On childhood

Picture: Kindlifresser Statue, Bern, Switzerland.

We may think we know what a child is, that it is an obvious concept, but it most certainly isn’t. So in time honoured sociological fashion,  let’s delve beneath the surface of the term to find out more.

  • First of all, I’d like you to take a moment a jot down on the back of an envelope or whatever half a dozen adjectives you might use when describing children.
  • Finished? There are a variety of possible responses you might have made, and there are different reasons for this. It might have something to do with your own family background and general life experience (for example, children are ‘cute’); it might relate to personal prejudices you might have (for example, children can be seen as ‘noisy’ or ‘messy’ as opposed to ‘busy’ or ‘lively’); it might have something to do with your personality or your parents’ personalities (for example, children could be described as ‘restless’); it might have something to do with your culture or ideology (for example, you might be 24 years old but still childishly dependent on your parents for the purposes of Student Loan Assessments); your socio-economic class might have something to do with it (Victorian parents are said to like their children to be seen and not heard, for example), and finally the political or historical context of the times might play a part as well (for example hiding children indoors to keep them ‘safe’ from imaginary predators, as we do at the beginning of the 21st century, in response to mass media coverage of crimes no more numerous than a hundred years ago).

If we break these ideas about children and childhood into different categories, we start to see how they are perceived within our society.

Biological: It’s inescapable that children are physically immature in comparison with adults, and this can lead to vulnerability, for example on grounds of size, weight or disease resilience. This leads to  collective concerns about things like child obesity and vaccinations.

Emotional and social: Children are generally dependant on adults for support in these areas as they learn to cope with their own behaviour and that of the world around them. Here stem concerns about family life and the role of parents within society, as well as ongoing public debates about whether parents (usually mothers) should stay at home to care for their own children, or delegate it to others.

Cognitive: Children are engaged in an ongoing process of learning and development, which may be initiated by themselves (for example learning to walk or talk, or watching parents at work) or which may be more formal (schooling and structured learning). However their learning-related quest for novelty and the opportunity to experience new, exciting things can sometimes be subverted by advertisers, business and commerce.

Cultural: Children are in some societies perceived as ‘savages needing to be tamed’ and in others ‘loners needing to be persuaded into a group’. We seem to have a mix of both, with children being encouraged into education at a comparatively young age as a means of socialisation, but also children being feared as teenagers – ‘hoodie culture’ and its associated cliches being a case in point.

Moral: Children are seen as being unable in some situations to take responsibility for their own actions, which leads to the age of criminal responsibility in the UK being 10 years old. In other words, under the age of 10 you cannot be held responsible for a crime. Between the ages of 10 and 14 the prosecution can make the case that you were aware you were committing a serious crime, as in the example of the killers of James Bulger. After the age of 14, you are held to be fully responsible for your actions in the same way as an adult. (Interestingly in the 10th century King Ethelstan declared that the age of responsibility should be 12, but after consultation this was changed to the age of 15, so it hasn’t changed much over the centuries).

Deficit model: This way of classifying children is one which lists what they are unable to do, such as being too young to vote, to drive and so on. There seems to be a reduced emphasis on this within modern UK society, apart from discussions about potentially lowering the voting age to 16, for example, and greater enforcement of laws relating to the purchase of alcohol and tobacco than a few decades ago.

Socioeconomic: This category reflects the living circumstances of children, so we hear a great deal about ‘lifting millions of children out of poverty’ in current Government policy, for example.

So what does all this tell us? Perhaps we have a rather muddled view of children within our society. On the one hand, we see them as vulnerable and in need of our protection. On the other hand, they are sometimes represented as problems to be solved, markets to manipulate, or uncontrollable and comparatively disorderly and dangerous. One thing is certain, and that is that the role of children in UK society appears to be shifting, and whether this will help or hinder social cohesion and harmony is something to keep an eye on in the future.


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