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.
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
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 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
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.
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.
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….
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.
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….
The decline of outdoor play – linked to increased childhood obesity.
The commercialisation of childhood – linked to children being exploited by advertisers.
The ‘schoolification’ of early childhood – which reduces independence.
The decline of listening, language and communication skills – because of shortened attention spans.
Screen saturation – reduces face to face interaction.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
This material is relevant to the families and households module, usually taught in the first year of A-level sociology.