The Conception of Childhood:
An Historical Psychological Analysis

Olivia Lambert
Department of Psychology
Simon Fraser University


I would like to briefly outline the origins of my personal philosophy of psychology. My emphasis on relativism and contextualism comes from my appreciation for widely varied ways of life and their value in diverse situations. I am half Chinese and half English and have had to learn how to reconcile my two cultures with North American mainstream culture. I have lived in Vancouver and in Hong Kong and have had to learn to adapt to a very different culture halfway across the world. My family is Catholic and upper middle- class - a very different lifestyle from that I experienced living on the streets and in group homes.

My focus on power relations comes from my experiences of marginalization. Firstly, I am a woman and have grown up with sexism in my family and in society in general. Secondly, I am not white. However, I am not Chinese either. I have no ethnic group with which I can identify myself. As an adolescent, I am marginalized from our child- and adult- centred society. In addition, I am marginalized from the rest of adolescents because of past experience and my appearance.

From these threads I draw my philosophy of psychology. It is because of these concerns and my past experiences at home and in care where I refused to conform to our modern conception of children as dependent, irrational, and unable to assume responsibility that I chose to explore the construction of the concept of childhood.

[Editor's note: This paper was originally written for psychology 402, an advanced seminar in historical and theoretical issues in psychology. In this course, each of the students' term papers were integrated into a group project where the students in each group (4 or 5 students) were asked to come to a consensus over some "philosophy of science" to maintain, re-align, or create a new form of psychological practice for themselves. The following outline is an overview of the principles of the philosophy of science to which Olivia's group made some commitment.]

An Outline of Hermeneutic Humanism

  1. Social/historical context: Nothing ever happens in isolation. In our psychology, we take a contextual and hermeneutical approach.
  2. Ethics: We believe that ethics are relative to a certain extent, but that not everything is acceptable. There are certain values that should be universal. This is a grey area that must be resolved by the individual(s) involved.
  3. Emancipatory: The goal of our psychology is self- actualization. Care and generativity are also important concerns.
  4. Power: We are concerned with power and its inequalities and abuses.
  5. Holistic: It is important for us to look at the whole picture, but it is also necessary to explore the particulars in order to truly understand the whole. We want to focus on the individual within the context/universe.
  6. Dialogue and dialectic: We believe that these are appropriate methods of inquiry.
  7. Qualitative: We feel that qualitative research is the best way to gather information and still retain the individuality of the subjects/observers/participants.
  8. Pragmatic/eclectic methodology: We believe that one shouldn't be limited to one specific methodology. Use whatever works within ethical constraints.
  9. Scholarly tradition: We believe that knowledge should be sought and valued for its own sake.


This paper traces the social, legal, and historical development of the concept of childhood. Out of necessity, I will focus solely on childhood in the western tradition, but cross-cultural studies (see Ross & Ross, 1990) show that different notions of childhood exist in different ethnic groups and thus childhood is a social construction in cultures other than our English-North American hegemony. Our story starts in Europe (specifically England) and eventually crosses the Atlantic to discuss the shifts in the conception of the status of the child in Canada. I will touch on child labour, the child welfare movement, and juvenile delinquency in Canada in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as indicative of these shifts in attitude. I will conclude with a discussion of the child in modern psychology.



Until sometime around the twelfth century, European society did not see childhood as a distinct period of development the way that we do now (Aries, 1962). Children were viewed as miniature adults and participated fully in adult life. Some evidence comes from the art of the times. Children were rarely depicted in art as they were not viewed as important (Aries, 1962). With a child mortality rate in the first five years of life often exceeding 75% (Hoyles & Evans, 1989), it was not wise to get too attached to one's children. Once infants grew out of their swaddling, they were dressed just like adults. There was no differentiation between adults' and children's clothing. Similarly, there was no differentiation between children's and adults' pastimes. Adults and children alike played blind man's bluff, parlour games, leapfrog, and engaged in snowball fights (Aries, 1962; Hoyles & Evans, 1989).

The Beginning of Childhood

According to Aries (1962), the modern, Western conception of childhood began to develop during the sixteenth century with the rise of the middle class and its demand for formalized education for its sons. In the middle ages, the apprenticeship system was the main conduit of education and preparation for adult life. Children of all social standings were sent into other families' homes. During the fifteenth century, the idea of education began to encapsulate formal schooling. This shift reflected an increasing attachment to the child. Middle-class parents preferred to keep their children close to them. At first, this shift towards sending children to school rather than apprenticing them affected only boys. They were sent to school in order to give them and their families the opportunity for upward mobility. Differentiation between boys' and adult men's clothing appeared at this time as a result of their now separated roles of student and breadwinner (Aries, 1962; Hoyles & Evans, 1989).

The development of the modern family can be shown to follow the progress of the importance of private life (Aries, 1962). Until the sixteenth century, iconography did not include interior scenes of family life. Scenes of public life - on the streets, at play, etc. - dominated artists' subject matter well into the seventeenth century (Aries, 1962; Hoyles & Evans, 1989). The internal structure of homes at this time reflects the lack of privacy. Rooms were not separated by corridors; they opened onto each other. Other than the kitchen, rooms were not specialized. Beds could be, and were, set up in any room (Aries, 1962; Hoyles & Evans, 1989).

The modern house did not become the norm among the richer classes until the eighteenth century (Aries, 1962). Rooms became separated and specialized. It was at this time that the child became seen as an irreplaceable and unique individual. By the eighteenth century, the child had become the centre of the family and had assumed great importance in society. The Cult of the Child Jesus influenced this development via a fashionable interest in His life as a child, His popularization as an object of devotion especially forthe children, and His depiction in the art of this period (Hoyles & Evans, 1989). This evolution of the conceptualization of childhood occurred mainly in the upper-and middle-class. The poor (which made up the bulk of the population) continued living like medieval families into the early 1800's (Aries, 1962). By the eighteenth century, the concept of the family had achieved its modern character. Rather than changing conceptually, it spread to encompass larger and larger portions of society.

Rogers and Rogers (1992) point out some criticisms of Aries' (1962) theory of the development of childhood in the sixteenth century. Perhaps the changes that we have observed in the iconography (which is the main source of evidence for Aries) have nothing to do with the history of childhood but rather with the history of art. Additionally, when we glean information from text, our gaze is restricted because writings from that time were mostly produced by an elite subgroup of literate and powerful men who probably had little contact with children.

It is around this same time that another change was occurring - this one a shift in attitude. In the early seventeenth century, there did not seem to be the same emphasis on sexual decency and propriety that we see in later years (Aries, 1962). People were not shocked by coarse jokes and sexual games with children (e.g., attempting to grab a child's genitals). Children under the age of puberty were simply not considered aware of sexual matters. Nobody thought that sexual references could corrupt a child's innocence because the idea of childish innocence did not yet exist (Aries, 1962).

Towards the Contemporary Notions of Childhood

Alternatively, the development of our modern conception of childhood can be structured according to Muller's (1973) four phases demarcated by trends in birth and death rates. During phase one, which persisted until around 1750, the birth and death rates were both very high but quite similar. As a result, the population was reasonably stable. In these times of high childhood mortality and an average life expectancy of twenty-five years, children were seen as fragile, easily replaceable, and of little importance (Muller, 1973; Hoyles & Evans, 1989). Childhood was considered a necessary evil on the way to productive adolescence.

In phase two, which encompassed the period between 1750 and 1880, infant mortality dropped drastically (most likely due to the invention of the microscope and the discovery of bacteria) without a corresponding drop in the birth rate. An unheralded of population boom resulted. This rise in the population combined with rapid industrialization and urban expansion was largely responsible for child labour. Children were cheap and plentiful sources of labour and were often small enough to perform jobs that full-grown adults could not (such as crawling under machines to repair them). As late as 1866, the International Alliance of Workers lauded child labour as "a legitimate and logical step forward . . . . In a rational society, every child over the age of nine years should be a productive worker" (cited in Muller, 1973, p.6).

Phase three (1880-1930) saw the birth rate go down. It was in this phase that children assumed central importance in the family. Rousseau's idea that childhood was a desirable state of innocence and that society needed to protect child against adult corruption began to gain in popularity among the upper-and middle-class in the late eighteenth century. Phase three marks the period when this idea crossed class boundaries (Muller, 1973).

Several factors can be assumed to be involved in this shift. Children began to be financial burdens on their parents rather than sources of income. They were less likely to contribute to the family income because of compulsory education and the raising of the minimum age for many areas of employment. As more families moved to towns, the family lost its status as a economic unit that produced food and other necessary commodities and took on the role of a consumer. As the birth rate dropped, family size shrank. Not only were fewer children being born, but intergenerational households were becoming less common.

Because of these factors, children came to assume a central place in the family. They had much more contact with their parents and were increasingly dependent upon them (rather than other members of the household) to provide the necessities of life. Increased contact generally meant more punishment, as the idea that children were innocent but easily corrupted grew in popularity. In general, children were financially prohibitive but emotionally invaluable because they were seen as an avenue for upward mobility and a guarantee that parents would be taken care of later in life.

Phase four stretches from 1930 to the present day and is exemplified in the United Nation's 1959 Declaration of the Rights of the Child. Our `phase four' society is also child- centred, but in a different way from phase three society. The contemporary goal is care, understanding, and respect for what the child (rather than the parent) needs.

At the same time as the shifts in social attitudes that proclaimed the arrival of the modern conceptualization of childhood were occurring, the dualistic conception of childhood as innocent opposed to childhood as evil that still exists, to a certain extent, today (as illustrated in the contemporary movies "Poltergeist" and "Damian") which was first becoming popular. The conception of children as innocent became popular in the late seventeenth century. This attitude required that children be closely supervised, strictly disciplined, and treated with and taught modesty (Aries, 1962; Hoyles & Evans, 1989). This idea existed in opposition to the older belief that children were instinctually sinful because of the Judeo-Christian tenet of original sin, and thus needed to be prevented from engaging in sinful behaviour.

Begin the work before they can run, before they can speak plainly or speak at all. Whatever pains it costs, conquer their stubbornness; break their wills if you will not damn the child. Therefore let a child from a year old be taught to fear the rod and cry softly. Make him do as he is bid if you whip him ten times running to do it (quoted by de Mause; cited in Hardyment, 1983, p. 8).

Contemporary Children in Canada

This emphasis on protecting children from corruption gave rise to banning novels, dancing, and theatre and abandoning familiarity for restraint in manners and language (Aries, 1962).

We shall now turn to the development of our modern conceptualization of childhood in Canada. Attitudinal shifts that placed children in the centre of the family and encouraged an affectionate bond between parents and their children (Alwin, 1990) made a distinct social category out of childhood defined by criteria of protection, segregation, dependence, and delayed responsibility (Rooke & Schnell, 1982). Chunn (1990) cites the transition from the laissez- faire to the welfare state as the significant period of moral, socio-economic, political, and legal crisis that resulted in a social reform movement specifically aimed at upholding the white, middle-class status quo. "...[C]hildren must be protected from the contaminations of inadequate, irreligious, or immoral family influences" (Rooke & Schnell, 1982, p.98).

Several strategies were put into play to protect the middle-class ideal of childhood asexuality and dependency within the biological or surrogate nuclear family. Provinces passed legislation that prevented children from working, established sex-specific education, regulated leisure activities (e.g., curfews, prohibitions on gambling, smoking, and drinking, censored films and books), and separated the child from the adult in the court system (Chunn, 1990).

The industrial revolution required many low-skill workers to "man" the factories. Children were a logical resource base as their numbers were seemingly unlimited, and they could be hired for less than adult workers. The three main groups involved in the child labour debate were the unions, the social reformers, and the business sector. As far as businesses were concerned, child labour was obviously a good thing as it increased profit. Unions were caught in the middle. On the one hand, as children were workers, unions felt obligated to protect their interests and lobby for better conditions. However, children were stiff competition for the adult males who held the power in the unions. Most unions ended up in support of age limits on working children. Social reformers were more concerned with improving working conditions for children than in eliminating child labour in general (Peikoff & Brickey, 1991). Legislation establishing minimum ages for working in industry (but not in agriculture or in retail) was eventually passed in the late 1800's.

Many people forget about the other situation in which children were exploited - orphaned or abandoned children who were indentured out without pay by poor asylums and the state. Until the mid 1800's, there was no segregation of children from adults in various institutions (which also housed the insane) (Rooke & Schnell, 1982; Peikoff & Brickey, 1991). Because of the lack of government funding, most institutions were interested in getting their residents off their hands as soon as possible. From this sprang the practice of indenturing children.

Indenturing grew out of the traditional apprenticeship system, but children who were indentured out to middle-class families were not taught any trade but that of being a servant (which incidentally kept the children aware of their "appropriate" place and role in society (Rooke & Schnell, 1982)). Indentured children also made up a large part of the agricultural work force. Many farming families requested children from poor houses specifically to work as unpaid labourers in the fields (Sutherland, 1976). In New Brunswick, the Poor Law Act of 1786 permitted children in poor houses to be taken from their parents (also in poor houses) and indentured until twenty-one if male and eighteen or married if female (Rooke & Schnell, 1982).

The 1893 Children's Protection Act of Toronto empowered the Children's Aid Society to apprehend children from their homes (jumping to a new level of government intervention) and place them in foster care. Unfortunately, intervention was rare except in cases where infanticide or severe and repeated physical abuse was reported (Peikoff & Brickey, 1991). Government regulation of childhood increased with the move to compulsory education in the nineteenth century. The Common School Act of Ontario (1850) established free common schools for all social classes, and compulsory education was legislated in 1871 (Peikoff & Brickey, 1991).

Juvenile courts were established in most provinces by the early twentieth century. These courts' non-adversarial, private hearings and use of social workers and probation officers rather than judges and lawyers to diagnose and rehabilitate deficient families reflected the late nineteenth century dualistic belief in childhood as a period of innocence vulnerable to outside corruption (Chunn, 1990). The social reform movement held that since juvenile delinquency was a result of environmental influence, the goal of juvenile courts should be to reform rather than punish (Coulter, 1982; Rooke & Schnell, 1982). Three options were created in response to juvenile delinquency. The child could be placed on probation, made a ward of the government, or sent to an industrial school (Coulter, 1982). By far, the most popular choice was probation (Coulter, 1982; Chunn, 1990) because of the zeitgeist that emphasized the effectiveness of family life and focused on rehabilitation. Incarceration was considered to be the last resort and reserved for recidivists.

Ignoring gender, truancy was one of the most commonly cited reasons for appearance in a juvenile court. Chunn (1990) states that school attendance was valued because the school was viewed as a primary agent of socialization, particularly among the lower classes. A brief look at any record of offenses during the first half of this century shows an obvious double standard. The majority of charges laid against boys were property offenses, and the vast majority of charges against girls were for status (e.g., incorrigibility) or morality charges (Coulter, 1982; Chunn, 1990; Hatch & Griffiths, 1991). In addition, girls were more subject to informal and/or protectionist treatment such as probation, and when girls were sentenced, they received harsher sentences than did boys (Chunn, 1990). This was because of society's greater concern over girls' sexual behaviour (Coulter, 1982). After all, girls became women, and women became mothers who would presumably influence the next generation of children.

Another example of the double standard inherent in society in general and the legal system in particular was the B.C. Act. This piece of legislation allowed for forced sterilization of an inmate of any institution considered mentally ill or deficient. The most common candidate was a young and unmarried mother labeled as mentally retarded (Chunn, 1990).

The Child in Contemporary Psychologies

We now turn to a discussion of the conception of the child in modern psychology. Wundt rejected children as observers or objects of investigation because of their lack of reason (Miller, 1982). As Wundt's influence faltered, behaviourism and psychoanalysis grew in influence. Behaviourism has its roots in Lockean empiricism which held that the infant mind was a tabula rasa (or blank slate) that parents could inscribe with whatever character they liked (Hardyment, 1983). Locke emphasized nature and reason - people were subject only to ascertainable natural laws and were distinguished from animals by the power of reason. Behaviourism kept the emphasis on natural laws but rejected internal functions (which included Wundt's introspection) as non-scientific (Miller, 1982). Behaviourists saw children as simpler than adults and therefore easier to understand. The new approach saw the child as the "father to the man" (Miller, 1982, p.58) and thus childhood became an appropriate topic of study.

In North America, behaviourism supported a utilitarian social control philosophy. Watson (1925; cited in Rogers & Rogers, 1992) emphasized the power that behaviourism had to create children rather than simply explain childhood:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select - doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant, chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief (p.82).

Psychoanalysis taught that adult behaviour was the result of childhood conflicts (Miller, 1982). Freud originally believed his female clients' memories of sexual abuse, but he eventually changed his mind and labeled these memories "fantasies". He thus reconstructed a potentially revolutionary theory of the "child as victim" to the "child as original sinner" (Rogers & Rogers, 1992, p.89). Freud's theory reinforced the view that it was the child who was morally at fault in any sexual misbehaviour.

As inoculation had eradicated smallpox, careful handling of childhood according to Freud's principles would supposedly eliminate mental illness. Accordingly, parents in the fifties and sixties were most concerned with protecting their children from psychological distress (Hardyment, 1983). In the late twentieth century, Freudian ideas gave rise to child-centred and libertarian theories of education (Rogers & Rogers, 1992).

Piaget's structural theory of qualitatively different stages of cognitive development rendered the child not just lesser, but a lesser alien (Rogers & Rogers, 1992). Formal operations described the type of reasoning only reliably found in those educated in Western schools to around the university entrance level. This definition of cognitive maturity is "adultist" and educationally elitist. Piaget's work resulted in the trend to speed up cognitive development (e.g., trying to teach children to read at six months) (Hardyment, 1983).

I have merely touched on these major branches of psychology to illustrate some of the assumptions about the character of children implicit in these approaches. Each of these theoretical approaches reflects the biases, preoccupations, and desires of the "scientists" involved (Bradley, 1989). It is important to acknowledge the contextual nature of these knowledge claims.

According to Funk & Wagnalls (1989): person n. 1.Any human being considered as a distinct entity or personality; an individual.... 5.Law Any human being, corporation, or body politic having legal rights and duties.

By the first definition, children began to be viewed as persons around the eighteenth century when they were considered to be unique and irreplaceable. However, the second definition is the problematic one. It is this definition that has presented such a challenge to many groups throughout history that have been denied legal rights (e.g., emancipation and franchisement) such as women, ethnic minorities (e.g., blacks and Native Indians), fetuses, and children. Children (including those in utero) are the last remaining group to be denied legal personhood.

Where do we go from here? I don't think that many people would be willing to give up the special treatment accorded to children in exchange for legal emancipation. Is this solely a conceptual matter? Can the Supreme Court of Canada just declare children to be legally persons and thereby resolve this inequality? Or is our construction of the child as a non-person more than just a semantic distinction?


This paper has explored the social construction of childhood in the Western world since the sixteenth century. Because childhood is a social construct rather than a biological given, we must recognize that the assumption of irrationality and the systematic power inequalities that we have based our conception of childhood upon are just that - assumptions and not reality. I do not want to suggest that children should not be protected from exploitation and other forms of harm. What I would like to point out is that constructing childhood as weak and irrational can actually encourage the abuse and manipulation of children. We are so busy protecting and sheltering our children that we often forget that persons require respect as well as security. It is not my intention to assert that no one should exert authority over children, but I think that anyone in that position - parents, teachers, administrators, social workers, judges, etc. - should step away from behind the catchphrase "in the best interests of the child". As a person, every child deserves the right to be heard in any way that he or she can communicate and treated always with the utmost love, respect, and dignity.


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