Age is socially constructed

More and more sociologists recognise that childhood is a social construction. What does it mean by that? Children themselves have not changed much in terms of their biological growth and needs, but the way they are treated and brought up showed great differences. There were times when they were made adult like and showed great maturity and times when they were made fragile and require great protection. In some places they were expected to start working at young age and in other places they were expecting to only learn and play throughout their young stages.

There was not one model or concept of childhood which can be said is the best for children as the definition of childhood adapt to the changes in the society and will still constantly change over the future. This essay will give examples of the different of childhoods in different time period and culture. Using the example of either childhood or older age, discuss the idea that age is socially constructed. Childhood, a term very often used and is nothing unfamiliar to most people.

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When expressed, childhood is always associated with happiness, carefree and being under protection. In the Webster’s Third International Dictionary, this example was given: a happy childhood but an adulthood fraught with troubles; giving us a rough idea that childhood is meant to be different from the other stages of our life and as an unproblematic period of innocence, freedom, limited responsibility and minimal obligations (Postman, 1982: Winn, 1983).

This romanticism of childhood, however, does not apply to the children outside the minority world and certainly not children in the medieval period. Why is that? In this essay, I will discuss about the different concepts of childhood between the medieval and modern world, between the minority and majority world and between different gender groups in the same society; and show that the definition of childhood does not always the same, it changes over time and place.

If we look back at time and compare today’s children’s childhood to their parents’, grandparents’ and great grandparents’, we will be surprised by how much differences there are; as the matter of fact, this idea did not even exist in the medieval period. What was missing according to Aries was the feelings of “sentiment de l’enfance”, an awareness of those children have their own particular nature and special needs which are different from adults. Children were simply not recognised or ignored in the medieval societies.

Painters would not even give them the naked body of a child in their paintings; instead, they have the same expressions and features of adults only in a smaller, reduced scale. In a Psalter dating from the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, Ishmael, shortly after birth, has the abdominal and pectoral muscles of a man. (Aries, 1973:31) Photographs and images today on the other hand, present children as cuddly, innocent and lovable.

They live in a “walled garden” where they are protected from “the harshness of the world outside. (Holt, 1975:22) In this flower blooming and laughter surrounded garden, children were guided step by step to face the next more challenging stage, learning little by little the world of adults and eventually in to the real world. Children in medieval, however, was not given that much time, they are expected to grow up as fast as they could, when they can live without constant care of their mother or care-taker, around the age of 8, they are pushed in to the adult world.

In the dairy kept by Heroard, recording the growing process of Louis XIII, showed children were taught with adults’ behaviour, activities and games as soon as they can absorb. At the age of seventeen months he was playing violin and mall, “this is just as if an English boy were to start playing cricket or golf” at that age (Aries, 1973:62). When he was five he joined the King and other adults taking part in their amusements of watching the dogs fighting the bears and the bull. In the eyes of parents of today world, this would be unacceptable.

How could a child of five to be introduced to the idea of violence and blood, they should play with their little dolls and trucks and be embraced in the warm arms of their parents. Any unpleasant feelings and scenes should be censored, because then it would be too much for a child to handle. This is not always true; children’s maturity depends on the circumstances they are under. Before 1914, children in Britain are closely involved in contemporary ceremonies which surrounded death and mourning. Large numbers of them died young or saw death close at hand.

Death was a recurrent theme in the books and magazines written for the young. (Walvin, 1982:44). Fairy tales written in the nineteenth-century by authors like Anderson and the Grimm Brothers became popular bed time stories for children even until today, however, these stories do not always tell the reality. The prince and princess always live happily ever after, little red riding hood and her grandmother were rescued from the bad wolf’s stomach and the most important; it is really rare that someone will die in the stories.

So far, this essay has covered childhoods in different time periods, however, even within the same time period, childhood can still be different. Let’s have a look at the children in the majority world. In rural Bolivia, under the harsh circumstances, families strive to survive. Labour is high in demand, therefore every family members are expected to contribute towards the household productions, including children above 5 year old (an age which in minority world would consider to be even too young to enter school).

Parents are very strict about their children and try to impose them the idea of “work more and play less. ” If children disobey the orders of adults, they are often punished; either by receiving verbal warnings, threats or even physically being hit or beaten up. (Punch, 2000:49) As these are the normal disciplinary methods used by parents in Bolivia, in Britain, children are unbeatable. In 1998, corporal punishment was banned in schools followed by the tot-smacking ban in 2001, and according the most recent law in 2004, parents could end up in jail by smacking children.

A child’s daily life in rural Bolivia would include attending school in the central square, helping out with the household work after school and struggling to snatch more time for themselves to have fun. Having to perform most of the tasks by themselves and outside the house, which also means away from the supervision of adults, rather than being chaperoned; children enjoy more freedom of physical independence and flexible mobility. (Punch, 2000:56) While children are tied down by never ending work, children in minority world do not seem to have much freedom either.

Their lives are even more restricted by adults to ensure their safety and the healthy growing of their childhood. What they should learn, what they should play, where they should go are planned ahead for them, leaving them little choices. According to Jerry (a four-year-old boy): A man can be president because he knows what to do on time and a woman cannot be president because she does not get as smart as a man. Jenny, whose mother is a doctor, believes only boys can be doctors, she plays at being a nurse. Why children at such young age have already an idea of sex’s stereotyping?

Although given the same “neutral” toys, boys would build long roads and girls will make room and houses. The two sexes don’t even play ball the same way. (Stein, 1984:2) The different behaviour and way of thinking of children show that even within the same time period, in the same culture, children of different sexes will still have a slightly different childhood. Although “mass schooling” was introduced in the seventeenth century, women were excluded, they were virtually illiterate. (Aries, 1973: 318) Young girls were taught to obey their parents, then their husband when they were married.

They are also encouraged to think of their future in idealized term, being an able housewife to organise the life of her husband and children to provide them as much comfort as she could, an obedient wife supporting their husband in every single sense and a loving mother looking after the children and pass on the lesson of obedience that she has learned herself. (Walvin, 1982:106) On the other hand, education became increasingly important for boys. School becomes an important role in boys’ childhood at the time, where they become literate, numerate and knowledgeable, as the essential preparations for future employment roles and status.

Children in minority world showed cues of their femininity or masculinity through their posture, dress, attitude and role at a relatively young age. For example, while boys engage in more active games like football and wrestle with each other and occupy further distance, girls are more likely to cling to each other, not too far away from home and play with their dolls. In the Manus community, boys and girls at young age were treated the same way. There were no different dress codes for the boys and girls as they do not wear any clothing at all except some accessories on special occasions.

Children of both sexes are engaged in the same activities such as playing with sticks and stones at the lagoon during low tide, paddling and punting with their canoes. Little girls in the community do not play with dolls nor they show any pattern of playing with babies, when the children were present with some little wooden statues brought from a neighbouring tribe, it was the boys who treated them as dolls and sang lullabies to them. It is until when the children reach puberty then they started to realise their belonging to a sex group.

Of all the examples given and discussed, childhood showed its changes over time and place; from its non-existence in the medieval time to the concern of children’s special needs and education in modern days; from the working life of children in majority world to the innocent and joyful life of children in minority world and the differences between the boys’ childhood and the girls’ childhood within the same society; hence showed it is indeed socially constructed. Also, if we look at the changing factors which are closely related to “childhood” nowadays for example, the increasing numbers of full-time working mothers, and the awareness of bring up children in a less sexist world would almost ensure us that childhood will one day change again.