Introduction – Childhood is seen as a social construct meaning that it is defined by society and it is not a natural or biological state. Childhood is shaped and given meaning by our culture and so behaviour seen as appropriate for children, the way children should be treated and also the time at which childhood should end are all socially constructed.
The social construction of childhood is found in cultural places, historical experience of childhood and the differing opinions of childhood in the UK. There is a modern western notion of childhood especially in places like the UK because it is now seen that childhood is different to adulthood. Jane Pilcher notes that childhood is important because it is a clear and distinct life stage so children in our society occupy a separate status from adults.
There are differing opinions on whether the position of children has changed, many people believe that it has changed because of the law and rights being introduced also compulsory education however others believe that it has not changed because the line between adulthood and childhood is blurred and continues to fade every day. Those who believe that childhood has changed say that industrialisation means adults control the space, time and bodies of children. Aries showed that the position of children has changed especially from the Middle Ages as then the idea of childhood did not exist and children were not seen as having a different nature or needs from adults until they passed the stage of physical dependency during infancy. During the Middle Ages children entered wider society on the same terms as an adult i.e. beginning work from an early age. Children were turning into mini-adults with the same rights, duties and skills as adults and the law made no distinction between adult and child.
Aries suggests that the modern notion of childhood began to emerge from 13th century onwards from 3 significant changes: schools began to educate children from a young age and made it compulsory to attend school every day, the distinction between adults and children in clothing and the handbooks on child rearing. The March of Progress view states that over time and quite steadily, things are changing and improving. In today’s society children are more valued, better cared for, protected and educated, enjoy better health and have more rights than those of previous generations. Children are now protected from harm and exploitation by laws against child abuse/labour. There are now better chances of survival for children than before. Since parents now have smaller families they are more child-centred and the focal point of the family.
However the Conflict View rejects the March of Progress and says that modern childhood is just based on a false and idealised image and ignores the important inequalities that children face. For example the risks those children may face these days even with the laws that are in place they may remain unprotected and badly cared for. The inequalities between children and adults are also a greater conflict because children experience more control oppression and dependency. The neglect and abuse that children face is that they are not socialised properly, some children are