Concepts of Childhood: What We Know and Where We Might Go
Margaret L. King
Renaissance Quarterly: Volume 60, Number 2 (2007)
The publication some forty years ago of the landmark work by Philippe Ariès, entitled Centuries of Childhood in its widely-read English translation, unleashed decades of scholarly investigation of that once-neglected target, the child. Since then, historians have uncovered the traces of attitudes toward children — were they neglected, exploited, abused, cherished? — and patterns of child-rearing. They have explored such issues, among others, as the varieties of European household structure; definitions of the stages of life; childbirth, wetnursing, and the role of the midwife; child abandonment and the foundling home; infanticide and its prosecution; apprenticeship, servitude, and fostering; the evolution of schooling; the consequences of religious diversification; and the impact of gender. This essay seeks to identify key features and recent trends amid this abundance of learned inquiry.
The history of the history of childhood begins, as everyone knows, with Philippe Ariès, 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 Régime — burst on the scene in 1962. Poor Ariès: 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.
Ariès 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.”