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Childhood & children
The social construction of childhood
Childhood can be seen as a social construction. From this point of view, it is not a natural state or a
biological stage. Instead, it is shaped & given meaning by culture & society. As a result, the idea of
childhood, the types of behaviour considered appropriate for children, the way children should be
treated, and the length of time that childhood should last, are socially constructed.
Crosscultural evidence Evidence from different cultures provides support for the view that childhood
is a social construction. If childhood were simply a `natural state', then it would be similar across all
cultures. This is not the case.
Anthropological studies show that other cultures treat children in ways which might seem unusual or
even unnatural in contemporary Britain. Raymond Firth (1963), in his study of the Pacific island of
Tikopia, found that children carried out dangerous tasks such as using sharp tools & fishing in the
open sea. They were allowed to carry out these tasks when they themselves felt ready rather than when
adults decide they were competent or safe to do so.
A brief history of childhood In `centuries of childhood' (1962), the French historian Philippe Aries
argued that the concept of childhood did not exist in medieval Europe. He based his argument on
contemporary letters, diaries & other documents, plus the way children were depicted in paintings of the
time. Aries claimed that soon after children were weaned, they were regarded as little adults & treated as
such. From an early age, they worked alongside adults in the fields or in the cottage industries they
dressed like adults & in many way behaved like adults.
The emergence of modern childhood Aries sees the modern concept of childhood developing from the
separation of children from the world of adults. This process began in the 16th century when the upper
classes sent their children to schools to be educated. In the early years of the industrial revolution, child
labour was widespread children & adults worked side by side. Throughout the 19th century a series of
factory acts banned the employment of kids in mines & factories. By the end of the 19th century
elementary state education was compulsory in most European countries children were now physically
separated from adult settings and had a separate legal status.
The process was accompanied by the development of experts specialising in childrenchild
psychologists, paediatricians, educationalists & parenting experts. According to Aries, `our world is
obsessed by the physical, moral & sexual problems of childhood'. Children are seen as different from
adults. As a result, they have special needs. Because of this they require treatment, training & guidance
from an army of specially trained adults. This is very different from the middle ages when `the child
became the natural companion of the adult'.
Evaluation Aries has been criticised for overstating his case. In certain aspects, children in medieval
Europe were seen as different from adults. Eg, there were laws prohibiting the marriage of kids under 12
(Bukatko & Daehler, 2001). However, many historians agree with the broad outline of Aries history of
childhood in Western Europe.
Images of childhood
Wendy Stainton Rogers (2001) looks at the total construction of childhood in C20th Europe. She
identifies 2 `images' of childhood the `innocent & wholesome child' & `wicked & sinful child'. Both
images coexist they exist together. Both have a long history & continue to the present day. They can
be seen in a variety of forms eg, in novels such as Authur Ransome's `swallows & amazons' with its
charming & wholesome children & William Golding's `Lord of the flies' where children descend to their
`natural' savage & barbaric selves.
Each image suggests a particular way of acting towards children. The image of the innocent &
wholesome child suggests children should be protected from anything that is nasty about the Adult
world, from violence & from the worries & concerns of adults childhood should be a happy, joyous &
carefree time. By contrast , the idea of an especially sinful child suggests that children should be
restrained, regulated & disciplined.
Both these views of childhood imply that adults should be concerned about children & take
responsibility for their upbringing.
The welfare view The first view suggests that children are vulnerable & need protection. The
`welfare view' forms the basis of social policy towards children in the UK today. Eg, the children
Act of 1989,, states that `when a court determines any Q with respect to the upbringing of a child . .
. . the child's welfare shall be the courts paramount consideration'.
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To control view The 2nd view assumes that children are unable to control their antisocial
tendencies. As a result, they need regulation & discipline. This `control view' is reflected in
education policy children must submit to education & the farm & content of their education must
be strictly controlled from above.
According to Wendy Stainton Rogers, these images of childhood are social constructions. She argues
that `there is no NATURAL DISTINCTION that marks off children as a certain category of person'.…read more