Constructions of Childhood

The notion of childhood continues to undergo tremendous changes over time, place and culture. Some of the most influential factors responsible for this change among other things include economic, socio-cultural and political dynamics (Holland, 1996; James & Prout, 1997; Sorin & Galloway, 2005). The purpose of the following analysis is to examine nine images of children being depicted in today’s media and identify the different constructions of childhood that they promote.

The three social constructions of childhood that have been identified in these images include: the child as vulnerable (Simpson, 2005), the child as innocent (Woodrow, 1999) and the child as a ‘gendered being’ (Burman, 1995). Conceptual tools will be used to deconstruct the selected images such as positioning, colour, lighting and facial expressions and will clarify how these tools are used in constructing the notion of childhood.

It is safe to say that the images deconstructed and analysed throughout this paper suggest that there is strong relationship between the social constructions of childhood and how this conception of childhood has often denied them of their agency and profoundly shaped and limited their ability to participate as active citizens in today’s society (Morrow, 2003). Childhood as innocent is a representation that is most treasured and easily recognisable in contemporary society (Woodrow, 1999).

An aspect of this construction portrays children as weak, incompetent, vulnerable and dependent; a ‘blank slate’ to be constructed by adults, denying them of their agency and their ability to act and determine action for themselves (Dockett, 1998; Woodrow, 1999; Sorin, 2003; Johnny, 2006). Image 7 (Appendix 7) draws focus to two children pictured in the centre of the image in a brightly lit and manufactured environment with soft and gentle surroundings of nature blurred in the background suggesting calmness and delicacy.

This carries the connotation of vitality and growth that symbolizes the children as defenceless “seedlings” in a position of “natural goodness” that needs to be cared for, nurtured and protected as they mature into adults (Aries, 1962, p. 26). The artificial light in all three images (Appendix 7, 8 & 9) accentuates the whiteness, uncontaminated purity of the environment whilst the children relinquish complete control to the photographer. In Image 8 (Appendix 8) we can see a young boy and girl dressed as angels, the ook in the children’s eyes is about innocence and spiritual cleanliness evoking within the viewer emotions of calmness, contentment and peace. By placing the children in these white, pure angelic costumes it removes a sense of their identity suggesting that they are free from moral wrong, free from sin, as well as inexperienced or perhaps naive. Image 9 (Appendix 9) represents the iconic blonde hair, blue eyed child commonly photographed in Western culture (Holland, 1992; Burman, 1995). The image draws attention to the child’s doe like eyes and expressionless gaze, evoking feelings of vulnerability, delicacy and protection in the viewer.

The child is positioned as though the viewer is looking down at her, symbolizing a weak and powerless child who will only accomplish independence, agency and identity when she reaches adulthood (Sigel & Kim, 1996). In the binary of the adult child relationship in childhood innocence, Robinson (2002) suggests that children are often constructed as powerless in relation to the mature powerful and knowing adult. All three images (Appendix 7, 8 & 9) portraying innocence highlights the critical impacts this notion of childhood can have on children’s agency in their lives (Robinson and Diaz, 2007; Dockett, 1998; Woodrow, 1999).

The child as vulnerable is a construction that represents children as victims and often portrays images of children who live through war, terror, famine or poverty (Simpson, 2005; Burman, 1995). The children portrayed in images 1, 2 and 3 (Appendix 1, 2 & 3) present the notion of the vulnerable child, one who is voiceless and powerless and often pictured alone in aid appeals, deliberately separated from adults to depict them as needy victims and vulnerable creatures that are exposed to the harsh reality of life (Burman, 1995; Woodrow, 1999).

Images 1, 2 and 3 (Appendix 1, 2 & 3) exhibit the children as the central point of focus, with eyes wide open staring out to the viewers generating sympathy and charity and with expressions that are grimace and miserable indicating the child’s weakness and hardship. Image 1 and 2 are dull and in black and white, highlighting the darkness, gloom and emptiness surrounding the child that is perhaps symbolic to their feelings. Image 2 (Appendix 2) photographs the natural sunlight coming from the background, creating a dark fallen shadow across the child’s face and body which produces a powerful message of suffering as is body is slumped over whilst carrying a large rock. In image 3 (Appendix 3) the child being depicted as a victim appears to not even posses the slightest illusion of power, this highlights Holland’s (2004) statement that “pictures of sorrowing children reinforce the defining characteristics of childhood, dependence and powerlessness” (p: 89). Image 3 does this by illustrating the child’s cheerless expression, suffering body, sores on his face signifying severe health issues and malnutrition as his bones protrude from his naked skin indicating hunger and starvation.

However, when contrasting these images (Appendix 1, 2 & 3) that evoke sympathy and play on the notion of vulnerability, to the images discussed earlier in the notion of childhood innocence (Appendix 7, 8 & 9), these images whilst they may appear in posters and magazine covers are likely to be censored from other children, to ‘protect’ their innocence against the ‘evils’ of the world (Ansell, 2005). Unlike innocence, these images generate no feelings of brightness, cheerfulness, contentment and peace.

Within the notion of childhood, images of the child as a ‘gendered being’ often depict how stereotypical gender roles are introduced to children through the toys they may interact with and simple behaviours of ‘heterosexualization’ like the colour coding of children – blue for boys and pink girls (Davies, 1993; Robinson & Diaz, 2006). Images 4, 5 and 6 (Appendix 4, 5 & 6) highlight gender as a social construction and how children can take up different subject positions within the discourses of gender, such as particular ways of behaving, dressing, and interacting (Davies, 1993; Howard & Hollander, 1997).

This can be particularly seen in image 5 (Appendix 5) which exhibits two young children whose sex is androgynous, however the clothing of both children signify the symbolic overtones of ‘dark’ and ‘light’, ‘pale’ and ‘intense’ associated with ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ (Hall, 1997). One child is wearing a soft pale, floral dress representing purity as a passive girl and the other child is wearing bold, dark and intense blue overalls representing the masculine boy.

The designation of light colours for girls and dark, intense colours for boys begins the social process which teaches girls to be passive, dependent, and submissive and boys to be active, independent and dominant (Szirom, 1988; Robinson & Diaz, 2006). This is also reinforced through toys the children are pictured with, one child is playing with a pram to highlight the stereotypical gender role of females and the discourses associated with femineity by taking on the nurturing, passive and caring role of a mother.

The other child is playing with a truck highlighting the stereotypical gender role of males and ‘boys’ toys encouraging more exploration, invention and adventure (Renzetti & Curran, 2003). This can also be seen in Image 4 (Appendix 4) displaying a child dressed in a soft, pale pink dress playing with a dollhouse symbolizing the feminine role of a ‘homemaker’. The ‘girls’ in both images (Appendix 4 & 5) signify a gentle, demure, sensitive, submissive, sweet- natured and domesticated female whilst the ‘boy’ (Appendix 5) signifies the masculine, active, rough, tough, working with tools cars, and trucks gendered role.

These are but a few of the ways gender identity and discourses of masculinity and femininity are introduced through the notion of ‘gendered being’ and children’s sexual identities are normalised as heterosexual (Hall, 1997; Robinson & Diaz, 2006). Image 6 (Appendix 6) reinforces the concept of ‘gendered child’ and the active/passive binary, illustrating the gendered expectations of the ‘active boy’ being outdoors, engaging in more aggressive and athletic play like sports. The construction of childhood as ‘gendered beings’ (Appendix 4, 5 & 6), strips them of their agency and the freedom of creating their own identity (Benokraitis, 2002).

This analysis has examined nine images that presented three constructions of childhood; the ‘innocent’ child, the child as ‘vulnerable’ and the ‘gendered being’ (Woodrow, 1999; Burman, 1995; Simpson, 2005). While these constructions define the notion of ‘childhood’ in contemporary society, they also recognise that childhood changes over time and space and identify the role of the adult, in relation to the creation of the childhood construction itself (Woodrow, 1999; James & Prout, 1997).

By highlighting the numerous ways that childhood is conceptualised, and the ways in which children overall are perceived as powerless, vulnerable and dependant it places emphasis on the limitations and restrictions on children engaging as active citizens in today’s society denying them of their agency. It is critical to examine our own subjectivity on society’s dominant discourses in order to improve children’s social environment and offer them the awareness of inequities to challenge these preconceived notions of childhood.