In pre-industrial society, it was thought that childhood as we know it did not exist within the family or the society that existed. In terms of the family, children of middle class background were almost regarded as adults themselves being who participated in the same activities as adults. But working class children were made to work long hours in agriculture, this according to Aries told us that children were seen more as economic assets than a symbol of peoples love for one another.
One thing in common that both sets of children shared in this society was strict control by parents and harsh punishment for disobedience. It was difficult in society at this time to attach emotion to children as infant mortality rates were so high. Very little changed when industrialisation occurred, except people began campaigning for child rights, something that had never happened until this point as in working class families children were still made to work in dangerous, disease ridden factories for hours on end.
So this was something that caused the position of children in society to change as it was felt that juvenile delinquency, begging and child prostitution was a big problem that needed to be stopped. This lead to children being excluded from factory work and mines. But still this did not change within many working class families who in most cases still needed the money these children were creating. Another thing that changed with the coming of industrialisation was the family in terms of it being a means of production before this time, to a means of consumption this meant that people were buying more rather than producing so much.
It was the up rise of children’s rights campaigners in the 19th century that saw the social construction of childhood by adults as children began to be seen as being in need of protection, not having the right to work (or being made to) and being dependant on adults for love, shelter and guidance. This was the first of the three stages that Cunningham drew up from looking at the changes that occurred in the 19th century.
The second characteristic was that the adult world and the world of childhood were to be kept separate, home and school were regarded as the ideal place for children, not mines and farms. The third characteristic was that children were seen as having a right to ‘happiness’. The main reason things like this began to be highlighted as being important for children, was that infant mortality was decreasing so parents began to care more for their children as the fear of losing them at a young age lessened.
However it was not until the 20th century when family sizes decreased (due to a rise in contraception and the higher expense of having children) and children’s rights were actually put into laws that the child-centred society was born. The decrease in family size meant that children were very much the centre of the family given all the love and attention they needed as well as socialisation and protection. It was these factors that lead Aries to the conclusion that childhood was a relatively new concept having been seen as virtually nonexistent in the past.
As society became concerned for the welfare of children, so did the government. This meant that things like compulsory education for 11years was introduced to ensure children were fully socialised, other laws that protect children are, UNCRC which is an agreement that ensures all children have a say in decisions that affect them, they have a right to an education and a right to protection (no abuse, harm and exploitation at all times), children cannot do paid work until the age of 15 (in this country) as well as the human rights that cover a number of protection laws.
In addition to this Social services were introduced to ensure children were treated the way they are meant to be and not abused. Social services are not the only institution aiming for the safety and wellbeing of children; many other institutions such as NSPCC, Bernardos, benefits and tax credits as well as Sure Start and Kidscape exist with the same aims. However there are still functionalists who do not see children as having enough protection even today.
One of these sociologists is Melanie Philips who argues that the culture of parenthood in the UK has broken down and childhood innocence is undermined by liberal ideas that mean children actually have too many rights and powers. Philips believes that children should be socialised into respecting their elders i. e. their parents. Yet in contradiction to this she also adds that children’s rights undermine this respect they should have, causing the high criticism of parents for disciplining their children (e. g. smacking. )
Another functionalist who sees childhood as being undermined/ distorted is Postman who feels that television and other forms of technology are leaving children under threat of being exposed to too much of the ‘adult world’ at a much too young age. He sees these technologies as exposing children to sex, disaster, death and suffering (the ‘real world’). Sue Palmer also has these views and sees these things as leading to a ‘toxic childhood’ except she believes it is the adults who are being over exposed to the technologies leading to a lack of attention on the part of the child.
On the other hand there are sociologists who believe the functionalists ignore how children see the world around them, and that children have their own unique way of viewing family life which they actively employ in interaction with their parents, meaning that parent-child relations are a two-way process where both parties influence the nature and quality of family life. For example research by Morrow suggests that most children have a pragmatic view of their family role in that they did not want to make decisions for themselves but did want a say in how things happened.