Constructions of Childhood

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The notion of childhood continues to undergo tremendous changes over time, place and culture. Some of the most influential factors responsible for this change among other things include economic, socio-cultural and political dynamics (Holland, 1996; James & Prout, 1997; Sorin & Galloway, 2005). The purpose of the following analysis is to examine nine images of children being depicted in today’s media and identify the different constructions of childhood that they promote. The three social constructions of childhood that have been identified in these images include: the child as vulnerable (Simpson, 2005), the child as innocent (Woodrow, 1999) and the child as a ‘gendered being’ (Burman, 1995). Conceptual tools will be used to deconstruct the selected images such as positioning, colour, lighting and facial expressions and will clarify how these tools are used in constructing the notion of childhood. It is safe to say that the images deconstructed and analysed throughout this paper suggest that there is strong relationship between the social constructions of childhood and how this conception of childhood has often denied them of their agency and profoundly shaped and limited their ability to participate as active citizens in today’s society (Morrow, 2003).

Childhood as innocent is a representation that is most treasured and easily recognisable in contemporary society (Woodrow, 1999). An aspect of this construction portrays children as weak, incompetent, vulnerable and dependent; a ‘blank slate’ to be constructed by adults, denying them of their agency and their ability to act and determine action for themselves (Dockett, 1998; Woodrow, 1999; Sorin, 2003; Johnny, 2006). Image 7 (Appendix 7) draws focus to two children pictured in the centre of the image in a brightly lit and manufactured environment with soft and gentle surroundings of nature blurred in the background suggesting calmness and delicacy. This carries the connotation of vitality and growth that symbolizes the children as defenceless “seedlings” in a position of “natural goodness” that needs to be cared for, nurtured and protected as they mature into adults (Aries, 1962, p.26). The artificial light in all three images (Appendix 7, 8 & 9) accentuates the whiteness, uncontaminated purity of the environment whilst the children relinquish complete control to the photographer. In Image 8 (Appendix 8) we can see a young boy and girl dressed as angels, the look in the children’s eyes is about innocence and spiritual cleanliness evoking within the viewer emotions of calmness, contentment and peace. By placing the children in these white, pure angelic costumes it removes a sense of their identity suggesting that they are free from moral wrong, free from sin, as well as inexperienced or perhaps naïve. Image 9 (Appendix 9) represents the iconic blonde hair, blue eyed child commonly photographed in Western culture (Holland, 1992; Burman, 1995). The image draws attention to the child’s doe like eyes and expressionless gaze, evoking feelings of vulnerability, delicacy and protection in the viewer. The child is positioned as though the viewer is looking down at her, symbolizing a weak and powerless child who will only accomplish independence, agency and identity when she reaches adulthood (Sigel & Kim, 1996). In the binary of the adult child relationship in childhood innocence, Robinson (2002) suggests that children are often constructed as powerless in relation to the mature powerful and knowing adult. All three images (Appendix 7, 8 & 9) portraying innocence highlights the critical impacts this notion of childhood can have on children’s agency in their lives (Robinson and Diaz, 2007; Dockett, 1998; Woodrow, 1999).

The child as vulnerable is a construction that represents children as victims and often portrays images of children who live through war, terror, famine or poverty (Simpson, 2005; Burman, 1995). The children portrayed in images 1, 2 and 3 (Appendix 1, 2 & 3)...
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