2012 New History
P. O. Box 1-44, Nankang, Taipei 11529, Taiwan, R. O. C.
02-2782-9555 # 226

The Past and Future of Western Studies of Childhood: Ariès and His Critics

Chen-chen Chen

Postgraduate, Department of Education, National Taiwan Normal University

Until relatively recently, children and childhood have been missing dimensions in historical writing. Why were children so neglected by historians? First, children in the West were merely thought of as imperfect adults, and there was a feeling that children were not worth studying. Second, as with women, the history of children and childhood was ignored primarily because historians  focused on societies’ elites. One consequence has been that children in history were rarely accorded the importance they deserve. Third, in the past historians ignored the working class, women, black people, and gay men, although since the 1960s (and much earlier in the case of the working class), each of these groups has begun to have a recorded history, largely as a result of their political struggles. Children, however, lacked such political significance, so historians tended to remain uninterested in them as historical subjects. Finally, a particular problem is to unearth source material on past childhoods. Children themselves leave few records, and even artifacts designed for them, such as books and toys, have a poor survival rate. Nonetheless, gradually historians have recognized the importance of the history of childhood and children. On the one hand, a new paradigm―a social construct for the sociology of childhood emerged—and influenced historical writing about childhood. On the other hand, the remarkable upsurge in social history in the 1970s produced an array of publications on neglected historical topics. Philippe Ariès was one of the pioneers of the history of childhood and children. Philippe Ariès’ Centuries of Childhood (published in French in 1960 and in English in 1962) offered a historiographical example for the topic. The history of children is now, along with women’s history, rescued from oblivion. Many writers of children’s history, however, challenged Ariès’ theories of modernity. One camp, led by Lloyd deMause and others, accepted Ariès’ approach to the history of mentalities but emphasized that the concept of childhood is socially constructed. Some eminent social historians, such as Linda Pollock and Keith Wrightson, moved beyond the history of mentalities to reconstruct children’s experiences in history, relating how they really lived. Some historians proposed a useful framework for investigation, suggesting that historians of children should explore more issues. It is critical that scholars working in the field debate methodological questions. For those of us who see ourselves as historians of childhood, one way forward is to draw two lessons from the methodologies and programs of feminist historians. First should be giving history an “age” dimension. Second, as women’s history has been defined as “critical history,” so, too, should be that of children. My aim in this article in part is to trace the development of the history of childhood in Western society.


Keywords: Ariès, the History of Children, the History of Family, the History of Mentalities