Construction of Childhood

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Contextual Studies

Children & Young People

Module ref: SS2023

In part one of this essay I will explain the concept of “social construction of childhood” and will analyse its changing nature over time as a result of societal and state attitudes and activity. Finally I will relate these changes to the provision of institutional care for children and young people.

Childhood and it's Construction is a transition through different stages of life, a biological development process from growing up and ageing.

The construction of childhood, firstly we must look at the society that we live in and equally important the cultural background we come from. These factors help shape and construct childhood, some good and some bad. Child Care, Social Work, Poor Laws and poverty has come a long way and has evolved into what we know today in that social policy plays a big part in the attempt to eradicate poverty. If we look back in history and to the Victorian period, it gives us some understanding of how childhood and society has changed. Care Work or Social work in this period had it roots in the Poor Law and the voluntary organizations such as the Church. The Poor Law Act of 1834 was based on the idea that people were poor through their own fault, but what the Poor Law did was to help those capable of work, and that was to help them and support them in the workhouses where conditions were harsh and labour was long. In other words it could be said that the Poor Law administrators were the first state social workers in that they were responsible for providing very basic welfare. Professional care however was a long way off!

The Victorian period was based on power due to the attitude at that time and especially the class system. Children from rich families had a better standard of education wore better clothes, better housing and had food. In contrast to the poor families the children were subjected to hard labour at a very young age, they received less than adequate education and more importantly their life span was shorter than those children from wealthier families due to various illnesses. Childhood in this period was very short, children were leaving school at an early age and what was expected of them was to go to work and help the family, and work was long and hard. Children were looked upon as adults within the family; they were not seen as children. Phillipe Aries in his book Centuries of Childhood, states his view that the cultures back then “lacked the concept of childhood” he goes on to call children “little adults”, as their learned process, attitudes and mannerisms were that of adults including the way they were dressed. An illustration of this can be seen in historical paintings, it is as though there were no children at all, as the artists painted them as they saw them, adults.


As society was changing and moving fast, the government were looking at improving their social policy and make provisions better for poor people and in particular children and young people. The Poor Law was becoming the main provider of care to a growing population, and a major provider for poor children offering education and care. This was a way to release churches and charity organisations with the strain on child care. The Poor Law changed a number of times since 1388 and certain aspects remained with regard to child welfare, until the Children Act in 1989.

Work houses were set up during the 1800 which appeared to be the birth of providing residential care and accommodation for children and young people, but these were seen as children's homes or institutions. Despite all the work the Poor Law was doing, significant changes at the end of the Victorian period were beginning to happen as a number of reports and surveys from Sociologists such as Rowntree on there research on poverty. The results of the research began to acknowledge the contribution made to poverty by such things as low earnings, unemployment and illness to name a few. As a result, direct pressure by Rowntree and others on their findings was for the government to take collective responsibility for social problems holistically.

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Social reform at the turn of the century brought with it new policies and a change in thinking and attitude towards childhood and in particular child care. All aspects were looked at, as well as the family, and the Children Act 1908 saw a wide range of provisions coming together for the betterment of childcare in terms of needs and rights.

“In the twentieth century public policy shifted from its Poor Law origins with a focus on removing children from failing parents, providing them with subsistence and equipping them to earn a living, to a ...

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