After studying this section, you should be able to understand:

  • how the experience of childhood today is a fairly recent social construct
  • the evidence that suggests that modern societies, such as Britain, are childcentred societies

Childhood as a social construct

Cunningham (2006) argues that the nineteenth century saw the social construction of childhood by adults. Childhood was seen to have three major characteristics.

  • It was the opposite of adulthood – children were seen to be in need of protection, to have the right not to work and to be dependent on adults.
  • The world of the adult and the world of the child were to be kept separate – the home and the school were regarded as the ideal places for children and they were often banned from adult spaces such as workplaces.
  • Children were seen to have the right to ‘happiness’.

Child-centred society

The emergence of a child-centred society in twentieth century Britain was the result of a number of related developments.

  • Improved living standards in terms of wages, housing, sanitation, nutrition, hygiene and improvements in maternal health care led to a major decline in the infant mortality rate. People no longer needed to have lots of children in order to ensure that a few survived.
  • As society became more affluent, so children were needed less as economic assets and raising children became more expensive. Parents therefore chose to have fewer children.
  • The increased availability and efficiency of contraception allowed people to choose to have fewer children.
  • Cultural expectations about childhood changed as the media defined childhood and adolescence as separate categories from adulthood. Parents came to see childhood as a special time in terms of love, socialisation and protection.
  • The State became more involved in the supervision, socialisation and protection of children. The State supervises the socialisation of children through compulsory education which lasts 11 years. The role of social services and social workers is to police those families in which children are thought to be at risk. The government also takes some economic responsibility by paying child benefit to parents.
  • The Children Act (2004) has produced the influential policy Every Child Matters which focuses on the well-being of children and young people from birth to age 19. This stresses ‘better outcomes’ for children, such as ‘being healthy, staying safe’, and ‘achieving economic well-being’ at the centre of all government policies. Increasingly, children have come to be seen by the State as individuals with rights.

The social construction of childhood is also illustrated by interpretivist sociologists who point out that the experience of childhood is shaped by the fact that the relationship between parents and children is a two-way process in which the latter can, and do, influence the nature and quality of family life. Research by Morrow (1998) found that children did not want to make decisions for themselves,

but they did want a say in what happened to them.

The social construction of childhood argument also points out that childhood is not a fixed, universal experience. Rather, it is a relative experience dependent upon a number of social factors. This relativity of childhood experience can be illustrated in a number of ways.

  • In many less developed nations, the experience of childhood is extremely different from that in the industrialised world. Many children in such countries are constantly at risk of early death because of poverty and lack of basic health care, clean water and sanitation. They are unlikely to have access to education and may find themselves occupying adult roles as workers or soldiers.
  • Experience of childhood may differ across ethnic and religious groups, e.g. there is evidence that children in Muslim, Hindu and Sikh families generally feel a stronger sense of obligation and duty to their parents than White western children. Inter-generational conflict is therefore less likely or is more likely to be hidden.
  • Experiences of childhood in Britain may vary according to social class. Upperclass children may find that they spend most of their formative years in boarding schools, whilst working-class childhood may be made more difficult by the experience of poverty.
  • Experiences of childhood may differ according to gender role socialisation, e.g. there is some evidence that girls are subjected to stricter social controls from parents, compared with boys, when they reach adolescence.
  • Some children’s experiences of childhood may be damaging. Different types of child abuse have been re-discovered in recent years, such as neglect and physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Up to 30 000 children are on child protection registers, because they are at risk of abuse from family members.

However, New Right thinkers believe that children have been given too many rights in recent years and that it is wrong that parents are increasingly criticised and even punished for using sanctions such as smacking children. New Right thinkers believe that childhood is under threat because the period of innocent childhood has been shortened and because children have been exposed too soon to the

adult world. This has occurred for a number of reasons.

  • Postman (1982) sees childhood as under threat because television exposes them too soon to the adult world. Palmer agrees and claims that parents are too happy to use television, electronic games and junk food to keep children quiet and that parents are either too busy or too distracted by consumerism to give children a traditional childhood and family life.
  • Pugh (2002) suggests that parental spending on children is ‘consumption as compensation’ – parents who are ‘cash-rich but time-poor’ alleviate their guilt about not spending time with their children by buying them whatever consumer goods they want.
  • Some sociologists are alarmed by the fact that children are being targeted by advertisers as consumers. They note that children aged 7–11 are worth about £20 million a year as consumers and consequently advertisers have encouraged children to use ‘pester power’ to train, or manipulate, their parents to spend money on them in return for love and status.
  • Phillips believes that the media and the peer group have become more influential than parents and sees the media in the form of magazines aimed at young girls, pop music videos and television as a particular problem, because they encourage young girls to envisage themselves as sexual beings at a much younger age. These trends mean that the period of childhood has been shortened – it is no longer a sacred and innocent period lasting up to 13 or 14 years. Phillips argues that the increase in social problems such as suicide, eating disorders, self-harm, depression and drug/alcohol abuse among children is a direct result of these processes.



  1. What do sociologists mean by the ‘social construction’ of childhood?
  2. Identify three social factors that influence how children experience childhood in Britain today.
  3. According to New Right thinkers, why is childhood under threat?
  4. Identify one way in which children might exercise power over their parents.
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