What is a Child? Initially this may appear to be a simple question: we all have some experience of children and childhood, perhaps through family, friends or your own children, most people have close contact and bonds with children. There is also a wealth of people, in many different professions, who work with children of all ages in many types of settings. Also it is impossible to ignore the simple fact that every adult on this planet was, once, a child themselves. It is clear we all have some experience of children and childhood, and most people will have some very clear notions of what childhood is or what it should be. However once you begin to look a little deeper, it becomes far more complex than one might at first imagine: there are many different factors which effect childhood today. This paper will analyse this question further, looking at definitions of a child and how childhood has changed during the twentieth and twenty first century. Taking into account the effect of the media, consumerism, advertising, adults changing attitudes and child related policy, in order to evaluate how these factors have changed and shaped modern childhood…
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More than sixty years ago, in 1948, the majority of the world’s country’s signed up to the United Nations Declaration of Humans Rights (Lee, 2001). This stated that all human beings were entitled to certain basic rights, which no state could remove from them. Furthermore a little over twenty years ago, in 1989, the United Nations passed a further set of rights specifically for children: the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of the Child (Lee, 2001). One might question the reasons behind this extra convention: the original declaration covered all human beings so why would children need their own special set of rights? (Lee, 2001). This gulf between children and adults within global guidelines reflects the trend of viewing adults and children as ‘fundamentally different types of human’ (Lee, 2001 pg.5). Traditionally the vast majority of societies have considered adults to be complete, constant and self regulating where as the child is seen to be incomplete, changeable and requiring guidance (Lee, 2001). The sociologist Jens Qvortrup (1994) explained this fissure between human adults and human children eloquently by describing adults as ‘human beings’ and children as ‘human becomings’ (cited in Lee, 2001 pg. 5). Now this paper will look at different standpoints, which can be used to view the notion of what children and childhood are…
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 defines a child in the following way: ‘a human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier’ (UNCRC, Article 1, 1989). This definition of the child would fall under the category of a legal definition; another legal way to define a child would be by using the age of criminal responsibility. The age that a individual becomes criminally responsible varies greatly from country to country, in England and Wales the age was raised to ten years old in 1963, it had previously been eight (Children and Young Persons Act 1963, section16). However until the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 the law presumed that children under fourteen were ‘doli incapax’. Meaning the law regarded them as being incapable of distinguishing the difference between what is right and what is wrong, and therefore could not be convicted of a crime they had committed. Unless the criminal prosecution were able to definitively prove that the perpetrator was fully aware that their actions were wrong (Crime and Punishment Act 1998, section 34). The age of criminal responsibility imposed by England and Wales and the even lower age of eight in Scotland, are the lowest within the European Union. The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child has criticised the UK for the low ages imposed: stating article three of the UNCRC which requires that during criminal proceedings the child’s best interests must be held in primary consideration (Broadbridge, 2009).
Another perspective to look at when defining the child would be to study the concept from a sociological standpoint. What does the term child and childhood mean to society? What is their notion of a child? These are complex questions and the answers will inevitably vary depending on the country and culture one is studying. Michael Wyness (2006) used the ‘playing-child’ construction to define childhood: this encompasses the notion that childhood equals a time of play, without responsibilities. By using this definition Wyness also offers a definition for adulthood: if childhood can be characterised through a lack of work therefore adulthood can be characterised as being a time for work and responsibility (Wyness, 2006 pg. 9). This would suggest that childhood is a socially constructed phenomena based on the ideas that people within a given society hold. This notion of childhood being a social construction is not a new idea: the French historian Philippe Ariés (1960) has also suggested that childhood is a fairly recent construction of society. Ariés claimed that until the fifteen century children in Western Europe were considered as miniature adults and therefore believed to have similar mental abilities and personal qualities as adults. Although due to their smaller physical presence they were viewed as physically inferior compared to a fully grown adult (Montgomery, & Woodhead, 2002). Philippe Ariés work, Centuries of Childhood (first published 1960), was influential in attracting academic consideration towards the study of childhood; however his work has been subject to plentiful criticisms. Such as how he drew his conclusions about medieval society through the means of studying art from the period. Due to the subjective nature of art, studying a society in this way may give an inaccurate picture of how that society viewed a particular subject. A further criticism was the lack of explanation for the change in attitudes towards children (Hill, M, & Tisdall, K, 1997).
A society which views children as being a completely different type of human being compared to adults, will believe that the child has different needs to be fulfilled than the adults within their society. One example of this can be seen in prosperous areas of the industrialised world, where a wealth of products are available which are exclusively tailored for children. Items such as toys, clothes, cots, food stuffs and medicine are just a snippet of the vast array of child centred paraphernalia adults will encounter in various retail outlets (Montgomery, & Woodhead, 2002). As well as these rather necessary commodities, there is also an overwhelming range of products designed for entertaining children. There are books, magazines and television channels; holidays and theme parks; educational software and computer games. These are just some of the things available which cater for children, turning childhood into a lucrative, commercialized business (Montgomery, & Woodhead, 2002).
The increasing trend in this type of consumerism aimed at children, has further led to a massive growth in advertising aimed at children. Companies now spend huge amounts of money per annum on advertising their brand to children, whereas comparatively twenty years ago the budget for this type of advertising would have been virtually nonexistent (Dunn, & Layard, 2009). Research has shown that brand loyalty develops in children from a very early age: studies have shown that even children as young as two will treat a new toy differently depending on whether that child has been exposed to the toy previously through the means of advertising on television. Once they reach the age of three children tend to prefer leading branded products, which are subject to mass media marketing compared to a non branded product which tastes exactly the same (Dunn, & Layard, 2009). The purpose of advertising is obviously to make the consumer desire a certain item or brand over any other similar items available. However advertising also has the knock on effect of making people, adults and children alike feel that they need more materialistic items than they would otherwise believe. This can leave parents feeling that they need to spend more and more money in order to make their children happy; in a survey conducted by the Children’s Society nine out of ten parents stated that advertising pressurised them into spending more than they could realistically afford (Dunn, & Layard, 2009). Consumerism also has negative effects for the child; a major study was conducted in 2004 by Juliet Schor, into the effects of the media and consumerism on children. Her study has found that; if all other aspects of a child’s life were equal, high exposure to media would led a child to be more materialistic, having problems relating the their parents and being at higher risk of mental health issues. These risks increase even more for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are living with little household income to being with (Dunn, & Layard, 2009).
Children’s experience of childhood in the twenty first century will differ vastly from even their own parent’s experiences just one generation before them. This is partly due to the change in children’s leisure activities which in the last decade have shifted to included much less physically active pursuits (Dunn, & Layard, 2009). Studies have shown that children are spending less time than ever before pursuing physical activities. Physically inactive pursuits such as: television, video gaming and the internet becoming ever more popular (Dunn, & Layard, 2009 pg.54). This bloom in new technologies has brought a wealth of knowledge and entertainment to our finger tips. However it has also been linked with increases in three dangers: encouraging the discourse that wealth and beauty equal’s happiness; encouraging aggressive models of relationships and that it encourages less physical activity and unhealthy lifestyles (Dunn, & Layard, 2009).
The change in adults attitudes towards what pursuits can be considered safe for children is one reason for this decline in the amounts of physical, outdoor activity undertaken by modern children. Through the media, vast amounts of information regarding child murder cases are made available and easily accessible to the general public, resulting in these cases being more prominent in people’s thoughts (Dunn, & Layard, 2009). This leads people to believe that the number of children being murdered, especially being murdered by strangers has been steadily increasing over time; however this isn’t the case. Home office statistics show that the risk of children being murdered by a stranger are very minimal, averaging approximately eleven per year shows that for the vast majority of adults their fears for children’s safety are unfounded (Dunn, & Layard, 2009). In fact a child is at much greater risk within their own home. The NSPCC believe that for each generation more than one thousand children will be killed before adulthood, most at the hands of a violent parent or carer (Cunningham, 2006 p.235).
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These high profile cases in the media have also led to children’s rights becoming more prominent within societies and indeed also the Governments thoughts. There has been a deluge of child related policy passed through the UK government, reflecting how attitudes towards children have changed; children are being viewed as separate beings that have individual needs and are in need of protection.
Just one of these policies is the Children Act 2004; this Act was developed and implemented following the findings of Lord Laming’s 2003 inquiry into the tragic death of Victoria Climbié, who died in 2002 (Duffy, & Pugh, 2010). In response to the Laming report the government published the Green Paper Every Child Matters (DfES, 2003); the prime minister at the time, Tony Blair, described it as ‘the most significant development for children for more than thirty years’ (Duffy, & Pugh, 2010 p.9). The overall outcomes that the Green Paper and the consequent Children Act of 2004 hoped to achieve was to improve the expectations of all children, narrowing the fissure between high and low achievers via the means of reconfiguring the services available for children and families (Duffy, & Pugh, 2010). The Act also set out five outcomes which all children, right from birth until the age of eighteen, should be able to achieve. These five outcomes are: to be healthy, to be protected from all forms of harm, to enjoy and achieve in their lives, to be able to contribute positively within their society and finally the ability to achieve economic wellbeing (Anning, & Ball, 2008). Whilst the intention of this Act appear to hold a child’s well being as paramount in its agenda, some professionals have voiced concerns over potential negative side effects, it might present for the most vulnerable of children (Womack, 2006). Under the Act a massive database containing information on all twelve million children living in England and Wales was created (Womack, 2006). Experts in the field of safeguarding children have suggested that the sheer amount of data recorded in this database, will make it easier for genuine cases of child neglect and abuse to slip through the net. Under a system that detects threat to a child, in even in the most trivial of matters, may mean a child under serious threat of harm will not be identified (Womack, 2006). When services are already looking for the ‘needle in a haystack’ is it really useful to make the haystack even bigger? (Womack, 2006)
Having looked at the legal and sociological perspectives of childhood and having taken into account the influence of the media, consumerism, advertising, adult attitudes and child related policy. The focus of this paper will now turn to look at the feelings and ideas that children have about what it means to be a child…
Wendy Stainton-Rogers conducted interviews with children from around the world as part of research for a book about childhood (Stainton-Rogers cited in Montgomery, & Woodhead, 2002). In these interviews children were asked, what did being a child mean to them? One child aged eight, when interviewed and asked this question replied: ‘I’m a child because, if I was a baby I would still be small. And, and now I’m a child because I’m not a baby any more. Because I’m, because I’m grown up. And a baby is sort of like, is like almost one year old, two years old or three years old’ (Stainton Rogers cited in Montgomery, & Woodhead, 2002 pg.7). This statement appears to show that the child questioned was somewhat confused as to exactly what a child is. They had some clear thoughts about what made them a child, but appeared hesitant in being able to justify their thoughts. Another child stated that they felt that they would become an adult after their bat mitzvah, saying that after that they would feel more ‘grown up’ (Stainton Rogers cited in Montgomery, & Woodhead, 2002 pg.7). This suggests that a child’s religion will impact their feelings of what it means to be a child: that childhood ends with certain religious rites of passage. One child felt that a child was somebody who was still learning and being moulded into an adult (Stainton Rogers cited in Montgomery, & Woodhead, 2003 pg.7). The answer that this child gave would fit in very well with a socially constructed model of childhood: that the purpose of childhood is for the adult members of a society to shape and mould children into acceptable members of society for the future.
From completing the research for this paper, it has become clear that there is no single, universal answer to the question ‘what is a child’. Both children’s and adults views on childhood and what it means to be a child will vary vastly depending on culture, religion and the country where they live. To state that a child is a human being under the age of eighteen simply just isn’t enough. Children are all individuals and no two will ever be the same just as no two adults ever will be. In order for children to be happy and grow into well rounded, balanced adults their individual needs have to be met and to be protected from serious harm. It is wrong for adult society to simply believe that a child is just an unfinished lump of clay in need of sculpting in order to become the adults society expects for the future. Children should be seen as important members within all societies, whom have the ability to positively contribute to the society in which they live.
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