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Examining Childhood, essay

Sociologists view childhood as being socially constructed; which in other words, means something that is created and defined by society. They believe, that what people mean by the term “childhood” and the position that children have in society is not fixed, but varies between different times, (historically specific), places and cultures. We can see this, by comparing the western view on childhood today with childhood in the past and in other societies. In childhood today, it is generally accepted that it is a special time of life and that children are fundamentally different from adults. Jane Pilcher (1995) argues that the most important factor in today’s idea of “childhood” is separateness. Childhood is also viewed as a “golden age” of happiness and innocence however with this innocence comes vulnerability meaning they are in need of protection from the adult world, meaning they are to be kept “quarantined” (separate) from adults. Children’s live in a sphere of the family and education, where adults provide for them and protect them from the outside world, similarly children lead lives of leisure and play and are excluded from paid work. However, this view of childhood is not found in all societies, it is not universal, an example of someone who disagrees with this idea is Stephen Wagg (1992) who believes that childhood is “socially constructed” meaning that it is what members or particular societies, at particular times and in particular places say it is. The anthropologist Ruth Benedict (1934) argues that children in simpler, non-industrial societies are more likely to be treated differently from their modern western counterparts in three main ways; firstly, they take responsibility at an earlier age. For example Samantha Punch (2001) found that in rural Bolivia when children are about five, they are expected to take work responsibilities in the home and the community. Similarly, Lowell Holmes (1974) studied a Samoan village and found that “too young” was never used as an excuse for not permitting a child to undertake a particular task. Another point is that less value is given to children showing obedience to adult authority. For example, Raymond Firth (1970) found that among the Tikopia of the western Pacific, doing what you are told by an adult is regarded as a concession and should not be a right of the adults. Lastly, sexual behaviour is often viewed very differently. For instance, Bronislaw Malinowski (1957) found that in the Trobriand Islands, adults took on an attitude of “tolerance and amused interest” towards children’s sexual explorations and activities - Benedict argues, that in many non-industrial cultures there is much less of a divide between the behaviour expected by adults and children. The positions of children differ over time as well as between societies and many sociologists and historians argue that childhood is understood today, as a recent “invention”. Philippe Aries (1960) says that in the Middle Ages “the idea of childhood did not exist”. Children were not seen to have a different nature and shouldn’t have to depend on adults. Children in the middle Ages began working at an early age often in the household of another family. In effect, children were viewed as “mini-adults” with the same rights, duties and skills as adults. Evidence of Aries’ views, would be, that he uses works of art from the period, in the paintings he looked at, children appeared to be without “any of the characteristics of childhood: they have simply been depicted on a smaller scale”. Edward Shorter (1975) argues that high death rates encouraged indifference and neglect between parents and children, especially towards infants. However, according to Aries, elements of the modern view of childhood slowly began to appear from the 13th century onwards; for example, schools began to specialise in education of the young, and this reflected the influence of the church. Secondly, there was a...
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