Childhood As A Social Construct

Topic 2 – CHILDHOOD: Childhood as a Social Construct: * Pilcher (1995) notes that the most important feature of modern childhood is ‘separateness’ from adulthood – it is seen as a clear and distinct LIFE STAGE. * Children in our society have a different status to the adults and have different expectations of them. * This is emphasised in several ways, such as: * Laws which regulate what children can and can’t do. * Difference in dress, for young children especially. Through goods and services especially for children such as food, toys, books and play areas. * Related is the idea of childhood as being a ‘golden age’ of innocence and happiness. * This innocence means that children are considered to be vulnerable and in need or protection. * Children need to be ‘shielded’ from the hardships of the adult world. * As a result of this, children’s lives are lived largely within the confines of the family and education where they are provided for and protected by the adults. They lead lives of leisure and play unlike adults. * Wagg (1992): ‘Childhood is socially constructed. It is, in other words, what members of particular societies, at particular times and in particular places, say it is. There is no single universal childhood, experienced by all. So, childhood isn’t ‘natural’ and should be distinguished from mere biological immunity. ’ * All humans go through the same stages of development; different cultures construct and define this process differently. In the Western world, children are defined as weak, vulnerable and unable to care for themselves, however other cultures do not take this view. * A good way to see these differences is to take a comparative approach, for instance: * Punch’s (2001) study of childhood in RURAL BOLIVIA found that at around the age of five, children were expected to take on work responsibilities in the home and community.
Feature Article – Sociology Test 1
* Firth (1970) found that among the TIKOPIA of the WESTERN PACIFIC doing as an adult tells you is a concession of respect from the child and not a ight to be expected by the adult. * Holmes’ (1974) study of SAMOAN people found that ‘too young’ is not an acceptable excuse for not allowing a child to carry out a particular task: ‘Whether it be the handling of dangerous tools or the carrying of extremely heavy loads, if a child thinks he can handle the activity, parents do not object’. * Aries (1960): ‘the idea of childhood did not exist’. Children were not seen as having a different nature or needs to the adults after they had passed the stage of physical dependence during infancy. During the Middle Ages, children were essentially ‘mini-adults’, with the same rules and punishments applying to both. * Aries states that elements of the modern childhood began to emerge from the 13th Century onwards: * Schools: (which adults had previously also attended) came to specialise exclusively in the education of the young. This reflected the influence of the church, which increasingly saw children as ‘fragile creatures of God’ in need of protection and discipline from worldly evils. * Clothing: Children and adults began to dress differently.

By the 17th Century, an upper-class boy would wear something ‘reserved for his own age group’ which would set him apart from the adults. * Parenting Books: childrearing handbooks were widely available by the 18th Century – a sign of increasingly child-centric values in the family, at least in the middle classes. * Aries claims that these ^ developments have caused the ‘cult of childhood’ and that we have moved form a time that did not find anything notable in childhood to one where we are obsessed with it. * He describes the 20th Century as ‘the century of childhood’. Pollock (1983) argues that previously there was just a different idea of what childhood was, not that it did not exist. * Aries’ work is valuable though as it provides evidence for the theory that childhood is a social construct. Has The Position of Children Improved? * March of Progress: Standards of living for children have been steadily improving and have never been as good as they are today. Today’s children are more valued, cared for, protected, educated, enjoy better health care and have more rights than those that came before them. In 1900, the infant mortality rate was 154 in every 1,000 births, now it is just 5. * Smaller family sizes (from 5. 7 births per woman to just 1. 84 in 2006) and better living standards mean that parents can provide properly for their children. Studies suggest that by the time a child reaches its 21st birthday, they will have cost their parents up to ? 186,000 (Liverpool Victoria, 2007). * Declining family size and lowering infant mortality rates are encouraging parents to make a greater financial and emotional investment in fewer children. Donzelot (1977) observes how theories on child development began to emphasise the need for supervision and protection of children. * Laws and policies now apply specifically to children, placing minimum ages of activities such as drinking, driving and sex, and these have reinforced the idea of a ‘separateness’ between children and adults. * MOP sociologists argue that the family is now ‘child-centred’; children should no long be seen-and-not-heard as in Victorian times. * Parents invest emotionally in their children like never before, and often have high aspirations for them to have better jobs and lives than they had. Society is also ‘child-centred’ now, as well with many media and leisure facilities geared specifically towards children. The Conflict View: * Conflict Sociologists (Marxists and Feminists) dispute the MOP concept because they argue that society is based around conflicts between different social classes or genders with some people with more power than others. * These sociologists argue that the concept of modern childhood is false and idealistic and ignores inequalities.
They criticise MOP on two key points: * There are inequalities AMONG CHILDREN in terms of opportunities and risks as many are still unprotected and poorly cared for. * There are inequalities between CHILDREN AND ADULTS and they are greater than ever before: children today are being more greatly controlled, oppressed and are therefore increasingly dependent upon adults. Inequalities Between Children: * Not all children have the same status and experience: some boys attend Eton College, some a state comprehensive. * Children of different ationalities experience different childhoods and opportunities, 90% of the world’s low birth-weight babies are born in the Third world. * There are GENDER differences too, Hillman (1993) notes that boys are more likely to go be allowed to cross the road or go out and play by themselves than girls and Bonke (1999) found that girls were more likely to do more domestic labour, particularly within LPFs, where they do five times more housework than boys. * There are also ETHNIC differences: Brannen’s (1994) study of 15-16 year olds showed Asian parents as much more likely to be strict to their daughters: honour killings. Bhatti (1999) found that izzat (family honour) could be restrictive of girl’s behaviour particularly. Inequalities Between Children and Adults: * MOP writers believe that adults use the power they have over children for their protection, as in the passing of child labour laws. * However, Firestone (1979) and Holt (1974) argue that what the MOP writers see as protection is just cleverly disguised oppression. * Firestone argues that ‘protection’ from paid work is not a benefit but just serves to segregate children, make them dependent upon adults and therefore subject to their control. These critics hold a view known as ‘child liberationalism’ as they see the need to free children from adult control and abuse. This abuse takes a number of forms: * Neglect and Abuse: physical neglect or physical, sexual or emotional abuse is an extreme form of adult control. In 2006 alone, 31,400 children were on child protection registers because they were deemed to be in potentially unsafe living environments, at risk mostly from their own parents. ChildLine receives over 20,000 calls a year from children saying they’ve been physically or sexually abused which reveals a ‘dark side’ to the family. Children’s Space: shops may display signs banning schoolchildren from their shops, shopping centres and public areas are more highly surveyed particularly during school hours, and fears about road safety and ‘stranger danger’ have led to more children being driven to school by parents and prevented from travelling alone. Cunningham (2007) found that the ‘home habitat’ (where children may travel unaccompanied) has shrunk to one 9th of what it used to be. * Children’s Time: adults in today’s society control children’s daily outines: when they eat, sleep, wake up, are at school or at home, when they work, when they play. Therefore, they control the speed at which a child ‘grows up’. They decide if a child is old enough nor not, and this contrasts with Holmes’ findings among Samoans – ‘too young’ is never given as a reason not to let a child perform a task. * Children’s Bodies: adults can control how a child sits, walks or runs, what they wear, how they have their hair, if their ears are pierced, and in certain situations can touch them – to wash them, dress them, feet them or to show affection.
However, adults can also restrict how a child touches its own body. * Access to Resources: children have limited ways in which they can earn money, so remain dependent upon adults. Compulsory schooling and child labour laws exclude them from all but the most marginal, poorly paid, part-time jobs. Child benefit does not go to the child; pocket money may be given for good behaviour, but may also be restricted to certain objects. Age Patriarchy: * The power the father has over the rest of the family. * This can assert itself in the form of violence against both children and women. Humphreys and Thiara (2002): found a quarter of the women in their study of 200 left their abusive partner because they feared for their children. * This supports the view of Gittins (1998) that patriarchy oppresses both women and children. * Evidence (Hockey and James, 1993) that children find childhood oppressive comes from looking at how they resist it: * ‘Acting up’: engaging in activities that adults can but they can’t, such as drinking, swearing, smoking, joy-riding and under-age sex. ‘Acting down’: behaving in ways that are associated with younger children, such as baby-talk, or being carried. * Hockey and James conclude that this proves that children wish to escape childhood. * Critics of the child liberationalists argue that some control needs to be exercised over children’s lives because they are unable to make certain decisions for themselves. * It is also argued that children are not as helpless as claimed, as they have legal rights to be protected and consulted. The Future of Childhood:
The Disappearance of Childhood: * Postman (1994) comments that childhood is ‘disappearing at a dazzling speed’. * He points out that children are being given the same rights as adults, dressing the same as adults and even committing ‘adult’ crimes like murder. * This, he argues, is to do with the rise and fall of print culture and the advent of television culture. * During the MIDDLE AGES, as most people were illiterate, speech was the only skill required to participate in the adult world, so children could join at an early age.
Childhood was not a concept; there was no division between a child’s world and an adult’s. * Childhood emerged with mass literacy: there was suddenly a division between the adults who could read and the children who could not. This meant that adults could keep knowledge of sex, death, illness, and other ‘adult things’ secret from the children. These things faded into mystery and childhood became associated with innocence and ignorance from the 19th Century onwards. Television blurs the line between child and adult, destroying the ‘knowledge hierarchy’. Unlike reading, television requires no special skills and therefore makes the same information available to both adults and children. Adult authority diminishes and childhood’s innocence is replaced with knowledge and cynicism. * The opposite of this is the disappearance of adulthood – where adult’s and children’s tastes and styles become indistinguishable. * Postman’s study details how communication technology can influence the way childhood is constructed. However, he over-emphasised television as the single cause of this change and neglected to discuss others such as improved living conditions and changes in the law. A Separate Childhood Culture: * Opie (1993), however, argues the opposite. * Based on a lifetime’s research into children’s games, rhymes and songs conducted with her husband, she argues that evidence strongly suggests that a separate children’s culture has existed for many years. * These findings contradict Postman – their studies show that children can and do create their own separate lives/cultures.
The Globalisation of Western Childhood: * Child liberationalists argue that childhood is not disappearing, quite the contrary – it is spreading. * Through GLOBALISATION, the western concept of childhood is being exported and imposed upon other cultures thanks to international humanitarian organisations and welfare agencies. * Campaigns against child labour and street children in the Third World reflect Western ideas about the norms of childhood, while not taking into account the culture of the countries they are campaigning to change.
Contradictory Trends – the Reconstruction of Childhood? * Some writers are concerned that children are experiencing what Palmer (2006) dubbed as the ‘toxic childhood’. * Advances in technology and cultural changes in the last 25 years have stunted children’s emotional, physical and intellectual development. * These changes include: junk food, computer games, intensive marketing, the long hours worked by parents and the emphasis on testing in education. Young people’s behaviour has also raised concerns – Margo and Dixon (2006) reported that the UK’s youth are at or near to the top of the international league tables for obesity, self-harm, substance abuse, under-age sexual activity and teenage pregnancy. * Such observations induce an anxiety that childhood as an innocent and protected life-stage is under threat. This is hard to prove, however, for two reasons: * Not universal: not all children experience the same childhood. * Which aspect of childhood are we talking about?
Some suggest the continuation of childhood as a separate life-stage, others do not: * Rights: though children have more rights, they are not totally equal to adults and remain under their authority. * Similarities: between adults and children’s dress sense, food and activities. * Education: the extension of compulsory and non-compulsory education has made young-adults economically dependet ‘children’ for longer. * Freedom: ‘stranger danger’ has meant children freely roam in smaller spaces than ever efore. * Childhood may be disappearing due to the ‘ageing population’ – there are more old people and fewer young people in the world. * Qvortrup (1990) argues that as the numbers of adults with dependent children decreases, the number of voices calling for resources to go to children decreases with it. * As families become smaller, childhood may become a lonelier and isolated period as there will be fewer children around. * However, the relative scarcity of children may cause people to value them more highly.

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