In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Innocence and Childhood

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies/Edited Volumes
  • Journals
  • Selected Periods in History
  • Classical Thinkers of Pedagogy
  • Instrumentalizing Childhood Innocence
  • Current Discourses
  • Innocence and Art
  • Innocence, Consumer Market, and Media
  • Innocence and Law—Children as Perpetrators
  • Innocence in Parents’ and Children’s Perspectives

Childhood Studies Innocence and Childhood
Doris Bühler-Niederberger
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 July 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 July 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0161


The notion of innocence refers to children’s simplicity, their lack of knowledge, and their purity not yet spoiled by mundane affairs. Such innocence is taken as the promise of a renewal of the world by the children. Innocence has been attributed to children and childhood by adults at all times, but content and social function of such glorifying assessments show considerable variation over time and context, and the valuation is never unanimous among contemporaries. Innocence used to be a religious notion in earlier times. With the Enlightenment and success of Rousseau’s Émile, nature becomes a new point of reference. From the 19th century onward, the idea of children’s innocence is strongly interrelated with children’s sexuality. Innocence is then emphasized to defend the assumption of an absence of sexuality in children and the demand for such absence. Innocence is not a scientific term; therefore, the numerous studies concerning processes, seminal ideas, and functions of the value assessment of children and childhood do not constitute a unified research area. Researchers deal with questions of children’s innocence often rather implicitly. They do so while analyzing the social construction and reconstruction of childhood at different times and in different historical and contemporary contexts. They do so as well in the interpretation of classic pedagogy, as innocence is a conceptual element in the writings of several pedagogues. Last but not least, we find references to notions of innocence in studies on discourses and political programs concerning children’s sexuality and in the scientific reconstruction of moral enterprises called “moral panics”: public outcries concerning improper childhoods. Put together, these studies, which are scattered over multiple research fields, support the following conclusions: (1) various value assessments of children and childhood may be found at all times, and the notion of innocence is never uncontested; (2) historical notions of innocence are complex and may as well recognize children’s agency; (3) the attribution of innocence to children is often functionalized by interest groups to support their claims and to devaluate rival or marginal groups; it may therefore be a value assessment of minor profit for the children, but of high profit for interest groups; (4) while the attribution of innocence has had a clear reference to religion and nature implicating far-reaching assumptions concerning humankind, it is almost completely narrowed down to debates on children’s sexuality and sexual endangerment in the early 21st century.

General Overviews

There is no encompassing introduction into the scattered research area on innocence and childhood. Books mentioning “innocence” in their titles focus on specific aspects, mostly addressing questions of children’s sexuality. But the interconnection of childhood and innocence refers to a far broader issue. The best introductions are therefore texts that expose the history of ideas and mentalities on children and childhood and relate it to social and institutional history. They depict the complexity and contexts of the attribution of innocence or sin in various times. The works of Sommerville 1990 and Baader 1996 prove that the ascription of innocence to childhood (or its denial) implicates fundamental assumptions concerning humankind and the relation of humans to God. Evidently such questions have been solved in different ways during history and have been discussed over and over again. Strikingly enough, the more general solutions concerning human value or guilt were often not simply transferred onto children. The thoughts concerning children, rather, show an additional notion of what might be called provision or affection. For example, in times when theological thinking made it inevitable to see children implicated in original sin, some Church Fathers started to consider that children should not suffer in hell, although they were condemned (unless baptized); Sommerville 1990 gives relevant examples. Attributing innocence to children might as well include respect for the children’s own view and own way to learn and develop. Baader 1996 shows that the Romantic view on children, which becomes so heavily criticized in early-21st-century studies on children’s sexuality, was not only protective and patronizing, but also included strong notions of agency. The history of assumptions and ascriptions concerning childhood can be exemplified by images that became famous in folklore or literature, as Richter 1987 presents them. Cunningham 1995 focuses on convergences and divergences between ideas of children and realities of adult-child relations throughout history. Jenks 2005 gives a shorter overview, helping readers who do not want to dive deeper into history of mind. The Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society (Fass 2004) has no entry concerning innocence, but it brings up the topic in several entries (“Victorian Art,” “Child Witch,” “Christian Thought”) and is helpful for readers looking for the importance of the notions of innocence in specific fields. The same is true for Fass 2013 with no chapters on innocence explicitly, but some chapters related to its history.

  • Baader, Meike Sophia. Die romantische Idee des Kindes und der Kindheit: Auf der Suche nach der verlorenen Unschuld. Neuwied, Germany: Luchterhand, 1996.

    Analyzes pedagogical and belletristic texts of Romantic era (18th and 19th centuries) that emphasize the innocence of childhood. Very careful analysis of the thinkers by always referring to their important writings. Text is excellently written and therefore easy to follow, even for readers with limited knowledge of the history of ideas.

  • Cunningham, Hugh. Children and Childhood in Western Society since 1500. London: Longman, 1995.

    History of childhood juxtaposing ideas and realities concerning children and childhood, giving insight into many interesting conditions and solutions. The ideas of important thinkers are presented in a very understandable way and in a broader frame of social and institutional history.

  • Fass, Paula S., ed. The Encyclopedia of Children and Childhood in History and Society. 3 vols. London and New York: Macmillan, 2004.

    Authors with high expertise inform by short entries on a very broad range of the history of childhood; many of them deal with topics that are interesting for the reader who wants to explore the ascriptions of innocence to childhood in various times and conditions.

  • Fass, Paula S., ed. The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World. London: Routledge, 2013.

    Twenty-seven authors contribute in their chapters to many aspects of children’s history in the Western world. Chapters on the history of children as consumers, on the history of children’s visual representation, on children’s toys, or on sexuality may be helpful for the reader interested in innocence and childhood.

  • Jenks, Chris. Childhood. 2d ed. London: Routledge, 2005.

    Easy-to-read text. Reflections on innocence do not constitute a major part of the text, but are well integrated into a social constructionist view. Jenks’s distinction between the “Dionysian” and “Apollonian” images of children, however, hardly considers the complexity and ambivalence childhood images have always had.

  • Richter, Dieter. Das fremde Kind: Zur Entstehung der Kindheitsbilder des bürgerlichen Zeitalters. Frankfurt: S. Fischer Verlag, 1987.

    A well-written history of the images of childhood and the notions of innocence that were adopted in different images. Includes many pictures and examples of well-known fairy tales, children’s literature, autobiographies, and visual arts.

  • Sommerville, C. John. The Rise and Fall of Childhood. Reissue ed. New York: Vintage, 1990.

    Very well-informed reconstruction of the history of ideas and mentalities. Many references to social conditions. Innocence as a specific notion making part of such ideas is explicitly discussed for several time periods and related to religious convictions of the time.

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