Assess the Sociological Explanations of Changes
Childhood is such a universal feature of human life that we readily consider it a natural stage of development. People in modern Western societies have a widely held, unquestioned belief that children are fundamentally different from adults. We take for granted that children are and have always been innocent and entitled to nurturing and protection. However, in other cultures (for example, Japan) children are viewed as much more independent creatures who can act wilfully from the earliest moments of life.
Reasons for changes in the position of childhood are the laws restricting child labour, and excluding children from paid work, and from economic assets. Children went from bringing money into the house, to an economic liability. They were sometimes a burden on the family, because they would cost the family money. Another reason for the change in the position of children is the introduction of compulsory schooling in 1880. The raising of the school leaving age expended the period of dependency. Another reason for the change in position of children is the Welfare Legislation of 1889. The prevention of cruelty to children Act. This made the welfare of the child the fundamental principle. Another reason the position of children has changed is because of the declining family size and lower infant mortality rates. These have encouraged parents to make a greater financial and emotional investment in the fewer children that they now have. Another reason the position of children has changed is because of the policies that apply specifically to children, such as the minimum ages for a wide range of activities from sex to smoking, have reinforced the idea that children are different from adults and so different rules must be applied.
Aries believed childhood is a concept developed with the industrial age with the children getting education, not used as child labour. He also believes that in the middle ages the idea of childhood ???did not exist??™. Children were not seen as having different needs from adults, as long as they had passed the stage of physical dependency. Soon after being weaned, the child enters a wider society on the same terms as adults, beginning work from an early age. Children were in fact ???mini adults??™, with the same rights, duties and skills as adults. For example, the law often made no distinction between adults and children and therefore often faced with the same severe punishments as those given to adults. Like, a child of seven could be hung for stealing, children as young as five were working in the mines, there were few children??™s toys and they wore the same clothes as adults. Children were seen as something between savages and animals, not really feeling pain.
Parental attitudes towards children in the Middle Ageswere also very different from those today. Edward Shorter (1975) argues that high death rates encouraged indifference and neglect, especially towards infants. For example, it was not uncommon for parents to give a newborn baby the name of a recently dead sibling, to refer to the baby as ??™it??™, or to forget how many children they ad had. Aries work is valuable because it shows that childhood is socially constructed. It is argues that in many non-industrial cultures, there is much less of a dividing line between the behaviour expected of children and that expected of adults. Such evidence illustrates the key idea that childhood is not a fixed thing found universally in the same form in all human societies, but is socially constructed and so differs from culture to culture.
According to Aries, however, elements of the modern notion of childhood gradually began to emerge from the 13th century onwards. Schools grew to specialise purely in the education of the young. This reflected the influence of the church, which increasingly saw children as fragile ???Creatures of God??™ in need of discipline and protection from worldly evil??™s. There was a growing distinction between children??™s and adult??™s clothing. By the 17th Century, an upper-class would be dressed in ???an output reserved for his own age group, which set him apart from adults??™. By the 18th Century, handbooks on childrearing were widely available, a sign of the growing child-centred of family life, at least among the middle classes. According to Aries these developments culminate in the modern ???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 notion of childhood from today??™s.
It is generally accepted in our society today that childhood is a special time of life and that children are fundamentally different from adults. They are regarded as physically and psychologically immature and not yet competent to run their own lives. There is a belief that children??™s lack of skills, knowledge and experience means that they need a lengthy, protected period of nurturing and socialisation before they are ready for adult society and its responsibilities. As Jane Pilcher (!995) notes, the most important feature of the modern idea of childhood is separateness. 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, especially for younger children. While all humans go through the same stages of physical development, different cultures construct or define this process differently. As Stephen Wagg (1992) says ???Childhhod is socially constructed. It is what members of particular societies, at particular times an din particular places, say it is. There is no single universal childhood, experienced by all. So, childhood isn??™t ???natural??™ and should be distinguished from mere biological immaturity.??™ In western cultures today, children are defined as vulnerable and unable to fend for themselves. However, other cultures do not necessarily see such a great difference between children and adults. We can see this by looking at examples both from other cultures today and from European societies of the past.
A good way to illustrate the social construction of childhood is to take a comparitive approach-that is it look at how children are seen and treated on other times and places than our own. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1934) argues that children in simpler, non-industrial societies are generally treated differently from their modern western counterparts in three ways. Firstly, they take responsibility at an early age. For example Samantha Punch??™s (2001) study of childhood in rural Bolivia found that, once children are about five years old, they are expected to take work responsibilities in the home and in the community. Tasks are taken on without question or hesitation. Similarly, Lowell Holmes (1974) study of a Samoan village found that ???too young??™ was never given as a reason for for not permitting a child to undertake a particular task. Secondly, Less value is placed on children showing obedience to adult authority. For example, Raymond Firth (1970) found that among the Tikopia of the western pacific, doing as you are told by a grown-up is regarded as a concession to be granted by the child, not a right to be expected by the adult. And thirdly, Children??™s sexual behaviour is often viewed differently. For example, among the Trobriand Islanders of the south west pacific, Bronislaw Malinowski (1957) found that adults took an attitude of ???tolerance and amused interest??™ towards children??™s sexual explorations and activities.