Childhood – an historical perspective

Renaissance painting: Barbara Gamage with Six Children by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger

This post is part of our series on what makes a good childhood.

Attitudes towards children and the way in which we interact, engage and care for them has changed dramatically over the previous 500 years.

In centuries past, children existed alongside adults, and once they were past infancy, were expected to work, firstly with their families, and then often as waged or unwaged labourers, in order that they and their families could survive.

The concept of childhood – how we define it and the experiences and activities of children within it – is an ever-shifting one that has presented us with many opportunities and challenges across the centuries.

The practice of identifying a distinct developmental period of a human’s life as ‘childhood’ is relatively recent, and today, childhood is universally acknowledged as a precious and vital stage within the lifespan of a human. It seen as an important period of physical growth, mental and emotional learning and development. It is also a time in which children should live free from fear, safe from violence and abuse, and be cared for and nurtured in a way that helps them to realise their full life potential.

Childhood across the centuries

15th century:

French social historian Phillipe Aries made the claim that in medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist. He believed that children and adults existed alongside each other – that they worked and lived together, and for boys and men, were educated together – with no distinction between adult and child.

16th century:

Across much of Europe and America it was argued that children were, “doomed to sin and evil unless controlled by their parents”. This concept was new because it introduced the notion that children were psychologically and morally different from adults. It prescribed strict adult control of children and resulted in more formal, distance relations between parents and children.

17th century:

Phillipe Aries argued that childhood was ‘discovered’ as a distinct and special phase of life in the 17th century. Several factors led to this belief, one of which was the rise in affection and attention paid to children producing a kind of ‘culture’ of childhood – a newfound interest in children.

Children were seen as innocent and ignorant. The English philosopher, John Locke, believed that children’s minds were a ‘blank slate’ and that it was the role of the parents to fill it by ‘experience or education’.

18th century:

The 18th century saw a further shift away from strict parental control towards a more affectionate and nurturing relationship between adults and the child. During this period, education became more widespread and institutionalised.

19th century:

During the Industrial age, very young children were exploited for labour, which stood in stark contrast to the new ‘idealisation of childhood’ becoming popular amongst the middle classes. This contradiction became the basis for the widespread campaigns to limit and eventually abolish child labour which ran through the century.

20th century:

The role that policy makers, community groups and welfare institutions played in the care of a child continued to grow. By the 1950’s, there was a growing view that the care and nurture of a child was not one that came instinctively to parents, but was a skilled role that required education and training. The result of this thinking was an increase in support for parents, parenting ‘education’ and child-focused practitioners who had specialised training.

In 1989, the first legally binding instrument to protect the rights of the child was developed – the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. During this century, in many Western countries, childhood became an established and recognised period within a child’s life.

21st Century:

In industrialised Western societies, children’s daily lives focus on structured education and formal learning. By the beginning of the 21st century, researchers and others were highlighting certain changes to society as being ‘toxic’ for childhood. There is a growing perception and increasing evidence of substantial threats to the wellbeing of today’s children and young people.


The changing nature of ‘childhood’ over centuries – how we define it, and the experiences and activities of children within it – highlights that it is not a constant but an ever-shifting concept.


Anderson, M. (1980) Approaches to the history of the western family 1500-1914. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Aries, P. (1960) Centuries of Childhood. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.

Clarke, J. (2004) Children and Childhood. In: Wyse D (Ed.), Childhood studies: an introduction. Blackwell Pub.: Oxford UK.

Garbarino, J. (1995) Raising children in a socially toxic environment. San Francisco; Jossey Bass.

Hetzel, D. (2015) What makes a good childhood – Report for the Royal Commission. South Australian Government.

Thane, P. (1981) Childhood in History.

United Nations. (1989) Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). New York: Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Image: Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, Barbara Gamage with Six Children.


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