Assess the View that the Family has Become More Child Centred (20)

An essay plan for one possible question on the families and households exam paper (AQA, SCLY2).

The March of Progress view argues the family has become more child centred. Evidence for this is that there are more social policies protecting children. Parents also spend more time with and more money their children today.

Evidence against this view includes the rise of toxic childhood and Postman’s theory that childhood is disappearing.

Child Centred Essay Plan.png

The essay plan below has been written to help students revising for the families and households topic within A-level sociology.

The family is more child centred: arguments and evidence for

The view in the question is associated with the ‘March of Progress view’ of childhood – that society and the family have both become more child centred.

  • Point 1 – Child welfare policies protect children in the family – Laws prevent them from working, children MUST go to school, children have rights, social services can intervene if necessary. Evaluation – It is possible to interpret these laws as preventing the family from being more child centred – e.g. compulsory schooling.
  • Point 2 – Adults have fewer children – This enables them to spend more time with each child. The amount time parents spend with children has increased in recent decades. Evaluation – This is not true for all families – Many parents, especially fathers work long hours and cannot see their children.
  • Point 3 – Parents spend more time with their children. Analysis– Sociologists such as Furedi suggest this is a negative side of the ‘child centred’ family – Helicopter parents, cotton wool kids who are dependent and anxious – resulting in Kidults.
  • Point 4– Parents spend more money on their children. Evaluate using  inequalities/ Marxism.

Arguments and evidence against the view that the family is more child centred

  • Point 1 – Sue Palmer argues that the family isn’t child centred because of toxic childhood. This is where rapid social and technological changes have led to children being harmed – e.g. fast food/ computer games/ long hours worked by parents.
  • Point 2 – Neil Postman argues that childhood is disappearing.
  • Point 3 – Conflict theorists point out there is a ‘dark side’ of family life for some children.
  • Point 4 – Higher rates of divorce suggest the family is not child centred.
  • Point 5 – Changing roles for women suggests women are less focussed on their children. Evaluation – The New Right would suggest this is a negative development, but Feminists argue that this means positive role models for girls growing up with working mothers 


While parents and society like to think of the family as being more child centred, and where this is the case, it is not at all clear that this is a good thing. Moreover, there is considerable evidence that this is not the case – Changing women’s roles, new technologies, government polices all seem to work against child centredness. The view in the question is far from the last word on this topic.

A Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my AS Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle which contains the following:

Families Revision Bundle Cover
  1. 50 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within families and households
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering perspectives on the family
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – 3 examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ question.
  4. 9 essays/ essay plans spanning all the topics within the families and households topic.


For more advice on exams and essay writing see my page on essay writing and exam advice!

To return to the homepage –

More Evidence for Toxic Childhood

Ten times more children are being drugged to combat sleep disorders* compared to ten years ago, according to recent analysis of NHS data by the BBC’s Panorama programme.

Evidence for Toxic Childhood?

On the surface this seems to be strong supporting evidence for Sue Palmer’s theory of toxic childhood – the idea that a combination of factors associated with (post) modern life are harming children. The article lists three factors which are seen being responsible for increasing sleep deprivation among children

  • Blue light emitted by smartphones and tablets reduces the production of melatonin, the ‘ sleepy hormone’ – NB I can just imagine a vicious cycle at work here – can’t sleep, get on your phone – which makes it less likely that you’ll get to sleep!
  • Households where both parents work can be busier in the evenings, pushing bedtimes later – here’s a nice link to the concept of paranoid parenting – because children are the most precious things in parents lives, they have to see them before they go to bed, which does them unintentional harm. 
  • Fizzy drinks high in sugar and caffeine have also made it harder for children to switch off at night – which can also compound the negative effects of sleep deprivation. 

Some of the possible harmful effects of sleep deprivation are as follows:

  • Decreased concentration at school, leading to lower educational achievement
  • Increasing illness
  • An increase risk of obesity – according to this BBC article
  • Also, it’s just generally not pleasant in itself.

Evaluations of the evidence

While this appears to be straight-up supporting evidence for Toxic Childhood, you need to be careful how the concepts are operationalised (see * below), also the fact that children are more likely to be taken to hospital doesn’t necessarily mean there is an increase in sleep deprivation, it might mean that paranoid parents are just more sensitive to the issue today, and/ or medical practitioners are happier to diagnose sleep, so this could all be a social construction….

*Actually TBH that statement’s a headline grabber – according to the article, adults and children aged 0-55 (combined) are more likely to be given prescriptions for sleep deprivation, but children are ten times more likely to have hospital appointments for the condition.




Toxic Childhood – Sociology In the News!

Sue Palmer’s (2006) book Toxic Childhood argued that children were being harmed by a combination of technological and social changes such as increasingly screen based lifestyles, a hyper-competitive education system, the decline of outdoor play and the commercialisation of childhood.

Palmer argued that changes to childhood resulted in harms such as higher obesity levels, reduced concentration spans, and increasing mental health problems.

This recent Guardian article (December 2016) demonstrates the continued relevance of this book and the concept of Toxic Childhood –

A group of 40 leading authors, educationalists and child-development experts is calling on the government to introduce national guidelines on the use of screens, amid concern about the impact on children’s physical and mental health. Among them are the author Philip Pullman, and the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

Philip Pullman At London Zoo
Pullman – I guess he’d rather children read his books than watched the movie versions!

The letter calls for the development of kindergarten-style education for three- to seven-year-olds, with emphasis on social and emotional development and outdoor play; and says guidelines on screen-based technology for children up to 12 should be drawn up by recognised authorities on child health and development.

It is 10 years since the group sent its first letter to the media (inspired by Palmer’s book), expressing concern about the way it believes children’s health and well-being. Since then, they say, obesity and mental health problems among young people approaching crisis levels.

Sue Palmer, the author of Toxic Childhood, is among the letter’s signatories, she argues that “Without concerted action, our children’s physical and mental health will continue to deteriorate, with long-term results for UK society that are frankly unthinkable.”

Palmer says there are just two essential ingredients if children are to survive and thrive whatever the future brings: love and play.

Sue Palmer – Author of Toxic Childhood – ‘all children need is love and play’

However, not everyone subscribes to the doom-laden view of modern childhood and the “toxic” environment in which children are growing up. Recent studies have suggested that screen-based technology can encourage reading in boys from low-income families and that there may be a positive link between computer games and academic performance.

Then again, Whitney Houston reminds us that ‘children are the Future’, which pretty much proves Palmer right….

Related links

Toxic Childhood

Sue – used to be a great site on Toxic Childhood, but it’s currently under reconstruction (Dec 2016) – hopefully it’ll be just as straightforward when it resurfaces!

The Sociology of Childhood – Topic Overview


5.1 – To what extent is ‘childhood socially constructed’

5.2 – The March of Progress view of childhood (and parenting) – The Child Centred Family and Society?

5.3 – Toxic Childhood and Paranoid Parenting – Criticisms of ‘The March of Progress View’

5.4 – Is Childhood Disappearing?

5.5 – Reasons for changes to childhood and parenting practices

Key Concepts

The social construction of childhood

The golden age of childhood

Child centred society

The cult of childhood

The March of progress view

Conflict perspective

Child liberationism

Age patriarchy

Acting up

Acting down

The disappearance of childhood

Toxic childhood

Selected Short answer questions

Suggest three ways in which children are viewed in modern western societies

Identify two ways in which children’s live are marked out as being separate from adults

Suggest two ways in which notions of childhood are different in different cultures

Explain two ways in which childhood differed in the middle ages compared with today

Suggest three reasons why the position of children has changed over time

Explain one way in which industrialisation lead to the position of children in society changing

Suggest two ways in which children’s positions have improved in recent years

Briefly outline two ways in which gender inequalities exist between different types of children

Suggest two examples of ethnic inequalities between children

Suggest two examples.. nationality/ class/ ethnicity/ gender

Suggest three ways in which adults control children in modern society

Suggest two ways in which children resist the status of ‘child’

Suggest two pieces of evidence that childhood is disappearing

Suggest two reasons why childhood may me disappearing

Suggest two pieces of evidence that suggest the boundaries between adults and children are stronger than ever

Possible Essays

Assess the view that childhood is disappearing (24)

Examine Sociological Perspectives on changes to childbearing and parenting (24)

Explaining Why so many Young Adults Live with Their Parents

You might like this video version of some of the material discussed below

According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2011, nearly 3.0 million adults aged between 20 and 34 were living with a parent or parents, an increase of almost half a million, or 20 per cent, since 1997. This is despite the number of people in the population aged 20 to 34 being largely the same in 1997 and 2011. This means that nearly 1/3 men and 1/7 women in the UK now live with their parents.

If you look at just 30 somethings, however, then the numbers drop to just 5% of women and 10% of men living with their parents

However – Not all ‘Kippers*’ are the same! (*Kids living in their parents’ pockets)

It is important to keep in mind that not all ‘adult kids’ are the same; experiences of living at home with your parents into your 30s will vary.

For example, the experience of being a NEET and living at home with your parents may well be different to being one of the ‘Boomerang Kids’ – who move out to go to university but then move back in with their parents afterwards

Some adult kids would have lived at home continuously, but many would have moved out for a period with a partner, and then moved back in again.

Adult-Kids will also vary as to the extent to which they are forced into living with their parents due to financial reasons, or choose to do so for ‘lifestyle reasons’.

Experiences will also differ depending on parental attitudes to having their adult children living with them.

Why are increasing numbers of ‘adult children’ living with their parents?

Many commentators stress that young adults have no choice but to live with their parents, focusing on structural (mainly economic) reasons that force people to live with their parents.

The following structural changes mean it is harder for young people to transition to independent living.

  1. The massive expansion in higher education has seen the number of undergraduate students triple since 1970, from 414,000 to 1.27 million – this means more young adults are not in work and economically dependent on their parents for longer.
  2. The recent recession has been accompanied by a sharp increase in unemployment rates among young adults,” This means that recent graduates, especially men, are increasingly returning to live with their parents after graduating.  Their numbers are being swelled by the increasing levels of student debt they have accumulated by the time they finish their studies.
  3. Then there are changes in the housing market. Even those in work cannot afford to move out of the family home as first-time buyers now face house prices that are, on average, five times average incomes, compared with a multiple of three times 20 years ago.

However, there are also cultural changes which mean young adults are more likely to choose to live with their parents even when they could move out.

  1. There is more uncertainty about what a ‘normal relationship’ is. Changing roles of men and women and changing expectations of relationships and family life result in young people being more reluctant to settle down in a classic long term relationship.
  2. The meaning of ‘being 20 something is different today to what it was in the 1970s. Today, we simply want to ‘settle down’ later in life – 20s have become about ‘pulling and dating’, ‘30s about serious long term relationships, and late 30s about children. Of those 20 somethings who do flee the parental nest, they are increasingly likely to either live alone or share with friends. The number of young couple households has been decreasing in recent years.
  3. The increasing number of ‘kippers’ might also be linked to the increasing instability of relationships. There are plenty of late 20s and 30 somethings who have previously moved in with a partner for a few years, suffered a relationship breakdown, ended up back with their parents and are now reluctant to recommit!

See this Guardian post for further info

Perspectives on the ‘not quite children’

Most of the commentary on this social trend seems to be negative – focusing on such things as:

Some research, however, suggests that adults living at home with their parents can be a positive thingAs this research, based on 500 ‘adult-kids’ in the USA suggests

‘Few 20-somethings who live at home are mooching off their parents. More often, they are using the time at home to gain necessary credentials and save money for a more secure future.

Helicopter parents aren’t so bad after all. Involved parents provide young people with advantages, including mentoring and economic support, that have become increasingly necessary to success.’

Find out More

For More posts on families and households please click here

For a more extended discussion of trends which lie behind increasing family diversity please click here

Nice blog post on ‘how returning to live with our parents in our 30s benefited both sides’

BBC News – 1.6 Million people aged 20-40 live with their parents

Barbara Ellen of the Guardian really doesn’t approve – NB most of the commentators don’t approve of her views either!

Is Childhood Disappearing?

A summary of Neil Postman’s theory with supporting evidence and criticisms.

There is an argument that childhood as we know it is disappearing with the the distinction between adulthood and childhood narrowing. Neil Postman (1994) argued that childhood is ‘disappearing at a dazzling speed’.

book cover: Neil Postman: The Disappearance of Childhood.

As supporting evidence Postman looked at the trend towards giving children the same rights as adults, the growing similarity of adult and children’s clothing and even cases of children committing ‘adult crimes’ such as murder and rape.

Postman’s theory is based on the view that communications technology is the primary thing which shapes society.

Following Aries, he suggested that in the middle ages most people were illiterate (they couldn’t read or write) and speech was the main form of communicating, thus there was hardly any distinction between adults and children.

Postman argues that childhood emerged along with mass literacy. This was because the printed word created a division between those that could read (adults) and those that couldn’t (children). This division emerged because it takes several years to master reading and writing skills, and those years of ‘not being able to read and years spent learning to read and write’ became the childhood years.

HOWEVER, Postman argues that in contemporary society, new technologies like television and the internet blur this separation and that children are now much more able to access the ‘adult world’. As a result, childhood as we know it is disappearing.

The disappearance of childhood: supporting evidence

Some examples which may support the view that the boundary between adulthood and childhood are disappearing include:

  • Children now spend a lot more time online without parental supervision. This means they are more exposed to adult themes at a younger age. Sue Palmer’s work on Toxic Childhood generally supports this.
  • The ‘Learner Voice’ in education. There is more of an expectation that adult teachers will listen to their students and consider their needs. Children are even being used on interview panels for new teachers in some schools.
  • Children have the same rights as adults (The UN’s rights of the child)
  • The growth of ‘Kidults’ means adults becoming more like children. One aspect of this is younger adults spending longer living with their parents.

The Workout Kid

The Work-out Kid is one example which suggests childhood may be disappearing…

Criticisms of the theory that childhood is disappearing

Jenks (2005) suggests that while there are increased concerns among parents about the impacts technologies such as the internet are having on children, this hasn’t resulted in the disappearance of childhood as such.

Rather, such technological changes have led to parents thinking children and childhood need to be more protected that ever – as evidenced in the increase Paranoid Parenting and social policies surrounding safeguarding.

Most of the evidence supporting the March of Progress View of Childhood criticises the idea that childhood is disappearing.

The legal age of marriage was recently raised from 16 to 18, which moves the boundary of adulthood later.

Signposting/ Related Posts

This post has been written primarily for students of A-level sociology. The childhood topic is part of the families and households module. You might also like the related posts below….

Please click here to return to the main ReviseSociology home page!


Jenks (2005) Childhood.

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Inequalities between children in the United Kingdom

There are several inequalities between children including those based around social class and income, gender and ethnicity.

The March of Progress view of childhood argues that childhood has gradually improved over the last century or so.

However, conflict theorists argue that this view is too rose tinted. It ignores the fact that there are significant inequalities between children. Social policies designed to benefit children have not helped all children equally. 

We can point to at least the following significant inequalities between children…

  • income based inequalities
  • gender based inequalities
  • Inequalities related to ethnicity
  • Inequalities in child protection services.

The effects of income inequalities on child development 

Nearly 80% of children from the richest fifth of households are read to daily at age 3, compared to only 40% of children from the poorest fifth of households (2).

bar chart showing how many hours parents read to children.

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (1) these inequalities which start at home persist through education:

  • Only 57% of English pupils eligible for free school meals reached a good level of development at the end of Reception in 2019, compared with 74% of their better-off peers. 
  • Only 40% of disadvantaged pupils go on to earn good GCSEs in English and maths compared to 60% of the better-off students.
  • Ten years after GCSEs, just over 50% of the richest fifth of students have graduated from university compared to fewer than 20% of the poorest fifth of students

Gender inequalities in childhood 

Girls suffer more problems in childhood than boys

In the year ending March 2019, the CSEW  (3) estimated that women were around three times as likely as men to have experienced sexual abuse before the age of 16 years (11.5% compared with 3.5%).

Some more historical evidence shows that girls have to negotiate the psychological pressures of ‘objectification’ much more than boys:

  • A 2016 survey found that 29% of girls reported having experienced unwanted sexual touching in school. 
  • The same report found that 70% of girls and boys reported hearing on a regular basis  words such as ‘slag’ or ‘slut’ to shame girls 
  • A 2007 survey of Brownies aged 7-10 were asked to describe ‘planet sad’ – they spoke of it being inhabited by girls who were fat.
  • A 2009 survey found that a quarter of girls thought it was more important to be beautiful than clever. –
  • 16% of 15 -17 year old girls have avoided going to school because they were worried about their appearance
  • One further consequence of objectification is that girls face sexual abuse from boys. (nspcc)

Ethnic inequalities in childhood 

Exclusion rates are higher for White Gypsy and Roma pupils (0.39%), Traveller of Irish Heritage pupils (0.27%), Black Caribbean pupils (0.25%) and Mixed White and Black Caribbean children (0.24%) (4). 

Exclusions for racial incidents in schools were up 40% in 2020. 

Based on a recent poll of 400 BAME teachers, 54% said they had experienced actions they believed were demeaning to them because of their ethnicity. (4)

Child Protection services fail to protect many children from harm

The most horrific example of this is from the town of Rotherham where gangs of Asian men groomed, abused and trafficked 1400 children while police were contemptuous of the victims and the council ignored what was going on, in spite of years of warnings and reports about what was happening.

A recent report commissioned by the council, covering 1997 to 2013, detailed cases where children as young as 11 had been raped by a number of different men, abducted, beaten and trafficked to other towns and cities in the north of England to continue the abuse.

It said that three reports from 2002 to 2006 highlighted the extent of child exploitation and links to wider criminality but nothing was done, with the findings either suppressed or simply ignored. Police failed to act on the crimes and treated the victims with contempt and deemed that they were “undesirables” not worthy of protection.


This post has been written primarily for A-level Sociology students, studying the Families and Households module. Many of the examples above are related to the topic of Toxic Childhood.

Please click here to return to the homepage –


  1. IFS (2022) Lack of progress on closing educational inequalities disadvantaging millions throughout life.
  2. Nuffield Foundation (2022) Little Change to Early Childhood Inequalities
  3. CSEW 2022  Child Sexual Abuse in England and Wales. 
  4. Barnardos: How systemic racism affects young people

Toxic Childhood

Examples include more screen time, less outdoor play, and more anxiety.

Toxic Childhood is where rapid technological and cultural changes cause psychological and physical damage to children

The concept of Toxic Childhood is one of the main criticisms of the March of Progress view of chilhood. It is especially critical of the idea that more education and products for children are necessarily good for them.

Sue Palmer, a former primary school headteacher invented the term toxic childhood. Her theory is outlined in her 2006 book: Toxic Childhood: How the Modern World is Damaging Our Children and What We Can Do About It‘.


In the book, Palmer argues that a toxic mix of technological and cultural changes are having a negative impact on the development of a growing number of children, and she outlines six main ways in which childhood has become increasingly toxic over the years.

Six examples of toxic childhood

A few years ago Sue Palmer’s Web Site had a very clear summary of six social changes which were damaging children’s early development, listed below….

  1. The decline of outdoor play – linked to increased childhood obesity.
  2. The commercialisation of childhood – linked to children being exploited by advertisers.
  3. The ‘schoolification’ of early childhood – which reduces independence.
  4. The decline of listening, language and communication skills – because of shortened attention spans.
  5. Screen saturation – reduces face to face interaction.
  6. Tests, targets and education – increases anxiety among children.

Below I summarise some of the ways aspects of childhood today may still be toxic!

The decline of outdoor play

According to Early Years Matters play underpins every aspect of children’s development. Children develop intellectual, language, social, emotional, and creative skills through play.

It is through play that children explore the world around them, take risks and develop their imaginations.  

However outdoor play for children has declined significantly in the last decades. Save the Children recently reported that only 27% of children play outside regularly. This compares to 80% 55-64 olds when they were children.

Outdoor play generally provides children with more freedom than indoor play, allowing children to develop a greater sense of independence and self-reliance than with indoor play which is altogether more controlled and monitored by adults.

The decline of outdoor play also means children are getting less exercise today and it is correlated with increasing childhood obesity. It could also be having a detrimental impact of children’s mental health.

According the interactionist theory of socialisation play is central to the development of the self in childhood. So the decline in outdoor play may even be preventing children from becoming fully social beings.

The commercialisation of childhood

Childhood has become increasingly commercialised over the last few decades. This is where children are turned into consumers from early years into their teens. This is achieved mainly through advertising products and brands to children through television and more recently social media.

While the number of adverts children watch on television has decreased since 2013, social media is a different story.

Children are increasingly being bombarded with content marketing on social media: funny videos and memes which link to products. Children may also follow minor celebrities who promote certain brands and products.

With such marketing techniques children may not even be aware they are victims of commercialisation.

The ‘schoolification’ of early childhood

Childhood has become increasingly regulated and there is an expectation that children should always be learning at a standardised pace to keep up with ‘ordinary’ child development.

For example the baby centre has milestone charts for children in different age brackets outlining what most, half, and ‘advanced’ children can do by certain ages.

There is thus more pressure on parents and child carers to be teaching language, numeracy, or motor skills to very young pre-school children rather than just allowing them freedom to explore and enjoy their childhoods.

The government has also recently announced an increase to the amount of time children should spend in school. From September 2024 children should be. in school for 6.5 hours a day or a minimum of 32.5 hours a week.

The decline of listening, language and communication skills

The number of children estimated to be behind with language and communication skills in England and Wales increased to 1.9 million in 2023, up from 1.7 million in the previous year.

Combined with the above point this means we are setting more and more targets but children are just failing to reach them. This will then probably mean more catching up in school rather than modifying the targets.

All together we seem to have constructed a set of rules for children than sets many of them up to be failures from a young age.

Screen saturation

One study (reported 2020) based on a sample of 3000 10-16 year olds found that half of them were online for more than 5 hours a day.

However the study above finds mixed results for the positive or negative consequences of increased screen time on child development, physical health and mental well-being.

Tests, targets and education

Marketisation from 1988 has greatly increased the role of testing in schools. This has led to a narrowing of the curriculum as more time is spent on teaching children to jump through the hoops required to pass exams.

More testing and exam pressure is also correlated with increasing anxiety among children.

More Recent Books on Toxic Childhood

Sue Palmer has published two more books, focusing on boys, in 2007, and on girls, in 2014.

Toxic Childhood: Criticisms

There are several criticisms of the view that childhood has become increasingly toxic:

  • This could be an example of an adult ‘panicking’ about technological changes, maybe children are more adaptable than Palmer thinks?
  • Taking the longer term view, childhood may well be more commercialised today, but surely children are better off today as consumers rather than producers (child labourers)?
  • This article by Catherine Bennett is worth a read – it reminds us that ‘in the good old days we just had to endure beatings’, although in fairness to Sue Palmer I don’t think she actually romanticizes the past, she’s really just pointing out the new and different problems children now face in a post-modern age.
Find out More

You might like to visit Sue Palmer’s Web Site.

Palmer’s Web Site used to be well organised, and used to have a lot of links to recent research on Toxic Childhood..

Unfortunately the and the free information (arguably like childhood) has disappeared, and it now just links to her books, which you have to pay for. (I guess times are hard for adults as well as children, especially when you’re used to a headteacher’s salary!)

Having said that some of her most recent books on child development and education are worth a read. Her most recent publication argues for raising the school starting age to seven!

Related Posts 

This material is relevant to the families and households module, usually taught in the first year of A-level sociology.

Other related posts include:

Toxic Childhood in The News

More Evidence of Toxic Childhood

Inequalities between children

The Social Construction of Childhood

The ideas we have about childhood are created by society rather than determined by biological age.

Sociologists say that ‘childhood is socially constructed’. This means 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 influenced 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.

This post explores some of the evidence for the view that ‘childhood is socially constructed’.

is childhood socially constructed? (mind map)

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, ending when society says someone is an adult.

In Modern Britain, society determines when childhood ends 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. Children gradually pick 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 to be able to make good decisions, and we also tend to see them as not being responsible for their 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.

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.

soft play: an example of a child only space.
Soft Play: A Child Only Space!

The Social Construction of Childhood – A Comparative Approach

A good way to illustrate the social construction of childhood is to take a comparative approach. We can look at how children are seen and treated in other times and places other than our own. Four fairly well-known examples of how childhood can vary in other countries include:

  • Child labour
  • Child soldiers
  • Child marriage
  • Religious enslavement

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 or in sweat shops where wages can boost family income.

22% of children aged 5 to 17 in the least developed countries are involved in some sort of labour. The percentage rises to 25% in much of Sub-Saharan, West, East, South and Central Africa. 

Many adults in those countries don’t believe children should be in full time education until age 16 like in Western European Countries.

bar chart showing percentage of children aged 5 to 17 in child labour. 2022

Child soldiers

In conflict, typically young teenage boys may be recruited to fight, taking on very serious adult responsibilities several years younger than in ‘western’ societies.

Tens of thousands and children have been recruited as child soldiers, mainly in Western Africa and parts of the MIddle East. The United Nations estimates that almost 8000 children were newly recruited in 2019. 

The countries estimated to have the most child soldiers are currently The Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Syria and Yemen. It is mostly non-state groups which recruit children into their ranks. 

Obviously the responsibilities that go along with being a soldier are severe, including risking one’s life. Those doing the recruiting don’t regard children as being in need of protection like people in the West do.

Child Marriage

In the Least Developed Countries 11% of girls are married by the time they are 15, and 39% by the time they are 18.

39% of girls don’t have the gradual transition from childhood through youth to adulthood like most girls in Western European cultures do. Adulthood status has started by the age 18 for all of these now fully-fledged women.

In some cases young teenage girls are coerced into marriage without their consent, taking on the duties of a wife or mother younger than 18. This is well-documented in India and Ethiopia, for example.

Bar chart showing percentage of young women married by 15 and 18 years of age.

Religious enslavement

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 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. The point is there are plenty of cultures where adults DO NOT think children are ‘in need of protection’ and so on. There are hundreds of millions of adults who believe that childhood should end earlier 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’.

A Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle

If you like this sort of thing, then you might like my A-Level Sociology Families and Households Revision Bundle:

Families Revision Bundle Cover

The bundle contains the following:

  1. 50 pages of revision notes covering all of the sub-topics within families and households
  2. mind maps in pdf and png format – 9 in total, covering perspectives on the family
  3. short answer exam practice questions and exemplar answers – 3 examples of the 10 mark, ‘outline and explain’ question.
  4.  9 essays/ essay plans spanning all the topics within the families and households topic.

Signposting and Related Posts

The social construction of childhood is one of the major topics taught as part of the A-level sociology families and households module (AQA specification).

Related posts include…

The March of Progress View of Childhood

The Social Construction of Childhood (from the Open University)

The Social Construction of Childhood (from the Junior University)


Reuters (2021) Child Soldiers
Unicef: Child Labour.
Unicef: Child Marriage
Soft Play Image Source
Children’s Toys Image Source

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