The origins of historical research into childhood are usually traced to the publication of Philippe Ariès's 1960 study, translated into English as Centuries of childhood. Here, Ariès argued that while there have always been children, the concept of ‘childhood’ – the recognition, celebration and, frequently, idealisation of an intermediate stage of life between infancy and adulthood – only developed in the seventeenth century and then primarily among the wealthier middle classes. Later scholars have dismissed Ariès's portrayal of the Middle Ages as a period in which parents had a largely unemotional relationship with their children. However, there has been a general consensus that by the middle of the eighteenth century, certainly in elite families, the child was increasingly being recognised as an individual with needs which differed from those of adults. This chapter, therefore, charts a period of enormous change beginning with the ‘discovery of childhood’ and ending with the insertion of ‘the rights of the child’ into the Irish constitution in 2012.
Ariès inspired the development of a new field of scholarship, employing age – like gender, race or class – as a tool of historical enquiry. Methodologically, this poses challenges for historians as even within a limited region and timeframe, the definition and experience of ‘childhood’ is not universal. Furthermore, children are less likely than adults to have created records that have been preserved and, where they are extant, these sources may elude analysis by the modern adult. Historians are usually dependent on sources written or recorded by adults and, in consequence, Harry Hendrick has asked ‘can the history of children/childhood ever be more than that of what adults have done to children and how they conceptualised childhood?’ This question is not merely rhetorical. Internationally, the historiography of childhood has evolved from concentration on the changing ways in which adults – whether parents, philosophers, philanthropists or politicians – represented and thought about children, to studies of the increasing intervention by states into the lives of poor, ‘criminal’, illegitimate and other vulnerable children, to attempts through the use of such sources as oral histories, memoirs, folklore collections and children's literature to discover the authentic voices, and the agency, of children in the past.