Childhood is a significant period in the lives of most individuals, and it is generally considered to be a natural biological stage of development that heavily influences one’s thoughts, ideas and attitudes. This article will mainly discuss the period of childhood from a sociological perspective, focusing on the notion of childhood as believed by society. It will mainly address the social construction of childhood and how experiential childhood differs across cultures and communities, eventually shedding light on how adults construct childhood.
Significance of Childhood
Sociologists argue that what is important is not the underlying biological nature of childhood, but the process of learning through which young people are introduced to values and norms that aids significant socio-emotional development (Leonard, 2016). Therefore, it is necessary to discuss and debate how primary and secondary socialization occurs throughout childhood, as these socialization processes will pave the way towards learning the meaning of childhood through a sociological perspective.
Social Construction of Childhood
Social construction is usually defined as “a theoretical perspective that explores the ways in which ‘reality’ is negotiated in everyday life through people’s interactions and through sets of discourses” (Norozi & Moen, 2016). The consensus is that children and childhood knowledge is a social construct, and it is not rooted in organic realities. The notion of childhood is deeply intertwined with societal perspectives. The reality of how childhood is perceived does not exist in isolation. It is heavily influenced by other factors such as culture, time, values and norms. Therefore, sociologists argue that as opposed to common belief, the reality of childhood is not determined by age. Rather, it is socially constructed through ideas and beliefs that are reinforced by society. Taking this into account, childhood experiences across the globe differ in significant ways. Not only this, but the year of birth and other cohort effects can also influence experiences of childhood across different generations. Other factors include socio-economic background, race, ethnicity, etc.
- Geographical Location: For children in India, their childhood is significantly marked by religious faith. They inculcate the belief in God from a very young age, they perform daily visits to temples and their vacations often consist of pilgrimages. On the other hand, children in China are majorly impervious to religion. They are raised in atheist environments and do not believe in deities, which leads to different emotional states.
- Time: Childhood experiences vary tremendously across generations. While new-age kids are heavily influenced by technological advancements, kids in older generations had to rely on other forms of entertainment. They were physically and mentally healthy as they grew up in traditional environments with regular play. However, children born after the late 2000s suffer through various problems such as weak eyesight, incorrect posture, etc. due to their high usage of technological devices. Their childhood experiences thus vary by miles despite belonging to the same family and community.
- Socio-Economic Background: A child belonging to a lower socio-economic status is usually more responsible in terms of work and employment. Most children seek employment even before they turn adults. Their childhood experience greatly differs from those belonging to middle-class and upper-class families, as they are provided with education opportunities and are less burdened in terms of manual labour.
According to Philippe Aries, a French medievalist, childhood was not even seen as a separate stage of life until the 15th century. In his book, the Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (1960), he argues that the idea of childhood did not exist in the medieval century. Children were expected to work and live as adults. According to his thesis, social constructionism of childhood is then a valid phenomenon, because, without it, the notion of childhood would fail to exist.
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We have already discussed how different factors affect childhood experiences. Values and norms are some of these important factors and these attitudes are mainly reinforced by the culture that one is associated with. Thus, sociologists argue that childhood exists mainly as a dominant product of culture. According to Lev Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory, cultural learnings precede development, which means that culture heavily influences a child’s thoughts and beliefs. According to Jens Qvortrup, childhood as a social construct is extremely open to cultural change and since culture is mainly upheld by adults, the theoretical notions of childhood are also mainly constructed to reflect adult beliefs (Qvortrup, 1989). Other developmental theorists such as Bronfenbrenner also view development in a socio-cultural context, asserting that child-rearing differs across different ecological systems.
In Japan, children are trusted to walk home alone after school much earlier than in India. Even children in elementary schools are trusted to take the subway and run errands. Due to the high culture of interdependence and joint ownership, children are taught to trust almost any member they encounter in public (The Wire, 2016). This is wildly different from India, where even teenagers depend on caregivers for routine tasks.
Another example is the division of labour in underdeveloped and developed countries. In the Kurdish society of Iraq, children are expected to take up jobs that are specifically designed for them such as serving or cleaning. In fact, Tongan children in horticultural societies perform tasks such as sweeping leaves or cutting the grass when they are toddlers (Barone, 2020). On the other hand, children in Western societies do not take up jobs until they are teenagers. South-East Asian cultures encourage even later assignments of work, with most people seeking employment well into their adulthood.
Adult Construction of Childhood
In 2006, Sorin and Galloway outlined ten constructions of self that position the notion of childhood in relation to an adult. These constructions provided a significant lesson on the psycho-social impact of adult relationships on the notions of childhood. These constructions are:
- The Child as Innocent, the Adult as Protector: According to this construct, the child is seen as young and innocent, which makes them incompetent and vulnerable. Thus, the adult has to take up responsibility for the child and protect them from the evils of the world. Childhood is thus characterized as a period of innocence and vulnerability.
- The Child as Evil, the Adult as Good/Moral: The child herein is known as evil or imperfect. Their behaviour is thus to be regulated by wise, mature adults. This construct is used to explain conformity and regulation that is essential to discipline a child.
- The Snowballing Child, the Deferring Adult: Here, the children are seen as snowballing people who make inflexible demands. The parents, though in authority, usually give in ot their demands for various reasons. This construct makes up for a majority of consumer behaviour with toys and candies being specifically marketed to kids.
- The Out-of-Control Child, the Powerless Adult: These children assume power in relationships with the adults around them, eventually forcing them to do whatever they demand. For example, a child may threaten their parent that they would starve unless given their favourite food to eat.
- The Noble/Saviour Child, the Dependant Adult: In this construction of childhood, the child takes up adult responsibilities. These responsibilities are enforced upon the child and are not undertaken by choice. For example, a child may be forced to work to pay the bills in the presence of a dependent, alcoholic mother.
- The Miniature Adult: In this construction of childhood, the children are depicted the same as adults. They have essentially lost their innocence or vulnerability and present adult characteristics. For instance, many child criminals are asked to be tried and reprimanded as adults due to the nature of their crime.
- Adult-in-training: According to this view, children work through various intellectual stages to formally develop an adult personality. Developmental psychologists usually focus on this construct.
- The Commodified Child, the Self-Interested Adult: Within this construction, the children are largely powerless and have been commodified in order to produce profits for their parents. For instance, child actors working against their will who inadvertently provide material benefits to their guardians.
- The Child Victim, the Absent Adult: In this construction, the children are suffering through social and political oppression and they have no one to take care of them. An example is the war-like military environment in Syria that not only pushes terror upon them but also on their parents, leading to guilt and absenteeism.
- The Agentic Child, the Adult as Co-Constructor of Being: The child is positioned as a capable agent possessing all rights and functions. Within this image, the child and the adult co-construct childhood, where the child is an active learner and the adult is an enthusiastic teacher who passes on values and norms to the upcoming generations.
Thus, childhood is a significant period of life that is not only characterized by biological differences but also sociological constructs and perspectives. It is thus important to view the theoretical and experiential notions of childhood from a holistic point of view that considers all aspects of society.
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Ali Norozi, S., & Moen, T. (2016). Childhood as a social construction. Journal of Educational and Social Research. https://doi.org/10.5901/jesr.2016.v6n2p75
Barone, F. (2020, January 31). A cross-cultural perspective on childhood. Human Relations Area Files – Cultural information for education and research. Retrieved May 29, 2022, from https://hraf.yale.edu/a-cross-cultural-perspective-on-childhood/
Behind the independence of Japanese kids lies a culture of community. The Wire. (n.d.). Retrieved May 29, 2022, from https://thewire.in/culture/behind-independence-among-japanese-kids-lies-a-culture-of-reliance-on-community
Leonard, M. (2016). The sociology of children, childhood and generation. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781529714494
Qvortrup, J. (1989). On change of children and childhood. Early Influences Shaping The Individual, 85–92. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4684-5634-9_8
Sorin, R. (2016, January 31). Constructs of childhood: Constructs of self. Children Australia. Retrieved May 29, 2022, from https://www.academia.edu/21282427/Constructs_of_cconstructs_of_self