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Childhood and Society SS605 - Essay - Is Childhood a Universal

On first inspection, a question such as is childhood a universal
experience may seem like one with an obvious answer, as few would
contest that we are all children at some time in our lives. It would
perhaps also be fair to assert that most of us progress through stages of
development during this time, as our minds, (both physically and
psychologically), begin to mature and grow. As far back as 1877, the
biologist Charles Darwin described in his journal a biographical sketch
of an infant the distinct signs of development he observed in his son.
The 1920s saw the start of a more scientific method of observing
children to assess their development with the advent of Jean Piagets
research, which arguably has paved the way for contemporary child
development study. (Smith, et al., 2008, 4-5). Research such as this has
shown us that human beings, especially in childhood, have an innate
propensity to develop, and with the basic necessities of life available,
such as food, water, air etc., most scientists would agree that human
biological development is somewhat inevitable. However, to carefully
explore the question of childhood being a universal experience, close
attention would need to be paid to child development on a social level,
i.e. cognitive social development through the process of interaction with
others and their environment. Furthermore, perhaps equally as
important, would be the close examination of the bio-social interaction
of child development. A growing amount of research has shown how the
nature vs. nurture debate is in some way an unscientific controversy
with regard to human development, as it pays little attention to causal
factors. Dr Robert Sapolsky has termed the debate a false dichotomy
and summarises that: it is virtually impossible to understand how
biology works, outside the context of environment. (Joseph, et al.,
2011). Both of these positions will be analyzed throughout this essay.
Another key issue to be considered when discussing the present
question is what exactly is meant by the term childhood. To assert that
childhood either is or is not a universal experience is to imply that there
is one common accepted definition of what childhood is. As this is
subject to interpretation through processes such as: cultural variation;
from what academic perspective it is being analyzed etc., it is very
difficult to define. As previously expressed, from a biological
perspective, childhood, as defined by the time span from birth to
adolescence could be considered universal, given that the necessary
requirements for basic survival are met. In simplistic terms, the basic
dictionary definition for childhood is: the state or period of being a
child. Therefore the question becomes, what does it mean to be a child?
Due to this question essentially being a matter within the social arena, it
will be answered from a sociological perspective in this essay. Moreover,
one of the focuses of this work will be analyzing what exactly it is that
makes someone a child as opposed to an adult, as this will provide great
insight into whether the experience of such a phenomenon is something

universal. The argument for this essay is that the predominant western
sociological view of what constitutes childhood, (which will be defined),
is not something that is experienced universally. The reason for
analyzing the concept of childhood from a western sociological
perspective is that childhood takes on different definitions in different
cultures, therefore the definition and concept is culturally subjective.
Expanding on the argument, a further point to be explored, is the notion
that childhood as a developmental social process is something that can
either be delayed, or experienced in an abnormal/unhealthy way,
resulting in a maladjusted adult. All of these points will be developed
Main Body:
When discussing the present question, it is important to have a
somewhat clear definition of what the experience of childhood is, (from
a western sociological viewpoint), to be used as a basis for analysis. As
previously expressed this is of course open to interpretation, however
for the purposes of this essay, a loose definition based on several key
sociological texts will be used. Prominent sociologist Anthony Giddens
argues that as with many other aspects of social life, society has only
begun to view childhood as an independent stage worthy of analysis for
the past two or three centuries. He contends therefore, that childhood is
socially constructed, as for the vast majority of our history, children
progressed from infancy straight into adult work and play positions as
opposed to positions free of labour, and engaging in the various
childhood games we now take for granted. Of course this lack of
acknowledgment for childhood as a developmental stage still exists in
many developing countries. However, in the context of a western
conception of childhood, society has become more child-centered than
traditional societies. (Giddens & Sutton 2009, 296-298). Therefore,
taking the stance of viewing childhood as a socially constructed stage of
development, a question emerges: what socially constructed
characteristics define the experience of childhood, in western society?
Kellmer Pringle wrote in her book, The Needs of Children (1974, 148151), that the four most basic needs a child must have met are: The
need for love and security; new experiences; praise and recognition;
responsibility. Pringle designed this criteria set mainly, in order to aid
childhood studies by providing a frame of reference. She believed that
without these basic needs being met, proper maturation could not take
place, and may have several other negative consequences for the
individual and society. Many charities and organisations have used
similar identifying descriptions of what constitutes childhood when
constructing rules and policies. For example, the United Nations
Convention on the Rights of the Child, (UNCRC), who define a child as
anyone below the age of 18, and emphasise the duty of parents and
family in the care and protection of the child, as well as the state for
aiding these duties, have four rights they believe each child is entitled
to. They are: survival rights, e.g. right to food, development rights, e.g.
right to education, protection rights, e.g. right to be protected against
abuse, and participation rights, e.g. right to express opinions.

Reading through both the UNCRC constitution and Pringles set of child
needs, it becomes evident that one possible implication is that although
a child may not die as a direct result of not having these needs met, it
could be argued that the conceptual experience of childhood does not
take place, at least from a western viewpoint. Accepting this logic, must
then beg the question: can a situation that a child is born into ever be so
bad, that they feel few or none of the feelings associated with Pringles
criteria set or experience their rights as defined by the UNCRC
completely violated? The reader is invited to relate the following
discourses to the these western constructs of the experience of
childhood, and ask whether childhood is in fact something that is
experienced from this point of view. Attention will now be paid to
arguably one of the most ubiquitous and insidious occupations to
negatively affect the innocence and contentment of a childs
development, and thus the experience of childhood.
In the book Trauma Rehabilitation After War and Conflict (Martz et. al.,
2010, 311-349), Shauer and Elbert describe in detail the psychological
impact of child soldiering. They assert that over the past few decades
around 80% of fighting forces in developing countries are in fact child
soldiers. The vast majority of those come from destitute backgrounds,
and are typically abducted and forced or coerced when very young, into
a culture of extreme violence by soldiers who understand that children
are less costly, more obedient, and ripe for indoctrinating into a life of
killing. The relatively recent development of small and light firearms has
made this morally reprehensible industry even more prolific. Shauer and
Elbert list this as one of the main reasons why this industry is growing,
as well as the recent demographic shift in poor countries, (particularly in
Africa), in part due to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, which has left children as
the most available group for recruitment, among other reasons. (Martz
et. al., 2010, 311-317). Several interviews were conducted and included
in this text, with ex child soldiers in places such as the Congo and
Uganda, which outline their experiences. While being very graphic and
shocking, the following descriptions are important to illustrate the
extreme nature and depth of the issues at hand. Some of the
experiences the children went through are as follows.
A child know as O.B spent nearly 5 years in the Lords Resistance
Army after being abducted in Northern Uganda at age 14. He received
subsequent therapeutic treatment at age 18 (in 2006). He described in
his account how rebel insurgents abducted many children from his
village, and forced them to lie face down on the ground, with arms
stretch out, and proceeded to administer 350 lashes to the back and
buttocks. After rising from the ground almost unconscious in extreme
agony, O.B realised that most of the children had been killed from the
severe bludgeoning, and was force to watch the rebels take the bodies
of his friends and dump them in the nearby river, while he suffered. The
rebels believed that this process was necessary to determine which of
children had potential to become child soldiers. This account is just one
of many interviews conducted with ex child soldiers, and demonstrates

the severity of conditions some children are born into. Shauer and Elbert
describe in their report about how post traumatic stress disorder,
(PTSD), is a common mental health condition for children recovering
from experiences such as this. They detail how their research has
highlighted the role of a building block effect: traumatic experiences
build upon each other, and cumulatively increase the chance of
developing PTSD and depression. PTSD patients have developed a fear
network, composed of interconnected, trauma-related memories, in
which even only peripherally related trauma stimuli can cause a
cascading fear response often manifested as flash-backs. Therefore, the
cumulative exposure to traumatic stress constitutes a predictor of
endemic mental-health issues. (Martz et. al., 2010, 317-321).
Taking a western viewpoint as exemplified by Kellmer Pringles basic
child needs of the horrific experiences thousands of children are born
into as described above, it becomes clear that based on some traditional
western sociological notions of childhood, some children are not born
into circumstances that allow them to experience childhood. As Pringle
suggests, the need for love and security; new experiences; praise and
recognition; and responsibility are fundamental for the experience of
childhood. The natural conclusion then is, how much love and security
will be assimilated into O.Bs emerging concept of how the world is after
witnessing and feeling some of the worst angles of mankind?
Furthermore, how much praise and recognition will he and countless
others experience when being taught from a very young age to simply
follow orders and fear authority? The obvious answer to both questions
is probably none at all. Accepting the notion that a young life full of
violence and fear is not conducive with the experience of childhood,
leads comfortably into a related idea; the concept of innocence. As far
back as the middle ages childhood has been viewed as a period
characterized by innocence, where children receive knowledge and
experiences chosen and provided for them by their adult caregivers, and
are considered to be somewhat passive and carefree. (Sorin 2005, 1221). Parents, caregivers and teachers, culturally reproduce this idea both
metaphorically and literally by covering childrens eyes to the real world.
Books, videos, games and activities chosen for children are often
sanitized to present some aspects of life while excluding others. Children
are normally sheltered from learning about death, sex, violence etc.,
until they are older. (Sorin 2005, 12-21). All this is to reiterate the idea
that from a western viewpoint, growing up without loving parents,
forced to witness atrocities and carry out heinous acts, such as those
growing up as child soldiers, childhood is not experienced.
Contrasting this attitude for sheltering and concealing the adult word
from children living in the western world, in an attempt to protect their
innocence, with a huge percentage of children living to some extent free
of proper adult care or supervision, and thus growing up in a very adult
world, illustrates at the very least just how differently childhood is
constructed in the west. This idea is one of the points considered by
Martin Woodhead in his 2005 journal article entitled Early Childhood
Development: a question of rights. In it, he points out that at least 220
million children, or 20% of all children under the age of 15 are working
as their primary activity, with a huge percentage more attending school

part time. Until relatively quite recently, this was also the norm in
western society. However, modern western expectations of how
childhood should be, include notions of care, play, teaching, learning,
and peer relations, as previously outlined. Therefore, it is simple to
logically deduce that in a life of drudgery and servitude, for children
most likely working in poor conditions and often against their will, it may
be very difficult if not impossible for a child to regularly experience
being carefree, learning about their environment through playing with
others etc. Once again this example illustrates how western notions of
childhood, including, the afore mentioned constructs, is seemingly in
direct opposition to the reality of the experience, in the global context.
Furthering this point however, it is important to point out that early
childhood settings are culturally constructed. Human belief systems
essentially construct the proper way for children to develop. In other
words, there is nothing fundamentally natural about modern childcare
settings, such as schools; therefore close attention must be paid to the
relevance of modern childcare models. (Woodhead, 2005, 8-12).
Another key distinction to be made with regard to the essay question, is
how mainstream societys view of what constitutes a child, and thus the
experience of childhood, can seemingly change on a case-by-case basis.
The case of James Bulger in Liverpool, 1993, was an exemplary of this
notion, dividing peoples opinions with regard to what constitutes the
nature of childhood. James Bulger, a 2-year-old boy, was abducted by
two 10 year old boys, (Jon Venables and Robert Thompson), while
shopping with his mother. He was subsequently assaulted, tortured and
ultimately killed before having his body discarded on a railway line, as a
pretence for his murder. The case opened up an enormous public debate
over the nature of children and childhood, and the contrasting
representations of children, with sections of the media describing the
boys as monsters and pure evil. A media storm of hate towards these
two 10 year old boys ensued where even the Judge at the time was
quoted as saying: I truly believe they are just evil.. You should not
compare these boys with other boys. They were evil (Kehily 2009, 1619). Blake Morrison, who was very involved with the case, and went on
to write a best-selling book entitled As If about his experience, argues
that Venables and Thompson remain innocent despite their crime. He
contends that, children at the age of 10 could have had no real sense of
the consequences of their actions, and that therefore they cannot be
seen as truly guilty or held responsible. He is arguing from a belief that
all children are innocent because their sense of morality is not fully
developed. Others, in the media and the justice system, saw the
learning of knowledge, especially about right and wrong, as a continuum
and believed that by age 10, children should know not to kill and what
the consequence of beating and abusing a smaller child would be. The
nature of the debate centers round the notion of innocence. (Kehily
2009, 16-19).
Morrisons position raises the question of innocence and guilt while
others, such as the newspaper editors quoted above, suggest the child
killers were innately evil and that normal innocent children, had to be
protected from these aberrations. However, regardless of the position
taken, the James Bulger case demonstrates to what extent people in

western society feel that innocence is inextricably intertwined with the

concept of childhood, and thus the cognitive dissonance and differing
opinions associated with it. Another assertion outlined in the
introduction of this essay, was that further to the argument that
childhood is not always universally experienced, there are key
implications for the childs development when this is the case. To
explore this, attention will now be paid to how exactly it is that
childhood is or is not experienced, through the process of biological and
social developmental interaction.
The afore mentioned bio-social interaction of child development is
perhaps one of the most relevant processes in need of close
examination when discussing the present question. Boyden and
Dercons comprehensive journal studying childhood poverty on an
international scale entitled Child Development and Economic
Development: Lessons and Future Challenges (2012, 13-14),
acknowledges this position and provides an excellent description of this
phenomenon. Expanding on relevant psychological research, they argue
that child development functions through a complex interaction
between biological, genotypic, and maturational processes, which are
molded by the childs experiences and all take place within a broader
context of environmental influences such as their parents cultural
values, which themselves are set in diverse contexts. For example,
individual characteristics (e.g. personality), and biological forces (e.g.
genetics, epigenetics, and neurobiological factors) function in tandem
with family dynamics (e.g. attachment to caregivers, family functioning),
and broader historical, socio-cultural, and environmental factors (e.g.
socio-economic status) in shaping and adapting a childs developmental
growth. (Boyden & Dercon 2012, 13-14).
In other words, external pressures to a large extent predict the quality of
not only the childs experience but also their biology, which itself may
predict the childs experience. Furthermore, when some resources are
scarce or not readily available due to economic deprivation, this can add
yet another level of complex interaction to child development. Only in
recent times, has this bio-social interaction of child development started
to be closely examined by the scientific community. (Joseph, et al.,
2011). The conclusion therefore, is that on one level, the quality of the
childs social, moral, emotional, and spiritual development, particularly
feelings about self-worth, personal well being and identity, is a direct
function of how they understand their relative social position, relative
competence, and potential to access opportunities for personal, social,
and economic advancement. As a brief example of this, Outes, et al
(2010), found that a childs feeling of being respected at the age of 8
years was strongly predictive of higher test scores for mathematics and
reading at the age of 12. Similarly, Sanchezs (2009) report in Peru
found a strongly significant impact of early childhood nutrition on later
cognitive outcomes. (Cited in - Boyden & Dercon 2012, 14-16). Perhaps
the main point to take from this intertwined bio-social argument is that,
in an environment where a child is not able to feel self-worthy, safe, and
have an identity, it is often quite simple to predict that their
development could be delayed or function in an unusual way. It could be
argued that the experience of going through this unnatural process is

not a real experience of childhood.

This discussion began with the argument that, according to the broad
western definition of childhood, childhood in this sense is not something
that is universally experienced. Research into multiple western views of
what an experience of childhood should include, (predominantly the
UNCRC and Pringles work), shows just how western society has a
precise, perhaps somewhat romanticized view, of what childhood should
be. Contrasting this with the reality in which some children across the
world are born into, it becomes clear that there seems to be a large
separation between the reality of many childrens experience, and
western notions of childhood. Furthermore, this separation may in fact
serve to illustrate how these notions are culturally constructed. It could
be argued that, perhaps one of the main reasons that the public so
adamantly condemned the young boys who killed James Bulger, as
violent aberrations and the like, is because their actions conflicted with
the traditional, culturally constructed beliefs about how children behave
and think. This tragic yet fascinating case also served to illustrate how
innocence was fundamental in the western social construction of
childhood. In an attempt to move past cultural constructions of
childhood, some attention was paid to the bio-social interaction of
childhood development, in an attempt to understand precisely how
childhood may not be experienced, in environments lacking in emotional
and physical resources. In closing, to reiterate the main arguments from
this essay: childhood is something that is not universally experienced,
according to western definitions of the term. However, due to the
concept being a cultural construction, it is something that is difficult to
define and is always experienced in unique ways, due to the interaction
between human biology and the environment.


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