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Sociology Essay Childhood is not fixed, universal experience but is a notion that changes
according to time and locality. Discuss.
In this essay, I shall be discussing whether childhood is fixed, universal experience and
whether it changes according to time and locality. I present the argument of Philippe Aries,
Wendy Stainton Rogers, Nick Lee and Neil Postman.
Childhood can be seen as a social construction. From this view, it is not a natural state or a
biological state. Childhood is not normal or inevitable. Instead, it is shaped and given
meaning by culture and society. As a result, the idea of childhood, the way children should
be treated, and the length of time that childhood should last, are socially constructed. There
is cross cultural evidence to back up this argument. 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 threat 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 and fishing in the
open sea. They were allowed to carry out these tasks when they themselves felt ready rather
than when adults decided they were competent or safe to do so.
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 and other documents and the way children are portrayed in
paintings of the time. Aries claimed that soon after children were weaned, they were
regarded as little adults and treated as such. From an early age, they worked alongside
adults in the fields or in cottage industries they dressed like adults and in many ways
behaved like adults.
Aries sees the modern concept of childhood developing from the separation of children from
the world of adults. This progress began in the 19th 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 and children and adults worked side by side. Throughout 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. This progress was
accompanied by the development of experts specialising in children. Child psychologists,
paediatricians, educationalists and parenting experts. According to Aries, "Our world is
obsessed by physical, moral and sexual problems of childhood". Children are seen as
different form adults. As a result, they have special needs. Because of this, they require
treatment, training and 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".
Aries has been criticised for overstating his case. In certain respects, children in medieval
Europe were seen as different form adults. For example, there were laws prohibiting the
marriage of children under 12 (Bukatko & Daehler, 2001). However, many historians agree
with the broad outline of Aries' history of childhood in Western Europe.
Wendy Stainton Rogers (2001) looks at the social construction of childhood in the 20th
century Europe. She identifies two images of childhood "the innocent and wholesome child"
and "the wicked and sinful child". Both images coexist (they exist together). Both have a
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They can be seen in a variety of forms for
example, in novels such as Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons with its charming
and wholesome children and William Golding's Lord of the Flies where children descend
to their natural savage and barbaric selves. Each image suggests a particular way of acting
towards children.…read more
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In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare
institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interest of
the child shall be a primary consideration".
Changes in the social construction of childhood result in changes in the way adults treat
children. This can be seen from the 1989 Children Act, which stated that in court
proceedings, "the child's welfare must be paramount".…read more