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  • James, A. and James, A. L.

    Constructing Children, Childhood and the Child

    James, A. and James, A. L., (2004) "Constructing Children, Childhood and the Child" from James, A. and James, A. L., Constructing Childhood: Theory, Policy and Social Practice pp. 10-28, Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan

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    Constructing Children, Childhood and the Child

    In die contemporary media, all kinds of images and representations of children's childhoods are to be found. In the world of adver-tising and marketing, for example, children constitute a rich and abundant pool of new consumers. They can be targeted as custom-ers not only of traditional children's toys, pop music and computer games but, as has occurred more recently, as health-conscious dieters and drinkers of bottled water (The Independent, 21 April 2002). They are an audience to be wooed and enticed, not only for what they represent now, but also in their immanence as the next generation of adult consumers.

    For the current UK government, by contrast, children seem to represent an ever-present danger to the moral fabric of con-temporary British society, as a social group in need of control and containment. In April 2002, for instance, not only were policemen introduced to patrol school playgrounds (The Independent, 14 April 2002) but new measures were also announced by the Home Secretary, David Blunkett, to lock up more 'young offenders', defined as those young people, aged between 12 and 16 years of age, who repeatedly commit crimes while on bail. And, in the same month, parents were accused of fostering cycles of disrespect amongst their children, attitudes that manifest them-selves at school in ill-disciplined pupil behaviour (The Independent, 25 March 2002). Meanwhile, a strong public sentiment focused on the innocence and vulnerability of children continues to pervade the pages of the press: the compassion and sadness expressed over the violent death of the young boy, Damilola Taylor, in



    November 2000 was followed 2 years later by the public outcry and mass m o u r n i n g for the m u r d e r of two little girls in Cambridgeshire.

    Such contrasting and contradictory images of children have a long history, harking back to at least the 17th century (James etal. 1998). They reveal a deep-rooted ambivalence about the nature of childhood and, by implication, of children themselves. It is an ambivalence, however, which does not simply manifest itself in words and pictures. As we explore in this book, it is also present in the many and various laws and policies through which children's lives are governed and controlled, laws which, ironi-cally, often ignore differences between children's experiences by riding rough-shod over the diversities of childhood with which we are all so familiar!

    This is one of the conundrums with which this book engages in its exploration of the cultural politics of childhood: the tension between the changes and continuities of childhood across time and space. Put simply, then, the cultural politics of childhood asks about the outcomes for children, who may live very different lives and whose everyday experiences may be quite diverse, of inhabiting a unitary 'childhood' that is regulated and ordered by sets of laws, policies and social practices that work to sweep aside any differences between them.

    Unravelling the complexities of this process and the impli-cations and outcomes these have for children is the aim of this book. As outlined in the introduction, this will involve demonstrat ing the importance of the cultural determinants and discourses of childhood (including the influence children themselves have over the social status of childhood) and an attempt to identify the polit-ical mechanisms and processes through which these are given expression at any given time. Taken together, it will be argued that these cultural determinants, political mechanisms and the discourses they produce work to construct childhood and thereby control , or at the very least constrain, what chi ldren do . Such an approach to childhood does not, therefore, just pose a series of challenges to traditional unders tandings of children and childhood th rough its avowedly social constructionist framing, it goes on to offer a new perspective - the cultural politics of childhood. From within this, as we shall show, all children and their childhoods can be analysed and understood, whatever the cultural context.


    In this first chapter, we begin by outlining some of the key issues and debates with which this approach must engage. We must be concerned, for example, not just with the fact that childhood is socially constructed, but with the precise ways in which this occurs in any society and the specificity of the cultural context to that construction. We must also explore the changes and continuities in the particularity of that construction and be attentive to the implications these have for children, for their childhoods and for the societies in which they live. We need, too, to seek out the extent of children's own contribution to the construction of childhood and to remain alert to the diversities as well as the commonalities that give shape and structure to children's everyday experiences. We need, therefore, also to be quite clear about the conceptual tools we employ and the theoretical contexts within which this discussion takes place. We shall begin then at the beginning - with the social construction of childhood.

    Childhood as a social construction It was Aries (1962) who first highlighted the socially constructed character of childhood in his historical research into children's lives from the Middle Ages onwards. Through his assertion that 'in mediaeval society childhood did not exist' he argued that, although younger members of the species clearly existed in the Middle Ages, they were not granted a special or distinctive social status (1962:125). Once weaned, they participated in society according to their abilities just as adults did. Aries argued that such practices existed because of the lack of any awareness that children might require a different and specific kind of social experience. This awareness, he suggested, only gradually emerged from the 15th century onwards. In his view, therefore, the dawning consciousness of children as being 'different' and 'particular' is marked out, over time, in the gradual social, political and economic institutionalisation of the idea of children's needs. This can be illustrated for the UK in the late 19th century by, for example, the rise of universal schooling (Hendrick 1997b) and the development of paediatrics and specialist children's clinics (Armstrong 1983).

    Though the precise details of Aries' claim have been, and still are, subject to critique (see for example, Wilson 1980; Pollock 1983), the broad framework of his argument remains foundational to


    childhood studies. Notwithstanding some serious objections to both his methods and his interpretation of the historical record, Aries' thesis, as Hey wood (2001) argues, at least provided scholars with a platform from which to 'mount a radical critique of thinking about children in their own society' (2001: 12). What Aries offered, above all, was a taste of cultural relativity across time. This alerted researchers to the diverse, rather than universal, nature of con-ceptions of childhood.

    Core to this are two key propositions. First, that 'chi ldhood' cannot be regarded as an unproblemat ic descriptor of a natural biological phase. Rather the idea of childhood must be seen as a particular cultural phrasing of the early part of the life course, historically and politically contingent and subject to change. Second, Aries' thesis under l ines the point that how we see children and the ways in which we behave towards them neces-sarily shape children's experiences of being a child and al

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