Childhood is a social construction, as it is not natural, and is a result of society identifying and labelling a phase of life. No child experiences exactly the same childhood at exactly the same period of time in their life. In turn childhood should be distinguished from biological life stages. How we treat children, expect them to behave, look and develop all vary depending on the time and place in which the society lies, therefore childhood is a social construction.
One view sociologists take on childhood, is the march of progress view.
This view argues that over the past centuries, the position of children in society has steadily improved and that it is substantially better today, due to the introduction of various laws, children have become more protected, cared for and treated differently to adults. Whereas the other view taken on this subject is the conflict view, in which sociologists argue that childhood has not improved, as inequalities still exist, such as children suffering under the oppression of adults which can often come in the form of physical, sexual or emotional abuse.
They believe childhood is based on a false idealised image that ignores important inequalities.
March of progress sociologists believe that there are many differences between now and then, to prove that children are more valued, cared for, protected, educated and set apart from adults. The March of Progress view argues that society has begun to recognise that childhood is a phase in life at which point children should be treated differently to adults in order to maintain their innocence, as they are too young to fully understand the world in which they live.
The first noticeable difference between adults and children in society was from the 13th century onwards, when the introduction of child specific clothing had been introduced, as before then, adults and children dressed the same (Philippe Aries 1960). The Education Act (1870) made school attendance compulsory for five to ten year olds, whilst The Child Labour Act (1938) prohibits anyone under the age of 16 from paid employment, protecting them from the exploitation of child workers that was witnessed in the past. The Child Protection Act (1889) provides protection for children from
neglect abuse. March of progress sociologists believe that these laws and the change in people’s general attitude have led to a society which is child centred, giving children equal opportunities, allowing them to live a more stable life.
Conflict view sociologists believe that the inequalities between children and adults are greater than ever, and that children today experience greater control, oppression and dependency, not greater care and protection. This view suggests that children’s wellbeing, personal freedom and resources are all controlled more so than they were before the supposed ‘March of progress’ and there is a vast amount of inequality between children still. For example, class inequalities are very present, as children of unskilled manual workers are over three times more likely to experience conduct disorders than the children of professionals (Caroline Woodroffe 1993). In addition to this, children born into poor families are also more likely to die in infancy or childhood (Marilyn Howard 2001).
March of progress sociologists argue that the family has become child centred. Children are now the focus of society; they are consulted on decisions that they were not trusted to do so before. Parents invest a great deal emotionally in children as well as financially and often have higher aspirations for them, than what they have achieved in their life. They also argue that not only are children at the centre of families, but they are the centre of society, as many leisure activities, media services, foodstuffs and clothing, are directed solely at the child market.
Conflict sociologists argue not only is it class inequality that discriminates between children in society, but Control over freedom of space that children have, and in particular the divide between boys and girls. According to (Hugh Cunningham 2007) the home habitat of an eight year old, had shrunk to one ninth the size it was twenty five years ago. Conflict sociologists argue that this is an example of the oppression forced upon children by their parents/guardians which put them at a disadvantage to a child from twenty five years ago, as they do not have the same level of experience of the outside world; as well as this, boys are more likely to be allowed to use public transport and go out after dark unaccompanied than girls (Mayer Hillman 1993) whereas girls do more domestic labour – especially in lone parent families, where they do five times more than boys (Jens Bonke 1999).
It is clear that the mental and physical wellbeing of children has improved, but as stated by conflict sociologists Firestone& Holt (1979/1974) “Many of the things that march of progress sociologists see as progress, care and protection, are in fact just new forms of oppression and control”. However it is parents who have full control over their children and some do differ and offer their child the responsibility and equality and space they require, whilst still providing them with care and protection.
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