The term ‘childhood’ refers to the time or state of being a child, childhood is not fixed but differs between time and place. If childhood is socially constructed it means that childhood is something that is created and defined by particular society. There are many arguments that offer an insight into this theory and this essay will examine those arguments. In the western society it is generally seen that children are distinctly different from adults and that childhood is accepted as a special time of life that should be protected from the ‘adult world’. Phillipe Aries argues that the concept of childhood is a fairly recent discovery in our society; he says this is evident in the introduction of compulsory education and the laws stating that employment of children is banned. This has brought on a lengthened period of child dependency on the adult, whereas in the past children could contribute to the family through paid work.
This is the same with adolescents as, due to unemployment and a lack of jobs, the age of dependency is increasing. Aries argues that in the Middle Ages, childhood did not exist – children worked from an early age and they were treated as ‘mini adults’, even dressing in the same way. Aries work shows that childhood is socially constructed as he shows how children’s social status has changed over time. However, Aries has been criticised by many as he based his theory upon early modern artwork, assuming that it showed an accurate representation of what early modern families looked like. Most artwork, in the middle ages, was paid for by the rich and so would show a bias view. Also Linda Pollock argued that, instead of there being no childhood in the Middle Ages, it is more accurate to say that society simply had a different idea of what childhood was. Jane Pilcher notes that the most important feature of childhood in the modern society is separateness, whereby childhood is seen as a distinct life stage separate from the adult world.
This can be seen through the laws which state what children can or can’t do. A child’s difference from an adult is also shown, this is through differences in dress code and products and services aimed at children. Such as books, play areas and toys. Childhood is seen as a time of happiness and innocence, in which children need to be protected from the reality of the adult world. As a result of this, children are separated from this world in an attempt to keep their innocence. However, this view of there being a separate age status has been criticised as this is not found in all societies. Wagg argues that, different societies and different cultures construct and define the process of physical development differently. Cultures, other than the West, may not see such great differences between children and adults. Neil Postman argues that childhood is disappearing; he bases his view on two related ideas.
He says that the growth of the mass media means that there are no secrets kept from children anymore. Television and magazines, for example, give them access to the adult world as they are exposed to the real world of sex, death and suffering. He also says that social blurring has occurred by which there is now little distinction between adults and children. For example, children’s games and TV programmes are disappearing and children seem less childlike today. Postman argues that they speak, dress and behave in more adult ways. However, Postman has been criticised as it may just be children disappearing rather than childhood. This could be supported by the evidence that children act as a smaller percentage of our overall population today. He has also been criticised over-emphasising television as a cause for the disappearance of childhood, whilst ignoring other factors like changes in the law.
Many theorists support the idea that childhood is socially constructed and many have argued about whether or not the position of children has improved over time. The ‘march of progress view’ theorists, such as Functionalists, argue that childhood in western societies has been improving over the years. They say that today children are more valued, protected and educated and also have more rights than in the past. Nowadays a child’s educational, psychological and medicals needs are catered for by such things as improved healthcare and higher budgets for schooling. It is also noted that not only the family but society as a whole is becoming ‘child-centered’, by shaping the media and offering leisure activities designed for children. However conflict theorists, such as Marxists and Feminists, would argue this view as they believe that society is based on conflict where some groups have more power and status than others and the relationship of these groups is one of domination and subordination.
There are inequalities amongst children and between children and adults as, children are more controlled by adults these days and are oppressed rather than protected. It could be argued that childhood is not completely socially constructed. For example, the process of socialisation indicates that childhood is a learned concept whereby the young person learns how to be a child and the adult learns how to create a child. The physical and mental developments of children help to define the roles and responsibilities they can take on and also decipher which treatment they receive.
Also, it can be argued that child-centeredness is not a universal today, there are many things such as child abuse and exploitation that are ever growing in today’s society. In conclusion, there are many arguments to support the idea that childhood can be said to be socially constructed such things as the idea that childhood has evolved due to introductions made by society, that the modern society sees separateness as a key feature of childhood, and that society can be seen to be blurring the distinction between children and adults. The arguments in support out way the arguments against.