Social Constructions of Childhood | 14 Best Examples (2019)

Social Construction of Childhood: A Brief Definition

The social construction of childhood refers to the idea that childhood is seen (or “constructed”) differently by different societies. Examples of social constructs include “Children as good”, “Children as evil” and “children as innocent”. If you believe childhood is socially constructed, you believe ways of seeing childhood can change across times and cultures.

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How is Childhood Constructed by Society?

social constructions of childhood

When talking about childhood as a social construct, you need to remember the focus is on perceptions or the ways we see children and how this can change.

Looking back into history, we can observe that the way we perceive childhood has changed. We can see this clearly when we consider it across the following vectors:

  • Time. What we might have considered to have been a ‘normal’ child 100 years ago is very different to what we see as a child today. We tend to see children as much more innocent these days than in the past;
  • Culture. Different cultures see children differently. Interestingly, in Japan, children are trusted to walk home from school at much younger ages than in the United States. Why? Do the Japanese have a different perception of childhood to Westerners?
  • Social Class. Do middle-class people try to prevent their children from associating with working-class children? Might this be because working class children are tainted with the ‘Oliver’s Twist’ image of rowdy, ratty, street kids?
  • Race. Unfortunately, some people see children of minority races as a ‘threat’ to the majority. We’ve seen this in history when children of certain racial classes were murdered to try to enact genocide.

Don’t mistake me here: it’s not that somehow children are actually any different now than they were at any other point in the past. It’s that the ways society perceives childhood can change in different times, cultures, places, or contexts.

What field of Study does this Concept come From?

The scholars who believe that child is a social construct call their research:

  • ‘New’ Sociology of Childhood; or
  • Childhood Studies

This is a field of study that has been around since around the early 1990s, but is based on the earlier works by Philippe Aries (1962), who I discuss later in the piece.

Scholarly Explanations

Here’s a few scholarly definitions you can rely upon to define the social construction of childhood:

Scholarly Definition 1

In their seminal book, Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood, James and Prout (1990, p. 8) state:

“Childhood, as distinct from biological immaturity, is neither a natural nor a universal feature of human groups but appears as a specific structural and cultural component of many societies.” Here, they assert that the focus of childhood studies is on the ways the idea of childhood changes over time. The issue at play is that how we perceive childhood changes over time.

Scholarly Definition 2

Kehily (2008, p. 7) argues that:

“Childhood is not universal; rather, it is a product of culture and as such will vary across time and place.”

A note to Students

Do you need a definition of the ‘Social construction of childhood’ for your essay?

Make sure if you’re using the quotes above, you cite the authors I listed above and not this post. Teachers don’t like to see you citing websites.

Here’s the APA style citations for the above to quotes:

James, A., & Prout, A. (1990). A New Paradigm for the Sociology of Childhood? Providence, Promise and Problems. In: James, A., & Prout, A. (Eds.). Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood (pp. 1- . Basingstoke: Falmer.

Kehily, M J. (2008). Understanding Childhood. In: Kehily, M J. (ed.). An Introduction to Childhood Studies, (2nd ed., pp. 1 – 16). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Example 1: The Miniature Adult

According to Philippe Aries (1962), British society used to see children as miniature adults.

In other words, childhood wasn’t a distinctly different period of life than adulthood.

To make this claim, Aries showed pictures of children in medieval portraits.

He remarked that children in these portraits appeared the same as adults in their mannerisms, dress, and facial expressions. They wore the same clothes as adults, smiled the same as adults, and appeared to be acting in all ways as if they were adults.

Aries also claimed that due to lack of child labor laws, children became workers, and therefore basically adults, at 7 years of age.

Thus, he assumes, from about the age of 7 children were considered to be adults in all ways but height!

They were miniature adults!

Today, we believe childhood to last until about 18 years of age. Thus, we perceive children to be distinct and different from adults for a much longer period of time.

We also protect children from labor, hard work and politics because – again – we don’t consider them to be like adults the way people did in the past.

Here’s some examples of the miniature adult child:

  • The child who works. When children are set to work in factories like in Victorian England, they appeared to have been seen and treated like adults;
  • The child soldier. In the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo there are still many thousands of child soldiers. We can argue that these children are considered miniature adults, given that they’re tasked with undertaking very serious ‘adult’ tasks.

Example 2: The Evil Child

Another very common way of viewing childhood in the middle ages was to see them as ‘Evil’.

This was for a long time a deeply religious view of children.

Born Evil

Beginning with early Christian and Judean theologians, many believed children were born sinners having inherited Adam’s guilt for his ‘original sin’ in the Garden of Eden (Wiley, 2002).

While it must be noted that the idea of children as sinners is one of many Christian and Judean views (indeed, Pope Leo defended the innocence of children in the fifth century (Wiley, 2002)), it has historically been an influential idea amongst many followers of Christian and Judean religions.

For example, original sin is alluded to several times in the Old and New Testament. Genesis 8:21 states:

“Every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood.” (New International Version, 2011)

At various times, Christian churches have preached that children must be baptised at a young age in order to relieve them of their inherited sins (Wiley, 2002).

Dionysian Childhood

Chris Jenks (2005) also used the phrase ‘Dionysian childhood’ to explain the view of children as evil.

Dionysus us the prince of wine and revelry – hence, he is the prince of sin.

Jenks coined this term because, like Dionysus, the evil child “loves pleasure, it celebrates self-gratification and it is wholly demanding” (2005, p. 63).

Ouch!

Here are some more examples:

  • Child Murderers. One of the most prominent examples of the evil child today is that of the child who has committed unspeakable crimes. Take, for example, the two 10-year-old children Robert Thompson and Jon Venables who murdered a toddler, James Bulger, in 1993. These two 10-year-old murders were widely seen in British society and British press as being innately evil and incapable of redemption.
  • Children who get the cane. If children are evil, it’s our job to discipline them to give them a positive civilizing influence. That may be a reason why we used to cane children in schools.

Example 3: The Good Child

While the view of children as ‘evil’ persisted for much of the middle ages, it is believed that the upper classes in England began to perceive children as ‘innately good’ at some point in the 17th Century.

Born Good

Philippe Aries, who I mentioned earlier, believed that the growing middle classes in Britain developed enough money that they no longer needed to see their children as ‘miniature adults’.

When parents had enough money to pamper their children, suddenly their views of children changed.

According to Aries, children of the rich upper classes were therefore suddenly seen as good, sweet and incapable of doing wrong.

In fact, this view is the exact opposite of the Evil child.

The Evil child was seen to be born innately bad and in need of discipline to become a good adult.

The Good child was seen to be born innately good and was, sadly, corrupted by the evil of adults!

Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Emile, the ‘Good’ Boy!

Jean-Jacques Rousseau is the most well-known proponent of the view of childhood as innately good and natural.

He rejects the idea that children are corrupt at birth, but rather argues that civilisation is the culprit of corruption, arguing that:

“All things are as good as their Creator made them, but everything degenerates in the hands of men” (Rousseau, 1762, p. 1).

In Rousseau’s acclaimed book, Émile, or On Education (1762), he hypothesises how he would raise Émile, a fictional child, to resist the corruptions of society. Throughout, he proposes moralising and romantic ideas about the child’s goodness.

He believed children should be protected from the evils of the adult world.

Just for good measure, his controversial interpretations of religious texts got him chased out of France. Bonsoir, Rousseau!

Apollonian Childhood

Chris Jenks, who I mentioned earlier, also has a name for the good child.

He calls the good child the Apollonian child, named after the god of sun and light!

Like Apollo, the good child represents all that is good in the world: happiness, laughter and sunshine

Here are a few more examples of the good child:

  • Montessori Education. In Maria Montessori’s model of education, children are seen as having an innate tendency towards goodness. When a child misbehaves, we need to consider what corrupting influences may have led to this behaviour.
  • Parents blinded by love. Sometimes parents have quite poorly behaved children, but they view them with rose colored glasses. We don’t see our children for who they are due to our deeply held desires that our precious darlings have only goodness in their hearts and do no wrong.

Example 4. The Innocent Child

The view of childhood as a time of innocence is, by and large, the dominant way of viewing children in today’s day and age.

A quick distinction:

  • The good child is born with an innate tendency to do good things.
  • The innocent child is born neither good or bad: they are the blank slate, or tabula rasa.

Because a child is innocent, they are very precious. We must be very careful not to corrupt them.

Therefore, we often treat the innocent child in much the same way as we treat the good child (above).

We try to protect the innocent child from bad influences, and we try to encourage them to do good things!

When a child misbehaves, we don’t hold them accountable because they don’t know better.

Furthermore, we want to prolong this innocence as long as possible.

We place warning on TV shows and movies to protect the innocence of children. We mourn lost innocence when we see our children growing up, we hear them swear for the first time, and when we see them being devious and sneaky.

Examples of the Innocent Child

Here’s some examples of the innocent child:

  • Children in the Courts. Most western countries do not hold children accountable (or, at least, as accountable as adults) in legal proceedings because we believe that they ‘cannot know better’ at a young age.
  • Anne Geddes Imagery. If you’re not sure who Anne Geddes is, I recommend googling her images! She takes photos of children in angelic poses to emphasize their innocence.

Example 5: The Incompetent / Bubble Wrapped Child

Often, our desire to protect children from the corrupting influences of the outside world become somewhat obsessive.

When we fail to accept that children need chances to explore, challenge themselves and take risks, we create a new type of childhood: The bubble wrapped child.

The bubble wrapped child is an image of the child that has emerged in recent decades.

It is a child who is so overly protected that they are afforded no freedom.

The bubble wrapped child is not allowed to play outside or do things for themselves. They are pampered and protected to within an inch of their life.

We adults over-play this child’s incompetence and fail to see its ability to navigate the world. We protect too much out of good intentions and the child never learns resilience, persistence or self-reliance.

Examples of the Incompetent / Bubble Wrapped Child

Here are some examples of the bubble wrapped child:

  • Children who can’t think for themselves. When we bubble wrap our children, they fail to have the capacity to predict and react to potential dangers. They don’t get a chance to test their own limits or learn to regulate their behaviour, which stunts their development.

Example 6: The Snowballing Child

Another way we adults make a mess out of parenting is our inability to discipline our children.

The phenomenon of the snowballing child has become more and more popular in recent decades.

Sorin and Galloway (2006) argue that the snowballing child is a social construct of childhood that frames children as desiring – and taking – power from parents.

The snowballing child occurs when parents cede power to children.

It often occurs because parents are too busy with work and other pressures.

While many people in society today may be wealthier than every before, they’re also busier.

So when a child asks for or demands something, we give it to them.

Child wants candy. We give them candy. Child wants a toy. We give them a toy.

The child learns that they have control over the parent and their behavior snowballs.

Before long, this child has no boundaries and knows that a simple temper tantrum will deliver them whatever they desire.

Here’s the one and only example of the snowballing child you’ll ever need:

  • Veruca Salt from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Veruca Salt demands everything of her dad, and he fawns over here. He trips head over heels to give her everything she wants. And she knows she’s the boss.

Example 7: The Sexualized Child

Contemporary media is to blame for an insidious image of the sexualized child.

Children striking adult-like poses in hyper-sexualized clothing adorn many high-end clothing adverts in today’s age.

Often, we’ll see images of very young girls in makeup striking suggestive poses.

Here, we are often presented a view of the child in a way that suggests sex.

This image saw a surge in popularity as society and consumer culture became liberalized and companies sought newer, raunchier and edgier ways to turn a dime.

However, images of the sexualized child also draw our minds to the shadows of society. Child slavery and sex trafficking continues to occur in many parts of society, to the horror of right-thinking people around the world.

Here are some examples of the sexualized child:

  • Advertising. Take a look around at the magazine rack next time you are at the shopping center. See if you can find advertising that places children in sexualized poses.
  • Sex Trafficking. This is usually done in the shadows, although infamously the so-called Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq openly traded Yazidi girls as sex slaves during their reign of terror in recent years.

Example 8: The Child as Commodity

The commodified child is seen less for its innate worth as a human being and more for its economic worth.

Adults use the commodified child for financial gain. They turn children into movie stars, then pocket the profits; they force them to work in order to generate money; and they sell images of their child for their own personal gain.

Now, many children may want to be child actors. And that’s okay, too.

The premise behind the commodified child perspective is that parents or adults will use children to generate money for their own good, without regard for the welfare of the child.

There are two main ways in which we commodify children:

  • Child Actors. When parents force their children to act in order to make money off their own children, they become commodified.
  • Child Labor. When we put children to work in sweatshops and as chimney sweeps, we also commodify them. Note that sometimes this is inescapable; for example, areas of the world that experience extreme poverty have no choice but to set their children to work.

Example 9: The Victim Child

The victim child is a child who is voiceless and oppressed by social, political and economic forces out of their control.

The victim child is the child suffering from famine or displaced due to war. It’s the orphaned child, homeless child, or child living in an abusive household.

Victim children are often unseen and unheard. They exist in every country in the world, but are more often seen in nations torn apart by war and poverty.

Victim children often have no adults to advocate for them and protect them, or the adults in their lives are also victims themselves.

Examples of the Victim Child

These are the most common times we see the child constructed as a victim:

  • In Charity Advertising. You’ll see victim children regularly in advertisements seeking your money to help them out. Often times, these children are also photographed without their permission and these images commodified.
  • In Domestic Violence Households. Another common time we construct children as victims is when they are living in violent households. These children lack advocates, because the adults who should be advocating for them are abusers.

Example 10: The Noble Child

Noble children are children who are seen as saviours whose role is to save adults from themselves.

These children appear regularly in biblical mythologies (think: Jesus) and children’s books. Next time you flick through a children’s book, have a look at how the children are the heroes of the story. They save the world, the adults in the world, and all of their friends.

The noble child can also be a child who steps in and take an adult role when there is no competent adult to do the role for them.

This is most commonly seen when children lose their parents, and the oldest child assumes the role of the mother.

Here are two examples of the noble child:

  • Jesus Christ. Jesus is the child born to save the world from itself. He is seen from the very first day of his life as the answer to the problems that plague the world.
  • Harry Potter. Harry Potter fights against evil adults on behalf of goodness. Like Jesus, Harry Potter was always destined to take his position as the noble saviour.

Example 11: The Wise Child

Next time you watch a movie, pay close attention to the way the children in the movies act.

It is a very common trope in movies that the child takes a minor role in a movie, but plays an important role as the bearer or all wisdom.

The adult in the movie might find themselves in a tricky situation and ask the child for advice. The child, regularly, has very wise advice to give out of the blue!

The wise child is similar to the noble child because they’re seen as being blessed with great skill or knowledge.

The difference between the wise child and the noble child is that the noble child is an anointed saviour, while the wise child will lose their wisdom as they move towards adulthood.

Here’s a great example of the wise child:

  • ‘From the Mouths of Babes.’ This saying reflects the trope that exists in popular culture: children have the capacity to make very wise statements that we adults should pay close attention to.
  • Rachel Hansen, 500 Days of Summer. Next time you watch the movie 500 Days of Summer, take a listen to the advice Rachel gives to her older brother Tom. What role does Rachel play in the movie?

Example 12: The Gendered Child

While we talk about social constructions of childhood, many feminist scholars also talk about the social construction of gender.

At the intersection of these two concepts is the social construction of gender in childhood.

Social and cultural theories from within the ‘new’ sociology of childhood argue that gender roles are drilled into children from a very young age.

All our perceptions of girls liking princesses may, maybe, have to do with the fact that media has reinforced this perception over and over again.

Others disagree that this is a social construct of childhood, and argue that there are some things biologically built into us that make girls and boys gravitate toward different activities.

Here are some more examples of how we gender children:

  • Boys like blue, Girls like pink. Why does my niece love pink so much? Is there something inherent in girls’ preferences for pink, or is it simply a socially constructed idea about childhood?
  • Boys like trucks, Girls like ponies. Is this, also, a social construct? Has media taught girls they should like ponies and princesses, or do they naturally gravitate to ‘girly’ things?

Example 13: The Agentic Child

The view of the child as ‘agentic’ is growing increasingly popular.

The term ‘Agentic’ stems from the concept of agency, or more simply “capacity to act out of free will”.

This perspective of childhood holds the belief that children are competent and capable. Children are seen as human beings with more power than we’ve traditionally afforded them the power.

An empowering vision, this way of seeing childhood tries to include children in decision making.

Agentic children are consulted and their opinions, thoughts and feelings. Thus, they are given more chances to be parts of participatory democratic society.

Here’s another example of the agentic child:

  • Contemporary Teaching Theories. Nowadays, most teachers see children as competent and capable. This filters through to their teaching strategies where they give children choices in their own education and are encouraged to play in their environments to engage in ‘active learning’.

Example 14: The Digital Native Child

We often perceive children these days as being digital natives.

A digital native is a person who has some in-built strengths in navigating digital technologies.

Children somehow are able to flick through tablet computers with ease at very young ages. They can code and navigate the labyrinth of files in desktop computes very efficiently.

And they frustratingly can adapt to and learn about new technologies rapidly.

The digital learning curve seems so much less steep for young people!

Now, whether this is our social construct (or ‘perception’) or if it’s reality, I don’t know!

But we’re beginning to construct children as computer wizards and masterminds, which is another cog changing the ways we perceive children and childhood.

Here’s some examples of the digital native child construct:

Some Final Thoughts

I’ve covered a lot of information about the social construction of childhood in this post.

If you’re using this post for writing an essay, I’ll just remind you one more time to try to cite original scholarly sources in your essay.

Here are the citations in APA format for the sources used in this article:

Ariés, P. (1962). Centuries of Childhood. Harmondsworth, Middlesex UK: Penguin Books (first published in English in 1962 by Jonathan Cape Ltd).

James, A., & Prout, A. (1990). A New Paradigm for the Sociology of Childhood? Providence, Promise and Problems. In: James, A., & Prout, A. (Eds.). Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood (pp. 1- . Basingstoke: Falmer.

Jenks, C. (1996). Childhood (2nd ed.). Oxon USA: Routledge.

Kehily, M J. (2008). Understanding Childhood. In: Kehily, M J. (ed.). An Introduction to Childhood Studies, (2nd ed., pp. 1 – 16). Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Sorin, R., & Galloway, G. (2006). Constructs of childhood: Constructs of self. Children Australia31(2), 12-21.

Here are citations for additional quality scholarly sources that are influential in childhood studies:

Cunningham, H. (2006). The Invention of Childhood. London: Random House.

Holland, P. (2005). Picturing Childhood. London: I.B. Taurus.

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Chris Drew, PhD (aka The Helpful Professor)

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