Sociology: Childhood


Childhood as a social construct

Sociologists see childhood not as a ‘natural’ category, but as socially constructed, i.e. defined and created by society. What is seen as ‘childhood’ varies:

  • Between societies 

  • Within societies, e.g. between different classes 

  • historically, over time

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cross-cultural differences in childhood

Benedict argues that children in simpler, non-industrial societies are treated differently from their modern western counterparts:

  • They have more responsibility at home and work

  • Less value is placed on obedience to adult authority 

  • Children’s sexual behaviour is often viewed differently 

Also, the behaviour expected of children and that expected of adults are less clearly separated

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Childhood in the West

Unlike in simpler societies, the modern Western notion of childhood has the following features:

  • Childhood is seen as a special, innocent time of life

  • Children are seen as fundamentally different from adults- as physically immature and not competent to run their own lives 

  • As a result, they need a lengthy, protected period of nurturing and socialisation

  • Childhood is a distinct life stage- ‘child’ is a seperate status from ‘adult’. According to Pilcher, the key feature of the modern idea of childhood is separateness 

  • According to Cunningham, children are seen as the opposite of adults, with the right to happiness 

These differences illustrate the key sociological idea that childhood is not fixed in the same from in all societies- different cultures construct it differently 

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Historical differences in childhood

The position of children also differs over time. The modern Western idea of childhood is a relatively recent invention. According to Aries, in medieval Europe, the idea of childhood did not exist. 

  • Children were nor seen as having a different ‘nature’  from adults 

  • Work began from an early age 

  • Children were ’mini-adults’ with the same rights, duties and skills as adults 

According to Shorter, parental attitudes towards children were very different, e.g. high child death rates encouraged indifference and neglect, especially towards infants

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The modern notion of childhood

The modern notion of childhood began to emerge from the 13th century:

  • Schools began to specialise only in the education of the young 

  • The church increasingly saw children as fragile ‘creatures of God’ needing discipline and protection from worldly evils 

  • There was a growing distinction between children’s and adults’ clothing, setting children apart from adults 

Aries argues that this resulted in the emergence of the modern ‘cult of childhood’. The 20th century was ‘the century of the child’.

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Why has the position of children changed?

The position of children has changed due to major social changes during the 19th and 20th centuries:

  • Lower infant mortality rates and smaller families More infants surviving meant that parents had fewer children and made a greater financial and emotional investment in them 

  • Specialist knowledge about children’s health, e.g. theories of child development stressed that children need supervision and protection

  • Laws banning child labour from the 1840s onwards changed children from economic assests to economic liabilities, financially dependent on their parents 

  • Compulsory schooling since 1880 has created a period of dependency on the family and separated children from the adult world or work 

  • Child protection and welfare laws and agencies emphasised children’s vulnerability and made their welfare a central concern

  • The idea of children’s rights, e.g. the Children Act (1989) sees parents as having ‘responsibilities’ towards their children rather than ‘rights’  

  • Laws about social behaviour, e.g. minimum ages for a wide range of activities, from sex to somking, reinforce the attitude that children are different from adults
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Industrialisation was the underlying cause

e.g. modern industry needs an educated workforce, so compulsory education is needed; higher standards of living resulting from industrialisation lead to lower infant mortality rates

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The future of childhood

Postman argues that childhood as we know it is disappearing, and that children are becoming more like adults- gaining similar rights and acting in similar ways, e.g. clothing, leisure, even crime

For Postman, this is the result of television culture replacing print culture:

  • In print culture, children lacked the literacy skills needed to access information, so adults could keep knowledge about sex, money, violence, illness, death and other ‘adult’ matters 

  • Television culture makes information available to adults and children alike. The boundary between adulthood and childhood is broken down and adult authority weekend
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Postman over-emphasises a single factor, ignoring others, e.g. rising level standards and legal changes

However, Opie believes childhood is not disappearing, e.g. a separate children’s culture continues to exist in the form of games, songs, jokes etc. Others argue that Western norem of what childhood should be- separate life stage, based in the nuclear family and school- are being exported globally. Western ‘childhood’ is not disappearing, but spreading 

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Childhood in postmodernity

Jenks argues that modern society created childhood to prepare the individual to become a productive future adult. To achieve this, the vulnerable, undeveloped child needed to be nurtured and protected 

In postmodernity, adults’ relationships become more unstable (e.g. more divorce). Relationships with their children become adults’ last refuge from insecurity. They become even fearful for their children’s safety, leading to even greater regulation of children’s lives

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Use Jenks to criticise Postman: childhood is changing, not disappearing. It continues to be a seperate status from adulthood 

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Has the position of children improved?

These are two competing views of whether children’s position has improved:

  • The ‘march of progress’ view
  • ‘Toxic childhood’ 
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The ‘march of progress’ view

Aries, Shorter and others argue that children’s position has been steadily improving and today is better than it has ever been. Family and society have become ‘child-centred’:

  • Children are better cared for in terms of their educational, psychological and medical needs 

  • Most babies now survive: the infant mortality rate in 1900 was 154; now it is 4

  • Higher living standards and smaller family sizes mean parents can afford to provide for children’s needs

  • Children are protected from harm and exploitation by laws against child abuse and child labour 

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‘Toxic childhood’

Palmer argues that rapid technological and cultural changes are damaging children’s development, e.g. junk food, computer games, intensive marketing to children, testing in education, long hours worked by parents. As a result, children are deprived of genuine childhood

  • UK youth are at or near the top of international league tables for obesity, self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and teenage pregnancies

  • UNICEF ranked the UK 21st out of 25 for children’s well being

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Not all children are equally affected by these trends- those in higher social classes are less affected

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The conflict view

Conflict theorists, e.g. Marxists and feminists, argue that the ‘march of progress’ view is an over-generalised and idealised image. It ignores inequalities among children and between children and adults

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Inequalities among children

Third World children have different life chances from those in the West. in Western societies, there are:

  • Gender differences, e.g. girls are expected to do more housework 

  • Ethnic differences, e.g. Asian parents are more likely than parents of other ethnic groups to be stricter towards daughters than sons 

  • Class inequalities, e.g. poor children are more likely to die in infancy or do badly at school  
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Inequalities between children and adults

‘Child liberationists’ such as Fire stone argue that extensive care and protection are just new forms of oppression- e.g. being banned from paid work is not a benefit to children but a form of inequality, subjecting them to even greater adult control

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This ignores how adults may use their power to benefit children, e.g. passing laws against child abuse. Some adult control is needed to safeguard children’s interests

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Age patriarchy

Gittins argues that there is an age patriarchy of adult domination that keeps children subordinate. For example, adults exercise control over children’s time, space and bodies.m adults make children economically dependent by preventing them from working, e.g. thought child labour laws. Adult control can lead to physical, sexual or emotional abuse- over 40,000 children are on the child protection register 

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Children may resist the restricted status of ‘child’ by acting older, e.g. smoking, drinking alcohol etc. for Hockey and JAmes, this shows modern childhood is a status most children went to escape

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The ‘new sociology of childhood’

Seeing childhood socially constructed by processes such as industrialisation, although useful, means we risk seeing children as passive objects- mere ‘socialisation projects’ for adults to shape and develop

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Active agents

Instead, the new sociology of childhood sees children as playing an important part in creating their own childhoods. For example, Smart’s study of divorce found that far from being passive victims, children were actively involved in trying to make the situation better

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Multiple childhoods

This approach seeks to explore the many diverse childhoods that exist in society by taking the child’s viewpoint. It is an approach favoured by child liberationists because it draws attention to the fact that children often lack power in relation to adults

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