Social Worlds in 100 Objects, Themes and Ideas

The rocking horse: a classic object of childhood?

Is childhood a social invention? Dr Jane Pilcher from the Department of Sociology discusses the changes in our understanding of childhood and how it differs across societies.

For many people in Western industrialised countries, a wooden rocking horse is a classic toy of childhood. It’s an object symbolising a time of life that is regarded as being naturally happy and innocent, as lived out in family and educational settings and through play.

All societies, at all historical times, have made some distinction between ‘childhood’ and ‘adulthood’. From a sociological perspective, though, this idea of childhood, symbolised here through the object of a rocking horse, and lasting until at least the teenage years, is far from being universal and natural. For example, social historians have examined children’s lives in medieval European societies. It has been shown that, once they had reached the age of five or thereabouts, children were treated as (small) adults and were integrated into the adult world. It was only from the fifteenth century that religious and moral thinkers began to develop a new set of ideas about childhood which resulted in the gradual removal of children from adult society. This process gathered pace as industrialisation transformed European societies, with people’s lives becoming more private and centred around the nuclear family, and formal, institutionally-based education for children expanded.

Therefore, sociological analysis shows us that contemporary understandings of children as having specialised needs and requirements and as ‘separate’ from adults are relatively recent developments. Moreover, it shows us that it did not envelope all categories of children (girls, boys, the working classes, rural and urban children) in exactly the same ways and at exactly the same times (even the commonly used chronological marker of childhood ending at the age of sixteen in the UK only dates back to 1972). Nevertheless, the direction of change has been toward an increasing division between the world of the child and the world of the adult.

Another way that social scientists question standard ideas about childhood is to examine how children’s lives are lived in societies around the globe. Cross-cultural evidence from developing countries shows that children can be subject to minimal adult control and often have important and responsible roles to play within their communities, including economically. Their lives are not lived out wholly in educational settings or through play and they are more integrated into the adult world. In these societies, childhood is experienced in ways which may appear ‘strange’ or even ‘wrong’ from the perspective of people living in Western, industrialised countries.

Sociologists use historical and cross-cultural evidence to argue that childhood is a social construction. In other words, childhood is explained to be largely the outcome of social, cultural and political practices rather than just naturally or biologically determined. The relevance of this way of thinking is clear in relation to concerns which have been expressed about recent changes to childhood in contemporary Britain. In 2011, for example, the British Prime Minister hosted a summit at 10 Downing Street about tackling the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood. The idea behind such campaigns is that children’s lives in contemporary Britain have changed for the worse, and that action is needed to protect childhood, so as to make it more like the ideal represented by the object of a rocking horse. When analysed sociologically in these kinds of ways, childhood is revealed as a largely social invention and not just a natural state.

Dr Jane Pilcher

Research interests

  • Sociology of age
  • Sociology of gender

Supervision interests

  • Gender studies
  • Ageing studies

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