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Example Answer for Question 12 Paper 2: AS Sociology, June 2017 (AQA)

AS, A Level

Last updated 24 May 2017

Question 11: Evaluate [20 marks] - Experience of Childhood

Many sociologists would regard the concept of childhood as being a social construction as it varies according to time and place. Within western society it is generally accepted that childhood is a distinct time of life that has different expectations than adulthood and which regards children as being generally more vulnerable and in need of protection. Children are unable to work, vote or take legal responsibility for themselves. The sociologist Pilcher (1995) saw this as a key feature of childhood in western society as it is separate from adulthood. There are also differences in terms of the expected norms for the different groups with children occupying a distinct space in terms of their dress, language, culture and activities. Many sociologists would argue that there is such a thing as a “golden age” of childhood where children have a privileged social status and their lives are lived predominantly in the spheres of family and education.

According to Item B, “the march of progress view argues that the experience of childhood in Western societies has improved in the last 50 years or so”. This is the view held by the sociologist Aries who argued that children today are much better protected from harm and exploitation than they ever have been before. This is due to a number of important changes in society such as laws restricting child labour, the introduction of compulsory schooling, child protection legislation, the growth of children’s rights and the development of medical knowledge which is particular to children. The result of this in more recent years has been the sustained improvement in the social status of children and the investment placed in them by their families means, according to Item B, that “society has become child-centered”. As a general rule, family sizes have decreased over the last 50 years or so. From an economic perspective, children have also become more of an economic liability as they are no longer able to work to provide an income to the family and so families generally invest more time and money in raising one or two children well. This child-centredness, according to Aries undoubtedly results in a more positive life experience for children over the last 50 years or so.

In opposition to this view, Sue Palmer argues instead that there has been a move towards a ‘toxic childhood’. According to Palmer, the rapid changes in both culture and technology that have occurred have had a negative impact on children because they have exposed children to unsuitable content at a younger age such as that of an explicitly sexual or violent nature, or even through areas such as advertising, children are being bombarded with unrealistic and negative expectations about appearance and body image. Even within the food industry there has been an explosion of fast-food culture and the range available to children has been increased by globalisation and the pressure to be part of a consumer culture (according to Marxists). This can cause, according to Item B, health issues such as “increased childhood obesity” as well as mental health issues and issues of self-esteem. Children therefore are engaging in risky behaviours such as drinking, drugs, smoking and premature sexual behaviours which can be hugely damaging to their health and their future. This suggests that contrary to the march of progress view, the experiences of childhood over the last 50 years have not actually improved.

Postmodernists however would be quick to point out that it is difficult to generalise about experiences of childhood as not all children will share the same experience, even within larger social categories relating to class, gender and ethnicity. Even if we did accept that generalisations could be made within these larger social groups, Feminists for example would point out that experiences of childhood will differ significantly according to gender. For example Hillman (1993) pointed out that boys generally have greater freedom as children to leave the house and to use public transport/cycle on the roads than girls. Similarly, Bonke (1999) found that girls are expected to do significantly more domestic labour than boys which results in a more negative experience of childhood. Inequalities also existed between ethnic groups and their experiences of childhood as Bhatti (1999) found that Asian parents were traditionally much stricter on girls due to the notion of “izzat” or family honour. This evidence suggests that experiences of childhood vary hugely according to social factors and as such we cannot make the assertion that it has improved over the last 50 years.

A final argument to suggest that experiences of childhood may not have improved over the last 50 years relates to the age patriarchy (Gittens 1998) that still exists between adults and children. Children remain tightly controlled by adults in a number of ways - namely their space (some shops openly display signs stating “no schoolchildren, or playgrounds vs. pubs, for example), when they should be awake or asleep, how they dress, sit, walk and even how they touch their own bodies (they are not allowed to pick their nose or suck their thumb for example). Sociologists such as Firestone (1979) and Holt (1974) argue that all these areas of control suggest that what march of progress theories regard as care and protection are actually means of oppression and control. This suggests that despite appearances experiences of childhood have not improved over the last 50 years or so.

Based on the evidence presented there are a number of issues that might explain the changing social position of children over the last 50 years. However there is still significant debate about whether or not the impact on childhood experience has been a positive one - and there is also the question of whether or not we can generalise about childhood and experiences of childhood as they vary significantly according to social factors. This suggests that the fact that childhood is itself a social construction makes it difficult to draw firm conclusions about the way it is experienced on an individual level. 

Please Note: These answers have been produced without the knowledge of the mark scheme and merely reflect our attempt at producing an example answer on the day of the exam. Naturally, there are many different possible answers to this questions and students should not worry if their answer is different to ours.  These answers are not approved or endorsed by AQA.


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