Joan Garrod
What is childhood?
Some sociologists say that ‘childhood’ is a social construct.
• What do they mean by that?
• In our society, when do you think that someone stops being ‘a
Childhood and particular ages
You may have included an age as part of your answer to the question
of when someone stops being ‘a child’. However, there are
problems in defining childhood in terms of age:
• Up to the nineteenth century many people in the UK did not know
their actual date of birth and so had only a rough guess as to their
age. Age status was often judged by how a person looked and
• Try the following quiz to see how difficult it is to use a particular
age as ‘the end of childhood’.
Quiz (1)
In England, at what age can you legally:
1. Buy a pet?
2. Give evidence in a court of law?
3. Be in part-time employment?
4. Hold your own passport?
5. Own a shotgun or airgun?
6. Sit on a jury?
[quiz continues on next slide]
Quiz (2)
In England, at what age can you legally:
7. Be given a custodial sentence (i.e. be sentenced to prison or other
form of custody) if convicted of a crime?
8. Drink beer or wine with a meal in a licensed restaurant?
9. Emigrate without your parents?
10. Consent to medical or dental treatment?
11. Have a legal right to be heard?
12. Work as a street trader and/or sell scrap metal?
Answers (1)
1. Buy a pet? 12
2. Give evidence in a court of law? At any age if the court
considers you old enough to understand the proceedings.
3. Be in part-time employment? 13
4. Hold your own passport? All British citizens must now hold their
own passport from birth.
5. Own a shotgun or airgun? 14
6. Sit on a jury? 18
[answers continue on next slide]
Answers (2)
7. Be given a custodial sentence if convicted of a crime? 10
8. Drink beer or wine with a meal in a licensed restaurant? 5, but at
the licensee’s discretion.
9. Emigrate without your parents? 17
10. Consent to medical or dental treatment? 16
11. Have a legal right to be heard? At any age.
12. Work as a street trader and/or sell scrap metal? 16
Is childhood better or worse now?
Some sociologists (and others) argue that childhood is now much
better than it was in the past. These ideas are often referred to as
the ‘march of progress’ theories.
Against these ideas are those which see childhood as worse in many
ways than it was in previous years. Some of these ideas have been
criticised as showing a romanticised view of childhood in the past.
Let’s look at the points that have been made in support of each side.
Childhood as better now
Those arguing that childhood is better now point to the following:
the fall in the infant mortality rate and improvements in child healthcare
various pieces of legislation which have removed children from full-time work at
an early age, and offered young people protection when at work
the gradual extension of the period in which children are in full-time education
the development of legal rights for children
the growth of specialist services for both children and parents to help to ensure
the wellbeing of children
the development of specialist toys and literature considered ‘age-appropriate’
legislation to protect children from things which would be harmful to them, e.g.
drugs, abusive adults, exposure to material considered ‘inappropriate’
Childhood as worse now
Those arguing that childhood is worse now point to the following:
the rise of obesity and health problems among many children
increased rates of depression and mental health problems, particularly among
increased pressures on children and young people to ‘succeed’, especially in
the damage inflicted on many children by the break-up of their family
the psychological and physical abuse inflicted on many children, often by
members of their family, which in some cases has led to their death
the blurring of the lines between children and adults, leading to the ‘loss of
Study tips
There are some important texts on the sociology of childhood, and you should
familiarise yourself with these using your textbooks, class notes and an internet
search using reputable sites.
Some useful names are provided in the next few slides, but remember that there are
others, and also that these notes give only the very briefest of summaries. You
must do further work yourself if you want to do your best in examinations.
Remember too that it is important, unless a question specifically restricts you to a
discussion of the UK, to show awareness that the position of children varies
enormously around the world. Other societies and cultures have very different
ideas of what it means to be a child.
Philippe Ariès (1960)
Ariès was a French amateur historian known to sociologists for his view that the
notion of ‘childhood’ as a separate state is relatively new. He said that the
modern view of the family as ‘a private domestic circle founded on mutual
affection’ did not emerge until the seventeenth century.
He looked at depictions of children in medieval society, and one of his most-quoted
statements is ‘In medieval society the idea of childhood did not exist.’
However, our reading of his text is usually a translation from the original French,
and Cunningham (1960) points out that the French word translated as ‘idea’ is
‘sentiment’, which can also mean ‘feeling’. Cunningham suggests that Ariès
meant that in medieval times childhood was not recognised and valued as a
distinct phase.
Lloyd de Mause (1982)
De Mause is another so-called ‘march of progress’ theorist. One of his often-quoted
sayings is: ‘The history of childhood is a nightmare from which we have
only just begun to awaken. The further back in history one goes, the
lower the level of childcare, and the more likely children are to be killed,
abandoned, beaten, terrorized and sexually abused.’
De Mause suggested that the ill-treatment of children in a society led to adults who
were war-like and aggressive. He controversially wrote that it was the attitudes
towards, and the harsh treatment of, children in German society in the early
twentieth century that allowed Nazism to develop. He said that childhood
brutality led to adults who had to re-inflict their childhood cruelties onto
scapegoats — in this case, the Jews.
Neil Postman (1982)
In his book The Disappearance of Childhood, Postman suggests that the dividing line
between childhood and adulthood is beginning to disappear. He believes that
both the origin of childhood and the reasons for its decline lie in changes in
communications technology:
Before the invention of the printing press, when all traditions and the passing on
of culture were oral, there was no sharp distinction between adults and children,
and childhood ended around the age of 7, when children had mastered speech.
With the printed word, literacy became the great divide, with adulthood
dependent on being literate and/or mastering the habits of mind it promoted.
Adults could now control the information passed to children.
[continued on next slide]
Neil Postman (1982), continued
This monopoly and control by adults began to crumble with the advent of
electronic information, particularly when television was introduced directly into
the home. Television, argues Postman, is a visual medium which requires no
training to understand and which can be viewed by all. Children are exposed to
all aspects of the adult world.
Postman’s ideas could be developed further with the increase in other forms of
communication, including social media and internet sites.
Sue Palmer (2006)
Sue Palmer is a former head teacher and literacy expert who is well-known for her
book Toxic Childhood: How the modern world is damaging our children and what
we can do about it. She looks at a range of problems affecting children — e.g.
obesity, ADHD, bad behaviour, depression, autism and sleep deprivation.
She claims that while new technologies are benefiting adults, changes in adult
lifestyles have affected the way children are looked after, both at home and at
school. Children’s experiences are being ‘polluted’, leading to ‘toxic childhood
syndrome’. She writes: ‘Every year children become more distractible,
impulsive and self-obsessed — less able to learn, to enjoy life, to thrive
You can watch a short video of Sue Palmer talking about her ideas here:
Child labour
While child labour in Western societies has been progressively curtailed and
regulated, in many other parts of the world children are part of the labour force
— legally or illegally.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO) defines child labour as ‘work that
deprives children of their childhood, their potential and their dignity, and that is
harmful to physical and mental development’. The ILO estimates that around the
world around 215 million children under 18 work, many full-time and many in
hazardous occupations.
UNICEF estimates that around 150 million children aged 5–14 in developing
countries (about 16% of all children in this age group) are involved in child
labour (UNICEF 2011 State of the World’s Children).
Child soldiers
It is estimated there are 250,000 child soldiers in the world, 40% of them girls.
The largest number are in Africa (Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic
Republic of Congo, Somalia, Sudan).
The effects on the children are long-lasting. Many become desensitised to
violence, and they can be psychologically damaged for life. Most have missed out
on school and have very poor future prospects.
In June 2013 the United Nations set a goal of having no child soldiers anywhere
in the world by 2016.
Source: War Child (a charity); see more at
Closing points
This has been a very brief look at some sociological aspects of childhood. You should
note that:
Childhood is a ‘social construct’ — it means different things at different times, in
different places and to different groups.
There is disagreement regarding whether, in Western societies in general and the
UK in particular, the experience of childhood has got ‘better’ or ‘worse’ —
remember that these are evaluative terms.
As with any social group, there are considerable differences both within and
between different social and ethnic groups.
In some parts of the world, children who in the West would still have many years
of education in front of them are engaged in often heavy and dangerous work or
are being used as soldiers.

Childhood - Hodder Education