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The Notion of Childhood as a Social Construct

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Childhood lacks a universal definition due to various shifts in child research and interpretations overtime (McNamee, 2016). Initial views of children were dominated by developmental psychologists, primarily focusing on physical development into adulthood (Wyness, 2011). Therefore, scientific research of the positivist paradigm dominated child research. Yet, the emergence of the social study of childhood, not only recognised the taken-for-granted element of childhood, but also acknowledged that childhoods are merely socially constructed (James, et al., 1998), therefore based on societal perspectives and attitudes (Stainton Rogers, 2003). Consequently, the interpretivist paradigm dominated child research, considering children’s views and experiences instead.

The Social Construction Theory (SCT) was established by Sociologists Luckman and Berger, describing how people in society participate in the reality constructed by their surroundings, through spreading concepts which eventually become embedded in tradition (Coster, 2007). Consequently, in the context of childhood, social constructions are centred around time and place (Montgomery, 2003). Western childhood constructions include: The Puritan discourse, in which public perceptions of children was evil and wicked; the Blank Slates discourse in which childhood was a period of becomings; the Romantic discourse- childhood as a time of innocence (Montgomery, 2003). Shifts in discourses had an impact in the treatment of children and adults alike. These discourses will be explored throughout the essay alongside key themes of social construction of childhoods, including agency, socialisation and corporation.

The Museum of Childhood (MoC) was developed in London, as a physical space, dedicated to showcasing artefacts which demonstrate the aforementioned discourses and key themes throughout the social constructions of childhood. Agency, which explores an individual’s ability to be independent (James & James, 2012) enables children to implement changes in social issues (Mayall, 2002). A paradigm shift of the SCT not only rejects children as social beings, but also asserts children are not recipients of socialisation (James & James, 2012) Consequently, children construct mutual values and beliefs. Traditionally, absence in politics for children warranted a lack of social and personal autonomy (James, et al., 1998). But an alternative form of childhood allowed children, through protests, to participate in politics. This contrasted my own experiences in the School Council, as issues were fed through senior teachers.

School Strikes 4 Climate, fore-fronted by sixteen-year-old Greta Thunberg, consisted of children not attending school on Fridays to protest the government’s apathy towards climate change (Connect, 2019). Additionally, these protests are supported by Article 13 of the UNCRC (1989), enabling children to freely express themselves using their desired medium. Through powerful phrases, such as “our lives are in your hands” (Thunberg, 2019, p.5), Thunberg’s power and influence as a key social agent had monumental influence with adults, since millions internationally participated in the Global Climate Strikes (Singh, et al., 2019). In fact, Thunberg’s successful exercise of agency has resulted in predictions in surges of more protests. Therefore, the curriculum should provide opportunities reflecting this. (Holdsworth, 2019). Ultimately, the power of agency and the shift in children’s active role in socialisation, through having mutual values over the concerns of climate change and channelled collectively through protests, have confirmed the shift in the social construction of childhood as historically, children did not engage in politics.

However, the MoC’s depiction of climate change only mentions Thunberg. Part of the temporary Extinction Rebellion exhibition, this may have been purposefully constructed to attract the most visitors, due to Thunberg’s popularity. Subsequently, the efforts of children of colour, including Mari Copeny and Isra Hirsi (Burton, 2019) have not been championed to the same scale. Furthermore, Extinction Rebellion has received criticisms for being a wholly middle-class, white group in its membership. (Cowan, 2019). Therefore, the sole endorsement of Thunberg may alienate young climate activists of colour, who may neither be represented nor endorsed otherwise. Hence, children in the global north can exercise their agency but the media’s coverages provide significant attention to specific activists.

The extension of childhood protects children by lengthening their time in education (Museum of Childhood, 2019). Both Aries (1996) and Hendricks (1997) conducted historical examinations of attitudes regarding childhood and education. Aries (1996) compared medieval schooling, which focused on disciplining children, against the modernisation period, which shifted the focus on children gaining knowledge instead. Similarly, Hendricks (1997) compared the ‘delinquent child’ public attitude of the seventeenth century against the “school child” attitudes of the eighteenth century. The former reflects the human ‘becomings’ theory as children are passively expected to integrate into society as adults (Qvortrup, 1987), whilst the latter reflected as human ‘beings’ since children exercise social agency and construct their childhood, through exploring educational interests (Brannen & O’Brien, 1995)

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Furthermore, these two discourses also paved the way for Godfrey to not only attend school as a female, but also develop interests in science through education in the 1960s. Both the modernisation period of education and the ‘school child’ discourses also brought change within the socialisation theory as children were now viewed as “blank slates/tabula rasa”, with the desire to actively explore knowledge, instead of passively receiving knowledge from adults (McNamee, 2016, p.18). Therefore, these two similar discoveries of contrasting discourses distinguished two types of childhoods (Wyness, 2011) and thus, the latter discoveries of this construction have had a longer-term impact, reflected in today’s education.

Despite Godfrey exploring biology through science education, Aries’ initial investigation of the modernisation period prohibited girls, since girls prioritised domestic responsibilities (Gittins, 1998). Furthermore, Godfrey’s pursuit of a scientific career was an anomaly for a young girl of the 1960s. Typically, gender socialisation through the hidden curriculum, would influence girls to study subjects in line with gender expectations, such as textiles (Lawson et al, 2009). Godfrey’s interest in science, under gender socialisation would match boys’ expectations instead. Nevertheless, The MoC may have included Godfrey’s example to stray away from typical gender socialisation, and thus increase the demand for girls to pursue scientific subjects, as figures of women in computing degree programmes, the subject Godfrey studied, reduced to 13% in 2014, from 14% in 2010 (Peers, 2018).

The emergence of a subjective, child-orientated society also saw the development of Kinderculture- the concept of corporations marketing directly to children (Steinberg, 2011). Kinderculture had marketers recognising that all children, irrespective of class or stage in education, enjoyed watching television and playing with toys (Steinberg, 2011). So, children exhibited commercial agency by exploring the characters through costumes and other fashion accessories, to demonstrate their interests. As a result, male children of the 1960s would dress up in the Thunderbirds costume whilst I, in the early 2000s, owned a Pikachu bag as I enjoyed Pokémon. The construction of childhood, in this context, had been commodified with the main objective for marketers to maximise their profit and the subsequent objective for all children to discover interests, and thus develop social agency through buying into toys as a commercial actor.

Furthermore, Cook (2004) examined shifts in the department stores’ merchandising strategies overtime to demonstrate “pediocularity” (pg.66), coined by Cook to describe the demand of children’s views by marketers. Previous public perceptions of children as innocent and naïve beings (Stainton Rogers, 2003) enabled department stores to market products at mothers by “overstressing… and constructing them as beings… at risk” (pg.64). However, as public view of children shifted, department stores from the 1930s rearranged the store layout to be in line with a child’s gaze. Ergo reinforcing the notion that the commodification of childhood demonstrated greater agency for children.

Nevertheless, children’s agency through kinderculture is limited as marketers have control over children’s identities (Hood-Williams, 1990). Children themselves can only buy into toys and costumes that are produced by marketers. Consequently, multiple boys would buy the same Thunderbirds costume as they are mass produced for profit. Even though marketers recognised that all children enjoyed watching television or playing with toys, it was only the middle-class parents who had the disposable income to fulfil their children’s interests further (Buckingham, 2011).Therefore, working-class children are limited in social agency compared to their middle-class counterparts.

Overall, drastic shifts in the social construction of childhood have occurred, from Aries’ early examination of medieval schools to the School Strikes 4 Climate in 2019. The two most important shifts, which have cultivated large transformation in childhood are agency and socialisation. Agency, through the school climate strikes and the emergence of Kinderculture, has allowed children to be independent and with the support of the UNCRC, channel their opinions freely. Socialisation, on the other hand, has allowed children to come together to mutually construct beliefs and values. However, the MoC’s depiction of childhood hasn’t been realistic, since it lacks representation of working-class children in many regards, but specifically, on the commodification of childhood. Furthermore, its sole endorsement of Thunberg could also be demotivating for activists of colour as they do not have mainstream representation of their efforts. Since the museum will be refurbished next year, it may consider a more inclusive representation of childhood, encompassing class and race.

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The Notion of Childhood as a Social Construct. (2022, Jun 29). Edubirdie. Retrieved February 4, 2023, from https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-notion-of-childhood-as-a-social-construct/
“The Notion of Childhood as a Social Construct.” Edubirdie, 29 Jun. 2022, edubirdie.com/examples/the-notion-of-childhood-as-a-social-construct/
The Notion of Childhood as a Social Construct. [online]. Available at: <https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-notion-of-childhood-as-a-social-construct/> [Accessed 4 Feb. 2023].
The Notion of Childhood as a Social Construct [Internet]. Edubirdie. 2022 Jun 29 [cited 2023 Feb 4]. Available from: https://edubirdie.com/examples/the-notion-of-childhood-as-a-social-construct/
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