Childhood : Social construction in childhood

Social constructionism seeks to understand how children and childhood knowledge is constructed, by whom, why and most substantially what purpose it would serve. Social
constructionism offers alternative ways to find out about children and childhood. Social construction of childhood is grounded in varying conceptions among different cultures, societies and at different time period in history. It also emphasizes on the diversity of situations and circumstances in which childhood is experienced. James & James (2008) define social construction as “a theoretical perspective that explores the ways in which ‘reality’ is negotiated in everyday life through people’s interactions and through sets of discourses”. It is this conceptualization of childhood as a social construct, which forms the substrate for the current paper. Various perspectives on children and childhood, within this approach have emerged.

A journey to adulthood

A child is often viewed as a being to improve in order to reach the point of perfection. That is, adulthood. Qvortrup (2002) suggests that is why even in contemporary industrialized societies, a child emerges as a category with a social position who must go with plan of care and education. James, Jenks & Prout (1998) also agree that a child is banded together with the idea of imperfection and adulthood is seen as the end point to dependency. As Woodhead (2013) states “from social constructionist perspective, developmentalism is a discourse
within which children are constructed as not yet adult, as in process of ‘becoming’ rather than a person in their own right”. A child is therefore considered as the one who lacks something. However adulthood can never be considered as a state of stability, perfection and independency. Hence the differentiation between a child and an adult becomes more complex. Therefore, the idea of completeness about incompleteness about children fails and the
puzzle still remains scrambled. In relation to adults, children are viewed as :

  • those who are physically weaker, less developed, weigh less than adults.
  • Children are considered those who need to get the developmental stages of secondary sexual features in order to be called an adult.
  • Children tend to have less cognitive skills, intellectual abilities, less knowledge, less ability for
  • Children are considered as those who have less emotional maturity and less socially skilled.
  • They are perceived as those with less competence in terms of life-skills and less expressive.
  • Also are perceived as relatively in powerless position in relation to adults.


Age is widely used as for definition purposes in many contemporary societies particularly in western societies. It is calculated in terms of years passed in one’s childhood and as rudimentary source of identity. According to United Nations Convention on the Rights of Child (UNCRC) anyone below the age of eighteen is prospected as a child. This is internationally agreed definition of a child. Additionally, there are some other categories for example infants, toddlers, youth, adolescents, teenagers. All these categories are encompassed under the word of ‘child’. Such a universalizing age based definition is problematic as it does not consider the context and experiences. Though children share a common course of physical changes and development over time however considering age as definitional factor to mark what a child is can be problematic in several ways. These stages of development are not depended of age but other factors such as physical, social and cultural contexts. Age has powerful impact on contemporary
institutions which are organized on the principles of age. Children are assessed in all aspects including in their school activities and studies in terms of their age group (Mouritsen 2002, James & James 2008).

 Children and Childhood- Past and Present

There is an argument in the history of childhood that childhood is a recent phenomenon. So it is a modern construct which has been given childhood a special space in society. Indeed, according to some historians, the notion of childhood as a distinct phase of life didn’t develop until the 16th centuries. Aries (1982) proposed that childhood had undergone the process of social construction. Aries suggests that ‘idea of childhood’ is related to awareness of specific nature of childhood. With this awareness distinction between a child and an adult can be done. After studying medieval paintings, literature, philosophical and religious tracts and letters, Aries concludes this awareness was lacking in medieval society. In medieval society a child was considered as an adult as soon as s/he could live without continuous attention of mother or caregiver (nanny).In Dionysian views children were perceived as ‘little devils’ born with original sins as being inherently naughty, un-socialized and uncivilized beings. Later than Dionysian views, there came Apollonian views which represent children as ‘little angles’ who are born good and innocent. The change in perceptions or paradigm shift about children and childhood which James (2009) calls as ‘break with tradition’  happened in 1970s and 1980s. There were many movements started about position of a child in society for example the launch of international year of child in 1979, emergence of notion about ‘world’s children’ ‘child abuse’ ‘happy, safe, protected, innocent childhood’. The traditional perceptions about a child and childhood were also started to problematize in academics. James mentions Donaldson (1978) who dared to challenge Piaget’s famous work on child development. At the same time Vygotsky’s work started to be recognized as children’s self-governing and dynamic role in human development. After industrialization, children are supposed to go to school. So they are viewed financially dependent on their parents and this period of dependency shapes the notion of childhood in most of the contemporary societies.

 Theoretical Discussion

Gitten (2004) describes the three varying approaches of studying about children and childhood. First socioeconomic situation of families second endeavors to understand emotional and psychological changes in a child’s upbringing, and thirdly legal and political changes.
The question about nature of childhood: natural or social phenomenon has been raised in social constructionism. By referring to the 6 key features of childhood in sociology of childhood paradigm, Jenks (2004) argues to make a critical reconstruction of common assumptions about children and childhood. He refers to the number of contemporary sociologists who succeeded in problematizing the idea of childhood instead of treating it as a pre-stated with a relatively
determined trajectory. According to Prout & James (1990, p. 8-9), the six key features of the new paradigm: sociology of childhood, are as follow
1. The socially constructed childhood is different from biological immaturity. It is contextualized interpretation of
human’s early life based on societal beliefs and cultures.
2. Childhood is intertwined with other social variables in societies such as gender, class ethnicity etc.
3. Children’s own independent perspectives must be considered while studying children and childhood.
4. Children must be viewed as active participants not only in construction of knowledge about them but also in
construction of society as a whole.
5. Due to direct involvement of children in construction of knowledge about them, ethnography is useful methodology in science to study childhood.

Society and childhood

The idea that childhood is socially constructed refers to the understanding that childhood is not natural process rather it is society which decides when a child is a child and when a child becomes an adult. The notion of childhood cannot be seen in isolation. It is deeply intertwined with other factors in society. The notion of “childhood is socially constructed and understood contextually” (Jenks 2004, p. 78). For example, as Nilsen (2008) mentions, how childhood of Norwegian children is altered according to the culture of the society. Being out in nature (outdoor life), despite of extreme weather and freezing temperature in Norway, is considered as part of “constructing a national childhood” . Different laws were introduced to reinforce the idea of childhood in modern industrialized societies. In particular, Corsaro (1997) points out how laws regarding ‘child labor’ were upheld. Corsaro states “these changes brought about sentimentalized vision of childhood in which children were to be nurtured and protected” (p.194). Yet in some societies of today’s world children are supposed to earn from early age and they are viewed as economically responsible members of a family and society. And this makes it problematic to implement the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in all countries with same emphasis. In these societies, childhood as a concept is considered totally different from
that of modern industrialized societies. It turns childhood as depended not only on context, culture, time but also circumstances.


Further expectations from children of same age group in same society are viewed in terms of situation they live in. A child with poor socioeconomic background can be excused as irresponsible however a middle class child of same age is expected to be more responsible in terms of school homework and other developmental aspects in a very same society. It also refers to children’s different life experiences which play an important role in positioning them in society. It is crucial to perceive childhood as an even and unvarying feature of any society. A child when develops into an adult, leaving childhood behind for the next generation, makes childhood as a universal constituent of society. Qvortrup (2009) suggests that the word “childhood” rather than plural term “childhoods” should be used. Conversely the form will change due to change in life and practices over time for example laws, policies and other social activities etc. This recues back to the point that childhood is not universal rather socially constructed which is deep rooted in social, cultural and alternation
over time.

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