Thursday, November 6, 2008

How has the concept of childhood changed over the past 100 years?

The concept of childhood is difficult to describe, there are so many factors that can vary the experience of childhood. To such a degree that each persons definition of childhood is different. People tend to talk about childhood and adulthood like they are completely distinct phases of life.
According to our legal system, there is a definitive end of childhood. Our government has determined that people who are 18 should be able to take on adult privileges. But this does not necessarily imply that 18 year-olds are adults; nor does it even imply that society considers them so. The purpose of this definition of adulthood is practical only. It is a rough estimation that lawmakers were willing to settle on because they believed that most people in this age range could handle adult responsibilities.
There are many possible answers to the question of when exactly a child becomes an adult. People have said that childhood ends with financial independence, with the end of formal schooling, with getting married. Some have even suggested that childhood ends when you stop wishing that you were older.
In fact, there is truth to all these statements, but they have a common thread. Childhood ends when you lose the feeling of protection you have had all your life, giving way to a security of your own. When you arrive at a state of independence.

James & Prout (1997) recognise the beginning of the twentieth century as the 'Century of Child' there came a recognition that the future of any nation was dependent on its children. The health of children began to receive serious attention, as did their education. There were campaigns to relieve children from poverty, the first major success being the Family Allowances Act of 1946. But tying the future of the nation so closely to the treatment of children also had a darker side to it.
There was much fear of a ‘degeneration of the race’. In the 1920s and 1930s behaviourism dominated as the method of child rearing, the emphasis on producing an obedient child. There was a reaction against behaviourism in the 1940s and afterwards, but its replacement by a fear of the consequences of ‘maternal deprivation’ did little to alleviate the worries of parents.
Rising standards of living from the post-war economic boom enabled parents to begin to invest hopes and resources in children on an unprecedented scale. The flow of cash now went from parents to children, and by the end of the century children in many families could expect parental support up to their twenties, something unimaginable in previous centuries. At the same time, from the 1970s onwards, children began to acquire new rights. The U.N. Convention on the rights of the child and other supporting Acts established here in this country give children rights in relation to the state and to their families: the right not to be beaten in school (1986), the right to be consulted in the event of parental divorce, and so on. Consequently, childhood itself had in many ways become prolonged, but children had gained a higher status both within the family and in society at large.

Palmer (2006) claims that more recently, in the last decade or so. The modern world has become a 'toxic' environment for children, potentially leading to the 'death of childhood'. She describes the factors leading to this crisis as first and foremost, the television. There is now a whole menu of 24 hour channels dedicated to children, which not only serves as a round the clock baby-sitter, but they are also packed with adverts which are actually designed to make children nag their parents. The industry calls this 'pester power'. Additionally, these clever manipulative adverts impart status creating the idea of 'cool'. Referring to brands which tend to be either imagination-stunting media merchandise or junk-food - which have been shown to be damaging to children's physical and mental development. Another factor Palmer (2006) claims is contributing to this toxifying of childhood is the medicating of childhood. These days parents are choosing to medicalise problems once simply labelled under-achievement or over-enthusiastic. In 2004 the American Academy of Pediatrics recorded on their website that '1 in 6 children were medicated for a developmental disorder and/or behavioural problem' which sets a worrying precedent as our culture becomes more Americanized by the day.

To sum up, 'Century of Child' began with many diverse and revolutionary changes in how we view childhood. However, as our understanding of how children learn and view the world improved from an educational perspective, the mass media exploded using this new understanding to manipulate and market to children 24 hours a day, turning them into ravenous brand-happy consumers. The excess of choice in technological entertainment is killing the concept of childhood as a time full of imaginative energetic play. This has resulted in a phenomenal increase in the number of cases of: obesity, depression, mental-health problems and behavioural disorders than ever seen before. It is clear that the post-modern digital age is not providing and actually appears to be denying children the real-world activity and experience they need to grow up happy and healthy. The concept of childhood is truly at a crisis-point.


James, A. & Prout, A. (1997) Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood. 2nd Edition. Falmer press.

Palmer, S. (2006) Toxic Childhood. Orion Books Ltd.

Kehily, M.J. (2007) An Introduction to Childhood Studies. Open University Press.

Mills, J. & Mills, R. (2000) Childhood Studies – A reader in perspectives of childhood. Routledge: London and New York.

Yeo, A & Lovell, T. (2002) Sociology and Social Policy for the Early Years. 2nd Edition. Hodder Arnold. - 3/11/2008

ADHD statistics: American Academy of Pediatrics website, ( - 3/11/2008

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