This post examines childhood as a social construction looking at the work of Jane Pilcher and Philippe Aries among others.
There seems to be near universal agreement that there are some fundamental differences between adults and children. For example people in most societies seem to agree that
1. Children are physically and psychologically immature compared to adults
2. Children are dependent on adults for a range of biological and emotional needs – Children need a lengthy process of socialisation which takes several years.
3. In contrast to adults, children are not competent to run their own lives and cannot be held responsible for their actions
In contrast to the period of childhood, one of the defining characteristics of adulthood is that adults are biologically mature, are competent to run their own lives and are fully responsible for their actions.
However, despite broad agreement on the above, what people mean by childhood and the position children occupy is not fixed but differs across times, places and cultures. There is considerable variation in what people in different societies think about the place of children in society, about what children should and shouldn’t be doing at certain ages, about how children should be socialised, and about the age at which they should be regarded as adults.
For this reason, Sociologists say that childhood is socially constructed. This means that childhood is something created and defined by society:
The social construction of childhood in modern British society
Part of the social construction of childhood in modern Britain is that we choose to have a high degree of separation between the spheres of childhood and adulthood. Add in details to the headings below
1. There are child specific places where only children and ‘trusted adults’ are supposed to go, and thus children are relatively sheltered from adult life.
2. There are several laws preventing children from doing certain things which adults are allowed to do.
3. There are products specifically for children –which adults are not supposed to play with (although some of them do).
All of the above separations between adults and children have nothing to do with the biological differences between adults and children – children do not need to have ‘special places’ just for them, they do not need special laws protecting them, and neither do they need specific toys designed for them. We as a society have decided that these things are desirable for children, and thus we ‘construct childhood’ as a being very different to adulthood.
The Social Construction of Childhood – A Comparative Approach
A good way to illustrate the social construction of childhood is to take a comparative approach – that is, to look at how children are seen and treated in other times and places than their own. The anthropologists Ruth Benedict (1934) argues that children in traditional, non-industrial societies are generally treated differently from children in modern western societies.
In other cultures children are seen as an ‘economic asset’ and expected to engage in paid work – In Less developed countries children are seen as a source of cheap (free) labour on the farm, in the home or in sweat shops where the wage can help boost the family income.
Sexual behaviour – In some cultures girls are sometimes married off at 14 or younger, taking on the duties of a wife or mother at a young age
Philippe Aries – A Radical View on The Social Construction of Childhood
The historian Philippe Aries has an extreme view on childhood as a social construction. He argues that in the Middle Ages (the 10th to the 13th century) ‘the idea of childhood did not exist’ – children were not seen as essentially different to adults like they are today.
- Aries uses the following evidence to support his view…
- Children were expected to work at a much earlier age
- The law often made no distinction between children and adults
Works of art from the period often just depict children as small adults – they wear the same clothes and appear to work and play together.
In addition to the above Edward Shorter (1975) argues about parental attitudes to children in the Middle ages were very different from today…
- High infant mortality rates encouraged indifference and neglect, especially towards infants
- Parents often neglected to give new born babies names – referring to them as ‘it’ and it was not uncommon to eventually give a new baby a name of a dead sibling.
Aries argues that it is only from the 13th century onwards that modern notions of childhood – the idea that childhood is a distinct phase of life from adulthood – begin to emerge. Essentially Aries is arguing that childhood as we understand it today is a relatively recent ‘invention’
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The March of Progress View of Childhood
The Social Construction of Childhood (from the Open University)
The Social Construction of Childhood (from the Junior University)
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When asking ourselves the question ‘what is childhood? ’ and reading around the subject, it can be seen that there is no exact definition which can pinpoint an exact answer, this is because childhood is seen as socially constructed (McDowell, 2010). Continual varying ideas about children which has led to claims that childhood is a social construction highlights that childhoods are not the same everywhere and that while all societies acknowledge that children are different from adults, how they are different and what expectations are placed on them, change accordingly to the society in which they live (Greene et al, 2005).
This highlights that it is not possible for childhood to be a biological state but is culturally specific and varies across time and location including taking into account economic factors (McDowell, 2010). This can be seen here in the contrast of how children are portrayed and look in western society compared to non-western. Children in Africa (non-western) Let the children play (Western)
This view of social construction is supported in Bronfenbrenner’s sociocultural model of development which highlights how different environmental systems impact human development. The interrelated systems help us recognise the different contexts which impact on childhood (McDowell. 2010) Aries (1962) claimed that in medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist as the child did not occupy a social status (Green et al, 2005). This is argued by Archard (1993) as cited in Green et al (2005) who had the belief that they just had different ideas about it.
This contrasts with the western society view of today which places children at centre stage taking on the romantic discourse that children are and have always been pure and innocent and entitled to nurturing (Newman, 2004). A loving family This picture highlights how the western perspective sees childhood, placing the child as central importance. Ideas about children and childhood also differ between different sectors in society, professional bodies and government departments which have come to be manifested in social policies.
An example of this is age restraints. Legal classification of childhood is the main way in which society attempts to regulate and define childhood (McDowell, 2010). Age restraints for events in life such as marriage, the right to vote or drink, the school leaving age, ages in which you are criminally responsible and the age of sexual consent have developed over time but various legal constraints give children or young people different levels of responsibilities or how they should control their own actions which vary globally (Greene et al, 2005).
Cunningham (2006) believes that a child can cease to be one over time which relates to age limits and laws but we are always a child to our parents. Western society, in particular its social policies, tends to focus on what children will become, rather than children’s being. The focus is on what they will become in the future rather than the here? and? now of childhood (Morrow, 2011). In many developing world countries however, children’s roles are very different. There is more crucial importance of children’s labour to many household economies (Morrow,2011).
In some countries, child labour is prevalent and, for many children, education has to fit around work commitments. This contrasts with the developed West, where children’s work has to fit around their education commitments. The priorities for children are different, and thus their ‘childhoods’ are different. (Morrow, 2011). Overall it can be seen that there is no agreed definition of childhood without reference to the social perceptions within which it is experienced.