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Childhood: The Concept of Social Construction

Jame Allison and Alan Prout argue that changing times and cultural trends give rise to different conceptions of children and childhood. They note that these conceptions have been influenced over time by socio-economic, cultural and religious factors that became dominant at various historical times. Apart from societal ideologies, parental ideas also shift to give rise to different sets of conceptions about childhood. During the eighteenth century for instance, religious rhetoric by John Wesley urged parents to “break the will of their children, and bring their will into submission to theirs (parents) that it may be afterward subject to the will of God” (Allison and Prout 36). By examining the various socio-culturally defined conceptions of childhood, and with reference to early childhood learning, this paper argues that notions about childhood and children are socially constructed.

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The integration of children into the society is characterized by socio-cultural conditioning processes that mould the child to fit his/her expected role within the community. During the early childhood learning and social interaction stages, children are exposed to learning experiences that reflect the dominant socio-cultural trends. This is seen right from pre-schooling years, where the child’s cognitive skills are developed through planned and controlled learning activities. The approaches that are used in child education are informed by the society’s beliefs about children, and these constructed images influence the way learning is modeled and implemented. The social cultural beliefs about children’s cognitive development determine the way adults relate with children, how children’s behavior is shaped and used by educators in curriculum development and pedagogy. For instance, in the Victorian Curriculum, the first phase of schooling is within the Early Learning and Development Framework that begins at birth and ends in year eight. At the same time, the educational process is aimed at socializing children into the larger society as well as preparing them for communal life. Victoria’s Minister for early childhood education, Maxim Morand, says that “It enables early childhood professionals to support individual children and families, and design programs which respond to local families and communities” (Department of Education and Early Childhood Development 2009).

The concept of children’s social construction is portrayed by the respected American kindergarten teacher and author Vivian Gussin Paley, in her book You Can’t Say You Can’t Play. Paley revisits childhood, and the things that little children do on their journey to maturity and adulthood. She explores the daily experiences that impact on their socio-cognitive development, with emphasis on social situations and interaction experiences as the forces that shape their understanding of the world.

Paley represents the world from a child’s point of view, examining how young minds perceive themselves and others. Their guilt is innocent, for their discrimination and unfairness is honestly sincere….a belief by which they believe and act. Christine Woodrow views this as a socially constructed understanding of children, especially when they are portrayed in the media as always being innocent and victims of abuse. She notes that the most embraced and easily visible image in contemporary western society is the portrayal of the child as virtually innocent. She reports that:

This image of innocence is constantly represented in the sentimental world of greeting cards as well as being played out in the media portrayal of tragic and catastrophic events such as child murders and abuse. When children are involved, the event is often characterized as something that has taken away children’s innocence, as if this is an inherent condition of childhood (Woodrow 57).

This socially defined understanding of children’s behavior places them in a context within which they are given the freedom to express themselves in assertive terms, since it is part of their development. In Paley’s class, for instance, Lisa believes ‘the game is hers’, and therefore should make the rules- choosing who should play and who shouldn’t. This behavior by children is not portrayed as a system of rules, but rather as part of childhood development processes, in which the child is self centered. Paley thus portrays the child’s world, the little universe in which he/she is the center around which everything else ought to operate. If they don’t want you in their game, they simply, out-rightly and plainly tell you “You Can’t Play.” This construction of children as being susceptible to certain behaviors at different stages is seen in the application of teaching methodologies that are learner centered, in an effort to identify and meet learner needs.

Similarly, Paley highlights the importance of social interaction in a child’s development, and the negative effects of social rejection upon victims. She examines the loneliness and psychological drift of the outsider who can’t fit in any group. The fat girl with only one dress is an out-cast among her classmates. In the child’s world, she will only get friends if she lost her weight, or be accepted if she got a new dress. This simplistic explanation of children’s reasoning is a reflection of the collective societal understanding of childhood behaviors, and that what society knows about children is used as a framework of describing their behaviors.

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With different historical developments, different ideologies emerge to describe childhood. Jane Kehily notes that history ushers in different perspectives. She says that memory get reconstructed with new images, narratives and experiences” (Kehily 26). In childhood education, these changes are reflected in the theoretical perspectives that have been developed in relation to child education, al of which point the fact that the child and the concept of childhood is socially constructed. This is reflected in the educational concept that children’s minds are blank, ready to receive and integrate what the child learns through various mediums such as socialization in affective skills and classroom learning for the development of cognitive skills. One such theory is the social learning model by Albert Bandura, which posits that children learn through observation and imitation of adults. In Pale’s book, for instance, she noted that when children are left alone, they conform to certain patterns of a hierarchical order, which reflects the aspect of authority in the society. In her experiences with kindergarten children, she observed that within their social circles, a hierarchy of importance and power quickly establishes and develops into castes, giving some the right of power to limit the social and physical activities of others (Paley 12). On this basis, educators are trained to act as role models, by displaying desirable behaviors which children are expected to copy. As mentioned before, the learned behavior should reflect what is acceptable within the larger society.

Levy Vygotsky’s theory of child development takes a socio-cultural perspective on development, indicating that different cultures have a different conception of childhood. He focused on the role of language and culture in nurturing a child’s development. Language supplies the material and medium through which children learn. In Paley’s class, which represents a typical American classroom, the use of language is central in communicating ideas to the learners. It is by language that she engaged them in an interactive discourse, in which they were able to examine their actions and those of others, as well as expressing their feelings. in the Victorian curriculum, on the other hand, children at this stage are not considered to be ready for a focused cognitive learning. On the contrary, they focus on physical exercise. Culture, on its part, provides the context within which a behavior is both born and developed. Within the school environment, children establish a system of group inclusion and exclusion, where non-members are not to participate in group activities such as games. The exclusion of Clara from playing by Lisa demonstrates this element of a culture that discriminates against outsiders. Once it takes roots, new comers will find an established culture into which they adapt. In this light, Vygotsky’s theory suggests that the right culture should be promoted so as to enable children to develop social skills that help them accommodate others. This means that different cultures will have different behavioral expectations on learners of the same age.

Similarly, the socio-cultural perspective posits that society and culture work together to promote cognitive development of a child. Children from different cultural backgrounds have conflicting viewpoints. For instance, Lisa’s viewpoint is that she is free to decide who to play with. Vygotsky recognizes the role of self talk in enhancing learning. The involvement of learners in discussions under the guidance of adults helps them to understand difficult concepts. Paley’s discussion with her pupils shows how dialogue is important in engaging children in the learning process.

Finally, Vygotsky’s theory argues that teachers should operate within the “Zone of Proximal Development,” the activities a child can perform with assistance from a peer or adult, but cannot perform independently” (Berk 64). Educators ought to understand the needs of the learners at their various stages of development, and help them achieve those needs. Thus, children of the same age should be presented with experiences that address their needs. However, children from different cultural societies do not always exhibit the same abilities or educational needs at the same developmental stage.

The application of the Classical Conditioning Theory by Ivan Pavlov in early childhood learning further demonstrates that childhood and the child are socially constructed. Based on his experimentation with dogs, it is assumed that children could also be conditioned to behave in certain ways. In Pavlov’s experiment, the dogs produced saliva when the bell rang following its repeated pairing with food. The food acted as the unconditioned stimulus (US) since it could elicit a response (salivation) naturally. Eventually, continued association of the bell and food started to elicit similar reactions from the dogs.

In learning contexts, the theory is applied to achieve predetermined educational goals by way of conditioning the learners’ behavior. The socio-cultural idea behind this approach is the socially entrenched belief that the environment conditions the children’s perceptions. For these reasons, the school environment is designed to elicit learning instincts in children. For instance, the use of visual displays helps to elicit certain patterns of reasoning in children, in terms of the particular subject. The idea of manipulating the environment to influence learners’ behavior reflects society’s belief that children’s mental processes are shaped by their surroundings.

The Operant Conditioning Theory by B.F Skinner posits that “some responses are learned because they produced pleasant consequences, rather than because they were associated with an existing stimulus-response connection” (Hayes and Orrell, 19). He called it the ‘Law of Effect,’ since what resulted after a certain behavior either discouraged or reinforced the behavior. For instance, saying ‘excellent’ after a correct answer by a pupil will reinforce the behavior of answering questions.

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In positive reinforcement, a certain behavior is rewarded, such as buying a child a gift or prize after posting good academic results. The gift will motivate the student and other learners to work hard. Negative reinforcement takes place when a certain behavior is rewarded by exempting the person from undesirable experiences or activities. For instance, when a student gets to school on time may be excluded from manual work.

The grading of the learning process into different stages indicates the differentiation of children’s learning capacities at different stages. Piaget argued that children learn systematically in relation to their mental development. They pass through various stages of cognitive development, learning to conceptualize and assimilate various concepts depending on their mental capacities. In each stage, their points of reference shift as their scopes of perception widen to accommodate expanded understanding of their experiences. At her age, Clara thinks that everybody dislikes her because Lisa does. The one single situation of being rejected is taken to represent the whole of reality. Later, after an intellect engaging discussion with their teacher, she learns that Cynthia had actually all along wanted to play with her, only that she can’t do so without approval from Lisa. (Though unfortunate, the incident also reflects how children learn to respect what they think are centers of authority- their friends who are presumed to have the right to decide on behalf of the rest). It is the stage when children learn to analyze individual units taken from the whole.

But what comes out most clearly, and perhaps is captured by the book’s title, is the stage of egocentrism in cognitive development. Lisa believes that the game is hers, and is quite surprised that others want to determine the rules for her. In response to the challenge against her right to decide who plays and who don’t, she argues: “But it is my game! It is up to me; else I won’t play again; ever!” (Paley 16). At this stage, children tend to think that they are the center of the universe and that it rotates around them (Atherton, 2009). Accordingly, Lisa believes that the game is what everybody else wants. Since the game happens to belong to her, then she should decide the rules and nobody should challenge her. It then follows that educators should try to provide learning experiences that allow learners to exercise some degree of independence. At the same time, they should try to perceive things from learners’ point of view so as to understand their needs.

However, the age-based grading system is not universal to all human societies, but subject to the educational system of each society. For instance, the Victorian curriculum reflects the Australian approach to age and learning ability, which puts emphasis on different aspects of learning with each stage of progress. In early childhood stages, learning is focused on physical exercise and ways of maintaining their physical health. This domain reflects Jean Piaget’s stage of motor skills development in children, when they can actively move their body parts. In other societies, aspects like interaction and socialization may integrate into the curriculum during one stage. This is despite the fact that children in both settings may belong to the same age group.

In the US, for instance, cognitive development is emphasized during the formative years, which begins at birth through the age of five. Up to the age of three, homecare and childcare centers prepare children for early childhood learning. At this stage, childcare and education are inseparable, in that adult-child relationship and learning bear heavily on shaping their educational, social and emotional development in readiness to join preschool programs. Therefore, early childhood caregivers and educators play a key role in preparing children for preschool education in the US system, which is absent in most other societies. The different approaches taken were dependent on the predominant discourses that existed (Burr 26).

In addition, early childhood education in the US emphasizes on the child’s social and emotional needs. Social and emotional needs address aspects of social interaction, behavior and emotion regulation as well as paying attention. At this stage, attention is paid to language competency for English language learners, physical, mental, cognitive and mental disabilities that may hinder learning and delay transition into early elementary level learning. Children’s economic background is also addressed to offer necessary support for poor families.

The holistic approach of the American system to all aspects of learners’ needs differ from those in other third world countries. It recognizes various child related issues, which such as economic backgrounds. Poverty affects a child’s growth and development in several ways. Children from poor families may not benefit form childcare services that nurture a child’s socio-cognitive abilities. They lack professional care to develop their mental faculties necessary for effective early childhood and preschool learning. Cognitive development is affected most in that they don’t get exposure to experiences that foster language competency and communication skills. Poor families, for instance, may lack interaction with the media through TV, which is a very crucial medium in developing a child’s language abilities. Poor health is another aspect of early childhood education that is taken into consideration in the American curriculum. It has the effect of delaying the child’s cognitive faculties or impairment. The long-term effects will be late school entry and slow learning. And finally, poor economic backgrounds can affect the child’s emotional development in case of financial related disputes and quarrels between parents. It creates a tense atmosphere within the home, where the child cannot express her/him-self freely.

In this regard, several programs have been put in place to help children from poor families. They are state funded initiatives to support low-income families in educating their children. They include: Early Reading Program which give grants to develop model programs to promote school readiness of children from poor families; Preschool Grants for Special Education which support for children of the ages 3-5 with disabilities; Early Childhood Educator Professional Development for Program to train educators in poor areas and Ready to Learn Television Program which facilitate learning through video programs for children and parents.

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Historical developments in early childhood education portray a changing landscape of treating different age groups within the schooling system. In the ancient Greek education system, the Spartans laid much emphasis on the physical development of children. This was because in relation to the society’s needs, which directed educational goals to physical body strength. Because of the any wars the Spartans where involved in, their education system was concerned with raising accomplished warriors. Accordingly, male children were taken at birth and exposed to severely cold conditions, so that weaklings could die and leave those equipped with better survival mechanisms. The survivors were taken into barracks or training camps, where they grew up learning physical exercises necessary for defense and combat skills. Similarly, the education of girls was intended to raise strong women who could give birth to equally strong males to be trained as warriors. Consequently, girls were trained in gymnastics so as to make their bodies enduring the strains of child bearing. This approach departs from contemporary understanding of childhood, where children are treated tenderly and with affection” (Allison and Prout 35).

In conclusion, the perception of childhood is determined by socio-cultural institutions of different societies. In the education system, the different theoretical approaches to learning indicate that society has predetermined conceptions about children and childhood. Different curriculums focus on different domains of learning at a given age, indicating that there are no universal standards for childhood. And lastly, societies have historically held different societal expectations for society’s members, assigning different roles to various age groups.

Works Cited

Allison, James, Prout, Alan. Constructing and reconstructing childhood: contemporary issues in the sociological study of childhood. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Atherton, Steve J. Learning and Teaching;Piaget’s developmental theory[On-line] UK.2009. Web.

Berk, Laura E. Child development. New York: Pearson/Allyn and Bacon, 2006.

Burr, Vivien. An introduction to social constructionism. Routledge, 1995.

Kehily, Mary J. An introduction to childhood studies. New York: McGraw-Hill International, 2004

Hayes Nelly., Orrell, Slick. Psychology: An Introduction. London: Longman Group UK Ltd, 2004

Paley, Vivian. G. You can’t say you can’t play. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

Victorian Curriculum Assessment Authority. “Curriculum Structure.” Victoria Curriculum Development Authority. 2009. Web.

Woodrow, Christine. “Revisiting Images of the Childhood Education: Reflections and Considerations.” Australian Journal of Early Childhood, 24 [1999] 57.

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