Sociologists see childhood not as a 'natural' stage of life, but as socially constructed - defined and created by society.
What is seen as 'childhood' varies:
between societies (cross-cultural differences)
historically, over time
and, within societies, e.g. between different classes.
1.1 Differences within societies
1.2 Cross-cultural differences
Anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1934) 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.
The behaviour expected of children and that expected of adults are more similar than in modern western societies.
1.3 Historical differences
Key study: Philippe Aries (1960) the idea of childhood did not exist in the Middle Ages.
Children were not seen as having a different 'nature' from adults.
Children were viewed as 'mini adults' with the same rights, duties and skills as adults. For example, children began work at an early age (around 7 years old)
Key study: Edward Shorter (1975)
Parental attitudes towards children were very different, e.g. as a result of high infant mortality rates parents did not become as emotionally attached to infants as we would expect today.
2 Why has the position of children changed?
2.1 Lower infant mortality rates and smaller families
As a result of lower infant mortality rates, parents have fewer children and make a greater financial and emotional investment in their children.
2.2 Specialist knowledge about children's health
For example, theories of child development emphasised that children need supervision and protection.
2.3 Laws banning child labour
From the 1840s onwards laws banning child labour changed children from being an economic asset to their family, to them becoming financially dependent on their parents.
2.4 Compulsory education
Since 1880 compulsory schooling has created a period of dependency on the family and sepatated children from the adult world of work.
2.5 Child protection and welfare laws
Child protection and welfare laws emphasised children's vulnerability and made the welfare of children a central concern of society.
2.6 The idea of children's rights
2.7 Laws about social behaviour
Minimum ages for a wide range activities (drinking, smoking, sex) reinforce the idea that children are different from adults.
2.8 Industrialisation is the underlying cause
Sociologists agree that the underlying cause for the change in the position of children. For example, modern industry needs an educated workforce, so compulsory education is needed; higher standards of living resulting from industrialisation lead to lower infant mortality rates.
3 Has the position of children improved?
3.1 The 'march of progress' view
Aries, Shorter and others argue that children's position has been steadily improving and today it is better than it has ever been.Today’s children are: More valued
Better cared for and protected by lawHigher standards of livingBetter educationBetter health (specialists catering for their
Parents can afford to provide for children’s
3.2 The conflict view
The conflict view claim that the ‘march of progress’ view of modern childhood is based on a
false and idealised image that ignores important inequalities.
They criticise the MoP view on two grounds:
1. There are inequalities among children
2. The inequalities between children and adults are
greater than ever.
3.2.1 Inequalities among children
Not all children share the same status of experiences.Gender differences: Hillman (1993) found that boys are given more freedom (cross or cycle on roads, uses buses, and go out after dark unaccompanied)Bonke (1999) found that girls do more domestic labour than boys.Ethnic differences Brennen (1994) found that Asian parents were more likely than other parents to be strict towards their daughters.Bhatti (1999) found that ideas of family honour could be a restriction, particularly on the behaviour of girls.
Class differencesHoward (2001) found that children born into poor families are also more likely to die in infancy or childhood, to suffer longstanding illness, to be shorter in height, to fall behind at school, and to be placed on the child protection register.
3.2.2 Inequalities between children and adults
There are major inequalities of power between children and adults. March of progress writers argue that adults use this power for the benefit and protection of children. However, ‘Child liberationists’ argue that extensive care and protection are just new forms of oppression and control.
Adult control takes a number of forms:
Neglect and abuse
Controls over children's space
Controls over children's time
Controls over children's bodies.
Control over children's access to resources.
18.104.22.168 Age patriarchy
Diana Gittens (1998) uses the term age patriarchy to
describe inequalities between adults and children.
Hockey and James (1993) Evidence that children may experience childhood as oppressive comes from the strategies that they use to resist the status of child and the restrictions that go with it.
3.2.3 Toxic childhood
Sue Palmer (2006) 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 a genuine childhood.
UK youth are at or near the top of international league tables for obestity, self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse, violence and teenage pregnancies.
UNICEF (2007) ranked the UK 21st out of 25 for children's well-being.
4 The future of childhood
4.1 Is childhood disappearing?
Postman (1994) 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 and leisure activities.Postman claims that the main reason for this is television culture - children are now exposed to information and images that were previously been inaccessible to them.
However, Opie believes childhood is not disappearing, e.g. a separate children's culture continues to exist in the form of games, jokes and songs.