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Modern Western Conception Of Childhood

Childhood has not been defined and experienced in the same ways in all societies at all times. The modern Western conception of childhood is historically and culturally specific. Philippe Ariès (1962) was one of the first to suggest that childhood is a modern discovery. He argued that in medieval times children, once past infancy, were regarded as miniature adults; they dressed like adults and shared adult's work and leisure. Children were not assumed to have needs distinct from those of adults, nor were they shielded from any aspects of adult life. Knowledge of sexual relations was not considered harmful to them and public executions were a spectacle attended by people of all ages. In claiming that there was no concept of childhood prior to modern times, however, Ariès overstated his case (see Pollock 1983; Archard 1993). Shulamith Shahar (1990) suggests that medieval thinkers did see young children as being less developed in their mental and moral capacities than adults. It is clear from Ariès's own evidence that children did not always do the same work as adults and that they occupied a distinct place within society.

David Archard (1993) makes a useful distinction here between a concept of childhood and a conception of childhood. A concept of childhood requires only that children are in some way distinguished from adults; a conception entails more specific ideas about children's distinctiveness. The existence of a concept of childhood in the past does not mean that those people shared the modern conception of childhood. Medieval writers thought of childhood rather differently from how it is viewed today. They dwelt on the status and duties of children and on the rights accorded them at various stages of maturity (Shahar 1990). Childhood was defined primarily as a social status rather than as a psychological, developmental stage. Attitudes toward children began to change, very slowly, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, affecting upper-class boys first, then their sisters (Ariès 1962; Pinchbeck and Hewitt 1969). By the nineteenth century, middle-class children were confined to home and school, but many working-class children continued to work and contribute to the support of their families (see Davin 1990; Pinchbeck and Hewitt 1973). Gradually, however, children as a whole were excluded from the adult world of work and the period of dependent childhood lengthened.

Both historians and anthropologists have argued that modern Western societies make an unusually sharp distinction between childhood and adulthood (Ariès 1962; Benedict: 1938; Mead and Wolfenstein 1955). Western children are excluded by law and convention from many aspects of adult social life. They spend most of their time either within their families or within institutions designed to care for, educate, or entertain them separately from adults. They therefore have little contact with adults outside the circle of family and friends apart from childcare professionals. Many of the special arrangements made for children serve to emphasize their difference from adults: their clothes, toys, games, songs and books, even the colors of their bedrooms. Children are treated not simply as inexperienced members of society, but as qualitatively different from adults.

Childhood is also conceptualized as a process of development toward adulthood. In the nineteenth century, childhood began to be mapped out as a series of developmental stages that determined the character of the adult individual. Both Archard (1993) and Nikolas Rose (1989) accord a decisive role at this time to the emerging discipline of psychology. Rose argues that, in making it the object of scientific inquiry, psychology constructed or invented childhood and claimed a particular expertise in categorizing children, measuring their aptitudes, managing and disciplining them—and has done so ever since (Rose 1989).

Living in a society where childhood is thought of as a series of developmental stages has specific effects on children. For example, schooling is organized as a series of age-graded progressions, which means that children are not only relatively segregated from adults but also from children of different ages. Children themselves acquire ideas about what is appropriate for people of their own age and may try to negotiate specific freedoms or privileges on this basis. Ordering children's lives in this way also influences what they are capable of achieving. It has been argued that the restriction of children to age-graded institutions may help to construct the very developmental stages that are seen as universal features of childhood (Skolnick 1980; Archard 1993). For a child to behave in the manner of someone older is often thought inappropriate, so the term precocious has become an insult. Age-grading may help to keep children childish. Historical and anthropological evidence suggests that children in other societies and in the past were far more independent and capable of taking care of themselves than Western children are today ( Jackson 1982).

The idea of childhood as a developmental phase means that childhood is usually seen as important largely in terms of its consequences for adulthood. This is, as a number of researchers have pointed out, a very adult-centered view (Leonard 1990; Thorne 1987; Waksler 1986). Children are thought of as incomplete adults whose experiences are not worth investigating in their own right, but only insofar as they constitute learning for adulthood. Developmental theories presuppose that children have different capacities at different ages, yet children are frequently characterized as the polar opposites of adults: children are dependent, adults are independent; children play, adults work; children are emotional, adults are rational. The definitions of both childhood and adulthood are, moreover, gendered. Models of ideal adulthood are frequently in effect models of manhood, so that there is often a correspondence between attributes deemed childish and those deemed feminine— such as emotionality—and conversely those deemed adult and masculine—such as rationality ( Jackson 1982; Thorne 1987).

The definition of childhood as a developmental stage and psychological state masks the fact that it is still a social status. Because childhood is defined as a stage or state of incapacity, children are thought to be incapable of exercising adult rights. There is considerable debate about whether this assumption is justified or not and about what rights are appropriate to children (see Thorne 1987; Archard 1993). Childhood is an exclusionary status (Hood-Williams 1990) in that children are neither citizens nor legal subjects and are under the jurisdiction of their parents. Their subordinate position is also evident in their interaction with adults. A child is expected to be deferential and obedient; a "naughty" child is one who defies adult authority.

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Marriage and Family EncyclopediaPregnancy & ParenthoodChildhood - Modern Western Conception Of Childhood, Children Within Families