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Essay: Constructions of Childhood
‘Children are supposed to be innocents – not crooks in short trousers. But much of Britain is now facing a truly frightening explosion of kiddie crime. As we reveal today, too many youngsters are turning into hardened hoods almost as soon as they’ve climbed out of their prams.’ (Daily Star, editorial, 30 November 1992)
Critically discuss the above in the context of ONE of the following issues: Constructions of Childhood
This quote is one of many hyperbolic statements typical of how childhood and youth was viewed by the media during the 1990s. Commentators note this period as ’open season in the press’ and a time of ‘minimal objective analysis’. The statement touches on three main issues. Firstly, the long held view that children are, or at least should be, innocents; the emerging belief that children are juvenile delinquents; and whether this apparent epidemic of children turning into criminals is accurate. This piece will define social constructions and engage with the various constructions of childhood, as described by Harry Hendrick. It will look specifically at the constructions of the natural child, the romantic child, the evangelical child and the juvenile child, before assessing which construction remains prominent.
Simply put, a social construction is a reality created by society. Berger and Luckmann spoke of society being constructed in three stages of externalisation, objectification and internalisation. It is our internalisation of society that heavily influenced and clouded by media portrayals, political beliefs, empirical evidence and statistical data, which lead to a subjective construction of reality.
Aries believed the construction of childhood to be a recent phenomenon and prior to this new way of thinking, there were minor differences between the experiences of children and adults. Children were seen as ‘little adults’; they were depicted as such in art, often shown wearing adult clothing and went to work. There was also a lack of emotional attachment to children because child mortality rates were high and they frequently died young.
The tabloid quote declares that children are ‘supposed to be innocents‘, alluding to two constructions that reinforced this idea; the belief in a ’natural’ child and the belief in the ’romantic’ child. Locke defended children as innocent and attacked the view that they were depraved creatures, rather he saw them as ‘tabula rasa’ or blank slates. Hendrick also credits Locke for acknowledging the individuality amongst children and the fact that they did not have identical characteristics. This view contrasted with that of leading Methodist John Wesley, who advised parents to “break their wills, that you may save their souls”, reinforcing biblical beliefs in parental chastisement. As a sermon excerpt, this would have been used to encourage parents struggling to keep their children obedient. From a biblical viewpoint, human nature is innately self-gratifying and parents have an obligation to bestow upon their children values relating to patience, humility and self-control above everything.
The ‘romantic’ child construction also emphasised the original innocence of children and the fact children had pure innocence, that had not been tainted by society. This Rousseaun view was expressed by Romantic Poets such as Wordsworth and Blake. Hendrick maintains the both had differing views on childhood. Blake saw it as the source of innocence, which if nourished and retained, would lead to happiness throughout one’s life. Wordsworth saw childhood as the peak moment when an individual is the most virtuous and after this innocence is lost post-childhood, both life and virtue starts to depreciate. Both poets focused on the development of self, and although they promoted positive constructions of childhood, this would not have reflected the reality for poor, working class children.
In contrast to these romanticised views of purely innocent children, were the images of wicked and unruly children. The rise of the Evangelical Movement led to the belief in Original Sin, the need to be redeemed and a new notion of childhood being ushered in. The Evangelical Magazine told readers that children were ’sinful polluted creatures’, whilst the founder of the Sunday School movement Hannah More saw children as having a corruptible nature and evil disposition. This rhetoric and Evangelic instructions on child-rearing would have reinforced the suppression of child rights and the continued use of cheap child labour.
The belief in a ‘delinquent’ child developed through what Hendrick calls a conflict between innocence and experience. In a progressive reflection of the Aries view, children were seen as little stunted adults who knew too much about life, did not seek protection and rejected submitting to elders – and such a person needed to be made a child again. However, a separation must be made between childhood for the rich and poor, since those of the lower classes were made to conform to upper class values relating to childhood, which was based on being dependant as opposed to self-reliant. Children were constructed as being in need of protection, punishment and state intervention and the legislation reflected that, highlighting that children were not responsible for themselves.
But what of current constructions?
Keating linked the criminal construction of childhood to that of parenthood, since parents have a duty to curtail anti-social and criminal behaviour by promoting good social values. The law continues to maintain a presumption of doli incapax, the age of which remains at 11, but sees children as needing to be controlled and taught to respect social order. This view is utilised by both the media and politicians. John Major stated that “society needs to condemn a little more and understand a little less”# and followed this with Acts targeting child offenders, with double maximum sentences and Secure Training Centres. Under New Labour, the Government continued to take a paternalistic stance in order tackle childhood delinquency. The ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ resulted in increased the sentences for children and young people.
To conclude, there are, as Keating suggests, many different constructions operating in different legal contexts. Family Law sees the child as vulnerable and is in a constant state of promoting its welfare as paramount. Medical Law is willing to extend responsibility for autonomous decisions to a child who gains sufficient understanding and intelligence, illustrating an acceptance of the child’s individual rights. However, as the tabloid quote shows, young people are viewed as a perpetual problem and misconceptions regarding their criminality and lack of respect for authority has been shown to follow a history of societal complaints. The media continues to reinforce the ‘delinquent’ child construction and a moral panic has effectively been created for different categories of youths. Black youths are seen as gang members# whilst Asian youths are illustrated as terrorist soldiers-in-waiting, continuously succumbing to extremist agendas and brainwashing. Each category is associated with a complaint, and the demonisation of these groups reinforce the urgency to regulate their delinquent behaviour.
Aries, P.(1962) Centuries of Childhood (Vintage Books, New York)
Berger, P. L. and Luckmann, T.(1966) The Social Construction of: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (Anchor Books, New York)
Goldson, B.(2011) ‘Youth in Crisis? in Goldson, B.(2011) ‘Youth in Crisis?: Gangs, Territoriality and Violence’ (Routledge, Oxon)
Hendrick, H.(1997) ‘Constructions and Reconstructions of British Childhood: An Interpretative Survey, 1800 to the Present’ in A. James and A. Prout.(1997) Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood (RoutledgeFalmer, London)
Keating, H.(2008) ‘Being Responsible, Becoming Responsibility and Having Responsibility Thrust Upon Them‘ in Bridgeman, J., Lind, C. and Keating, H.(2008) Responsibility, Law and the Family (Ashgate, Hampshire)
Locke, J.(1693) Some Thoughts Concerning Education (A and J Churchill, London)
More, H.(1841) The Works of Hannah More Vol 1, pg 323 (Harper & Brothers, New York)
Newburn, T.(1996) ‘Back to the Future: Youth Crime, Youth Justice and the Rediscovery of ‘Authoritarian Populism’’ in Pilcher, J and Wagg, S.(2005) ‘Thatcher’s Children?: Politics, Childhood and Society’ (Routledge, London)
Pearson, G.(1983) Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears (MacMillan, Basingstoke)
Smidt, S.(2006) The Developing Child in the 21st Century: A Global Perspective on Child Development (Routledge, Oxon)
Wesley, J.(1831) The Works of the Reverend John Wesley (Emory, J. and Waugh, B. for the Methodist Episcopal Church, New York)
The Daily Express. ‘Mini-gangster is beyond our control’. 9th September 1992
The Daily Mail. ‘One Boy Crime Wave’. 10th September 1992
The Evangelical Magazine (1799) Vol 7 pg 160 (London)
The Guardian. Operation Trident to Spearhead Attack on Teenage Gangs (Monday 16th January 2012) Available from http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2012/jan/15/operation-trident-attack-teenage-gangs [Accessed on: 29th January 2013]
The Telegraph. Extremist preachers now radicalising young Muslims in private homes, says senior Government security advisor (Thursday 9th February 2012) Available from http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/terrorism-in-the-uk/9071604/Extremist-preachers-now-radicalising-young-Muslims-in-private-homes-says-senior-Government-security-adviser.html [Accessed on: 29th January 2013]
The Telegraph. Major on crime: ‘Condemn more, understand less’ (Sunday 21st February 1993) Available from, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/major-on-crime-condemn-more-understand-less-1474470.html [Accessed on: 29th January 2013]
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