• Created by: 1234am
  • Created on: 13-04-20 11:55

childhood as a social construct

the modern western notion of childhood

society today childhood is a special time of life and children are different from adults;

  • They are regarded as physically and psychologically immature
  • Children lack of skills and experience means that they need to be nurtured and socialised before they are ready for adult society and responsibilities 

(Jane Pilcher 1995) most important feature of the modern idea of childhood is separateness. 

  • laws of what allowed and forbidden to do – differences in dress and products and services
  • However, this view of childhood as a separate age-status is not found in all societies.

(Stephen Wagg 1992) ‘Childhood is socially constructed’

•Western cultures today, children are defined as vulnerable and unable to fend for themselves

1 of 8

childhood as a social construct (2)

Cross-cultural differences in childhood

- how children are seen and treated in other times and places than our own

(Ruth Benedict 1934) argues that children in simpler, non-industrial societies are generally treated differently from their modern western counterparts in three ways;

1. Take responsibility at an early age. (Samantha Punch 2001) rural Bolivia – found that once children are about 5 they are expected to take work in the home and community

2. Less value is placed on children showing obedience to adult authority. (Raymond Firth 1970) Western pacific – doing as you’re told by a grown up is regarded as a concession to be granted by the child

3. Children’s sexual behaviour. (Bronislaw Malinowski 1957) southwest pacific – found adults took an attitude of ‘tolerance and amused interest’ towards children’s sexual explorations and activities

2 of 8

childhood as a social construct (3)

Historical differences in childhood 

- Position of children differs over time

The historian (Philippe Aries 1960) argues that in the Middle Ages ‘the idea of childhood did not exist’. After being weaned, the child entered wider society on much same terms as an adult, beginning work. ‘Mini-adults’ with the same rights, duties, and skills as an adult. 

The law often made no distinction between children and adults, faced the same severe punishments.

Criticism – (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 todays and not that childhood just didn’t exist.

3 of 8

childhood as a social construct (4)

Reasons for changes in the position of children 

(19th – 20th centuries) 

  • Laws restricting child labour and excluding children from paid work. Children became financially dependent on their parents.
  • Introduction of compulsory school in 1880. Raising the school leaving age has extended this period of dependency
  • Child protection and welfare legislation 
  • Growth of children’s rights. 
  • Declining family size and lower infant mortality rates, have encouraged parents to make a greater financial and emotional investment in the fewer children they have
  • Children’s development. (Jacques Donzelot 1977) observes how theories of child development that began to appear from the 19th century stressed that children need supervision and protection.
4 of 8

position of children improved?

The March of Progress View 

The march of progress view argues that, over the past few centuries, the position of children in western societies has been steadily improving and today is better than it has ever been.

(Ariès and Shorter) argue that today’s children are more valued, better cared for, protected and educated - children today are protected from harm and exploitation by laws against child abuse and child labour. 

Child-centred family 

March of progress sociologists argue that the family has become child-centred. Children are no longer to be ‘seen and not heard’

Now the focal point of the family, consulted on many decisions as never before. Parents invest a great deal in their children emotionally as well as financially, and often have high aspirations for them to have a better life.

5 of 8

position of children improved? (2)

Toxic childhood 

(Sue Palmer 2007; 2010) views nowadays childhood as a ‘toxic childhood’.

Argues that rapid technological and cultural changes in the past 25 years have damaged children’s physical, emotional and intellectual development. (Junk food, computer games, to the long hours worked by parents and the growing emphasis on testing in education)

The conflict view 

Conflict sociologists such as Marxists and feminists dispute the march of progress. Argue that society is based on a conflict between different social groups such as social classes or genders. 

They criticise the march of progress view on two grounds: 

  • There are inequalities among children in terms of the opportunities and risks they face: many today remain unprotected and badly cared for. 
  • The inequalities between children and adults are greater than ever
6 of 8

position of children improved? (3)

class inequalities between children

  • Poor mothers are more likely to have low birth-weight babies
  • Children of unskilled manual workers are over three times more likely to suffer from hyperactivity and four times more likely to experience conduct disorders than the children of professionals. 
  • Children born into poor families are also more likely to die in infancy or childhood, to suffer longstanding illness,fall behind at school, and to be placed on the child protection register. 

gender differences between children

(Mayer Hillman 1993) boys are more likely to be allowed to, use buses, and go out after dark unaccompanied. (Jens Bonke 1999) found that girls do more domestic labour 

ethnic differences between children

(Julia Brannen’s 1994) study of 15-16 year olds found that Asian parents were more likely than other parents to be strict towards their daughters

7 of 8

position of children improved? (4)

Age patriarchy 

(Diana Gittins 1998) uses ‘age patriarchy’ to describe inequalities between adults and children. 

(Hockey and James 1993) strategies for resisting adult control

  • ‘Acting up’ – acting like adults by doing things that children are not supposed to do, such as swearing, smoking, drinking alcohol, joy riding and under-age sexual activity. 
  • Children may exaggerate their age. ‘Acting down’ – behaving in ways of younger children 

The child’s point of view

‘New sociology of childhood’ sees children as active agents who play a major part in creating their own childhoods. 

(Mayall) says, we need to focus on ‘the present tense of childhood’ to study ordinary everyday life from the child’s perspective. 

(Mason and Tipper 2008) show how children create their own definition of who is ‘family’

8 of 8


No comments have yet been made

Similar Sociology resources:

See all Sociology resources »See all Families and households resources »