Are children in the UK too controlled today?

A summary of Dianna Gittin’s work on age patriarchy.

Last Updated on October 4, 2023 by Karl Thompson

Conflict theories argue that children’s lives today too controlled. Children today have too little freedom, adults repress them.

This theory criticises the March of Progress View of childhood and The Child Centred Society.

Many laws introduced in the name of ‘child protection’ are really about the oppression and control of children. Dianna Gittins uses the term ‘Age Patriarchy’ to refer to adult domination over children.

Age Patriarchy: Where adults control children and keep them in a state of dependency. By exerting too much control over children’s time, space, money and resources adults dominate children and prevent them from becoming independent.

Age Patriarchy: adult control over children

Adult control over children takes several forms…

  • control over resources
  • adult control over space
  • control over time
  • adult control over appearance.

Control over children’s resources

Labour laws and compulsory schooling make children financially dependent on adults. Shulamith Firestone sees protection from paid work as forcibly segregating children, making them powerless and dependent.

There are plenty of 14-16 year olds who would be happy to leave school and go into full time work. There are many more 16-18 olds who want to work full time and not stay in education. However the minimum wage for under 18 year olds is less than £6 an hour. This is so low they are unable to support themselves. Government policy keeps 16-18 year olds in a state of financial dependency on their parents.

Control over children’s space

There has been an increase in surveillance of children in public spaces.

Take school as an example: children are monitored more than ever through electronic registration systems, constant testing and nearly every school in the UK has surveillance cameras, with up to 10% of them having them in the toilets.

Children are even more controlled in terms of their journey to and from school. In 1971 76% of primary school children travelled home alone compared to only 25% by 2013.

Control over children’s time

Parents restricts children through daily and weekly routines. Children today are given less time to themselves, with parents scheduling in more activities for them to do in evenings and weekends.

The amount of time parents in the UK spend with their children more than trebled between 1965 and 2010.

graphs showing the amount of time parents spend with their children.

Control over children’s bodies

Parents control how children dress and how they interact physically with other children and over their own bodies (don’t pick your nose, don’t slouch etc.).

Acting up and Acting Down

Evidence that children childhood as oppressive comes from the strategies they use to resist the status of child and the strategies that go with it. Two of these strategies are ‘acting up’ and ‘acting down’.

  • Acting up is where a child acts older than they to rebel.
  • Acting down is where a child acts younger than they are as an act of rebellion.

Age Patriarchy: criticisms of the concept

This doesn’t apply to very young children who are clearly dependent on adults and need controlling. It’s difficult to argue that a three year old on a scooter should be allowed total freedom to go where they want!

There is an ongoing debate over how much control is too much control and what ages this should be applied to!

This theory is very much out of step with the dominant march of progress view. The danger of allowing children too much freedom too young is that they come to harm in some way.


This material is relevant to the families and households option, part of year one A-level Sociology with the AQA.

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