“Examine different sociological views on changes in the experience of childhood in the last 50 years or so.”(24 marks)
Childhood is a special time of life; where children are fundamentally different from adults, it is time that is based solely on society. Children are seen as physically and emotionally incompetent and therefore need influence and guidance of adults to be prepared with life skills needed to be independent; children are seen as most important.
According to Aries (1962), childhood can be defined as being a social construct; something that is created and defined by society. Children had been seen as being like ‘mini adults’ and being an economic liability rather than being treated like children and being unconditionally loved by their parents. The elements of the modern childhood gradually began to emerge from the 13th century onwards. Schools started to specialise purely on the education of the young. There was a growing distinction between adult and children clothing.
By the 18th century there was a sign of the growing child-centred of family life, mostly among the middle classes. According to Aries these developments lead to the ‘cult of childhood’. He argues that we have moved from a world that did not see childhood as in any way special, to a world that is obsessed with childhood. He describes the 20th century as the ‘century of the child’. Some sociologists have criticised Aries for arguing that childhood did not exist in the past. Linda Pollock (1983) argues that it is more correct to say that in the middle ages society simply had a different view of childhood.
Aries definition of childhood as a social construction can also be supported by cross-cultural differences and more specifically Punch (2001).Punch had studied children in Bolivia and found that at age 5 children were expected to work and take responsibilities. This cultural variation shows childhood to be a social construction as if it were biological everyone would have the same experiences.
However, changes have been made and it is now made clear by Pilcher, that childhood is now becoming separate from adulthood. Childhood is seen as a clear and distinct life stage and children in our society occupy a separate status from adults. Children also differ from adults through the differences in dress. Pilcher argues that children have only started to be seen as vulnerable and innocent recently when laws started defining what they can and cannot do. Also now that we are in a ‘golden age’ of innocence and vulnerability adults have then decided children need more protection from the adult world.
Functionalist sociologists agree with the ‘March of Progress’ view, as they believe that the experience of childhood has massively improved over the last 50 years. They take the view that childhood is socially constructed and vary between times, places and even cultures. There are important differences between childhoods in western societies today as compared with European societies in the past. For example, in the middle ages, child labour was a basic fact of life for most children; schooling was only available for the wealthy.
The ‘March of Progress’ view argues that, over the past few centuries, the position of children in western societies have been improving. Aries also holds the ‘March of Progress’ view. They argue that todays children are more valued, better cared for, protected, educated and have more rights. For example, children today are protected from harm and exploitation by laws against child abuse and child labour.
Conflict sociologists such as Marxists and Feminists argue against the ‘March of Progress’ view that the position of children has improved dramatically in a relatively short period of time. They argue that society is based on a conflict between different social groups such as social classes or genders. In this conflict, some groups have more power, status and wealth than others. They also argue that the ‘March of Progress’ view of modern childhood is based on a false and idealised image that ignores important inequalities.
Firstly the conflict sociologists say that there are inequalities among children in terms of opportunities and risks they face; many today remain unprotected and badly cared for. For example, poor mothers are more likely to have low birth-weight babies, which could lead to intellectual developments.
Secondly, the inequalities between children and adults are greater than ever: children today experience greater control, greater care and protection. For example, neglect and abuse.
In relation to this all, Neil Postman (1994) argues that childhood is ‘disappearing at a dazzling speed’. He points to the tends towards giving children the same rights as adults, the growing similarity of adult and children clothing, are taking part in adult activities like smoking and drinking and are committing adult crimes such as murder. These ideas clearly demonstrate that societies need for children to act older than they are is causing trouble psychologically for children.
On the other hand, unlike Postman Iona Opie (1993) argues that childhood is not disappearing. She argues that there is strong evidence of the continued existence of a separate children’s culture. Her studies show that children can and they do create their own independent culture separate from adults. This contradicts Postmans claim that children’s own unsupervised games are dying out.
In conclusion, the evidence suggests that ‘March of Progress’ view that the status of childhood has improved is much stronger. Although the conflict views are true to some extent, in terms of inequality, there is a clear improvement in the status of children in the society in comparison to previous generations.