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July 9, 2008 / C H Thompson

What is childhood?

Is childhood is a natural phenomenon or a socially constructed phenomenon?Childhood 2

The Powerpoint social construction of Childhood helps with your revision notes while this BBC clip examines ‘childhood’ in Victorian Britain.

Childhood as an age status is not fixed or universal. The experience and meaning of childhood differs across societies, time periods and between different groups. This means having a childhood is not a natural or inevitable period in a person’s life but a socially constructed episode.

This is because historical and cross-cultural studies have shown being a child means different things in different societies. For example you only have to think of the many street children in India to realise in some societies the idea of a childhood does not even exist.

Even in those countries where childhood does exist the period of a pe

Childhhood 1

rson’s childhood is age dependent. For example in the UK laws define what a child can or cannot do, for example when a child is compelled to attend to school or is allowed to work. In contrast Michelle Johnson has written about the Fulani of West Africa describing how by the age of four, girls are expected to be able to care for their younger siblings, fetch water and firewood and by the age of six will be pounding grain, producing milk and butter and selling these alongside their mothers in the market.

The changing patterns of childhood can be broken into four key periods.

  1. childhood experience in pre-industrial societyPhilippe Aries (1960) Centuries of Childhood argued in the 17th Century childhood did not exist as children were viewed as ‘tiny adults’ – no real difference between children and adults, from a young age and were viewed as economic assets
  2. early industrial period and childhood – working-class children worked alongside adults particularly in the factories, mines and mills
  3. later industrial period and childhood – mid 19th century Factory/Mine acts meant children were no longer able to work, children no longer economic assets and 1870 Education Act – children need to be supported
  4. 20th Century onward – children are now viewed differently to adults in need of support and protection, children are put first helping create the period known as childhood: toys, clothes, TV programmes, food etc
  5. social policy cementing the development of childhood through the:
  • age of consent
  • Factory Acts – Contemporary employment legislation
  • 1870 Education Act
  • 1980 Child care Act
  • 1991 Child Support Act

Neil Postman (1982) states that childhood is disappearing as the 19th century divisions between adults and children are disappearing. Children are able to experience things that previously were only available to adults. Postman argues it is the “Frankenstein Syndrome” effect of the mass media is largely responsible for this particularly TV, Internet and social media.

However Diana Gittins (1997) argues studies which treat children as one homogenised group fails to recognise the diversity of inequality between childhood experiences such as social class, gender, ethnicity and culture. Hendrick (1997) identified the discourses of childhood as being socially constructed around the Victorian image of the natural and romantic child which possessing a natural innocence. Two later discourses of childhood proposed by Hendrick (1997) were the child as a family member and the child as a state responsibility (child of the welfare state) in need of protection and care.

You can read more on the social construction of childhood in these two articles Historical constructions of childhood innocence and Are children naturally innocent?

You might like to watch the clips below to consolidate your understanding about the social construction of childhood.


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