In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Value of Children

  • Introduction
  • Historical Views

Childhood Studies Value of Children
Allison Pugh, Allister Pilar Plater
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 September 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0176


Any overview of the “value” of children must grapple with “which children” and “whose value” as children has been valued differently depending on their race, class, gender, and other social categories and depending on who is doing the valuing. Historians start by demonstrating how the notion of childhood has changed and evolved over time, with a lively debate centering on whether medieval children were even visible as children, not to mention valued. According to one influential account, perceptions of children’s value, once centered on their often small but real economic contributions to the household, became transformed into an emotional pricelessness, which paradoxically has served to render their actual economic roles largely invisible. Social studies of childhood, a burgeoning literature founded in the early 1980s to analyze childhood as a social construction, have both elevated childhood and children as subjects worth studying and enabled a critical stance toward knowledge about them. Thanks to these studies, children’s continuing instrumental value in their households and communities has been documented, including their labor as helpers and workers. In more affluent societies, children’s economic impact as consumers is particularly powerful. Children’s instrumental importance also includes their active social participation, in which they build communities, contribute to social organization, and enact cultural practices. Perhaps the most traditional interpretation of the “value” of children is in scholarship assessing children-as-investments, as costs to family budgets or parental time and energy. Scholars have traced a formidable increase in maternal time and attention for middle-class children in the United States and other affluent societies, with some noting how the transformation coincides with the state’s neoliberal disinvestment. Children’s value also has a crucial symbolic dimension for parents and communities as well as the state, entities that battle for control over children’s training, education, and care. Here, the unevenness of children’s value again comes to the fore. Ultimately, it is perhaps reflective of children’s uniquely disadvantaged position as the quintessential minority that we even wonder about their “value,” while we do not pause to consider the “value” of men, women, or adults in general. Thus from this perspective, the most important value of children is in their contribution to social science because studying children and childhood enables us to see age as a dimension of social inequality, the tension between protection and rights, and the blinkers on insight that a person’s social position (as adults, for example) can confer.

Historical Views

Historians have provided crucial fodder for scholarly awareness of childhood as a contested, constructed notion changing over time and of the contextualized variety of children’s experiences, with implications for conceptions of children’s value. The foundational work of Philippe Ariès (Ariès 1962) on the relative invisibility of children until the 18th century set the terms of the debates that followed over changes in childrearing and the degree to which Western societies considered childhood a separate stage. Although Ariès’ interpretation remains influential, Pollock 1983 is among the most respected of his critics, basing her account of cherished children on analysis of extensive primary sources. Changing conceptions of children also shaped child custody practices, according to Mason 1996. Reviewing some of the debates about what childhood meant and when, Hendrick 2000 points out that historians have been more concerned with changing interpretations of childhood than with children’s lived experiences and urges scholars to attend to both issues. Zelizer 1985 notes that the “sacralization” of children’s lives in the early 19th century served at once to protect children from dangers even as it curtailed their autonomy socially and economically. Not all childhoods were sacralized, however, according to Mintz 2004, which presents a sweeping account of a wide variety of children’s lives in US history, whereas King 1995 focuses on the experiences of slave children in the United States, relying on handwritten narratives and interviews with former slaves. Zinnecker 2001 offers a broad model of how relations between children and adults change as societies age and develops a typology of different “generational orders” prevailing at different times and places, orders that specify different understandings of childhood and the social norms and activities from which they are exempt or excluded.

  • Ariès, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life. Translated by Robert Baldick. New York: Knopf, 1962.

    This foundational book argues that the very concept of childhood is a product of modern thought. Relying on analysis of paintings, etiquette manuals, wardrobe, games, and other features of social life, it details adult–child relationships and experiences of childhood in Western Europe from the 1500s to the 1900s, underscoring the idea that in medieval society children existed but did not have a “childhood.”

  • Hendrick, Harry. “The Child as a Social Actor in Historical Sources.” In Research with Children: Perspectives and Practices. Edited by Pia Christensen and Allison James, 36–61. London: Falmer, 2000.

    Historians have focused on the concept of childhood more than on the lives of children, the author maintains, pointing to debates about how to interpret cruelty or seeming indifference toward children, debates that largely concerned themselves with what such practices revealed about the meanings of childhood. Hendrick urges scholars to attend to the lived experiences of children as social actors, as well as to childhood as a structural feature of all societies.

  • King, Wilma. Stolen Childhood: Slave Youth in Nineteenth-Century America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995.

    The first of its kind, this book documents the lives of enslaved children before and during the Civil War. Using archival research, which includes handwritten narratives and recorded interviews from the 1930s with former slaves, King discusses family, community, work, play, spirituality, trauma, and freedom. Most notably, she explores the interpersonal relations between white children and children of color.

  • Mason, Mary Ann. From Father’s Property to Children’s Rights: The History of Child Custody in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.

    This book historicizes US child custody practices and recognizes a fundamental link between custody and the changing status and power of women. Most notably, Mason denotes a critical and yet complicated shift in the conceptualization of custody from children as economic assets to children as persons with interests, needs, and rights that should be protected.

  • Mintz, Steven. Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 2004.

    Presents a historical view of the American child. Wildly diverse across time and space, the book offers a broad map of children’s transformation and the competing visions of childhood throughout particular historical eras. Beginning with the Puritans and ending with the consumer culture of children today, Mintz explores children’s role in revolution, Western expansion, industry, and welfare.

  • Pollock, Linda A. Forgotten Children: Parent-Child Relations from 1500 to 1900. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983.

    Argues against the notions that there was no concept of childhood before the 17th century, that parental care was indifferent, and that cruel treatment was normal. Based on extensive diaries and autobiographies from the United States and the United Kingdom, Pollock finds that parents enjoyed and recognized their children’s childishness.

  • Zelizer, Viviana. Pricing the Priceless Child. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985.

    Documents children’s move from economically useful (financially contributing actors within the household) to emotionally priceless (cherished more for their symbolic value). Zelizer demonstrates that the cultural shift led to children’s greater protection from the dangers of the street and marketplace but at the cost of their autonomy and freedom.

  • Zinnecker, Jurgen. “Children in Young and Aging Societies: The Order of Generations and Models of Childhood in Comparative Perspective.” In Children at the Millennium: Where Have We Come From, Where Are We Going? Edited by Sandra L. Hofferth and Timothy J. Owens, 11–52. Oxford: Elsevier Science, 2001.

    Zinnecker explores some of the changes to the generational order under conditions of “aging societies,” in which children have more experience with different kinds of adults while adults have less exposure to children. Suggests that children’s minority status explains the coexistence of child-centeredness and hostility toward children. Offers a typology of aging societies across time.

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