Views of Childhood: A Sociological Perspective

Last Updated: 26 Jan 2021
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This essays draws on Libby Brooks’ The Story of Childhood in order to examine the social construction of childhood. This essay work analyses three individual aspects of childhood sociology. First, the effects of body image and the media on the cultural examination of childhood. Second, the increasingly overt sexualisation and simultaneous consumerisation of children. Finally, it shifts connection between adulthood and childhood that affects modern children in society.


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A famous – if controversial – claim was once posited by Phillipe Aries, a social historian from France, who argued that the notion of ‘childhood’ was not in existence during medieval times. Aries emphasised that the ‘idea’ of childhood is to a large extent socially constructed; in different cultures and at various points throughout history, the concept of childhood has taken on a range of meanings, and children have fulfilled a variety of roles and undertaken myriad activities (Aries, 1965: 22). Rather than being a clearly defined stage in human development, childhood is a construct of society. In the Story of Childhood: Growing up in Modern Britain, author Libby Brooks examines nine case studies in order to form a portrait of what childhood is like in this culture, at this time (Brooks, 2006). This essay shall examine three individual aspects of childhood sociology in light of the case studies contained in Brooks’ book: the effects of body image and media, the increasingly overt sexualisation and simultaneous consumerisation of children, and shifting connection between adulthood and childhood that affects modern children in society.

The Sociology of Childhood- An overview

In early adolescence, children come face to face with an interior revolution, both physical and psychological. They become intensely concerned with image and the way in which they are seen by others, particularly their peers. This concern leads to a battle for self-identification and self-portrayal (Corsaro, 2010: 35). Children of this age are prone to forming false adversaries and idols in the people around them. The ego is being constructed and tested; it is often dependent on a precarious sense of sameness and continuity with others. In this phase, there is a danger that roles in society might be confused (Erikson in Bowman, 1973: 85). When a child or teenager’s sense of identity is weak or not fully formed, particularly in terms of sexual identity, it is common for anti-social or delinquent ‘acting out’ to occur. However, this is contested by Marxist theory, which states that delinquency stems from an economic superstructure that promotes relative scarcity (Cohen, 2005: 216). Often, the role confusion is rooted in societal perceptions. A relevant example would be that of Laura, in The Story of Childhood. Although Laura is described as being a very attractive young teen, her sense of identity is severely distorted by her experience of society and her peers. She longs to return to an earlier stage of childhood: “When you’re younger, you’re kept happy all the time. But when you’re a teenager, it’s not so easy.” (Brooks, 2006: 194) Laura is tormented by a group of girls at her school to the extent that she becomes suicidal and eventually attempts to take her own life. Charles Lemert points out that when incidents such as Laura’s suicidal moods and depression are identified, addressed and treated in the proper manner, they need not have the same lasting and often fatal impact that they might have for adults (Lemert, 2011: 144).

The treatment of Laura by her peers is far from unusual. Majid is another child who suffers bullying, often violent, in The Story of Childhood. He shows off his bruises, from being beat up by other children (Brooks, 2006: 241). Children and adolescents can be extremely clannish, and very cruel in the ways in which they attempt, and often manage, to exclude such individuals who are in any way ‘different’. The difference might manifest through cultural heritage (as in the case of Majid), skin color, language, accent, disabilities, or even more trivial variations such as dress style, gestures, hobbies or music preferences, as in the case of Laura. Frequently, an ‘in group’ of peers determines what aspects of style or taste are the signs of being an ‘in-grouper’, or as in Laura’s situation, an ‘out-grouper’. This designation of ‘in’ and ‘out’ is almost always temporary and arbitrary in nature, although it is of course influenced by pop culture, pop stars, sports stars, etc (Palladino, 1996: 42).

Conceptualisation of children

In examining childhood from a sociological perspective, it is vital to acknowledge that these forms of intolerance and persecution are essential in terms of defending the group and individual child against the perception or experience of identity confusion. Teenagers do not only assist each other overcome a great deal of discomfort, albeit temporarily, through the formation of cliques, and by applying stereotypes to themselves and others, but they also explore and test the limits of their capacity for fidelity and consistency within the group (Lemert, 1999: 327). The willingness for this type of testing within teenage society also goes some way towards offering an explanation for the immense attraction that simplistic and cruel totalitarian systems have for groups of youth within nations and classes that have a diminished, or diminishing sense of group identity, e.g. tribal, feudal, national and agrarian countries that experience industrialisation, technology or communication on a broader scale. This identity-forming phase generally extends from the pre-teen years into the early twenties (Cote and Levine, 2002: 82)

In applying these truths of adolescent identity to societal constructions of childhood in modern-day Britain, one must turn again to Phillippe Aries. He observed that in the middle age, and extending nearly to modern times, children lived side by side with adults. Once children grew beyond infancy, they engaged in the community around them, working alongside their adult counterparts. They lacked any distinctive way of dress or behavior that might set them apart from adults. Over time, middle-class male children were extended special treatment, through the opportunity for education. Over several hundred years, this opportunity was then offered to bourgeois girls, as well, and finally to the children of the working class. Unlike in modern society, it was not expected that children would spend their teenage years seeking to develop an ego identity. Such a notion simply did not exist. In the modern era, teens such as Laura are confronted with the reality of cliques and intolerant factions that are seeking to delineate a notion of identity (Aries, 1965: 75).

Children were once participatory agents in the economy around them. They worked in factories, or on family farms, from a very young age. However, modern society has shifted and now creates a degree of separation between children and the work force. Western society imposes academic study on children as a way of preparing them to be useful member of the work force in the future; this is becoming a global phenomenon. Rather than being structured around work, the daily schedules and lives of children center around schoolwork and learning that is formalised. Older children and teenagers may work part-time; however, the main task allotted to them is to complete their education, in order to move into the labour force. At this stage, for Western societies, the capacity of an individual, or their level of competence, is assessed in accordance with the level of their educational accomplishments (Hutchby and Moran-Ellis in Hutchby and Moran-Ellis, 1997: 15).

The power of the consumer market is pervasive. In terms of the interplay between the market and children, consumption can be explained as a way in which children can share a culture with friends and classmates, as well as create their own sense of community. Brooks writes:
Nowadays…consumption is rising exponentially, and one extreme is swiftly superseded by the next: the toy of the film, the yoghurt of the cartoon, the padded bra of the doll. In the worst light, the industry looks like a monstrous behemoth, pushing sex and saturated fats, creating a generation of obese, promiscuous, celebrity-obsessed automatons, dependent on brands for identity, bullying the poor few who cannot afford the right trainers, unable to appreciate gratification that is anything other than instant” (Brooks, 2006: 151).

Attitudes to children

The consumerisation of children can begin very early in childhood. Steinberg points out that for those who care to see it, an insidious message of consumerism lies beneath the veneer of one of the most prolific and pervasive companies in the entertainment industry: Disney. While masquerading as innocent and harmless entertainment, some critics have posited that this harmless-seeming gaiety is a facade for ruthless marketing techniques and an agenda that is geared towards turning children into rapacious consumers (Steinberg in Steinberg (ed.), 2011: 8). In fact, Disney is active in constructing popular notions of childhood in a way that harmonises childhood completely with consumerism. Even more insidious is the pervasive view that Disney’s harmless products are not liable for the myriad ways in which they construct a view of reality for children, influencing concepts of personal identity, history, and culture (DeCordova in Smoddin, 1994: 208). When, in The Story of Childhood, Rosie recounts her fantasy stories of princesses and magic carpets (Brooks, 2006: 40), they are visions that are clearly informed by the Disney cartoon versions. Disney’s representation of buxom, beautiful princesses, innocent as it seems, contributes further to the mixing of consumerism and sex. The sexualisation of children, while not entirely new, is paired with consumerism in society, creating a paradigm peculiar to our current era. When describing the experiences of Lauren, a 16-year-old single mother, Brooks wonders if Lauren’s teen pregnancy, along with many others, can be attributed to a ‘grossly sexualised culture’ (Brooks, 2006: 305).

It is little girls who inevitably bear the brunt of this unholy union. The fascination with innocence being eroticised and the concept of the erotic child as a whole is one that is profoundly gendered. This bias extends back through history, with Higonnet noting the sexualised depictions of pre-pubescent girls in the time of the Victorians (Higonnet, 1998: 42).

More recently, very young girls are commodified in society as sexual performers, as well as sexual consumers and a lucrative market to be tapped. In contemporary society, it is young girls, rather than young boys, whose innocence is turned into eroticism (Renold, 2005: 71). This societal trend towards young girls being viewed as erotic objects is cause for grave concern. In early 2003, The Sun ran a tabloid campaign to stop the sale of ‘sexy’ lingerie-type underwear to pre-adolescent girls. This underwear ranged from thongs and push-up bras to t-shirts with a motif that read ‘Little Miss Naughty’ (Brooks, 2006). This protest, of course, originated with a paper that dresses up its Page 3 women as little girls, as a way of promoting female sexuality. Feminist theory has noted for many years that there is a constant blurring of the lines between the categories and labels of ‘girl’ and ‘woman’, a lack of distinction that has given rise to the term of ‘woman-child’ (Burman, 1995: 46). Historically speaking, markers of childhood have been construed as having sexual allure, with the result that grown women make attempts to be perceived as more childlike, and even take on symbols of childhood, such as toys, school uniforms, sweets, etc. Female sexuality becomes synonymous with infantilisation. (Brooks, 2003: 15)

It seems that modern society creates the overly-sexualised idea of the ‘woman-child’ and then pretends to agonize over it. As we progress through the twenty-first century, the anxieties of society center around notions of a girl that is ‘proto-sexual’ (Walkerdine, Lucey and Melody in Mahony and Zmroczek (eds.), 1999: 51). The proto-sexual girl is a young girl who has be pathologised and who actively imitates and manifests strong representations of more mature female sexualities. These manifestations might be push-up bras and thong underwear, erotic and provocative dancing, or beauty pageants. Whereas a young male pathology is generally centered around violence, the female pathology, in the form of the overly sexual young girl that falls outside what might be considered normal in childhood.

The way children are studied

In many ways, the modern sexualisation of young children, particularly girls, is a grotesque echo of societal notions of ‘childhood’ in the past. Aries presented a famous argument, suggesting that based on a thorough review of literary and artistic images and presentations of young people in France throughout the 16th to 19th centuries, our contemporary view of children is unique. In medieval times, children were perceived as miniature versions of adults. Our current understanding of ‘childhood’ simply did not exist, in many ways. In fact, adults were less prone to sentimentalisation of children or to seeing them as being more special or valuable than their adult counterparts (Mintz, 2006: 49). In juxtaposition to the generally sexualised and permissive attitude that society sends to young girls, in most developed countries in the West, as well as increasingly throughout the global community, the reality of teenage single parents is seen as a problem, and the sexuality of these individuals as something to be managed and controlled. This contradiction highlights the potent social mores that are exerted on notions of childhood, and how these societal norms fluctuate according to time and place. Where once teenage mother Lauren would have been completely ostracised from polite society, her motherhood at the age of 16 is tolerated. Lauren concedes that motherhood has not ‘…defined me, but it has defined my life.” (Brooks, 2006: 310). However, the definition is less from external societal pressures and more from the practicalities and difficulties of raising a child alone.

A third area in which notions of childhood are informed and affected by society is within the context of the impermanent nature of human relationships. All human issues can be viewed and experienced as engagements with others within a milieu of society (Finkelstein, Children and Youth in Limbo). It is impossible to exist outside the sphere of ‘relationship’ all human beings function within the framework of both and internal relationship, with self, and an external relationship, with society and others. It should be acknowledged that children, and their experiences, are produced by a culture that is mixed, by necessity, and consists of values, communications, messages, and rules that are often in conflict. This conflict exists on a societal level, and when the messages given are incompatible, it becomes more difficult for a child to integrate his or her identity (Finkelstein, 1991: 66).

Professional intervention in children’s lives

Society still has much work to do in addressing these inconsistent messages. The work to do partially reflects conservative attitudes that are still inherent in much of modern society, as well as the field of early childhood education. This area has been heavily dependent on the existent literature available in terms of making decisions regarding school programs, curricula, and other educational matters. Educators have shown a reliance on empirical research, along with conceptual research, that places children at a distance from adults and from the material world of the adult. This view leads to a gross underestimation of the ability of children to grasp and comprehend social issues that are complex and intricate. Furthermore, the distance between the notion of ‘childhood’ and ‘adulthood’ depends on the popular image in modern society of young children as being innocent (Wyness, 2006: 16). Images and portrayals of innocence in childhood are very often connected to notions of simultaneous ignorance. Adults, including both parents and teachers, tend to try to shield children from knowledge about society, knowledge which they, the adults, may find disquieting. It is all too easy to forget that what signifies change in the adult world does not necessarily translate into the same change for children. For example, a large number of children in today’s society have never lived in a world that did not have same-sex couples and families. Society falsely perceives children to be overly naive and blind to what happens in the broader world around them (Silin, 1995: 3). Contrary to popular idealisations of childhood, this stage in life has never been a time of pure unadulterated innocence. Brooks suggests that adults need to take a much closer look in order to analyse the reasons behind our own tendency to project a false innocence onto children. She goes on to argue that an ideological shift is needed away from the modern concept of children as ‘needy and incapable’ (Brooks, 2006: 333)

Society’s sense of children being vulnerable and innocent is encapusulated in the story of ten-year-old Lois, in The Story of Childhood. Lois’s mother captures her daughter in a series of photographs, and even exhibits them in an art exhibition (Brooks, 2006: 54). The mother, Sue, is doing what many adults in modern society attempt to do: she is trying to encapsulate and memorialise what she, as an adult, believes childhood to be. As societal ideas of childhood have shifted in the last century, children have lost their economic value to society at large, as they are no longer permitted to participate in labour. Rather, adults now see children as being ‘priceless’, special beings who give emotional meaning and depth to the lives of their parents (Zelizer, 1985: 38). Perhaps an awareness of this false expectation is what causes some children to shy away from adults, as young Allana does. We are told that she prefers to be away from adult eyes (Brooks, 2006: 113).

Societal notions of adulthood and childhood continue to shift. While adulthood could once be seen as a set point in development that everyone understood and perceived in the same way, the state of childhood could be clearly defined when set in relation to the certain point of ‘adulthood’. In this way, children have frequently been defined as what adults are not (Lee, 2001: 24). While adults could be seen to maintain some sort of stability, and changed little over a set period of time, children underwent huge changes, very rapidly. This caused them to be perceived as unstable and lacking in completion. The relative stability of adults permits them to act and move through society, to engage at an independent level with social arenas such as politics and labour. In contrast, children are perceived to be incomplete and still in a state of dynamic development; they are also the recipients, albeit passively, of the actions carried out by adults. This contrast between the two states of being, one of which is more of a state of ‘becoming’, has for the last century or so, made it more difficult to view children as persons, in the same way that adults were viewed as fully formed persons. However, this is quickly shifting. The boundaries are increasingly blurred, as the permanent aspects of adult life, such as jobs and relationships, become more and more rare. Suddenly adult life is far less distinguishable from the life of a child. This is more of a return to older, historical views of childhood in which children were perceived as miniature adults (Wyness, 2006: 56). Adults in the 21st century must be flexible in a world that contains both the guarantee of rapid flux and change, both in the labour market and in terms of an individual’s personal life. A new sense of ‘incompleteness’ and change has emerged in adulthood as a replacement for the old standards of stability and a level of completeness. In this sense, one of the primary foundations for the clear delineation between the stages of adulthood and childhood is shifting and eroding. The goalpost and end point is moving further out of grasp and therefore cannot be used as a way to comprehend childhood and the transition to adulthood. This shift and its implications are extremely vital in addressing and grasping modern interactions of power the relationship of authority that exists between children and adults (Lee, 2001: 34). This shift can be seen more clearly in urban areas, where it is much slower to occur in rural communities. Adam, in The Story of Childhood, illustrates that the clear delineation of childhood and adulthood still exists in a few isolated instances. With parents who restrict his access to TV and technology, Adam maintains a degree of separateness, with his identity as a child remaining distinct from that of his parents, the adults. Tellingly, he frequently refers to his parents as the ‘others’ (Brooks, 2006: 182).


In conclusion, it is apparent that ideas of childhood, as well as experiences of childhood, are malleable and vary depending on a range of factors, such as cultural background, ethnicity, religion, gender and nationality. Children’s experiences are not necessarily determined by social constructions, but they are certainly influenced by them, as this social framework determines the expectations, possibilities, and the limits of what is appropriate. As in the case of Laura, the societal framework extends to peer groups. Through media portrayals of image, these peer groups attempt to exert a sense of identity through creating an ‘in group’, and an ‘out group’. Ideas of childhood are also moulded by a consumer-driven society that seeks to sexualise children, particularly young girls, and use them as a way to sell products. Lois’s mother takes advantage of this when she turns Lois into a commodity to be photographed and sold. Furthermore, notions of adulthood and childhood continue to shift and blur. The story of Lauren as a teenage mother is an example of changing attitudes to childhood that harken back to earlier historical notions of children as simply being smaller, younger versions of adults. Children continue to be somewhat constrained by the societal frameworks in which they find themselves, including families, schools, churches, peer groups and geographical location. These factors mould the experience of being a child for a particular individual. The cases outlined by Libby Brooks in The Story of Childhood represent modern attitudes and experiences towards childhood in modern UK society and also highly how these attitudes shift and change throughout different periods in time.


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