nature of the subject and the questions that should be asked. For instance the concept of childhood may be viewed in at least three basic ways: as ideology or social construction, as experience, and as a set of behaviors. Childhood as ideology (the ideals and norms that society establishes for children) should not be confused with what children actually experience any more than an experienced teacher assumes that what is taught is necessarily learned. Beliefs about childhood clearly influence behavior and experience but is not coincident with either. Similarly, the behavior of children should not be confused with their experience or with childhood as an ideology. It would be naïve to believe that children reveal all of who they are in what they say and do. Thus, when historians declare that children in the past were miniature adults or that childhood did not exist in a certain period, what do they mean? Are they referring to what adults thought childhood ought to be, what children actually experienced, or what children actually did?

New Questions for the History of Children and Childhood

In 1985, N. Ray Hiner and Joseph Hawes proposed five basic questions that they believed should guide research in the history of children. The proposal was based on the assumption that although the questions that occupied early researchers in the field were important, they were not answerable in their original form and needed to be refined. Thus, Hiner and Hawes designed these questions not only to guide research, but also to encourage continued thinking about how children in the past can be studied. Hiner and Hawes did not suggest that these questions actually determined the direction of scholarship or that they do not themselves need continued refinement, but they can serve as a convenient framework for assessing work in the field. These questions make it clear that the history of children is much broader than the history of childhood as a social construction or ideology. Below, we identify these questions and provide brief illustrations of how they can be used to organize and interpret information about children in the past.

1. What were the conditions that shaped the development of children? This question has been of special interest to social and demographic historians who have investigated the social indicators that determine the duration, scope, and intensity of childhood as a stage of life, the institutions in which children live, and the nature and patterns of relationships that occur within these institutions. One historian whose work emphasizes the importance of demographic factors is Robert Wells, whose Uncle Sam's Family sketches in demographic factors in American history.

2. What were the social, cultural, and psychological functions of children? Children, like members of all social groups, are assigned both implicit and explicit roles in American society and culture. Children are part of a larger system that places demands on them and shapes their behaviors in very precise ways that historians should investigate. An early and still relevant classic, Bernard Wishy's Child and the Republic is a fine example of this approach to the history of childhood. Another example of how societies define children's roles is provided by the classic study of colonial Plymouth, A Little Commonwealth, by John Demos.

3. What were the attitudes of adults toward children and childhood? In one sense, this is the easiest question for historians to answer primarily because adults left voluminous records about their attitudes toward children. However, care must be taken not to confuse attitudes or rhetoric with actual behavior. Still, knowledge of what adults thought about children, what they expected children to do and be, how childhood was constructed, is fundamental to creating a comprehensive history of children. While this may seem difficult terrain for the historian, the very complex history of the idea of ADOLESCENCE as developed by the historian Joseph Kett in his Rights of Passage illustrates one of the many ways historians may think and write about children in the past. Karin Calvert's Children in the House likewise examines changing models of children and is especially attentive to issues of gender.

4. What was the subjective experience of being a child in the past? This is a very difficult question for historians to answer in part because children, especially young children, have left relatively few records of their experiences. Yet with empathy, imagination, and careful attention to evidence, it is possible for historians to gain important insight into children's subjective worlds. Without this perspective, the history of children is not complete but because this is so difficult there are not many works which illustrate this point. An outstanding example here is the book by David Nasaw: Children and the City. Nasaw's imaginative use of a wide variety of sources shows both the importance of doing this work and the difficulty. William Tuttle has similarly tried to reconstruct American children's experiences during World War II in Daddy's Gone to War.

5. How have children influenced adults and each other? To understand this question, it is important not to confuse influence with power. Because children have obviously had little power, historians too often assume that most of the influence in adult-child relations flows in only one direction, from the adult to the child. However, all human relationships, even the most hierarchical, are inevitably reciprocal and dynamic. Although children have had little formal power, they have nevertheless exercised and continue to exercise great influence on virtually all aspects of American society and culture. The ways in which children influence adults are many and varied, but one of the most obvious and immediate occurs when a child is born. N. Ray Hiner has explored this dynamic in his articles on how children influenced the life and thought of Cotton Mather, a Puritan minister and early parent educator.

A sixth question might also be posed: What institutions have been most important in defining children's lives and experiences? Here could be included the many excellent studies of schooling, orphan asylums, family, and church and religion. Philip Greven's The Protestant Temperament is a deeply researched investigation into religion's role in forming children's contexts and Steven Mintz and Susan Kellogg's Domestic Revolutions provides important insights into the changing nature of the child's most basic site for development.

Unfortunately, history does not provide simple, definitive answers to these important questions about children in part because (1) these questions are themselves complex; (2) the sources for historical study of children are at times limited or unavailable; (3) history is a dynamic discipline constantly presenting new and challenging insights; (4) the history of children, though vigorous, is still a young, undeveloped field; (5) and perhaps most critically, because human experience is so full of variety children of the past, like adults, speak with many, sometimes confusing voices. As historians explore matters of race or class or gender, these inevitably create new paths in our studies of children. (For example, in the area of slavery, new work appeared in the 1990s, including Brenda Stevenson's Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South and Wilma King's Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America.) However, in spite of these limitations, historians have added greatly to our understanding of children during the last two decades.

The Influence of the "Powerless"

In what ways were children influential? One part of the answer is undeniable. All adults were once children, an experience that obviously shaped their development in complex ways. Yet, children's influence goes far beyond the universality of childhood. Children were influential in our past in at least four additional ways: (1) as members of families; (2) as members of a distinct population group; (3) as producers and consumers; and (4) as cultural and political symbols.

As members of families, children exercised great influence over the lives of their parents, siblings, relatives, and caregivers. One does not need to tell parents that the birth or adoption of a child changes the fundamental dynamics of a family. Our archives are full of documents that testify to this influence. Moreover, few parents would deny that most children learn how to get what they want from their parents and others. An example of this point is the marketing strategy of the McDonald's restaurant chain, which pitches its ads directly to children, supplements those ads with a cartoon character like Ronald McDonald, and designs its retail outlets in ways that cater to children and make them feel welcomed. Thus, McDonald's uses the ability of children to influence their parents both as a way to sell hamburgers and to make a handsome profit for stockholders. Throughout history, millions of parents and caregivers have by necessity and choice built their lives around providing for and caring for children. (The ways in which purchases of TOYS have been influenced and how this has changed is explored by Gary Cross in Kids' Stuff.)

As members of a distinct population group, children have shaped society in ways that go far beyond their individual families. For example, few in the twenty-first century can grasp fully the omnipresence of children during much of the past. Before 1800, at least half of the population in the United States was under the age of sixteen, and the average age of Americans did not exceed twenty-one until the twentieth century. An enormous amount of society's human and physical resources has been devoted to providing food, clothing, shelter, and education for children. Furthermore, because childhood mortality rates were often twenty to thirty times higher than they are in the twenty-first century, many children in the past died before they could replace the substantial investment that society made in their care and training. The collective influence of children was magnified when they were segregated by age in schools and other custodial institutions. One could argue with some justification that one of the most radical decisions ever made by American society was to confine large numbers of TEENAGERS together in limited spaces for extended periods in HIGH SCHOOLS. We live with the consequences still. (For a discussion of the beginnings and development of this phenomenon, see Paula Fass's The Damned and the Beautiful and Thomas Hine's The Rise and the Fall of the American Teenager.) Children's extraordinary collective influence can also be seen in the continuing effects of the BABY BOOM after World War II, which only temporarily raised the proportion of children in the population. Conversely, one can see in the early twenty-first century the powerful impact of declining birth rates on government programs, the economy, generational politics, and family dynamics.

As producers and consumers, children played a significant role in the development of the American economy. Because children constituted such a large percentage of the early American population, adult labor was relatively scarce, and children, often very young children, were expected to work. Preparation for work was a normal part of life for early American children. While the many individual tasks performed by children in households, fields, and shops of rural and small-town America were not in and of themselves highly significant, collectively they represented a vital contribution to the economy. Children also worked in the factories, mills, and mines of nineteenth-and early-twentieth-century America and thereby subsidized the industrialization of America by contributing to the production of cheap goods to compete in the growing international market. However, they did this at a very high cost in lost lives, ruined health, and lost opportunity for education and normal development. In spite of the intense campaign to eliminate CHILD LABOR, it had little effect until the 1920s when social pressure, regulatory legislation, new technology, and compulsory education laws combined to reduce child labor. As more children went to school than went to work, their primary economic role gradually shifted until the twenty-first century, when children's predominant economic role is to consume the extraordinary range of products that are created for them. (For these changes, see the collection of documents by Robert Bremner et al., Children and Youth in America.)

As cultural and political symbols, children have had a remarkable influence on a wide range of public issues. As children constituted proportionally less of the population and as their economic role shifted production to consumption, their psychological and cultural importance in families and in society intensified. Thus, children have often found themselves at the center of debates that express Americans' deepest feelings, hopes, and anxieties. Throughout American history, children have been central to debates about family, religion, crime, education, citizenship, slavery, gender, race, SEXUALITY, social justice, health, welfare, drug abuse, and day care, to name a few. A foundational work on how the sacralization of childhood greatly influenced the way society thought about children is to be found in Viviana Zelizer's path-breaking Pricing the Priceless Child. A more recent investigation of the cultural uses of the sacred child is Paula Fass's Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America.

The Future of the History of Children

The formation of the new Society for the History of Children and Youth in 2002 bodes well for the future of this relatively new academic field. What began in the 1960s as a small academic subspecialty has grown into a vigorous interdisciplinary enterprise that reflects more accurately the scope and importance of the subject. Not only historians, but also social scientists, literary and legal scholars, and educators, among others, have begun to realize that to study children is a fundamental and necessary step in understanding the human condition and that to study their history is essential to understanding human history itself.

See also: Comparative History of Childhood; Sociology and Anthropology of Childhood.


Abbott, Grace, ed. 1998. The Child and the State: Legal Status in the Family, Apprenticeship, and Child Labor, 2 vols. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Ariès, Philippe. 1962. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Trans. Robert Baldick. New York: Random House.

Bremner, Robert, et al., eds. 1970−1977. Children and Youth in America: A Documentary History, 3 vols. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Calvert, Karin. 1992. Children in the House. Boston: Northeastern University Press.

Cross, Gary. 1997. Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

deMause, Lloyd, ed. 1974. The History of Childhood. New York: Psychohistory Press.

Demos, John. 1970. A Little Commonwealth. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fass, Paula. 1977. The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fass, Paula. 1997. Kidnapped: Child Abduction in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fass, Paula, and Mary Ann Mason, eds. 2000. Childhood in America. New York: New York University Press.

Finklestein, Barbara, ed. 1979. Regulated Children/Liberated Children: Education in Psychohistorical Perspective. New York: Psychohistory Press.

Graff, Harvey J. 1995. Conflicting Paths: Growing Up in America. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Graff, Harvey J., ed. 1987. Growing Up in America: Historical Experiences. Detroit: Wayne State University Press.

Greven, Philip J., ed. 1973. Child Rearing Concepts: 1628−1861: Historical Sources. Itasco, IL: Peacock Press.

Greven, Philip J. 1977. The Protestant Temperament: Patterns of Child-Rearing, Religious Experience, and the Self in Early America. New York: Knopf.

Hawes, Joseph M., and N. Ray Hiner, eds. 1985. American Childhood: A Research Guide and Historical Handbook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Hawes, Joseph M., and N. Ray Hiner, eds. 1991. Children in Historical and Comparative Perspective: An International Handbook and Research Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Hiner, N. Ray. 1979. "Cotton Mather and His Children: The Evolution of a Parent Educator." In Regulated Children/Liberated Children: Education in Psychohistorical Perspective, ed. Barbara Finklestein, pp. 24−43. New York: Psychohistory Press.

Hiner, N. Ray. 1985. "Cotton Mather and His Female Children: Notes on the Relationship Between Private Life and Public Thought." Journal of Psychohistory 13 (summer): 33–49.

Hiner, N. Ray, and Joseph M. Hawes, eds. 1985. Growing Up in America: Children in Historical Perspective. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

Hine, Thomas. 1999. The Rise and Fall of the American Teenager. New York: Bard.

Illick, Joseph E. 2002. American Childhoods. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Kett, Joseph. 1977. Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America, 1790 to the Present. New York: Basic Books.

King, Wilma. 1995. Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Mintz, Steven, and Susan Kellogg. 1988. Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. New York: CollierMacmillan.

Nasaw, David. 1985. Children of the City: At Work and Play. New York: Oxford University Press.

Petschauer, Peter. 1989. "The Childrearing Modes in Flux: An Historian's Reflections." Journal of Psychohistory 17 (summer): 1–34.

Pollock, Linda. 1983. Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Stevenson, Brenda. 1996. Life in Black and White: Family and Community in the Slave South. New York: Oxford University Press.

Tuttle, William M. 1993. Daddy's Gone to War: The Second World War in the Lives of America's Children. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wells, Robert. 1985. Uncle Sam's Family: Issues and Perspectives on American Demographic History. Albany: State University of New York Press.

West, Elliott. 1996. Growing Up in Twentieth-Century America: A History and Reference Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

West, Elliott, and Paula Petrik, eds. 1992. Small Worlds: Children and Adolescents in America, 1850−1950. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas.

Wishy, Bernard. 1968. The Child and the Republic: The Dawn of American Child Nurture. Philadelphia: University Press.

Zelizer, Viviana. 1985. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. New York: Basic Books.