Historical differences in childhood.

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  • Social Construct of childhood
    • Historical differences in childhood.
      • The position of children differs from over time as well as between societies. Many sociologists and historians argue that childhood as we understand it today is a relatively recent invention.
        • The historian Philippe Aries (1960) argues that in the middle ages (from the 10th century to the 13th centuries) the idea of childhood did not exist.
          • Children were not seen as having a different nature or needs from adults - at least, not once they had past the stage of physical dependency during infancy.
        • In the middle ages, childhood as a separate age-stage was also short. Soon after being weaned, the child entered wider society on much the same terms as an adult, beginning work from an early age, often in the household of another family.
          • Children were in effect 'mini-adults' with the same rights, duties and skills as adults.
            • For example, the law often made no distinction between children and adults, and children faced the same severe punishments as those meted out to adults.
            • As evidence of his view, Aries uses works of art from the period. In these, children appear without any of the characteristic of childhood: they have simply been depicted on a smaller scale. The paintings show children and adults dressed in the same clothing and working and playing together.
              • Children were not seen as having a different nature or needs from adults - at least, not once they had past the stage of physical dependency during infancy.
              • For example, the law often made no distinction between children and adults, and children faced the same severe punishments as those meted out to adults.
      • Parental attitudes towards children in the middle ages were also very different from those today.
        • Edward Shorter (1975) argues that high death rates encouraged indifference and neglect, especially towards infants.
          • For example, it was not uncommon for parents to give a newborn baby the name of a recent dead sibling, to refer to the baby as 'it', or to forget how many children they had had.
        • According to Aries, however, elements of the modern notion of childhood gradually began to emerge from the 13th century onwards.
          • Schools (which previously adults had also attended) came to specialise purely in the education of the young. This reflected the influence of the church, which increasingly saw children as fragile 'creatures of god' in need of discipline and protection from worldly evils.
          • There was a growing distinction between children's and adult's clothing. By the 17th century, an upper-class boy would be dressed in 'an outfit reserved for his own age group, which set him apart from others.
          • By the 18th century, handbooks on childbearing were widely available - a sign of the growing child-centredness of family life, at least among the middle classes.
        • According to Aries, these development culminate in the modern 'cult of childhood'. He argues that we have moved from a world that did not see childhood as in any way special, to a world that is obsessed with childhood. He describes the 20th century as 'the century of the child'.
          • Some sociologists have criticised Aries for arguing that childhood did not exist in the past. Linda Pollock (1983) argues that it is more correct to say that in the middle ages, society simply had a different notion of childhood from today's.
            • However. Aries' work is valuable because it shows that childhood is socially constructed: he demonstrates how ideas about children and their social status have varied over time.

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