The History of Childhood: An Overview

Maynes, Mintz and Stearns give overviews of the study of children as historical “agents” throughout the modern practice of “doing” history. Maynes and Mintz both draw parallels to the beginnings of studying gender in history, particularly the “agency” of women. Both authors note that the introduction of both age and gender into the process of history reveals problem areas in the traditional historical process. Maynes emphasizes the need to look at personal stories to “rethink” the agency of children in history, with which I fully agree, but will personal stories be enough evidence to support future claims? Mintz claims that age is a more fluid category than gender, and this is evidenced in Stearns piece on the evolution of childhood. Would Mintz argue that this makes age more difficult to study than gender? Or does its fluidity provide more material to study? I was fascinated by the passage in Stearns article when he outlines areas that have been impacted by the notion of “happiness” in childhood, particularly how childhood depression is a result of high expectations on the part of both children and adults.

The highlights of the disagreement and errors riddling the historiography of childhood most obviously link the pieces of Wilson and Pascoe. Pascoe covers a much larger chunk of historiography, only briefly glazing over the work of Aries, whereas Wilson spends the entire article poking holes in Aries seminary work. Pascoe points out that not only will the oral re-telling of a childhood be romanticized by adults, but the material goods that historians could use as evidence are also heavily influenced by the adults in a child’s life—to me, this underscores just how tricky this area of history is. It makes me wonder: should more effort be put into studying the history of childhood, or of children? Which will yield more results? Wilson uses the phrase “content of sources” vs. “attitude of time” to sum up his argument against Aries piece, asserting that any Aries uses his sources incorrectly and therefore his argument is unsound. As a new historian, this really hit home for me because I am always hyper-aware of bias and the need to analyze a source in the context of that time period. By the end of Wilsons piece I was questioning what, exactly, did Aries do to contribute to this field?

Davin laments the fact that sources in late 19th C early 20th C London tend to come from the “ruling” class, and therefore is riddled with the bias of such privileged citizens. This echoes so many of the authors we have read on the frustration that comes from lack of veritable, infallible sources. It makes me want to ask the question: will there ever be enough evidence to cause a breakthrough in this field? The “jigsaw” approach seems like a creative short-term solution to a problem that may never go away. I’m also very curious about the implications of the transition between child worker and child scholar. Rhodes draws parallels between that transition and a new emphasis on discipline, but the evidence supporting that seemed shaky to me. These authors pose a lot of questions, such as how the definitions of love, nurturing and protection have evolved over time, but offer little insight into the answers.