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Bouguereau's L'Innocence: Both young children and lambs are symbols of innocence.
Innocence by Pierre Paul Prud'hon, circa 1810

Innocence (or guiltlessness) is a lack of guilt, with respect to any kind of crime, or wrongdoing. In a legal context, innocence is to the lack of legal guilt of an individual, with respect to a crime. In other contexts, it is a lack of experience.

In relation to knowledge[edit]

Innocence can imply lesser experience in either a relative view to social peers, or by an absolute comparison to a more common normative scale. In contrast to ignorance, it is generally viewed as a positive term, connoting an optimistic view of the world, in particular one where the lack of knowledge stems from a lack of wrongdoing, whereas greater knowledge comes from doing wrong. This connotation may be connected with a popular false etymology explaining "innocent" as meaning "not knowing" (Latin noscere (To know, learn)). The actual etymology is from general negation prefix in- and the Latin nocere, "to harm".

Because innocence implies lesser experience and there is a common understanding of children and or youths as innocent, children become marginalized and adults who are assumed to have more experience gets to be the ones to manage and protect youths. Adults protection of childhood innocence takes form in many ways such as adults deciding and being in control of whats’s appropriate for children, when they could have access to certain rights, when they could learn about certain topics such as sex.

People who lack the mental capacity to understand the nature of their acts may be regarded as innocent regardless of their behavior. From this meaning comes the usage of innocent as a noun to refer to a child under the age of reason, or a person, of any age, who is severely mentally disabled.

Pejorative meaning[edit]

In some cases, the term "innocence" has a pejorative meaning, where an assumed level of experience dictates common discourse or baseline qualifications for entry into another, different, social experience. Since experience is a prime factor in determining a person's point of view, innocence is often also used to imply naiveté or lack of personal experience.


The lamb is a commonly used symbol of innocence's nature. In Christianity, for example, Jesus is referred to as the "Lamb of God", thus emphasizing his sinless nature.[1] Other symbols of innocence include children, virgins, acacia branches (especially in Freemasonry),[2] non-sexual nudity, songbirds and the color white (biblical paintings and Hollywood films depict Jesus wearing a white tunic).[3]

Loss of innocence[edit]

A "loss of innocence" is a common theme in fiction, pop culture, and realism. It is often seen as an integral part of coming of age. It is usually thought of as an experience or period in a child's life that widens their awareness of evil, pain or suffering in the world around them. Examples of this theme include songs like "American Pie",[4] poetry like William Blake's collection Songs of Innocence and of Experience and novels like To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, A Farewell to Arms, and Lord of the Flies.

By contrast the I Ching urges a recovery of innocence - the name given to Hexagram 25 - and "encourages you to actively practice innocence".[5]

The understanding that children are innocent dates back decades ago where children are viewed as being vulnerable and naïve. However, with the passing of time it is understood that children are constantly being exposed to issues of inequality, sexuality, violence etc., on a daily basis. With the increasing usage of social media, children are exposed to many more topics and ideas. Therefore, childhood innocence can be seen as a myth. Restricting a child from realities around the world inhibits them from learning and growing into mature and competent adults. Allowing children to navigate for themselves in social worlds gives children the agency and confidence to learn about the world around them, improve themselves through possible mistakes and to flourish in the digital and social world.

Innocence is an assumed part of childhood that is hoped to be maintained. Children as innocent beings is essentially a myth due to their day to day interactions online or offline. Attempting to maintain innocence is not only impossible, but may also negatively affect the childhood experience as a whole. A child who is sheltered is unable to face the realities of the real world. Therefore it is difficult for them to grow in terms of making mistakes and developing a moral compass. Believing that children’s innocence must be maintained and restricting them is denying a child from learning, experiencing, making decisions and developing. Associating children and innocence also places them as individuals who are in special need of protection which has the potential to limit their agency.

Children being innocent is an idea which has been culturally and historically relevant, however the idea of childhood innocence has been created by adults. This term influences the idea that children can be seen as inadequate to make their own decisions. This tends to restrict children's ability to grow mentally, and emotionally. Children should be able to experience trial and error to learn and develop independently. Agency is key for children to learn and develop at their own pace.

In psychoanalysis[edit]

The psychoanalytic tradition is broadly divided between those (like Fairbairn and Winnicott) who saw the child as initially innocent, but liable to lose its innocence under the impact of stress or psychological trauma; and those (like Freud and Klein) who see the child as developing innocence - maturing into it - as a result of surmounting the Oedipus complex and/or the depressive position.[6]

More eclectically, Eric Berne saw the Child ego state, and its vocabulary, as reflecting three different possibilities: the cliches of conformity; the obscenities of revolt; and "the sweet phrases of charming innocence".[7] In a rather different formulation, Christopher Bollas used the term 'Violent Innocence' to describe a fixed and obdurate refusal to acknowledge the existence of an alternative viewpoint[8] - something akin to what he calls "the fascist construction, the outcome is to empty the mind of all opposition".[9]

Literary sidelights[edit]

  • In The Golden Notebook, a woman looks back in laughing envy at the innocence that had previously allowed her to submerge herself in the position of the 'woman-in-love'.[10]
  • Ivy Compton-Burnett had one character conclude dourly of another two that "you are both of you innocent though it is an innocence rooted in your wishes for your own lives".[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Freemasonry: Its Symbolism, Religious Nature, and Law of Perfection (March 10, 2003)". By Chalmers I. Paton (author). Retrieved February 25, 2013. 
  2. ^ The Numismatist (1903). By American Numismatic Association. Retrieved February 25, 2013. 
  3. ^ The Encyclopedia Americana: A Library of Universal Knowledge (1920). By Encyclopedia Americana Corporation. Retrieved February 25, 2013. 
  4. ^ Levitt, Saul. "Interpretation of American Pie - analysis, news, Don McLean, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, Rock & Roll". Retrieved 2011-02-16. 
  5. ^ B. B. Walker trans, The I Ching or Book of Changes (1993) p. 53
  6. ^ N. Symington, Narcissism (1993) p. xiv-xv
  7. ^ E. Berne, What Do You Say After You Say Hello? (1974) p. 325
  8. ^ S. Cavanagh, Skin, Culture and Psychoanalysis (2013) p. 137
  9. ^ Quoted in Adam Phillips, On Flirtation (1994) p. 158
  10. ^ Doris lessing, The Golden Notebook (1973) p. p. 216
  11. ^ I. Compton-Burnett, The Last and the First (1971) p. 142