Discuss the meaning of childhood

The idea of a child is contested throughout the world. It is first important to distinguish the difference between the terms child and childhood. The dictionary defines a child as ‘a boy or girl from the time of birth until he or she is an adult, or a son or daughter of any age’ which is a very vague generalization (Cambridge dictionary, 2009) Defining the word childhood presents similar problems, as again the dictionary is of very little assistance merely stating that childhood is ‘the time when someone is a child’ (Cambridge dictionary, 2009). It is therefore essential to find a more valid definition of a child. Many factors affect the way a childhood is defined, such as the period of history in which the characterization was developed as well as the culture it has transpired from. The thesis of what a child and what childhood is will not be the same globally, although there may be similar themes around which the definition is based. These similarities often include the use of age as a boundary for childhood, the exploration of psychological and biological aspects to childhood and the concept of independence. Mills (2003: 8) also outlines the cultural, geographical, historical and gender based theories on what childhood is. A child in a third world country will have experiences that are a polar opposite to that of a typical child from a western country. This difference in experiences therefore has an effect on the definition given by that particular culture as to what childhood is. Ergo, an important question that arises is whether childhood is shortened by experience or enriched. The UK defines a child as any person, regardless of gender, under the age of eighteen, in accordance with UN policy based upon the ‘Rights of the Child’ (UNCRC) (NSPCC, 2009).This is a basic biological definition of a child that is accepted by the majority of UN countries. Gamage (1992) however argues that childhood end around the age of ten. Clearly, defining childhood is not a clear cut task.

There are different angles to look at when defining childhood from a socio-economic perspective. Cultural differences are a massive factor that needs to be taken into account when attempting to define childhood. Culture affects the way a child is seen which in turn affects the individual child and how they perceive their early role in society. It is the variety in culture globally which leads to ethical complications in cross-cultural adoption, as the UNCRC outlines that a child has the right to know and practice its cultures traditions, however if a child is uprooted from its original setting, does that mean that it should disregard the surrounding it began life in favour of adopting new traditions and languages? We often act in an ethnocentric style which is “the opinion that one’s own way of life is natural, correct, indeed the only true of being human” (Schultz and Lavenda 1990: 32) Ethnocentrism can even be seen in the UNCRC. Whilst it complies with human rights, it can be seen to clash with individual societies for example; some tribes have entirely different traditions and regimes for the treatment of children compared to that outlined in the UN legislation. It is unfair to say that a tribe’s way of doing things is incorrect yet some of their traditions can be seen as cruel and as infringing the articles of the UNCRC. The ignorance between cultures can create an atmosphere of fear. The lack of understanding we have for unknown societies makes it difficult for us to understand their traditions and how they affect their societies definition of childhood. New problems arise however if we become all consumed with legislation and political correctness for example in Britain schools have begun to replace their nativity plays with a more generalised holiday themed performance. The attempts to be politically correct are preventing British children from learning about their own culture. Nutbrown (1996 ) refers to seeing children “as passive recipients of knowledge … as ‘adults in waiting’ ” which is interesting as it leans towards the idea that children are perhaps not people in their own rights, merely half filled vessels. This is obviously a very odd perspective, as it is taking away the idea of childhood being a key stage in its own right, and focusing on the concept of it just being part of the development to becoming an adult. Nutbrown points out the difficulties in this view, as it infers that the world created for children is not based on their contemporary needs. She writes

Perspectives on childhood that include the concept of children as ‘adults in waiting’ do not value children as learners and therefore create systems of educating and designing curricula, that can be narrow minded rather than open minded and which transmit to children rather than challenge children to use their powers as thinkers and nurture their humanity.

Kakar (1981: 18) points out that this is not a global view, and as always, culture is critical to defining childhood. Kakar claims that the word childhood is a “fully meaningful word-in-itself” in certain areas in countries such as India and China. This emphasis on the word means that the period of life known as childhood is to these cultures an individually important part of life, not just a prerequisite to adulthood. It is particularly interesting to compare different experts’ key social constructions of childhood. Richard Mills (2003: 9) looks at the ideas of children as ‘innocent’, ‘apprentices’, and ‘vulnerable’ whereas in a rather different approach Chris Jenks (1990: 36) explores children as ‘savage’, ‘Dionysian’ and ‘Apollonian’. Mills’ concept of an apprentice being a construction of childhood links to Nutbrown as it refers to the idea that children are merely adults in training. This is a persistent theme throughout defining childhood. Mills, when referring to children as innocent, claims that they are in need of protection, and are representative of good and purity. He talks about the child developing through the ‘gradual acquiring of secret knowledge’.

For Postman these secrets are to do with sexual relations, money, violence, illness, death and language (Mills )

If Postman is correct in saying that obtaining such information equates to the end of childhood, then by that understanding, it is fair to say that a child who has suffered sexual abuse or the death of a loved one is no longer a child. Postman’s ideas can be linked to the ideas of class defining childhood. It is generally fair to say that children from more financially stable backgrounds appear to have in general a more idyllic childhood than those less fortunate. However this doesn’t necessarily increase the time that they are a child if Postman is to be believed, as class has little impact on how or when a child discovers the ‘adult secrets’. Obviously they are less likely to encounter child labour, however they are not automatically protected from death or sexual knowledge. In a broader sense, parallels to this can be seen internationally, for example, the chances of a child being in labour instead of education are far higher in India than they are in France. The economic standing of a country has a knock on effect on how children are viewed socio-economically. In poorer countries childhood is cut short due to a need for additional income, whereas in most Western countries, children enjoy a full education whilst earning a living is down to the parents. Gender is also a socio-economic aspect of defining childhood, as it is generally believed that girls mature sooner than boys. Does this therefore mean that if you are female, your childhood has been cut short in comparison to your male peers? If the answer is yes, then this should perhaps impact upon laws and legislation. For example, it could be possible that girls could have a younger age of employment to that currently enforced for both genders. This is not necessarily fair on either boys or girls, but it could be a possible way to further define childhood. It is clear that children are defined differently depending on the socio-economic background they come from, whilst this makes it difficult to pinpoint a precise definition of childhood, it is critical to appreciate all different views and ideas, whether or not they comply with our own views.

Historically, the constructions of childhood span a range of different phases. Perhaps most importantly is the work of Aries’ (Palaiologou 2009) who claims that childhood as a concept wasn’t even around until the sixteenth century at which point in England, the Christian church began to get involved in educating children with very basic Sunday schools. The ideas out forth by Aries are a source of much debate as they raise a lot of questions and there are theorists who disagree with the idea’s put forth by Aries and who claim that childhood has always been present throughout history. If Mills is to be believed when talking about children being in need of both physical and emotional protection, then surely Aries cannot be correct. The parental urge to protect must have been somewhat present throughout all of history, almost like an animal instinct. A key argument against Aries is that in Ancient Greece there was a development of the idea of education in a more formal style. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that childhood was seen as a particularly separate stage, and it still only existed very loosely. Prominent aspects of British childhoods such as fairytales did not exist purely for children in Ancient Greece, but as entertainment for the whole family. In his book Centuries of Childhood Aries highlights the fact that as soon as children were able to exist without needing constant care then they became seen in the same way as adults. Yet, there is still a stage where it is recognized that the infant needs care and attention from an adult, so this can be seen as recognition of childhood. One explanation for this limitation on recognizing childhood as a key phase has groundings in the economic needs throughout history. Children were often required to work from a young age – as is still often the case – and so this had the effect of often calling a halt to their time as a child. The rise in popularity of Christianity led to the beginning of childhood as we know it today. The concepts of children as innocent as mentioned previously began to materialize, and with it a stronger sense of the need to protect the younger generation. The church stepped in at the helm of education and began to mould the youth. There was a focus on removing the devilish side from children, and it can be seen that the church was leaning towards indoctrination rather than education. Evangelicals took it upon themselves to fight against the possibility of children committing sins. Along with the idea of children as innocent, had come the idea that they as the future, needed to be washed of sins – the implication being that they had already sinned. Obviously families were quite enthusiastic about this need to remove the devil and keep their children pure. It wasn’t until 1876 that education became compulsory for all children aged ten and under. However, childhood was still seen as just a prerequisite to adulthood, rather than a defined period of life in its own right. It was not just education and work that came early to children throughout history either. Marriage and children were on the agenda at the same time we would be moving into junior schools. The laws for children were no different to that of adults and so children enjoyed no rights of their own. This is not dissimilar to criminal law in America, where children are tried in a similar way to adults. It wasn’t until 1889 when children began to be recognized legally, and some pinpoint this as the beginning of childhood as we know it. Throughout history the definition of childhood has been vague and insipid until more recently, however it is key to look back at how childhood was viewed to understand how to define it in a more contemporary fashion.

The specific needs and rights of children help us to define them further. The UNCRC (United Nations Convention on the Rights of Children) is a piece of UN legislation aimed to protect children globally, as well as outline a cohesive set of guidelines for the rights of the child. As previously stated, the UN outlines the age of a child as being up to eighteen years of age for the majority of UN countries. The articles found in the UNCRC are not massively dissimilar to those based around general human rights. The main difference between the legal rights of a child and adult is, as articles five and eighteen outline, stating that “the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child [is with the parent]” (UNCRC, Children’s Rights Alliance) This can be seen as a limitation to the child’s rights, as they are somewhat dependant on an adult to ensure the rights outlined are provided for them. The legislation came about due to political pressure from various UN countries, which led to a domino effect as countries fell to pressure from more major players in the UN collaboration. The overall aim was seen as a way of making children equals in the world and redefine the way adults view them as completely separate from culture and society. It is also important in outlining the role of parents in a child’s life with article eighteen focusing on ‘parental responsibilities’ outlining that the “[parents] have the primary responsibility for the upbringing and development of the child” . Often the blame for a failure on behalf of parents is laid at the door of the government and various departments designed to ensure the safety of children. Whilst it is valid to say that in cases, such as the recent ‘Baby P’, some responsibility for such tragedies does need to be dealt to official bodies, it is also key to note that the parents or carers are, according to legislation, the people mainly responsible for the protection of their child and as such should not be able to entirely pass of their wrong doings as the fault of the government for not monitoring them sufficiently. It is interesting to note that the UNCRC is has the highest rate of ratification compared to all other conventions, with only Somalia and the USA rejecting the convention. It has also been seen to directly affect the policies of the countries involved, for example, in Britain the introduction of Every Child Matters. It can also be said that the legislation has assisted in changing traditional views of childhood. Children traditionally were often seen as half-formed adults rather than as individuals. In some ways, by defining children’s rights, and then being so similar to those of adults, its enabled people to stop seeing children as ‘yet to be’ and instead focus on them as they are. Issues with the UNCRC legislation however, are the differences in the range of cultures it is applied to sometimes clash with the outlined rights of the child. This raises the problem of what is more important, culture or the fulfilment of a child’s needs and the protection of their rights. The UNCRC itself outlines the importance of keeping children connected to their own heritage and culture with article thirty in particular focusing on the rights of children to “enjoy his or her own culture….[and] to participate fully in cultural and artistic life”. However it is sometimes difficult to comply with this without limiting the effectiveness of other aspects of the legislation. Also, whilst the UNCRC is an official agreement, it is not a law. There are no real penalties for not complying with the various parts of the legislation, and it is incredibly difficult to monitor. Countries make reports every five years on development, which gives a rather stinted, separated view of how countries are implementing different schemes to corroborate with the legislation put forth. Unfortunately the UNCRC also raises some rather big political issues, such as the idea that the modern, western world is perhaps enforcing unattainable and unrealistic goals upon poorer countries. Not only does this lead to their underperformance, but also to conflict between their cultures and the legislation they are being presented with. Also, do people want to see children differently, and do children want their roles to change? All these are major issues raised by the implementation on this global legislation upon unequal and incredibly different countries. However, it isn’t all negative. Overall, the positives of the UNCRC far outweigh the negatives as the need to protect and provide for the needs of children is crucial, and this legislation goes a long way in ensuring that children are protected in a suitable manner, even if its effectiveness doesn’t span the whole globe in an efficient manner.

Children who are in labour rather than education are another construction of childhood to look at. Obviously the UNCRC has a clause aimed at preventing children from having full time jobs, especially that intrude with education but this cannot be successfully be implemented globally. Again, based on previously discussed concepts of childhood, it surely makes sense that if a child is at work then this is a blatant trespass upon their rights as outlined by the UNCRC and again, children are being thrust into a world of ‘adult secrets’. There is no glamorous side to child labour, the hours are often extreme, the pay laughable and the job itself more than often horrific for example young children forced into the sex trade. Their innocence robbed. Jobs such as this are in direct defiance of article thirty-two of the convention which states children are to be ‘”protected from economic exploitation and from performing any work which is hazardous”. It is from the convention that a minimum age was applied to all jobs in the UK and other countries, and hours workable limited also. However, there are still approximately three hundred and fifty-two million children in labour deemed “hazardous” globally. The problem is that child labour is often not a choice for the child or the family, as they are forced into jobs due to economic desperation. Poverty is often so crippling that people have no option other than to allow their child to work. Bonded labour is common is some countries, which is where the child is basically pawned off for a sum of money, in exchange for their labour. Again, the UNCRC is placed under strain in this situation, as whilst such activity is clearly in breach of the legislation, it is fair to say that the UNCRC cannot prevent a family earning a living through any means possible in order to avoid complete poverty. This obviously has an impact on defining childhood, as it is difficult to see a boy of seven who does a sixteen-hour shift in a sweat-shop as still being a child in the middle of childhood. Biologically and in accordance to law, he would be a child, but his obviously different lifestyle, compared to a typical British child, prevents him from being a true child.

In conclusion, it is incredibly difficult to define childhood. In the contemporary climate, it is fair to say that a basis around age, as is stated in the UNCRC and a majority of countries domestic policies. The age of eighteen is perhaps too high from a biological stance, as puberty has basically reached its conclusion by this time, however psychologically it can be seen as advantageous. As has been highlighted, children are not emotionally ready for what may be referred to as adult topics, such as death, sex and money. The frequent introduction of these topics into childhoods seems to have no benefit to the child, in fact it seems in most cases to be detrimental to children’s happiness. Child labour, in particular the sex trade, is horrific not just biologically as children are expected to work long hours in jobs their bodies are not yet prepared for, but also the emotional impact it has can be seen to devastate lives. So in this sense, the age barrier often used when defining childhood is incredibly important.

The legislation used to protect children is also key to defining them. The UNCRC, obviously outlines age as a specific part of the legislation, but also, looking at the rights themselves, and the emphasis on the need for protection and the focus on development is incredibly telling when trying to define childhood. As well as being an period of both biological and emotional fragility, usually defined by age, it is also a time during which individuals are dependent on adults, not just for material things, but also emotional support and love. Also, looking back through history highlights the importance of not underestimating the importance of childhood as a period of life in its own right, rather than ignoring it as just a build-up to adult life. Obviously in some ways, it is a developmental period, preparing individuals for the future, however it is still a distinct section of life in its own right and should be valued as such.

The implications of the different constructions of childhood are varied throughout the world. The historical aspects outline the importance of not ignoring childhood as a period in its own right. If we try to force an adult-centred curriculum on children rather than nurturing their abilities in the here and now it will lead to a generations of people confused about their identities, due to the lack of time they were given to develop themselves. In terms of schooling and policies for children, focusing on Britain, the major change so far has been the implementation of the ‘Every Child Matters’ (ECM) (Dcsf) scheme designed to prevent repeats of the tragedy of ‘Victoria Climbie’ , the young African girl who was tortured by her family until she died. It also stems from the UNCRC. The purpose of ECM is to unite the various agencies concerned with the wellbeing of children, such as social services, schools and health workers. From this, the ‘Common Assessment Framework’ was developed to enable children with additional needs to get the support they require. However, this scheme has its difficulties, particularly with from the ‘multi-agency’ angle, as all the various services have a different perspective of the child and the problems each individual is facing. It can even be fair to say that each body has its own perspective on what childhood is, and these often don’t match up. Even little things such as the style of observation each body undertakes on a child presents a problem, as often entirely different conclusions are drawn by each service. It is a positive though, that the government has recognized the need to unite different ways of perceiving children to create a more rounded, realistic analysis of children and their specific needs.

Cambridge Dictionary (2009) Online Dictionary: Child [online] Available: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/define.asp?key=13062&dict=CALD&topic=family-relations-in-general , Cambridge

[Accessed 12th December 2009]

Cambridge Dictionary (2009) Online Dictionary: Childhood [online] Available: http://dictionary.cambridge.org/define.asp?key=13075&dict=CALD&topic=children-and-babies , Cambridge

[Accessed 12th December 2009]

Children’s Rights Alliance (2008) [online] Available: http://www.childrensrights.ie/files/UNCRC-CRC1989.pdf , Dublin

[Accessed 21st December]

DCSF (2009) Every Child Matters [online] Available: http://www.dcsf.gov.uk/everychildmatters/about/aims/aims/ Crown, London

[Accessed 21st December]

Gamage, P (1992) Standing Conference on Education and training of teachers’ In Mills, J and Mills, R (ed.) (2003) Childhood Studies: A Reader in perspectives of childhood London: RoutledgeFalmer, page 8.

Jenks, C (1990) Perspectives of Childhood: Summery. In J. Mills and R. Mills (ed.) (2003) Childhood Studies: A Reader in perspectives of childhood London: RoutledgeFalmer, page 30

Kakar (1981).Starting points. In Nutbrown (ed.) (1996) In Children’s Rights and Early Education Paul Chapman Publishing

Mills, R (2003) Perspectives of Childhood: Summery. In J. Mills and R. Mills (ed.) (2003) Childhood Studies: A Reader in perspectives of childhood London: RoutledgeFalmer, page 8.

Mills, R (2003) Perspectives of Childhood: Summery. In J. Mills and R. Mills (ed.) (2003) Childhood Studies: A Reader in perspectives of childhood London: RoutledgeFalmer, page 9.

Nutbrown, C (1996) Starting points. In Nutbrown, C (ed.) Children’s Rights and Early Education Paul Chapman Publishing

NSPCC (2009) What is the definition of a child? [online] Available: http://www.nspcc.org.uk/Inform/research/questions/definition_of_a_child_wda59396.html , London

[Accessed 12th December 2009]

Aries, P (1960) In Palaiologou, I (2009) unpublished lecture notes from Constructions of Childhood 12th October

Schultz, Lavenda (1990) In Palaiologou, I (2009) unpublished lecture notes from Constructions of Childhood 23rd November

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