Finding the History of Childhood

The history of childhood is both a fairly undiscovered and misunderstood topic among scholarly work today. Recent research has sought to place it in it’s proper context and develop new ideas in regards to the way society typically thinks about it.

Stearns, Maynes, Mintz, and the Labels of Society

Mary Jo Maynes, Peter N. Stearns, and Steven Mintz each have written articles that portray the history of childhood in a new and important light. Maynes highlights the issue of agency and the role of childhood narratives, Stearns focuses on the specific study and origin of childhood happiness, while Mintz shows the use of childhood as a category of historical analysis. However, all three of these authors, while different, seem to show the important role of adults when researching childhood. This begs the question: do these articles tell us more about childhood or adulthood? In addition, each of these articles seems to focus on the modern model of childhood based in the United States. If a wider lens were given to each of these essays, would their assertions remain true or would they be different? What do these articles emphasize as important values in American culture? Perhaps the most interesting passage comes from Mintz’s article in which he does tie childhood (and age) into the surrounding culture, saying, “Age functions in differing ways in distinct social and cultural contexts and inevitably intersects with other categories of social organization and social difference.” In this way, Mintz suggests that society helps to create age categories, but also that age categories help to create society.

Wilson, Pascoe, and the Approach to Childhood History

A second set of articles are by Adrian Wilson and Carla Pascoe titled “The Infancy of the History of Childhood: An Appraisal of Philippe Aries” and “The History of Children in Australia: An Interdisciplinary Historiography” respectively. While Wilson focuses on the critique of a specific author and Pascoe goes into detail about the entire historiography of Australian childhood, there are three overarching ideas that are essential. Both Wilson and Pascoe assert the importance of looking at childhood through a historical lens. In addition, they emphasize the problem of generalization when piecing together a historical narrative. Thirdly, they each (and Pascoe more explicitly) imply the need for new methods of research. With these three themes, it is clear that how historians approach the history of childhood is absolutely paramount. In one of the most interesting passages, Pascoe cautions historians from romanticizing childhood, stating, “Perhaps the greatest challenge for historians of childhood is to continually strive for reflexivity.” This, along with the previous three points, raise important questions. Is it best to view the history of childhood through a distant and removed perspective, or is it best to view it in a more empathetic closer perspective? Also, are there broad generalities about childhood in history that can be made without ignoring other important factors? These questions are just a few that face childhood historians today, and remain to be answered as this new field continues to grow and expand.

Davin, Rhodes, and Researching Childhood Experiences

Maxine Rhodes and Anna Davin are two historians that have written about the wide variety of approaches to childhood study. In her article, “Approaching the History of Childhood: Frameworks for Local Research”, Maxine Rhodes expresses the changing direction that recent scholarly work has taken. She states, “the history of childhood is not now confined to issues surrounding the transformation of the child from worker to scholar or the nature of child-parent relations but seeks to examine the multiplicity of experiences for children in the past.” This insightful point builds on several key elements expressed in both Rhodes and Davin’s articles. The first idea is the importance and need for more local research on the subject. Also, as Davin points out, historians must be creative when looking for meaningful sources in regards to childhood experiences. Finally, they each also emphasize the need for historians to be more aware of the complexity of childhood experiences. As a result, we must ask ourselves a few key questions. What sources can be used to tell more accurately the lived experiences of children throughout history? Also, can local research reveal any larger themes among children from a particular era and location?