The Relationship Between Parents and Children

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The development of a child-centred society

What is a child - innocent, cute, funny? That’s certainly the popular image suggested by birthday cards.  However, in some countries around the world children are fighting along side adult soldiers by the age of 12, or supporting their entire family by working in factories. In Britain the age of sexual consent was not raised to 16 until the early 1900’s.  This all goes to prove that the period of time we now call childhood is a social construction. In other words, it is shaped and given meaning by culture and society. This section sets out to explain how this time period is decided upon and the part that the law plays in that.

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Childhood from the Past to the Present Day

Most of us tend to think of childhood as a clear and distinct stage of life.  'Children', we suppose, are distinct for 'babies' or 'toddlers'. Yet the concept of childhood, like so many other aspects of out social life today, has only come into being over the past two or three centuries.  In traditional cultures, the young moved directly form a lengthy infancy into working roles within the community.  The French historian Philippe Aries has argued that 'childhood', as a separate phase of development, did not exist in medieval times (Aries 1973).  In the paintings of medieval Europe, children were portrayed as 'little adults', having mature faces and the same style of dress as their elders.  Children took part in the same work and play activities as adults, and did not have the distinct toys or games that we now take for granted.

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Cunningham (1976) believes that three principles form the basis of contemporary parenting.

1.                  Children should be separated from the adult world.

2.                  This is because children can be corrupted through exposure to adult life and they need to be protected from it.

3.                  The happiness of children is paramount.

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Some historians, developing the view suggested by Aries, have suggested that in medieval Europe most people were indifferent, or even hostile to their children.  This view has been rejected by others, however, and is not borne out by what we know of traditional cultures still existing today.  Many parents, particularly mothers, almost certainly formed the same kinds of attachments to their children as are usual now.  

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child-centred society

The twentieth century saw the emergence of a child-centred society. This was probably the result of improved standards of living and nutrition in the late nineteenth century, which led to a major decline in the infant mortality rate. The higher standard of living also meant that having children became more expensive. The increased availability and efficiency of contraception allowed people to choose to have fewer children. Parents were able to invest more in them in terms of love, socialisation and protection. 

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Jenks (2005) believes principles such as those outlined by Cunningham have led to child-centred parenting. This type of parenting results in the needs of children within families taking priority over the needs of adults. The nurturing of children is seen as more important than the well-being of adults.

Jenks relates this to the development of postmodern childhood. In postmodern societies identities have been destabilised so that people no longer have a secure, grounded sense of who they are. Family life is insecure with frequent divorce. In these circumstances children have become the final source of primary relationships – the most fulfilling and unconditional relationships. Wives and husbands and partners have become disposable, but children are not and the parent-child bond is therefore the most important in society. Children become subject to increased surveillance because parents are more fearful for their children and determined to protect them. 

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Frank Furedi (2001) describes a change in the role of parents in recent years. Traditionally, ‘good’ parents tried to care for and stimulate their children. Nowadays they often see their main task as protecting their children from danger (accidents, paedophiles, bullies). Furedi believes parents have become paranoid. He thinks the risks of harm to children have been exaggerated and the new accent on protection is unhealthy. Children are chauffeured and shepherded from place to place by anxious parents. All sorts of risks – adventure trips with schools, even messing around in school playgrounds – are closed off to them. This prevents children from developing a healthy sense of adventure. 

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Legislation, Children and the State

Concern over the rights of children can be seen in greater state involvement in protecting them. Parents’ rearing of children is now monitored through various pieces of legislation, such as the 1989 Children’s Act and the 1991 Child Support Act. The role of social services and social workers is to police those families in which children are thought to be at risk. The state also supervises the socialisation of children through compulsory education, which lasts eleven years; and it takes some economic responsibility by paying child benefit and children’s tax credits to parents. 

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Increasingly, children have come to be recognised as individuals with rights. The Children’s Act 1989 allows children to have a say in which parent they live with following a divorce and they can bring to the attention of the court instances of where parents have not properly discharged their responsibilities to them.  Some children have recently used the act to ‘divorce’ their parents, whilst others have used it to ‘force’ their separated/divorced parents to see them more regularly. The prime concern of the state should be the child, and what children themselves say about their experiences and needs. The Child Support Act 1991 requires absent parents to contribute to the financial cost of providing for the child and the parent with immediate parental responsibility is required to cooperate with the Child Support Agency to assist in this process. (Moore et. Al.)

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Is childhood under threat?

Many functionalists and New Right thinkers see children as a vulnerable group – both under threat from and in need of protection from adult society. This approach suggests that successful child-rearing requires two parents of the opposite sex, and that there is a ‘right’ way to bring up a child. Such views often ‘blame’ working mothers or single mothers, and/or inadequate parents, for social problems such as delinquency. They also see children as in need of protection from ‘threats’ such as homosexuality and media violence. 

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The End of Childhood?

Will the 21st century see the end of childhood? According to Postman this process is well under way. He argues that childhood is only possible if children can be separated and protected from the adult world. The mass media and television in particular, have brought the adult world into the lives of children. For example, the growth of TV means that there are no more secrets from children. They are exposed to the ‘real world’ of sex, disaster, death and suffering. In addition, children seem less childlike today. They behave, speak and dress in more adult ways, while adults have enjoyed looking more like kids and youth generally. As a result, the boundaries between the worlds of children and adults are breaking down. Postman believes that in the long run, this means the end of childhood

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Jenks - the continuing distinctiveness of childhoo

Jenks (2005) does not believe that childhood is disappearing as a distinct stage in the life course. Jenks points out that children continue to be highly regulated and restricted by laws which control behaviour in public spaces, the consumption of alcohol and cigarettes, education, sexuality, political rights and so on. Laws prevent children from taking up adult roles until they reach specific ages and parents play a large part in enforcing these rules.


Jenk’s views are very similar to those of Anthony Giddens (see earlier sections) and it  is worth mentioning this. Both Jenks and Giddens offer rather generalised views without much research to back them up. Both of them neglect the variations in relationships within families, for example between different ethnic groups. 

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This conventional approach has been criticised by sociologists who have researched children’s perspectives on society and family. They suggest that functionalist and New Right arguments assume that children are simply empty vessels. Family life is presented as a one way process in which parenting and socialisation aim to transform children into good citizens. However, this view ignores the fact that children have their own unique interpretation of family life and actively employ these in interaction with their parents. In other words, the relationship between parents and children is a two-way process in which the latter can and do influence the nature and quality of family life. For example, research by Morrow (1998) found that children can be constructive and reflective contributors to family life. Most of the children in Morrow’s study had a pragmatic view of their family role – they did not want to make decisions for themselves but they did want a say in what happened to them. 

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Childhood and diversity

New Right and functionalist views are also criticised because they tend to generalise about children and childhood. This is dangerous because, as we saw earlier, childhood is not a fixed, universal experience

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character and quality of childhood

In many less developed nations, the experience of childhood is extremely different from that in the industrialised world. Children in such countries are constantly at risk of early death because of poverty and lack of basic health care. They are unlikely to have access to education, and may find themselves occupying adult roles as workers or soldiers. In many countries, children are not regarded as special or as in need of protection. For example, in Mexico, it is estimated that 1.9 million children live rough on the streets –240,000 of these have been abandoned by their parents. In Brazil, 1000 homeless children are shot dead every year by people who regard them as vermin.


Even in a country such as Britain, experience of childhood may differ across ethnic and religious groups. For example, there is evidence that Muslim, Hindu and Sikh children generally feel a stronger sense of obligation and duty to their parents than white children. Generational conflict is therefore less likely or is more likely to be hidden. 

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character and quality of childhood

Experiences of childhood in Britain may vary according to social class. Upper-class children may find that they spend most of their formative years in boarding schools. Middle-class children may be encouraged from an early age to aim for university and a professional career, and they are likely to receive considerable economic and cultural support from their parents. Working-class childhood may be made more difficult by the experience of poverty. For example, research by Jefferies (2002) found that children who experienced poverty had significantly fallen behind children from middle-class backgrounds in terms of maths, reading and other ability tests by the age of 7.

Experiences of childhood may differ according to gender. Boys and girls may be socialised into a set of behaviours based on expectations about masculinity and femininity.  For example, there is some evidence that girls are subjected to stricter social controls from parents compared with boys when they reach adolescence. 

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Changing parenting

Chapman (2004) believes that parent-child relationships have changed considerably as a result of the increase in the proportion of married women in paid employment. In the 1960s working mothers were criticised for ‘neglecting’ their children but now it is seen as better for children to go to nursery and the mother to do paid work. This change has led to fathers becoming  more involved in childcare.

 Research by Dermott (2003) into 25 fathers with professional or managerial jobs found a new style of ‘intimate fathering’ where men sought a closer, more emotional and more open relationship with their children.


This research can be criticised with reference to feminist theory that men do little emotion work

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Good and bad parenting

There is some evidence which suggests that the standard of parenting has improved over recent decades with parents becoming more able to meet the needs of their children. For example, Gershuny (2000) found from a study involving 3000 parents keeping diaries the activities, found that the amount of time parents spent reading to or playing with their children had quadrupled over recent decades.



Don’t forget to gain analysis and evaluation marks by evaluating research. In this case the sample size is large, suggesting the research is reliable, but there is no way of checking how accurate the diaries are.

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Neil Postman (1982) Is childhood disappearing?

Postman argues that childhood is disappearing. His view is based on two related  ideas.

1.    The growth of television means that there are no more secrets from children. Television gives them unlimited access to the adult world. They are exposed to the 'real world' of sex, disaster, death and suffering.

2.    'Social blurring' has occurred so there is little distinction between adults and children. Children's games are disappearing and children seem less childlike today. They speak, dress and behave in more adult ways, while adults have enjoyed looking more like their kids and youth generally. Over time, nearly all the traditional features that mark the transition to adulthood- getting a job, religious confirmation, leaving home, getting married- no longer apply in any clear way.

Postman's analysis has been heavily criticized. His arguments do not appear to be based on solid evidence, while recent studies· indicate that adults are actually taking more and more control of their children's lives. For example, David Brooks (2001) diagnoses parents today as obsessed with safety, and ever more concerned with defining boundaries for their kids and widening their control and safety net around them. Perhaps it is children that are disappearing rather than childhood. Children are a smaller percentage of our overall population today and are diminishing in relative proportion to other age groups.

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