How Far Do Theories of Childhood Development Take Account of Social and Cultural Factors? Essay

Throughout the history of our Western culture the ways in which we have viewed childhood has changed dramatically. Woodhead (2005) recognises that childhood has been viewed as both a natural process and as a social and cultural process, as well as being viewed as an interactive process between the two. These changeable and evolving attitudes confirm James and Prout’s (1997) assertion that “childhood is constructed and reconstructed”.

This essay will take in to account four theorists, who have contrasting views of how a child develops, these theories stem from three opposing philosophies; Hobbes, an authoritarian; Rousseau, a nativist; Locke, a rationalist; Kant, an interactionist. Even to this day there are still differing views on what childhood is, which will be shown in Whiting and Whiting’s (1975) cross cultural study, the ‘six culture project’, and explained through Super and Harkness (1986) theory on the ‘developmental niche’.

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By comparing and contrasting the origins of the four main psychological perspectives of child development, and taking in to account certain cultural studies and theories, this essay will conclude that theories and studies put forward have shown that although nature plays an essential part of the development of the childhood, it’s society and culture that provide the major influences. It was Philippe Aries (1962) who proposed that ‘childhood’ is a recent invention in itself.

In his studies of historical literature and paintings, Aries concluded that in mediaeval times childhood didn’t exist, in that, children were seen as miniature adults (Woodhead, 2005). However, Aries was heavily criticised by Shahar (1990), who believes that Aries research is flawed, as Aries only took in to consideration the lives of wealthy or noble children. The problem being that the wealthy or noble children were in the minority and the largest group of children, which would have been the poor, were not represented.

Be that as it may, the broad framework of his argument, which was the socially constructed nature of childhood, is the foundation of subsequent studies. There are three opposing philosophies of childhood, through this four contrasting perspectives have branched. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) and Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) were both nativists, they believed that the child developed naturally, and that culture could shape them. However,

Rousseau believed that children we’re naturally innocent an hobbes believed that children were naturally sinful, he also believed that the child should be controlled and disciplined, where as Rousseau believed that the child should be allowed to develop in natural stages. John Locke (1632-1704), an empiricist, believed that children had a ‘tabua rasa’ (blank slate), to be written on by experience; this supports the theory that childhood is a social and cultural process.

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) believed that children were born with the specific ability of being to interpret information and interact with the environment; Through interactions Kant sets the tone for the did not view childhood as exclusively a natural or exclusively a social process, but a combination of the two, which led to the ‘transactional models’ of development (Woodhead, 2005). Although these theories originated within Western societies, they can be applied globally, to study children in diverse societies and cultures.

Whiting and Whiting (1975) performed six studies to discover how children develop in a similar way in different cultures as they do in the west. They discovered many differences, especially in the ages at which children were considered capable of adult responsibilities. These themes are illustrated by examining the place of work, play and learning in the lives of young children, drawing on the concept of the developmental niche (Super, and Harkness, 1986).

Thomas Hobbes a rationalist, believed that knowledge was innate, he argued that all human beings were born sinful, however a parent could prevent the child from becoming ‘evil’ and ‘save’ them, through ‘control and discipline’, which were the prime factors for development. He was an important influence on Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), who was supporter of Hobbesian views. Freud’s theories on the ego, id and the superego related directly to Hobbes’s viewpoints. Freud’s work on the ‘id’, which are the person’s instinctual impulses and pleasure driver, are regulated by the conscience, also known as the ‘superego’.

This strong but negative influence of nature was to be controlled through parental discipline. Although Hobbes and Freud advocated a nativist perspective on the essential nature of children, which validates James and Prouts assertion that childhood is “constructed and reconstructed”. Hobbesian views of childhood were that it is constructed naturally and would unfolfd naturally, if not for social discourse (Woodhead, 2005). Jean-Jacques Rousseau was also a nativist, referring to children as ‘noble savages’, also falls in line with James and Prouts assertion.

Rousseau however believed that the environment does not have a positive, but a negative affect on childhood development. He believed that children are not inherently sinful, but are inherently innocent, and would develop naturally in positive ways if allowed to do so; this view was in direct contrast to Hobbes. He suggested children should be allowed an ‘Age of Nature’ covering the period from birth to twelve years. This should be a time in which children be allowed to play and have their natural innocence respected (Woodhead, 2005).

His views could be seen during the eighteenth century; the ‘Factory Act 1833’ was implemented as a form of legal protection, as childhood was increasingly seen as a time to play and for education. However, by 1840 a large proportion of children left school by the age of 10 or 11, but the majority of children never actually went to school. Be that as it may, by the end of the 19th century school became central to the idea of a ‘normal childhood’ (Hendrick, 1990), exams were later introduced, to shape the future of children (Mackinnon, 2003)

Rousseau’s idea of natural stages of development influenced Fredrich Froebel (1782-1852), the originator of the Kindergarten, who believed that children developed in stages and should be helped to get the most benefit they could, from each one. This theory set the tone for contemporary teaching templates, with regards to the balance of play and teaching, within early year’s education. Rousseau’s theory sets guidelines for what is developmentally appropriate, and it is this practical advice about nurturing the child’s natural development, not his nativist perspective, which persists today.

The third theory challenges both Hobbes and Rousseau’s idea that children are born as either good or bad and believed they were born with a blank slate. John Locke saw the character of childhood as extremely malleable; experience being the sole factor of development. He recommended parents as tutors, responsible for providing the right environment and offering moral guidance in which to shape and nurture their children into mature, rational adults. Locke was the pioneer of the Educationalist movement.

He asserted that before a child’s mind can be instructed, it must be educated. Locke’s theories echo in contemporary political debates concerning modern family values (Woodhead, 2005). The final theory is that of Immanuel Kant, who rejects the rationalist view that learning is innate, as well as the empiricist view that experience is the sole factor of development. He believed that the key influence in development was an interaction between the two perspectives.

He argued that knowledge could not be gained from the sense alone, but believed experience played a crucial role in learning. He went further by advocating the view that children did not just receive external stimuli or follow pre-determined biological patterns, instead were an active autonomous agent, ‘active agents’, in their own development. He proposed that the child is born with a framework, in which external factors, such as society and culture are understood.

This framework is the basis of contemporary developmental research on cause and effect, sometimes known as ‘Transactional models’ of development (Woodhead, 2005). These theories outlined above provide the basis for contemporary theories that emphasis the role of society and culture on childhood development. The ‘Developmental Niche’ theory was proposed by Super and Harknes (1986), as a way of understanding how common features of childhood development diversify, according to culture.

In the developmental niche the most important influence on the child’s development includes both their social and physical habitat, how they are raised both parentally and through culturally regulated customs, also through ethnographies, of parents or others; which includes goals and discourses for the child. Super and Harkness believed that cultural influences had a huge effect on development of mental, physical and social capacities. These skills do not follow a universal pattern in accordance with biological factors, instead he development of these skills depends on the interaction between biological and social and cultural factors. Skills which are economically advantageous to the family unit or themselves will be important to children as they develop. Children in less extreme cultures, than those in developing countries, and certainly in the western world, develop skills at their own pace, with no particular pressure from society, other than through play and structured learning at school, i. e in ‘pretend’ settings and academics, respectively.

Their lack of adult responsibilities means that there is no particular pressure to develop adult skills quickly (Woodhead, 2005). This theory was supported in the ‘six cultures’ cross cultural study, which helped to examine childhood development and its influences, across six different cultures. In the study Whiting and Whiting (1975) looked at childhood development and found that cultures in the developing world gave their children more responsibility within the family and prepared them more in terms of skill for adulthood.

Therefore, children do not tend to work in western countries as they do in developing ones and do not have the opportunity to acquire useful and adult skills until much later in their development. In western countries, it is more likely that children are classed as that, until their late teenage years, and there is a fairly recent ‘phenomenon’ of extended adolescence where childlike qualities are displayed and accepted well into a person’s twenties. Therefore, the transition from child to adult was not as marked as it is in western countries (Woodhead, 2005).

Cross cultural studies show that society and culture has a great influence on childhood development. The variations found in different cultures support the viewpoint that the pattern of development is firmly dictated by the culture and society they inhabit. Society gives the framework for development, and cultural influences shape how it happens. If this were not the case then the differences in development would not be so marked between cultures. In conclusion, the authoritarian views of Hobbes and Freud, as well as the omanticism motivated views of Rousseau are unconvincing to a modern audience. Be that as it may, James and Prouts assertion that ‘childhood is constructed and reconstructed’ validates their view that the personality can be altered through socially constructed means. Locke’s emphasis on education (although not to the extent he proposed) is echoed by today’s politicians. It seems reasonable to assume that the real character of childhood is an interactive process between the two as proposed by Kant.

In the western world, the onus of social responsibility to our children has always been great and is growing. It would appear that childhood development is greatly influenced by society and culture. However, it seems acceptable to suggest that nature provides the starting point and framework for this development. So, this essay concludes that although the theories of development view society and culture as providing a major influence on child development, they are aware however that nature plays a minor but essential part too. Word count: 1909 References Aries, P. 1962), cited in Woodhead (2005) p. 18 Hendrick, H. (1990), cited in Woodhead (2005) p. 20 James A, and Prout, A. (1997), cited in Woodhead (2005) p. 15 Mackinnon, D. (2003), cited in Woodhead (2005) p. 20 Shahar, S. (1990), cited in Woodhead (2005) p. 18 Super, C. and Harkness, S. (1986), cited in Woodhead (2005) pp. 44-45 Whiting, B. B. and Whiting, J. W. M. (1975), cited in Woodhead (2005) pp. 35-37 Woodhead. M. (2005). ‘Children and Development’, in Oates, J. , Wood, C. and Grayson, A. (eds) Psychological Development and Early Childhood, Oxford, Blackwell/The Open University.


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