To What Extent Has Child Development Been Seen as a Social Process?

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To what extent has children’s development
been viewed as a social process?

“Childhood is not just about personal experiences. Childhood is an important social category which defines children’s activities and experiences.” (Woodhead, Chapter 1, p.15)

Childhood has been viewed in many different ways throughout Western history. Due to the introduction and influence of the United Nation Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC, 1989), social attitudes towards childhood have dramatically changed over recent decades. The convention’s underlying principle is that children have the right to develop. Every culture has a different view of ‘childhood’; it might be defined by education, gender, ethnicity, role, status or social background. Many contemporary theorists recognise that each individual experience of childhood depends on how the child is shaped by their environment. This includes how society influences and understands the needs of the child and the way in which they are influenced by the people around them.

“The immaturity of children is a biological fact but the ways in which that immaturity is understood is a fact of culture . . . childhood is . . . constructed and reconstructed both for and by children” (James and Prout, 1997, Chapter 1, p.15)

This quote indicates that childhood is not only a changing, but also a developing process – one that is continually constructed and reconstructed. Is children’s development something that they are genetically predisposed to or is the fact that it is reconstructed an indicator that other factors are also important in it?

But what evidence is there to support either one of these views and how significant is this research into answering the question of whether children’s development is viewed as a social process? Is childhood merely a natural process, is it the result of environmental influences or is it an interaction between the two?

By looking back to the main historical perspectives of child development, as well as considering the impact of social and cultural influences, evidence would suggest that childhood has been viewed more extensively as a social process, rather than merely a natural one. There is some debate over whether ‘childhood’ itself is an invention. Each child’s experience of their childhood will depend on the differing circumstances in which they grow up, as well as the belief of those they grow up around who influence them. It was argued by the historian Philippe Aries that children were, in fact, viewed as mini adults during the Middle Ages. Through his research into pictures and diaries he found that there appeared to be no negligible difference between children and adults. His views were criticised by other historians, particularly Shahar (1990), who suggested he had too general a view of childhood and had used only limited sources for his research. It wasn’t until the end of the 15th century that children were represented as different from adults in literature and art.

Throughout British history, there has been significant progress in the views of childhood. In the Middle Ages children as young as 5 worked for their parents; in the 18th and 19th centuries there was huge demand for child labour, but it was during this time that concern grew over the impact that this was having on the children. Child exploitation was gradually eliminated through reform and the influence of the trade unions and the importance of play and education was increasingly seen. Schools were established and children’s lives were increasingly distinct from the world of adult work.

Development is concerned with the movement from a point of immaturity towards one of maturity and competence, through both physical and psychological progression. Researchers have endeavoured to explain the patterns of development through a variety of scientific methods. There has been significant research into how children’s development occurs and the relationship...
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