Anthropology: Is Childhood a Social Construct?

Childhood is a stage of life that most feel is entirely distinct from adulthood. It is a time full of innocence and imagination, free of the worries and complications that come with age. However, some historians have suggested childhood is a social construct that developed over time.

The concept of childhood itself has changed throughout history. In different times and parts of the world, people have had differing ideas about what constitutes childhood. Today, in many different cultures, there are examples of different categories or stages of youth. Childhood can be a different experience in other parts of the world. 

The study of the history and development of childhood has become its own sub-discipline in history and anthropology. Children hold a unique place in society as a part of a kinship group, an economic system, and a reflection of cultural values.

Little Adults

Childhood in Medieval art

The study of the development of childhood is a sub-discipline in history that began in the 1960s with the book Centuries of Childhood—written by the French historian Phillipe Aries.  He suggested that childhood and the idea of parenting were ‘discovered’ from the Middle Ages onwards. Aries’ book indicates that children were ‘little adults’ who often lived very similar lives to their parents in Medieval times. They would gamble, run around unsupervised in the streets, dress like adults, and assist with household work. Once children were no longer infants, they quickly became a part of the adult world. Aries’ work was the beginning of the study of childhood as a social construct in many other disciplines. 

He cites that one of the main reasons children were perceived this way was due to high infant mortality rates. As children frequently died, parents did not often associate sentimental or strong feelings toward them. Family structures were also less nuclear and not as we see them today. It was common for a wet nurse to take care of infants instead of the mother. There was also very little difference between children’s and adult’s interests. For example, we think of fairy tales, games, and storytelling as childhood pastimes. In Medieval times, adults and children alike would tell fairy tales for entertainment.

Childhood as a Social Construct in Art

Childhood as a social construct in art

You may have wandered through an art gallery or seen photos of babies and children in Medieval paintings looking very solemn and depicted with faces just like adults. This isn’t necessarily because babies were super scary looking in Medieval times. Aries believes this was because, in a social sense, children were considered adults and portrayed as such. But, of course, other things may have contributed to this. For instance, this period in art had a lack of interest in realism. Art is often a reflection of the social values and thinking present at that point in time.

The artwork of the time reflected social attitudes toward children. The church also commissioned a great deal of artwork during this time. Many of the babies depicted in the paintings were of Jesus and Mary. They showed Jesus as a fully formed, unchangeable adult. As Jesus as the ultimate portrayal of the child, this was the model for concepts of the child generally. As time and art developed, so did representation of childhood in paintings. These artistic changes reflected the growing sentiment of childhood as a social construct. 

Childhood for Mozart

Mozart as a child

Have you ever reflected on how extraordinary it was that, as a child, Mozart could write entire operas? Well, it is remarkable, but some have suggested it also wasn’t out of the ordinary. During Mozart’s time, children had a similar status to adulthood as well. They often dressed like adults, and it was not uncommon for children to be good at playing instruments, writing music, painting, and writing plays. Children were socialized in much the same way as adults. Among the upper class, these things are thought to be indicative of social accomplishment’. There was little distinction between day-to-day activities, all ages alike. The concept of childhood today has not yet been socially constructed.

For example, the Dauphine of France, Louis XIII, born in 1601, was recorded to be playing the violin and singing at seventeen months. Not only that, but he played adult games like tennis, learned to read, write, play archery, and card games, often in the company of adults. As with Medieval times, there was not a lot of distinction between adult pastimes and childhood pastimes. Children did play with dolls, which were usually taken away when they began tutoring, around 7 or 8.

Children in Households

A medieval household

Aries maintained that the idea of family was much broader than it is today. When you or I think of family, it is usually an immediate and nuclear family. Whereas in past times, it meant more blood relations and generational ties. Households were very large, containing both children by blood and other people’s children. Children were often handed over from wet nurses to strangers in the village to begin work as an apprentice.

The feelings of the family were not as nuclear or sentimental as they are today. In aristocratic households, children were looked after by servants or other members of the household and did not always spend ample time with their parents. Households often varied between aristocratic, rural, and urban arrangements, and had their own arrangements. Class issues also played a large part in the role of men, women, and children. However, among all classes, it was common for families to be segregated by sex and preside over their part of the house.

The Darker Aspect of Childhood

Victorian children

Of course, the expectations and roles of children in these times were not always positive. As children were considered grown up from an early age, they were often subjected to the same poor treatment some adults experienced. This could include violence, hard work, and a general lack of care. On the other hand, children were also valued and cared for because of their status in society. There were both good and bad aspects to this type of social attitude about children.

How The Social Construct of Childhood Developed

Children in Romania

Aries writes that the social construct of childhood developed due to the institution of school. A shift in attitudes to education saw children go from learning trades and skills directly from the adults in their household to more theoretical learning. It was then necessary for children to go to institutions and have their own unique day-to-day lives. Social attitudes toward their development and learning came about partly in this way. Enlightenment values regarding individual expression and freedom also contributed to evolving ideas about the child.

Additionally, childhood as its own unique phase of life came about due to complex political and social changes. These saw larger households becoming much smaller and more nuclear, as we see them today. Schools then placed children into segregated age groups in the 18th century. This introduced the idea that not only was childhood different from adulthood, but that childhood itself had multiple stages. Today, there are varying stages of early life, such as toddlers, children, teenagers, young adults, youths, and a far more modern term ‘tweenagers.’ These very distinct phases of early life are a direct result of the social construct of childhood developed over time.

Childhood as a Modern Social Construct 

Childhood as an innocent time is also a social construct

To put into perspective how childhood might be a social construct, it helps to reflect on modern concepts of aging. For example, in countries such as the United Kingdom and Australia, one is not legally an adult until 18. However, they can obtain a driver’s license at 17, and the age for sexual consent is 16. The legal age for getting a paying job is 14. Thus, the law determines when young people take up many adult activities. 

In America, the legal age of adulthood is 21, and laws about work and age of consent are similar. However, American culture also sees college-aged youth as a specific rite of passage into adulthood and the ‘real world.’ This rite of passage is unique to American culture and has not always been present in society. If you were to trace concepts of childhood and youth through even the last two hundred years, you could see incredible changes in attitudes and ideas about childhood. Just one example of this may be the increased awareness of children’s inner emotional and psychological states. The concept that childhood is a social construct has many positive aspects as it reveals an increased value for individuals.

Many rules and regulations regarding when a child becomes an adult might be arbitrary and difficult to understand. Social concepts of the child will often inform laws and social conventions for children, rather than biological states. However, just because something is a social construct, it does not mean it is not valid or genuine. It is the objective, lived social experiences of members of society.

The Separation of Children and Adults

Childhood play as a cultural construct

Other cultures reflect an almost universal understanding of childhood as a social construct. For example, it appears that almost all cultures share at least one of the following assumptions about children; 1) Children are physically immature to adults and at some stages, psychologically 2) Children at some point will be heavily dependent on adults biologically and socially 3) Children of a very young age do not run their own lives or make choices for themselves. All of the above assumptions may vary and have different meanings across cultures.

Therefore, childhood reflects the cultural value of what it means to be a child in a social group. Many different cultures will also have rituals or rites of passage that mark the progression from childhood to adulthood. Some of these more well-known rituals may be a Jewish Bar Mitzvah or a Mexican Quinceanera, or an American Sweet 16. A coming of age ritual you may not know about is perhaps an Amish Rumspringa or the Satere-Mawe bullet ant initiation in the Brazilan Amazon.

Rites of Passage and Ritual Process

A child's Bar Mitzvah is an example of childhood as a social construct

Many of the rituals mentioned above mark the progression from childhood to adulthood. Or, they may indicate entrance into a liminal state that sits between childhood and adulthood.  The anthropologist Victor Turner popularised the term ‘liminality.’ Meaning literally ‘threshold’, the word refers to an ambiguous or state that people experience during a ritual process that initiates them from one state to another. It is the stage where they are no longer the former selves that they were prior to the ritual, but also have not yet crossed over to their new symbolic state. This is a state of ‘betwixt and between.’

In many ways, different states of childhood, youth, or teenage years are liminal spaces between one psychological or emotional state to another. Although it may look different at various points in history or in different parts of the world, childhood is always somehow a unique experience from adulthood.

Cultural Significance in Anthropology

Childhood is a social construct

The role of children and childhood as a life stage in society has always been of great interest to anthropologists. Children and adults are not only biological but also by the social phases that are a part of a kinship relationship. In the past, some anthropologists have suggested that the anthropology of childhood has become its sub-discipline in the field.

Childhood exists as a social construct alongside other roles in kinship systems. Social systems might include adults, older people, mothers, fathers, and children. Each of these distinct roles in a society is also an important phase of life. However, they are socially constructed in relation to and sometimes opposed to one another. Essentially, anthropologists recognize that childhood is how different cultures conceptualize this phase of life in which children are growing and are still physically dependent on adults. Studying childhood as a phase of life also means exploring the adult-child relationship. Studying how human beings relate to each other is central to anthropology, as relationship systems will make up the social structure. 

The study of children is something still very relevant today. The idea of childhood will change in the future, as it has in the past. The way childhood and families experience life today has become different at an accelerating rate over the last few decades. Who knows what the continued study of childhood in anthropology and history might reveal about being a child in the future?

Further reading for anyone interested in this subject –

Ariès, Philippe. Centuries Of Childhood. Cape, 1960

Firestone, Shulamith. The Dialectic Of Sex. Verso, 2015, p. Chapter Four: Down with Childhood.

Montgomery, Heather. An Introduction To Childhood. John Wiley & Sons, 2011.

Sophie Anne Lewis. Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against Family. 2019.

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