AS Sociology – Childhood

The following questions can be found in ‘AQA Sociology Book One’ – and achieved 40/40. Please steal, copy or plagiarise at your delight. Word count: 2,456.

Define the term ‘child-centred society’ (2).

The term ‘child-centered society’ is recognised mainly in the Western setting. It refers to societies that not only perceive children as target groups for social policies as citizens in the future, but also as social actors in their own right, especially with the entitlement to make their presence known, voice their opinions and judgments and be heard and listened to. Child-centered societies value children’s rights, needs, wants and views at the heart of societal functioning – such themes are embodied in pursuing social policies, safety legislation and educational opportunity to offer children option and choice.

Using one example, explain how the difference between adulthood and childhood is becoming less clear (2).

As argued by Postman (1994), the dividing line is eroding with the technological advancements of communication media. In a world dominated by oral tradition, there was little distinction because as soon as children mastered language, they had entered the adult realm. However, the spread of literacy bred the existence of an information hierarchy that restricted children from accessing adult material – and as such, two spheres were prevalent. This monopoly on the control of information was maintained by print culture, but soon enough electronic and digital information was supplied through mobile phones and television which offered children the opportunity to re-gain access into the adult world. The information hierarchy, together with the difference of childhood and adulthood, eroded; there is no longer the ability to deprive children through the segregation of information.

Outline three ways in which adults control children’s time, space or bodies (6).

Child liberationists point out the need to re-gain child autonomy – they recognise the complete power adults have over children in all aspects of their lives. For instance, children are restricted from social areas, told to play in certain areas for the interests of everybody; even so, they are closely scrutinised through adult surveillance for protection. The politicisation of child abuse has led to moral panics regarding ‘stranger danger’ which has led to greater numbers of children travelling, particularly to school, with parents; in 1971, 86% of primary school children travelled alone, but this figure plunged to 25% by 2010 – showing also, the growing existence of childhood as a life stage characterised by the need for protection.

Additionally, adult ascendancy ensures children’s daily routines, their food, sleep, activities and play are all under the jurisdiction of their elders. Children are effectively moulded throughout primary socialisation to be programmed in ways that satisfy their parents, they must obey their rules regarding time, for otherwise they may be subject to punishment. Also, adults are able to control the speed at which their children grow up by the way they speak to them, restrict their access into the adult sphere, the responsibility they are permitted and where they are allowed when. Such factors contribute to childhood being a social construction, and not a homogeneous, universal experience.

Furthermore, adults govern the ways their children sit, eat, walk, talk, their clothes and hairstyles, and the ways in which they are permitted to explore their own body. Adults take for granted the ways in which children should be held, cared for, washed and fed as standard instincts. All of the above create a culture that not only breed a divisive difference between childhood and adulthood, but also contribute to children’s complete lack of autonomy and agency within their own independent capabilities.

Applying material from item B, analyse two arguments against the view that childhood is a fixed, universal stage (10). 

With reference to a wealth of rich, meaningful sociological and anthropological research, childhood is evidently the result of reformation regarding social change. The ‘golden age’ of childhood is merely a new label situated on a particular life stage; we are offered a mental representation through experiencing something in consciousness, that this feeling continues to exist deep in our subconscious – in our childhood schema, perhaps. This subjective reality motif thus proves that our experiences, combined with what we perceive and understand, make up what we expect – and so, the social construct of childhood is bred.

Ariès’, Centuries of Childhood, first published in the 1960s, referenced his study of medieval paintings that portrayed children to be only smaller versions of adults. Their faces had defined features and their bodies were elongated and developed like an adult. Only height indicated that a figure was that of a child; this suggests that medieval artists saw children as simply ‘reduced’ versions of adults. It became evident that the Western notion of childhood had yet to exist, and was not introduced until sometime between the seventeenth and twentieth century. Such change in sentiment took two forms: within families, children began to take a central role and their interests and welfare was priorities – and, among moralists and writers on social life there began to emerge an idea of children as fragile beings who need to be safeguarded and reformed. Shorter (1976) goes so far as to argue that ‘good mothering is an invention of modernisation’ and that in traditional societies infants under the age of two were treated with emotional indifference because of high infant mortality, while in the twentieth century the welfare of the child has been given a dominant status in public discourse. With greater clarity, we can begin to understand that in limited ways can childhood be a biologically, predetermined life stage deserving of alternative treatment as it has appeared differently though history.

However, in Pollock’s Forgotten Children (1983), she argues that there is a need to study actual parent–child relationships in history rather than generalized ideas about ‘sentiments’. These are represented in diaries, autobiographies and other first-hand accounts; providing we do this, Pollock argues, the strongest impression is one of continuity. For instance, she quotes the grief at infant death to show that there was no pattern of indifference.

Moreover, while there are historical differences to prove the social constructiveness of childhood, there coexists cultural differences. As the Western notion would posit, modern childhood is a fundamentally different, separate life stage from adulthood, characterised by innocence and happiness – children require safeguarding (Pilcher, 1995). Conversely, if we take a comparative approach, we are able to make comparisons across countries and cultures. In Punch’s (2001) Negotiating Autonomy: Childhoods in Rural Bolivia, she found that children as young as age five, were expected to take on responsibility in both the home and wider community. The study showed that children as active agents can negotiate relative autonomy within the structural constraints of childhood in relation to more powerful, adult, social actors. Parameters are set, nevertheless, but children were offered greater influence. Additionally, in Malinowki’s (1957) The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanasia, he found sexuality to dominate every aspect of culture. His work is comprised of much analysis regarding sexuality and relations, and how they infiltrate quotidian life of the Trobriand Islanders from an infant-like age. Adults would often take an ‘amused interest’ toward child sexuality and such activity. Non-industrial societies, as documented above, tend to regard childhood differently with its main representation being that of which culture socialises children. Thus, this would prove childhood not biological fact, but a universally divergent concept and life stage.

Applying material from item A and your knowledge, evaluate sociological explanations of changes in the status of childhood (20).

Over time and across cultures, nor in biological fact, has childhood ever remained a consistent and permanent stage. Our subjective interpretations depend on cultural tradition, socialisation and other inter-related factors regarding class, gender and ethnicity. With such lack of concrete definition, sociologists posit dissimilar ideas regarding the status of children during a certain period; those more dependent are better protected, and at the focal point of concern, but occupy minimal status while those more independent, and less considered, are of higher status.

In Ariès’s, Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (1960), he discusses the lack of existence of childhood during the Middle Ages. The concept of age and, by extension, childhood was quite different, pre-1700, from what it is in contemporary society: an individual was deemed an ‘infant’, ‘youth’ or an ‘old person’ not by virtue of their chronological age but by physical appearance and habits. Furthermore, what was considered ‘infancy’ or ‘youth’ in the premodern era was very different from what we might associate with such terms post-industrialisation: in the sixteenth century, for example, a child of seven years might still be considered an ‘infant’ and a man of forty years might still be considered a ‘youth.’ This erosion or disregard of chronological age highlights the insignificance of status with regard to age; people were regarded as people, judged on other personal factors. Additionally, the modern sexualisation of young children (particularly girls) is a grotesque echo of social notions that once existed in the lack of childhood from the past. Based on his thorough review of literary and artistic images from the Middle Ages, Aries suggested that our contemporary reality of childhood is unique; ideas regarding innocence and separateness were once foreign terms. Shorter (1976) even suggests that ‘good mothering is an invention of modernization’ and that in the Middle Ages societies’ infants under the age of two were treated with emotional indifference because of a soaring infant mortality rate, while in the twentieth century the welfare of the child has become a focal point within all realms of society’s protection agencies. Childhood, and the status we apply to the life stage, was mere fantasy and was only introduced later on; Aries thus concludes childhood is socially constructed, relating to the idea that different ‘realities’ arise from the interactions people have with each other and their environment (James & James, 2008).

Some sociologists such as Wilson (1988) critique Aries’ publication of sentiments, arguing that he adopts a ‘present-centred’ approach; that is, he views the past exclusively from a contemporary point of view. Aries’s mistake, Wilson contends, is to argue that medieval society had no awareness of young people simply because they lacked the modern awareness of how children should be treated. Comparison is healthy, but ancient societies may well have labelled alternative meanings and statuses to life stages, that are unrecognisable today.

Moreover, with progression in the economic, social and political world, industrialisation brought about massive change among the existence and resulting status, of childhood. During the 1600s, however, childhood began to drift from adulthood; English philosopher Locke (1690) applied his theory of tabula rasa – an epistemological concept that posits individuals are born without built-in mental content and therefore all proceeding knowledge and understanding, comes as a result of social conditioning in our milieu. The emergence of new manufacturing processes brought more children into the workplace, although legislation concerning the welfare of children was later introduced in the 19th century – this denied their employment. For instance, the Factory Act (1833) and the Children and Young Persons Act (1933) meant they were less able to enjoy employment nor the luxuries of adulthood; their own separate status was in the works. Laws regarding compulsory school leaving age were ratified over the century so that by 1944, the age stood at fifteen, with abolishment of fees for state school education (Butler Act). Children were no longer legally allowed to be regarded as economic assets, with a declining infant mortality rate, fewer children soon became common and parents wanted to invest socially, emotionally and financially into the lives of their children; the child-centered society became an epidemic in the western world – a new, reformed and prized status was apparent. Finally, the Children’s Act (1989) would ensure that children are safeguarded and their welfare is promoted; this combined recognition of children and their working rights, education and protection highlighted their dependency and thus forced the conventional view of the existence of childhood being isolated from adulthood.

Just as Aries recognises the growing existence of childhood, Postman (1994) argues that the divisive line between the two life stages is eroding. At first, the world was dominated by oral tradition where children, once mastering speech, were able to access identical information to adults. Soon enough, the spread of print culture was regarded as the primary causal agent in the emergence of childhood as deserving of a separate status. The division between the literate and illiterate meant the young and old now occupied different spheres of accessible information. The monopoly of parents on the control of information their children could examine was closely monitored and maintained until children had undergone years of education in reading, vocabulary and syntax – this was, in essence, the birth of the information hierarchy. But, however, the technological advancements of the 20th century saw the arrival of television and mobile phones, visual mediums that require no exceptional skill, and are available to everyone. The barrier between childhood and adulthood thus began to erode dramatically as children could now obtain entry into the adult realm of information concerning violence, titillation and consumerism. Additionally, Postman drew upon growing similarities in rights, clothing and crime as he saw status slowly change over time with the emergence and disappearance of childhood alike.

According to Winn (1983), the development of a ‘hurried child syndrome’ means that children must now combat images of sex and inhumanity as well as fend for their own wellbeing with dual-earner-couple parents of whom are perhaps neglectful of childcare. With this in mind, and children’s readily access to the realm of adult information, it would be well-adjusted to argue that children are increasingly understanding of adult knowledge, their lifestyles and responsibility – status may differ depending on physical development, but children do adopt adult living.

In contemporary society there coexists a schism between march of progress and conflict sociologists who approach the postmodern childhood era as opposing in the benefits to children. While it is evident that in Western culture, children are safeguarded, protected and isolated from reality – some, such as Hockey and James (1993), reference how the age patriarchy (the realism regarding status) now oppresses children; they are withheld in non-attribution of autonomy, self-determination and choice. The theorists argue that children either play ‘up’ or ‘down’ in a desperate attempt to abandon this infantalised status.

In conclusion, dependent on what point in history or what type of culture you scrutinise, childhood has proved to occupy a different status with opposing social, political and economic stances regarding the welfare of children. It is invariably a life stage in itself characterised by physical development, but is nevertheless a social construction based on a subjective reality that is in partnership with our saturated schemata. Most obviously in the debate about whether or not our current idea of childhood is in fact just a recent invention – ‘an artefact of modernity’ – is an ongoing question. However, clear government legislation has definitely changed the status of children throughout time.

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