When sociologists say that ‘childhood is socially constructed’ they mean that the ideas we have about childhood are created by society, rather than being determined by the biological age of a ‘child’.
Some of the aspects of childhood which are influence by society include:
- The length of childhood and the moment a child becomes an adult
- The status of children in society – their rights and responsibilities, what legal protections/ restrictions we place on them
- The general ideas we have about children – for example whether we think they are innocent and in need of protection, or resilient and in need of freedom to explore and develop by themselves as far as possible.
This post explores some of the evidence for the view that ‘childhood is socially constructed’.
What is Childhood?
Childhood, ‘the state of being a child’ is often defined in contrast to adulthood.
For example, the Cambridge English dictionary defines a child’ as ‘a boy or girl from time of birth until he or she is an adult’.
More usefully (IMO) The Oxford English dictionary defines a child as a young human being below the age of puberty, or below the age of a legal majority.
Taken together these two definitions show us that childhood can be either biologically determined, ending when someone reaches their biological age of puberty, or it can be socially determined, simply ending an age when society says someone is an adult.
In Modern Britain, it is society that determines when childhood ends an adulthood starts, and that age is currently set at 18, when an individual reaches the age of ‘legal entitlement’.
However, children do not just suddenly become adults at the age of 18. In Britain there is also a very lengthy transition from childhood, through adolescence, into adulthood, with children gradually picking up certain ‘legal entitlements’ as they progress through their teenage years.
For example, children can work from the age of 14, the age of sexual consent is at 16, and the age at which they can drive is 17.
The fact that society determines the age at which childhood ends is part of the reason why sociologists argue that ‘childhood is socially constructed’ – ‘socially constructed’ simply means created by society (rather than by biology).
Ideas associated with childhood
There are a lot of ideas associated with childhood, and how it differs from adulthood. In Modern Britain we tend to think of children as being dependent, naive, innocent, vulnerable, and in need of protection from adults.
We tend to see children as having insufficient experience and knowledge (because they are still learning and evolving) to be able to make good decisions, and thus we also tend to see them as not necessarily being responsible for their own actions.
The separation of childhood and adulthood
There seems to be near universal agreement that there are some fundamental differences between adults and children. For example people in most societies seem to agree that
1. Children are physically and psychologically immature compared to adults
2. Children are dependent on adults for a range of biological and emotional needs – Children need a lengthy process of socialisation which takes several years.
3. In contrast to adults, children are not competent to run their own lives and cannot be held responsible for their actions
In contrast to the period of childhood, one of the defining characteristics of adulthood is that adults are biologically mature, are competent to run their own lives and are fully responsible for their actions.
However, despite broad agreement on the above, what people mean by childhood and the position children occupy is not fixed but differs across times, places and cultures. There is considerable variation in what people in different societies think about the place of children in society, about what children should and shouldn’t be doing at certain ages, about how children should be socialised, and about the age at which they should be regarded as adults.
For this reason, Sociologists say that childhood is socially constructed. This means that childhood is something created and defined by society:
The social construction of childhood in modern British society
Part of the social construction of childhood in modern Britain is that we choose to have a high degree of separation between the spheres of childhood and adulthood. Add in details to the headings below
1. There are child specific places where only children and ‘trusted adults’ are supposed to go, and thus children are relatively sheltered from adult life.
2. There are several laws preventing children from doing certain things which adults are allowed to do.
3. There are products specifically for children –which adults are not supposed to play with (although some of them do).
All of the above separations between adults and children have nothing to do with the biological differences between adults and children – children do not need to have ‘special places’ just for them, they do not need special laws protecting them, and neither do they need specific toys designed for them. We as a society have decided that these things are desirable for children, and thus we ‘construct childhood’ as a being very different to adulthood.
The Social Construction of Childhood – A Comparative Approach
A good way to illustrate the social construction of childhood is to take a comparative approach – that is, to look at how children are seen and treated in other times and places than their own. Three fairly well-known examples of how childhood can vary in other countries include:
- Child Labour – In some cultures children are seen as an ‘economic asset’ and expected to engage in paid work – In Less developed countries children are often seen as a source of cheap (free) labour on the farm, in the home or in sweat shops where the wage can help boost the family income.
- Child soldiers – In conflict, typically young teenage boys may be recruited to fight, effectively taking on very serious adult responsibilities several years younger than they would do in ‘western’ societies.
- Forced Marriage – In some countries, young teenage girls are sometimes coerced into arranged marriage without their consent, taking on the duties of a wife or mother at a young age. This is well-documented in India and Ethiopia, for example.
- In West Africa, thousands of girls and women have been enslaved by a practice called ‘trokosi’. Girls as young as seven are given away by their family to pay for the sins of family members. They get forcibly shipped to a shrine, possibly in a foreign country, stripped of their identity, and are forced to work as ‘servants of God’.
NB this isn’t to suggest that any of these conceptions are ‘equal’ to our conceptions of childhood in the west – it is purely to illustrate that there are plenty of cultures where adults DO NOT think children are ‘in need of protection’ and so on, and many hundreds of millions of adults who believe that childhood should end a lot younger than 16-18.
Philippe Aries – A Radical View on The Social Construction of Childhood
The historian Philippe Aries has an extreme view on childhood as a social construction. He argues that in the Middle Ages (the 10th to the 13th century) ‘the idea of childhood did not exist’ – children were not seen as essentially different to adults like they are today.
- Aries uses the following evidence to support his view…
- Children were expected to work at a much earlier age
- The law often made no distinction between children and adults
Works of art from the period often just depict children as small adults – they wear the same clothes and appear to work and play together.
In addition to the above Edward Shorter (1975) argues about parental attitudes to children in the Middle ages were very different from today…
- High infant mortality rates encouraged indifference and neglect, especially towards infants
- Parents often neglected to give new born babies names – referring to them as ‘it’ and it was not uncommon to eventually give a new baby a name of a dead sibling.
Aries argues that it is only from the 13th century onwards that modern notions of childhood – the idea that childhood is a distinct phase of life from adulthood – begin to emerge. Essentially Aries is arguing that childhood as we understand it today is a relatively recent ‘invention’
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The Social Construction of Childhood (from the Open University)
The Social Construction of Childhood (from the Junior University)