Changes in ChIldhood
Like other aspects of the family, childhood has changed over the centuries. Philippe Aries, in Centuries of Childhood (1962), described medieval children as working and playing alongside adults once they had been weaned. Often all family members lived and slept in one room so children saw the harsh realities of life.
From the sixteenth century the Church became more concerned anout safeguarding children's morals and, by the eighteenth century, middle-class couples, influenced by the Romantic philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau, 'coddled' their children, treating them as innocents who should be shielded from adult corruption.
However, working class parents needed their children's help and earning power. In the countryside children would work alongside the same-sex parent in the dairy fields and they were allowed to sweep chimneys and work in coal mines and factories until the Victorian period.
Child- centered society
Victorian moral entrepreneurs became aware of the vulnerability of children. As well as campaigning against child labour, they proposed a separate juvenile justice system and set up charities, such as Barnardo's and the NSPCC, to protect children. The new discipline of Psychology made people aware of the importance of early years in forming personality. Compulsory education from 1880 separated children from adults on a daily basis. Since the twentieth century, UK society has been described as child-centred because:
- many couples limit their families to give more attention to each child and often make financial and other sacrifices for them;
- many leisure facilities and entertainments are designed for children, such as theme parks, films, summer activities and top shops;
- there are professionals such as child psychiatrists and health vistors who specialise in meeting their needs;
- child protection is a legal priority and organisations such as Childline are well supported;
- education has become longer, increasing the financial dependence of many young people until their early twenties;
- age-related laws are intended to prevent children from encountering potentially harmful substances and experiences.
Child- centered society
Evaluation Families differ in how far children are the cenre of attention. Some middle-class parents organise multitude of out-of-school sporting and educational experiences for their children, while others are so busy with their own careers that their children spend most of their leisure with au pairs, child-minders or playing electronic games. Some working-class parents may have multiple problems, leading to child neglect.
Child abuse, both mental and physical, occurs in families from all social backgrounds. Nevertheless, it is probably true that, on average, families spend a greater proportion of their income on the children and more time transporting and entertaining them than they did before the twentieth century.
Childhood as a social construction
This refers to our conception or expectations of childhood as a stage of life separate from adulthood. In some developing countries, children are simply viewed as mini-adults, biologically less developed but living similar lives to older people. Examples include:
- street children in parts of South America, who may be shot as criminals;
- children sent out alone to tend cattle for a whole day;
- girls married off and bearing children by the age of twelve;
- young children labouring in factories or selling goods in the street ;
- child soldiers;
- prostitution of children of both sexes.
These activities horrify us as we conceive of children as having greater rights then adults and as we view them as easily damaged in their early years. We expect them to be allowed to play when not at school and to be protected from worry and danger.
Since the second half of the twentieth century, various sociologists and writers have suggested that our construction of children as innocents uncorrupted by the adult world is outdated.
Neil Postman Postman, in The Disappearance of Childhood (1983), noted an increase in child crime and teenage pregnancy, blaming it on children's exposure to adult behavour through television, especially as they often watch unsupervised by parents. The same concerns are now expressed about computer games and the Internet.
Sue Palmer Palmer, in Toxic Childhood (2006) was concerned by the increase in Attention- Decifit and Hyperactivity Disorder, autism, substance abuse, self harm and attempted suicide in children. She suggested these signs of unhappiness and dysfunction are a result of deficits in:
- time to interact with their family with quality talk;
- exercise and unstructured play, especially in natural surroundings;
- healthy food;
- long,regular sleep patterns;
- emotional security and stability throughout childhood;
- secure childcare arrangements and good role models;
- the gradual encouragement of self- discipline;
- positive ethos at pre-school and school;
- neighbourhood support.
Like Postman, she explained it partly by too much time spent in front of 'electronic babysitters' (television and computers), as parents are too busy working to give them attention. Instead, parents give in topressure from aadvertisers to buy the goods targeted at children, putting their children's material well-being above good-quality relationships.
Bailey Review An independent review into the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood, commissioned by the government, called on businesses and broadcasters to protect children from the increasingly sexualised 'wallpaper' that surrounds them. Letting Children be Children (2011) condemned products encouraging children to grow up too soon, sch as padded bra aimed at pre-pubescent girls. The government agreed with its call to reduce in street-advertising containing sexualised imagery and to make it easier for parents to block adult and age- restricted mateial across all media.
Some sociologists take a contrasting view, suggesting that parents damage their children by not giving them the independence they enjoyed in earlier times.
John Hood- Williams Hood-Williams (1990) described the excessive control exercised by modern parents over their children's where-abouts and appearance as 'age patriarchy'.
Frank Furedi In Paranoid Parenting (2001), Furedi said that parents' concerns to keep their children safe have resulted in far too many being driven short distances to school or forbidden to play in parks, limiting the healthy exercise and independence they would otherwise gain.
Richard Louv In Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature- Deficit Disorder (2005), Louv made similar points to Furedi, suggesting that young people's lives are duller for being kept safely indoors instead of being allowed to play in the woods unsupervised by adults.
Evaluation There appears to be disagreement here, as some sociologists suggest childhood is disappearing because of access to sexualised media and products, whereas others claim children are given less independence that in the past. They are not necessarily contradictory, though. Many parents may be more preoccupied than in the past by dangers to their children from strangers and accidents but less concerned about early sexual awareness.