Outline and critically analyse a prominent contribution to the construction of modern childhood, illustrating your argument with contemporary examples

| January 10, 2017


Philippe Aries suggested that ‘childhood’ was a modern phenomenon that had only come into being in recent times (McDowall-Clark, 2010). Aries believed the high mortality rate of infants in the pre-modern era meant parents were too afraid to get attached to their children. Once the mortality rate dropped children became more important in parent’s lives and the culture of childhood is said to have begun. This was reflected at the time by children appearing on family portraits, as well as the rise in the manufacturing of clothing specifically made for children (McDowall-Clark, 2010). Prior to this children were viewed as mini-adults in waiting. In order to understand the construction of childhood in the modern global world it is important to understand the past and how childhood was viewed then.  For the purpose of this discussion there will be a brief look at the construction of childhood and what it actually means. Following on will be an outline and critical analysis of the contribution that John Locke (17th Century) made to the construction of childhood including contemporary examples.

Penn (2005) accused psychology and developmental psychology of viewing ‘normal childhood’ in a very western, traditional way and by doing so children from around the world were wrongly categorized.  Dahlberg et al (2007) argued that when describing a child’s development we were really describing our own cultural understandings and biases of what it is to be a child, rather than what exists. Over 95% of literature on childhood in fact comes from the US and most of that is written from a male perspective.  Penn (2005: 97) writes that 80% of children in the world have very different childhoods from those in the US and Europe ‘in terms of wealth, health and culture’. Our view of childhood has therefore been both constrained and prejudiced by this skewed vision and new discourses in childhood have tried to address this. Gittins (2009, p. 37) argues that childhood is a construction which is made up of ‘memories and cultural representations’ and these often cover up children’s differences in terms of their ‘gender, ethnicity and class’. James and Prout (1997, p. 7) writes that the way in which children’s biological immaturity is understood is the result of ‘culture, gender, ethnicity and class’ and these should all be part of the discourse on childhood.  Buckingham, 2000, p. 6) argues that a child cannot simply be a category whether this be natural or universal and nor can childhood have any fixed meaning since it is ‘historically, culturally and socially variable’ (Buckingham, 2000, p. 6).

John Locke was born in 1632 and was educated at Oxford University. He was a bachelor all his life with no children, but he became a tutor to many, including Lord Shaftesbury’s offspring. Locke’s letters offering advice on tutoring children were later published in a book called ‘Some Thoughts Concerning Education’ (1963).  This had a huge impact on the theory of education past and present. John Locke’s contribution to the construction of childhood began when he challenged the view of children as adults and started the discourse as children as ‘others’ (Moseley 2007).  Locke agreed with humanist thinking that emerged from the late 15th Century and refuted the ideas of Augustine who believed children were evil but without the physical power to act, (Gianoutsos, 2006). John Locke, like Sigmund Freud of the 20th Century, recognised how early upbringing and education determine our futures as adults. Modern day psychology has been at the forefront of research into childhood, e.g. Freud’s psychoanalytical work and developmental theory, Bowlby’s attachment theory in infants and Piaget’s theory on learning and cognitive development, all of which confirmed the importance of those early formative years.  However, Locke was an empiricist believing that humans were born without any innate ideas and therefore must learn their knowledge from the outside world and through the senses. Like Aristotle before him he believed children were born with minds like blank slates (tabula rasas) to be written upon or as empty vessels to be filled, (Gianoutsos, 2006). However, new research suggests that despite nativists and empiricists claims, both philosophers and psychologists appear to have accepted now that it is not an either/or question anymore, (Eysenck and Flanagan,  2001). Children are no longer seen as passive vessels to be filled up, conditioned and trained, but there is no doubt that socialisation practices, culture, education and the environment around us, all impact upon a child’s development.  There is also an emerging view that children are now more active agents in the construction of their lives.  Locke in many ways contradicted his own view of children as empty vessels by stating that there were some characters that God had stamped upon men that could not be totally altered.

Locke suggests that children should be trained in socially acceptable ways and this made the role of the parent and the teacher paramount in the child’s development, acquisition of knowledge, social skills and morality.   Locke believed that the parents and teacher should set very high standards so that the child could learn through example. Modern day teachers are still expected to complete specialist training in order to enter educational establishments like schools, college and universities. In schools it is expected that teachers set a good example for their pupils since they are in a position of  ‘loco parentis’ i.e.: in place of the parents.  Locke encouraged parents and teachers to observe children regularly, especially whilst at play, so that they could come to understand their uniqueness (Gianoutsos, 2006). Like Rousseau, Locke believed that children were innately curious and he believed in the importance of play seeing it as key to learning.  Moseley (2007) writes that Locke’s work assisted the rise of ‘child-centred’ education in the seventies in England.  Child-centred pedagogy and practice became the flagship of the 20th Century and drove the Plowden Report on Education in England. This report enabled primary schools to develop informal, child-centred education, with the focus on  learning by discovery and through play. Although Locke’s ‘construction of childhood’ contributed to these later educational reforms today’s children in the 21st Century are under increasing pressure to pass exams and do homework therefore limiting recreation and play (Blundell, 2012). Education is conflicted since there is pressure to see it as a preparation for the real world of work and the child-centred pedagogy appears to be abandoned in both national and international policy (Moseley 2007).

Locke made it clear that children were not to be indulged or spoilt by their parents and he preferred praise and encouragement to punishment.  Locke believed children should not be spoken to harshly, lectured or chastised, but felt that children should be listened to and engaged with. Physical punishment was only a last resort and should never be carried out in anger, but measured and controlled, (Moseley, 2007). States schools in England abolished corporal punishment in 1987 responding to new constructions of childhood which saw corporal punishment as cruel and inhumane and children as vulnerable and in need of guidance and protection. Locke wanted children to become virtuous and to override their negative urges and internalise self-discipline, through the right amount of praise and example, especially public praise. However, there has been some criticism of Locke’s highly ‘conditioned child’ since Locke encouraged the ‘love of reputation’, for control purposes (Ryan, 2008, p. 569).  Ryan argues that this ‘love of reputation’ was also encouraged with a obedience to a ‘politically correct world’. Ryan (2008, p.569 cites Locke, 1963) and argues that there are many examples where Locke explains how to avoid the exercise of the ‘master’s brute force and make the desired habits “natural in them” without the child perceiving you have any hand in it’. Locke’s ideas on esteem and disgrace, public praise and private admonitions, were also seen by Ryan as another example of punishments and rewards. Ryan (2008, p. 569) acknowledges however, that Locke’s ‘conditioned child’ helped to encourage a new construction of a more authentic, political and developmental child, for the future.

Locke promoted the idea of virtue in children meaning to have the powers of rational thought and to defer gratification. Locke also suggested that unruly children should be cultivated rather than curbed. The Department of Education’s advice to modern day head teachers (2014) reminds us that discipline is still a priority in schools with head teachers responsible for promoting good behaviour, self-discipline and respect.  Locke argued that learning should be appropriate to a child’s stage of development and consideration had to be given for a child’s immaturity when they behaved inappropriately.  The work of Jean Piaget’s stage theory confirmed the idea of developmentally appropriate education for children in schools, with materials and instruction appropriate for pupils in terms of both their physical and cognitive skills (Eyesenk and Flanagan 2001). However, Locke’s idea that learning should be tailored to each child’s needs is virtually impossible in schools today with rising class sizes, increasing discipline problems, special needs requirements, language differences and mixed abilities. Locke preferred wherever possible for children to be home tutored.

However, research shows that young people in Britain in the 21st Century are some of the least confident and unhappiest in the developed world (Blundell 2012).  In 2008 the policy think tank ‘Compass’ reported that childhood was being excessively commercialised and children were the target of aggressive marketing which included both gadgetry as well as brand names (Blundell 2012).  Palmer (2006) argues that childhood is under pressure from the marketing and promotion of consumption as the root of happiness and opportunities for play are becoming increasingly limited.  Recreation time has now been replaced with adult organised play and sport, homework and exams. The Childrens’ Society (2009) discovered that children’s lives were being negatively affected by fears for their safety. They were also given unrealisable materialistic desires and goals as a result of the pressures of the consumerist culture. This is contrary to what Locke believed about free play and learning ‘without fear’ (Moseley, 2007, p. 36). The ‘discourses’ on childhood reflect a deeply dualistic and contradictory way of thinking with childhood  seen both as important in itself and at the same time as a preparation for adulthood, (Jones, 2009).  Children can be seen as both vulnerable and in need of protection, but also seen as capable and competent.  Jones, (2009) writes it is these dualistic, ways of viewing children, that contribute to their silence and invisibility. Jenks (2005) adds to this discourse by describing this dualism in terms of both ‘chaotic and disorderly’ (Dionysian) and  ‘sweetness and light’, (Apollonian). Stainton-Rogers (2011) writes about an unequal relationship between the child and adult and argues that we treat children like they are another species as object to be studied rather than as people.

At the heart of the UNCRC however, there is a rather different approach to childhood and one which now recognises children’s rights, (Gittins 2005). Children are seen as active agents and engaged participants in their lives. Children all over the world are now involved in the digital world of mobile phones, social media, interactive games, social networking and blogging and this has had significant influence on childhood, their play experience and their literacy. Waller (2012) argues that children are now actively involved in co-constructing their own lives, culture and activities, in their own time and space. Emerging is an acceptance that there are multiple and diverse childhoods in the globalist world we now live in (Waller 2012).  The emphasis is on participatory rights for children  which challenges the way we carry out child research and the ways we study children, as well as approaches to teaching. A modern view of children therefore acknowledges ‘agency and children’s capacity to both understand and act upon their world’  (Waller, 2012 p.8). Although this may seem far removed from Locke’s construction of childhood as a time for parental guidance, example, protection, supervision, discipline, control and virtuosity, many of his ideas have laid the foundation for children to be viewed in a more humane and enlightened way and has led to contemporary discourses on childhood. 


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Cambridge: Polity Press.

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Compass (2008)  The Commercialisation of Childhood, London: Compass.

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Jenks, C. (2005) Childhood. 2nd Ed. London: Routledge.

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McDowall-Clark, R. (2010) Childhood in Society in Early Childhood Studies. Exeter: Learning         Matters Ltd.

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Palmer, S. (2006) Toxic Childhood: How the Modern World is Damaging Our Children. London:     Orion Books Ltd.

Penn, H. (2008) Understanding Early Childhood: Issues and Controversies. 2nd ed. UK: Open        University Press.

Ryan, P. J.  (2008) How New Is the “New” Social Study of Childhood? The Myth of a Paradigm      Shift.  Journal of Interdisciplinary History, xxxviii (4), p. 553–576.

The Plowden Report (1967) A Report of the Central Advisory Council for England. Available @             http://www.educationengland.org.uk/documents/plowden/plowden1967-1.html.  Accessed    18/12/2014.

Waller, T. (2012) Modern Childhood: Contemporary Theories and Children’s Lives in C. Cable., L. Miller., and G. Goodliff, Working with Children in the Early Years. 2nd Ed.  NY: Routledge.

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