The position of children has improved, and is continuing to change for the better.
‘The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have only recently begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the lower the level of childcare, and the more likely children are to be killed, abandoned, beaten, terrorised and sexually abused.’ - Lloyd De Mause (1974)
Aries and Shorter have a march of progress view. They argue that children are more valued, educated and protected and enjoy more rights and freedoms today than in the past.
For example, children are protected through laws banning child labour and child abuse, a vast array of professionals and specialists caters for their educational, psychological and medical needs and the government spends thousands to improve education.
Higher living standards and a lower fertility rate (1.83 in 2014, and 5.7 in 1860s) mean parents can invest more time and money into fewer children's lives.Child-centeredness
Children are no longer 'seen and not heard' as in Victorian times, but they are of central importance in the family. For example, they are included in decisions, where they might not have been in the past.
Parents invest a great deal in their children emotionally as well as financially, and often have high aspirations for them to have a better life and greater opportunities than they themselves have had.
Society also places children at the centre. For example, much media output and many leisure activities are designed specifically for children.
Sue Palmer disagrees with the march of progress view, and argues that childhood is worse than in the past.
She says that children in the UK today are experiencing 'toxic childhood'.
She argues that rapid technological and cultural changes in the past 25 years have damaged children’s physical, emotional and intellectual development.
These changes range from junk food, computer games, and intensive marketing to children, to the long hours worked by parents and the growing emphasis on testing in education.
Concerns have also been expressed about young people’s health and behaviour.
For example, UK youth have above average rates in international league tables for obesity, self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse, violence, early sexual experience and teenage pregnancies.
Conflict sociologists such as Marxists and feminists dispute how much positive change children of today are benefiting from.
They argue that society is based on conflict between two different social groups, such as social classes or genders. They say that one group oppresses the other.
Conflict sociologists criticise the march of progress view because it ignores inequalities. There are inequalities between children, in terms of opportunities and risks they face, which may mean they are unprotected or badly cared for. Also, there are inequalities between adults and children; children today experience greater control, oppression and dependency, not greater care and protection.
Inequalities among childrenNationality: Children of different nationalities are likely to have different childhoods and life chances. For example, 90% of the world’s low birth-weight babies are born in developing countries.
Gender: According to Mayer Hillman (1993), young boys are more likely to cross or cycle on roads, use buses or go out after dark unaccompanied. Jens Bonke (1990) found that girls do more domestic labour, especially in lone parent families.
Ethnicity: Julia Brannen’s (1994) study of 15-16 year olds found that Asian parents were more likely than other parents to be strict towards their daughters. Similarly, Ghazala Bhatti (1999) found that ideas of izzat (family honour) could be a restriction, particularly on the behaviour of girls.
Class: Poor mothers are more likely to have low birth-weight babies, which in turn is linked to delayed physical and intellectual development. Children of unskilled manual workers are over three times more likely to suffer from hyperactivity and four times more likely to experience conduct disorders than the children of professionals. Children born into poor families are also more likely to die in infancy or childhood, to suffer long-standing illness, to be shorter in height, to fall behind at school, and to be placed on the child protection register.
The Conflict View cont'd
Because of the inequalities among children, sociologists argue that we cannot generalise about children as a whole, as they all will have had different experiences.Inequalities between adults and children
Adults have a lot of power over children, and whilst march of progress sociologists argue that they use this power to protect children, conflict sociologists such as Schulamith Firestone (1979) and John Holt (1974) are more critical.
They argue that many of the things march of progress theorists see as 'care and protection' are actually different forms of oppression and control. For example, being excluded from paid work takes away a child's independence.
These critics see the need to free children from adult control, and so their view is described as ‘child liberationism’.
Adult control takes a number of forms.
Neglect and abuse
Adult control over children can take the extreme form of physical neglect or physical, sexual or emotional abuse.
In 2013, 43,000 children were subject to child protection plans because they were deemed to be at risk of significant harm – most often from their own parents.
The charity ChildLine receives over 20,000 calls a year from children saying that they have been sexually or physically abused.
Control over children's space
Children’s movements in industrial societies such as Britain are highly regulated.
For example, shops may display signs saying 'no school children'. Children are told to play in some areas and forbidden to play in others. There is increasingly close surveillance over children in public spaces such as shopping centres, especially at times when they should be in school.
The Conflict View cont'd 2
Fears about road safety and ‘stranger danger’ have led to more and more children being driven to school rather than travelling independently. For example, in 1971, 86% of primary school children were allowed to travel home from school alone. By 2010, this had fallen to 25%.
According to Hugh Cunningham (2007), the ‘home habitat’ of 8 year olds (the area in which they are able to travel alone) has shrunk to one-ninth of the size it was 25 years earlier.
This control contrast with the freedoms of children living in developing countries around the world. For example, Cindi Katz (2004) describes how rural Sudanese children roam freely both within the village and for several kilometres outside it.
Control over children's bodiesAdults control how children sit, walk and run, what they wear, their hairstyles and whether or not they can have their ears pierced.
It is taken for granted that children's bodies may be touched by appropriate adults in order that they may be washed, fed and dressed, have their heads patted and hands held, are picked up, cuddled and kissed, and they may be disciplined by smacking.
Adults also restrict they way in which children may touch their own bodies. For example, they may be told not to pick their nose, suck their thumb or play with their genitals.
This contrasts with the sexual freedoms enjoyed by children in some non-industrial cultures such as the Trobriand Islands.
Control over children's time
Adults control the routines in children's lives. For example, they set the times when they get up, eat, go to school, come home, go out, play, watch television and sleep
Adults also control the speed at which children ‘grow up’. It is they who define whether a child is too old or too young for this or that activity, responsibility or behaviour.
This contrasts with Holmes’ finding that among Samoans, ‘too young’ is never given as a reason for not letting a child undertake a particular task.
The Conflict View and Age Patriarchy
Control over children's access to resources
In industrial societies, children have only limited opportunities to earn money, and so they remain dependent economically on adults.
Labour laws and compulsory schooling exclude them from all but the most marginal, low-paid, part-time employment.
The state pays child benefit, and this goes to the parent not the child.
Pocket money given by parents may depend on ‘good behaviour’ and there may be restrictions on what it can be spent on.
This contrasts with the economic role of children in developing societies today and in European societies in the past. For example, Katz found that Sudanese children were already engaged in productive work from the age of three or four.
Diana Gittins (1998) uses the term 'age patriarchy' to describe the inequalities between adults and children. Gittins argues that there is a patriarchy of adult domination and child dependency.
Patriarchy means literally ‘rule by the father’ and as Gittins points out, the term ‘family’ referred originally to the power of the male head over all other members of the household, including children and servants as well as women.
Today this power may still assert itself in the form of violence against both children and women. For example, according to Cathy Humphreys and Ravi Thiara (2002), a quarter of the 200 women in their study left their abusing partner because they feared for their children’s lives.
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.
Age Patriarchy cont'd
Jennifer Hockey and Allison James (1993) describe one strategy as ‘acting up’ – acting like adults by doing things that children are not supposed to do, such as swearing, smoking, drinking alcohol, joy riding and under-age sexual activity. Similarly, children may exaggerate their age ("I'm nearly 9!")
‘Acting down’ is another way children resist the oppression of childhood, by behaving in ways expected of younger children (e.g. by reverting to ‘baby talk’ or insisting on being carried). Hockey and James conclude that modern childhood is a status from which most children want to escape.
Should children be controlled?
Yes - Children are unable to make rational decisions for themselves or safeguard their own interests effectively.
No - Children are not under adult control at all. Although they are under supervision, the 1989 Children Act and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child establish the principle that children have legal rights to be protected and consulted.
There is a danger of seeing children as merely passive objects who do not have any influence over shaping their own childhoods. Children are also seen as mere ‘socialisation projects’ for adults to mould, shape and develop, of no interest in themselves, but only for what they will become in the future. .Berry Mayall (2004) calls this an 'adultist viewpoint'.
The new sociology of childhood doesn’t see children as simply ‘adults in the making’. Instead, it sees children as active agents who play a major part in creating their own childhoods.
For this reason, as Carol Smart (2011) says, the new approach aims to include the views and experiences of children themselves while they are living through childhood.
For example, Jennifer Mason and Becky Tipper (2008) show how children actively create their own definitions of who is ‘family’ – which may include people who are not ‘proper’ aunts or grandfathers etc, but who they regard as ‘close’.
Smart et al’s (2001) study of divorce found that, far from being passive victims, children were actively involved in trying to make the situation better for everyone.
Studies like these use research methods such as informal, unstructured interviews, which empower children to express their own views and allow researchers to see the world from the child’s point of view and explore the diverse range of childhoods existing in a single society. For example, as Smart notes, there are ‘disabled childhoods, Chinese childhoods, girls’ childhoods, the childhoods of adopted children, poor childhoods and so on’.
Because it allows children to express their point of view, the new sociology of childhood it is an approach favoured by child liberationists who campaign in favour of children’s rights and priorities.