Childhood as a social construction

Sociologists see child hood as socially constructed; in other words, as something created and defined by society.  They argue that what people mean by childhood, and the status of children in society, is not fixed but duffers between different times, places and cultures.  This can be illustrated by comparing the western idea of childhood with childhood in the past and in other cultures.


The modern western idea of childhood

Jane Pilcher argues that the most important feature of childhood is separateness.  Childhood is seen as a distinct life stage, and children in our society occupy a separate status from adults. This can be illustrated in several ways, for example, through laws regulating what children are allowed, required or forbidden to do.  Their difference from adults is also illustrated through differences in dress, especially for younger children,  and through products and services specially for children, such as toys, food, play areas and so on. Related to this separate status is the idea of childhood as a ‘golden age’ of happiness and innocence.  However, this innocence means that children are seen as vulnerable and in need of protection from the dangers of the adult world and so they must be separated from it.  As a result, children’s lives are lived largely in the sphere of family and education, where adults provide for them and protect them.

However, this view of childhood as a separate age-status is not found in all societies. Stephen Wagg argues that because childhood is socially constructed there is not one single universal experience of childhood.  This means that, while all humans go through the same physical process of ageing, different societies construct or define this process differently.


Historical differences in childhood

Philippe Aries (1960) has argued that in pre-industrial society, children as we know them did not exist.  Instead, children were ‘little adults’ who would take on adult responsibilities as young as 7 or 8.  At this age, children would be expected to help out in productive activities in the household (remember that households at this time are more units of production than consumption) and may well be apprenticed out to learn a trade. In the eyes of the law, 7 and 8-year-olds were seen as being criminally responsible.  This means that they could be tried and punished for crimes such as stealing on a similar basis to that of adults.  Aries argued that two factors explain why society did not regard children as objects of love and devotion:

  • There was a very high level of infant mortality.
  • Life was very ‘hand to mouth.’ Children had to work in order for the family unit to survive, which in turn meant they were given adult responsibilities at a younger age.
  • Aries argues that the view of children as ‘little adults’ remained common well into the 19th century, with young children frequently being employed to work in mines and factories.
  • However, around the middle of the 19th century, Aries argued that the infant mortality rate started to decrease with improvements in sanitation and diet.  With the increasing affluence of the middle classes, the attitudes of middle class parents started to change and children started to become regarded as objects of love and devotion.
  • Aries also notes that the working classes tended to still view their children as little adults, as working class families tended to be dependent on their children’s income for survival.

Cross Cultural Differences

Benedict, 1934, [comparative approach].

3 distinct differences between modern ‘western’ children and children from simpler, non industrial societies

  • Earlier Responsibility (Holmes – Samoa)
  • Less Obedience to Adult Authority (Firth –  Tikopia)
  • Sexual Behaviour (Malinowski – Trobriand Islands)

Ik Tribe of Uganda

  • The Ik Tribe suffer famine.
  • View children as a drain on resources.
  • They think they should be made to fend for themselves as soon as they possibly can. This may mean from the age of 3.

Firth –  Tikopia

Children are allowed to do dangerous things when THEY feel ready, e.g. Fishing in the open; sea and handling sharp objects. Obedience to adults is a concession rather than expected.


Reasons for the changes in the position/status of children

  • Laws restricting child labour and excluding children from paid work.  Children became an economic liability by being financially dependent on their families rather than an economic asset.
  • The introduction of compulsory schooling in 1880 had a similar effect, especially for children of the poor.  The raising of the school leaving age, and recent government policies to keep children in fulltime education or training until the age of 18 has extended this period of dependency.
  • Child protection and welfare legislation, such as the 1889 Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act. Exactly a century later, the 1989 Children Act made child welfare a fundamental principle underpinning the work of agencies such as social services.
  • The growth of the idea of children rights. For example, the Children Act defines parents as having ‘responsibilities’ rather than ‘rights’ in relation to children.
  • Declining family size and lower infant mortality rates. These have encouraged parents to make a greater financial and emotional investment in the fewer children that they now have. .
  • Laws and policies that apply specifically to children, such as minimum ages for a wide range of activities from sex to smoking. have reinforced the idea that children are different from adults and so different rules must be applied to their behaviour.
  • Most sociologists agree that the process of industrialisation  – the shift from agriculture to factory production as the basis of the economy – underlies many of the above changes. For example, modern industry needs an educated workforce and this requires compulsory schooling of the young. Similarly, the higher standards of living and better welfare provision that industry makes possible lead to lower infant mortality rates. Industrialisation is thus a key factor in bringing about the modern idea of childhood and the changed status of children.


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