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What exactly IS childhood? I'm not sure.

Updated: Apr 6

I don’t actually know what I thought I knew

There is a famous quote that suggests that “the only two certainties in life are death and taxes”. However, I put it to you that there is another universal certainty in that we have all been a child at one time in our lives. Some of us will have more vivid memories and recollections of childhood experiences than others but nevertheless, memories or not, we were all children once.


Regardless of this fact, to quantify what exactly childhood is seems to be more difficult than I initially anticipated despite my experience as a parent, early childhood practitioner and holder of a third level qualification in early childhood education. Surely, I thought, I already understand exactly what childhood is? When I started to read academic publications on this very topic, I realised that, actually no, I wasn’t sure at all what exactly childhood is.


Historical perspective and change

The was a time when childhood was not considered to be distinct from adulthood and children were more or less ignored until their value as a contributor to the economic stability of the household placed a value upon them. High rates of child mortality may also have impacted the development of nurturing tendencies and emotional ties between adults (parents) and children. However, a shift in this approach to childhood occurred in parallel with cultural changes in society regarding the value of education and increased life expectancy (Ariés 1962; Demos, 1970). Needless to say, there have been many subsequent developments in societal perception of children and childhood as distinct to adulthood and which have informed our contemporary approach to childhood, education, children’s rights, agency and autonomy.


Yada, yada, yada…..

When engaging in academic study related to children, various theories and theorists on

child development such as Piaget, Vygotsky, Bronfenbrenner, Bowlby, Ainsworth and Pestalozzi are presented to us each baroque fugue type variations on a theme. Many posit the importance of the child as active participants in their learning and as constructors of meaning relative to their interests and experiences. Developmental theories also describe the various stages of the developmental process that contribute to the growth and development, on a normative scale, from infancy to adulthood. That’s all wonderfully insightful and a particular interest area of mine. However, there still seems to be an elusive intangibility to the concept of childhood as a definitive term.


Adults define childhood, children don’t!?!

So why am I musing on this particular topic this week? Well, you can blame my college lecturer who set a reading task last week on the topic of the social construct of childhood. The standout element of our assigned reading jumped off the page (for me anyway) and managed to make me question all my previous postulations on what childhood actually is (I’m sure that was probably my lecturers intention).

As practitioners we continually work towards devising curricula which represent the emergent interests of children, promote inquiry and ensure that the rights of children to have a voice in their lives and early learning experiences are upheld. All sounds great, right? I thought so too. However, as Bass (2004) suggests, childhood is not a necessarily a social construct, as we previous understood it, but may actually be shaped by an imbalance of power which falls on the side of the adult. Despite our best efforts to promote the agency of the child in their lives, there is a dichotomous dilemma which impacts the definition of childhood through the unequal division of power between adult and child, favouring the side of the adult and therefore impacting the child’s ability to have true agency in their lives. As a result, “childhood is produced as a response to the power of adults over children even when children as viewed as actively shaping their childhoods” (Walkerdine, 2004).


Although children may choose the books they wish to read, those books are written by

adults, children may write their wish list of toys to Santa, but those toys are designed by adults (Santa is an adult too!) based on adult designed theories on child development. Even in the legal system, the child’s voice and rights are interpreted as understood by adults (Bass, 2004). Even children’s clothes, although picked from the wardrobe by the child and as such considered autonomous decisions, are ultimately designed and bought by adults, based on adult determinations regarding design, popular culture and marketing.


In a pedagogical pickle

So, this academic reading task has put me into a pedagogical pickle. It is not enough that we as adults decide that we have sufficiently understood and delineated children’s interests and views on their lives. Instead we must consider how we are coming to these decisions and whether, for example, the materials that we initially provide for children to choose from accurately represent the child’s voice in the first instance. How do we know and how to we quantify that? We cannot rely on the simple adage that childhood is merely a "social construct". We need to delve deeper to consider if, as suggested by Hardman (1973), we may be representing a muted version of the child’s voice? ……….. I don’t maintain to have the answer unfortunately, but nevertheless it is food for professional thought......Now, where is that pickle?



About the Author:

Paula Walshe is an ECEC trainer and placement assessor in the further education and training sector and a freelance writer. She currently holds a BA (Hons) in Early Childhood Education and will complete her studies for a Master’s Degree in Leadership for ECEC in 2022. Paula has extensive ECEC experience in both pedagogical practice and ECEC management. You can learn more about Paula’s work at her website (www.thedigitalearlychildhoodeducator.ie), where she writes a weekly blog on current topics in Early Childhood Education and Care in Ireland and provides useful professional and academic resources for students and professionals in this sector. Paula is also one of the creators of an ECE community of practice based on Twitter: ECE Quality Ireland (@ECEQualityIRL) / Twitter Contact Paula: LinkedIn: Paula Walshe / Twitter: @digitalearlyed / Instagram: @digitalearlychildhoodeducator.


References:

Ariès, P. (1962). Centuries of Childhood. Vintage Books: New York.


Bass, L. (2004). The Sociology of Children and Youth. California: Sage Publications.


Demos, J. 1970. A Little Commonwealth: Family Life in Plymouth Colony. New York: Oxford University Press.


Hardman, C. 1973. Can there be an anthropology of children? Journal of the Anthropological Society of Oxford, 4(1): 85–99.


Walkerdine, V. (2004). Developmental Psychology and the Study of Children. In: An Introduction to Childhood Studies. Ed. Kehily, J. UK: McGraw-Hill Education.

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