In this essay I will assess the sociological explaination that childhood is a social construction by showing experience of childhood today. Some sociologists argue that childhood is socially constructed because people of what people define as childhood. What we consider as childhood today is different from the past and what different cultures/societies consider as childhood varies. Societies are individual in the way they have different social construction, childhood is an important feature in some societies but doesn’t really exist in others. Philippe Aries (1962) explored the fact that childhood was a social construction.
He used history to explain this also his paintings. Aries claimed that childhood experience in pre-industrial society, children were viewed as ‘tiny adults’ and that there were no real differences between children and adults. They joined in similar leisure activities to adults, toys and games especially did not exist. Children worked from a young age and were regarded as an economic asset which meant bringing in money and supporting their families. Those who did not help with domestic production usually left home to become servants or apprentices.
Aries ‘march of progress’ view argues that today’s children are more valued, better cared for, protected and educated, enjoy better health and have more rights than children of previous generations. Schools specialised in educating of the young, influence of the church which saw children as fragile and in the need of discipline. Separate clothing for adults and children separated childhood and adulthood. Childhood was extended in 19th century because there were concerns over juvenile delinquency, beggars and child prostitution which led to wanting to get children off the streets that show that childhood is a social construction.
Aries argued that childhood is socially constructed, however, some sociologists like Pollock (1983) have criticized Aries by saying that it is more correct to say the pre-industrial society just had a different idea of childhood rather than turning a blind eye to it. Pollock argued that Aries work is outdated and his reliance on paintings makes work invalid. Paintings are just interpretations and not necessarily what reality is. The people who paid for his paintings were wealthy, so only represent the society of wealth so it did not reflect on middle-class people.
Although Pollock disagrees with Aries, Cunningham (2006) argues that the 19th century saw the social construction of childhood by adults. Childhood was seen to have three major characteristics. One, it was the opposite of adulthood, where children were seen to be in need of protection, to have a right not to work and to be dependent on adults. Two, the world of the adult and the world of the child were to be kept separate. The home and the school were known to be the ideal places to children and were often banned from adult places such as a pub or workplace.
Three, the children were seen to have the right to ‘happiness’ Nevertheless, there is considerable evidence that children continued to be badly treated during this period of time, also child prostitution and child abuse were occurring in most cities. This continued until the turn of the 20th century where the age of sexual consent was raised to 16 years old. However, many Functionalists and New Right thinkers believe that children have been given too many rights in recent years and that it is wrong that parents are increasingly criticised and even punished because of their ways in discipline, e. . smacking children. New Right thinkers believe that childhood is under threat because the period of innocent childhood has been shortened and also because children have been exposed too soon to the adult world. They see children in need of protection from ‘threats’ such as homosexuality and media violence, this links to Postman’s view (1982) of childhood. Neil Postman sees childhood is ‘disappearing at a dazzling speed’. He says that the cause of the appearance and disappearance of childhood is because of the growth of television which means that there are no more secrets from children.
This gives them unlimited access to the adult world, being exposed to sex, disaster, death and suffering. Social blurring has occurred showing that there is little distinction between adults and children. Children’s games are less childlike today, taking part in adult activities like smoking and drinking and are committing adult crimes such as murder. They speak, dress and behave like adults, this has meant that children are being given the same rights as adults. Society is pushing children to behave in a manner that encourages them to take part in activities that are unsuitable for their age group.
Nearly all the traditional features that mark the transition to childhood, (e. g. getting a job, leaving home, getting married) no longer apply. Therefore childhood is not a social construction and it is children disappearing rather than childhood. Sue Palmer agrees with this view and claims that parents are benefiting enormously from living in a wealthy society in which technology has enriched their lives. Palmer argues that rapid technological and cultural changes over the recent years have damaged children’s physical, emotional and intellectual development.
The cultural changes range from electronic games, junk food and television, these are negative influences and are often used as a substitute for parents spending quality time interacting with children. Children are therefore deprived of traditional childhood and family life. This is a problem in today’s society because every year, children become more distractible and self-obsessed- less able to learn and enjoy life. This shows childhood in a child-centred society rather than dependent on society’s cultures and believes conforming to social construction.
Some sociologists believe that childhood is dependent on society’s cultures, beliefs and laws, meaning socially constructed. Stephen Wagg (1992) said that Childhood is what members of particular societies at particular times and places say it is. He argues that although humans go through the same stages of physical development like puberty, different cultures construct or define them differently which means childhood is not the same in all societies. Wagg believes that there no single universal childhood experienced by all because it isn’t natural nor defined by mere biological immaturity.
Melanie Phillips differs to Wagg’s view, she argues about the negative impact of the media and consumer culture. Phillips believes that the media and peer groups have become more influential than parents and sees the media in the form of magazines aimed at young girls, pop music videos and television as a particular problem, because they encourage young girls to see themselves as sexual from a younger age. These trends are to show that the period of childhood has been shortened, it is no longer a sacred and innocent period lasting up to 13 or 14 years.
Phillips argues that children don’t have emotional maturity to cope with the rights and choices that they have today. The result of these processes, she believes are an increase in social problems such as suicide, eating disorders, self-harm, depression and drug/alcohol abuse. This view shows that childhood is not socially constructed and that the media and the peer group have more influences on childhood rather than the parents. The conventional approaches to childhood that I have outlined have been criticized by sociologists who have focused on researching how children see and interpret the world around them.
They say that the Functionalist and New Right view ignores the fact that children have their own unique interpretation of family life and that they tend to generalize about children and childhood. Morrow (1998) found that children did not want to make decisions for themselves, but they did want a say in what happened to them. Historical period, locality, culture, social class, gender and ethnicity all have an influence on the character and quality of childhood which shows childhood as a social construction.
In conclusion, there are a range of critical, contrasting views that I have assessed to show that childhood is socially constructed. Aries and Cunningham both claim that childhood as we know it today did not exist and they were known as ‘little adults’, childhood was considered to have three major characteristics which gives evidence of the social construction by adults in the 19th century. However there still remains a debate how childhood is now disappearing as its cultural changes have had a negative influence on childhood also how childhood is under threat because the media and peer groups have become more influential than parents.