Today we take it for granted that there is a stage in life which is labelled as ‘Childhood’ – usually the period between birth and 12 years of age. (The teenage years represent a time during which young people have one foot in Childhood and one foot in Adulthood). However are we sure what Childhood is and who created it.It has been argued that childhood is not a natural phenomenon but a creation of society. Aries (1960) pointed this out in his book ‘Centuries of Childhood’. This theme was then taken up by Cunningham (2006) in his book the ‘Invention of Childhood’ which looks at the historical aspects of childhood from the Middle Ages to what he refers to as the Post War Period of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s.
Saraga (1998) points out that historically children have been seen as either innocent, vulnerable and in need of protection or they are asocial, inherently evil and in need of firm control and discipline. The ‘inherently evil’ aspect has been tackled by a number of religions which have devised rituals in order to purify babies and small children; such as Baptism within the Christian churches.
Cunningham (2006) gives examples which show, over time, that children’s roles have changed and slowly allowed them to take their place within society. In the Middle Ages children were not viewed as members of society but remained on the periphery. This changed over time and with the Industrial Revolution they became an integral part of the work force. In spite of the importance of the income which children brought to their families the philanthropists of the 19th and early 20th Century viewed child labour as being dangerous and a negative situation for children to be involved in. This led to the establishment of Laws and Acts which abolished child labour, ensured that children had some form of education/schooling and emphasised good health in the form of better diets and an active outdoor lifestyle.
Throughout the 20th Century childhood slowly became an established and recognised period within a child’s life. Underlying the concept of childhood was the concept that healthy, well educated children would become useful members of society and responsible members of the workforce.
However, now in the 21st Century researchers such as Sue Palmer (2006) refer to a ‘Toxic Childhood. She defines this as ‘the damage inflicted upon our children by a competitive, consumer driven, screen-based life style’.
So what has society created as childhood in the 21st century?
Laws and Acts which prevent child abuse, protect children, ensure that children attend school, lay down the content and standards of the school curriculum, promote healthy eating, outdoor play and exercise etc.
Television and computer based out of school activities which not only take the children out of the real world and into fantasy game worlds but also enable them to know which consumer goods they ‘must have’ in order to maintain their position in their peer group.
This competitive consumer spirit extends to parents who, due to their peer pressure, find themselves buying goods for their children in order to enhance their own reputation as ‘good parents’.
A rise in child obesity due to lack of exercise but also the proliferation of cheap foodstuffs which children become addicted to. Obesity is a problem in most of the affluent countries including Japan.
From the above it could be concluded that at the present time it is parents who are creating present day childhood. But is it? Perhaps it is because the parents themselves are colluding with the consumerism of present day society and so teaching their children how to become a consumer.
What position do parents have in their local community or with other parents if they do not provide their child with a TV, Computer and a Play Station? What status does their child have in their school or amongst their friends if they do not have a TV, Computer and a Play Station?
So does this represent parents’ defining childhood or parents’ collusion with consumerism?
Maybe it is because parents are trapped between a rock and a hard place. Ferudi (2001) points out that ‘Parents complain that their authority is continually weakened by outside pressure’. Whilst Mayall (2002) points out that ‘Compared to 30 years ago, childhoods are more sharply polarized by parental income’.
Does this mean that there are two definitions of childhood in the present day, the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ and where if at all do the two meet?
Aries P. 1960 Centuries of Childhood Pub: Harmondsworth Penguin Education
Cunningham H 2006 The Invention of Childhood Pub: London BBC Books
Ferudi F 2001 Paranoid Parenting Pub: London Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Mayall B 2002 Towards a Sociology for Childhood Pub: Buckingham Open University Press
Palmer S 2006 Toxic Childhood. How the modern world is damaging our children and what we can do about it. Pub: London Orion
Saraga E 1998 Children’s Needs Who decides? In Ed Mary Langan Welfare: Needs Rights and Risks Pub: London Routledge