The Future of Childhood: Controlled or Chaotic? | Daniel Hawker

If suddenly you found yourself transported back to Victorian England, undoubtedly, you’d notice many differences to 21st Century society; buildings would be far more beautiful, people far sicker and regulations regarding children in work far less stringent. With abhorrent squalor facing much of the urban populace, children were routinely, and from an early age, sent to support their families via employment – these jobs could include chimney sweeping and coal mining. Since the Industrial Revolution however there has been a significant legal shift in terms of children. For the Victorians, the past one hundred years had seen children go from being viewed as essentially adults, to a unique class of society, and one in need of legal protections and defences. Thus, since the late 1800s we’ve seen a variety of laws aimed at protecting children (including the restricting of child labour) as well as developing their abilities, most notably through the introduction of compulsory schooling in 1880.

More consequential however, has been the cultural shift in terms of how society, and parents most notably, view the period of childhood and children more broadly. Centuries of Childhood: A Social History of Family Life (1960) by Philippe Aries lays out how children in the Middle Ages were viewed as no different to adults. By contrast, children in the 21st Century are the exact opposite: children and adults face different expectations, legal rights, societal authority and individual autonomy. As a society, we have come to understand childhood to be a clearly different life stage to adulthood, and thus requires protection from the more depraved and dark aspects of the adult world (such as easily-accessible online pornography). Thus, parenting has shifted from a laissez-faire and hands-off approach, to be far-more focused on micromanagement – parents are now essentially unrivalled in their control of their children and their lives. In many ways, I view this as beneficial: children are immature, illogical and incapable of a great many things, as thus do require their parents to act as guides in the early years.

In terms of sociological theory, the 21st Century has marked a turning point in childhood, with the ‘control and protection’ model of thinking being challenged. Certain figures believe childhood is becoming less and less a clear life stage, including Neil Postman. Postman notes what he calls the ‘disappearance of childhood’: a move towards granting children similar rights to adults. This school of thought represents a larger movement focused on increasing the individuality and personal autonomy of children, believing nowadays heavy regulation by parents to be stifling children’s personal development. Indeed, to learn about the world and from their own mistakes, children undeniably must be afforded a certain level of freedom.

These two approaches to parenting, control vs chaos, have been embodied by the 21st Century phenomena of ‘free-range’ and ‘helicopter’ parenting. Whilst ‘free-range’ focuses on allowing the child maximum freedom coupled with limited parental supervision, ‘helicopter’ takes a far-more managerial approach, with the parents being aware and involved in seemingly every aspect of their child’s life. Society has an undeniable obligation to protect children from danger and moral depravity: in this sense, anti-porn legislation would be hugely beneficial, for both children and adults. However, we can indeed couple this approach with one focused on allowing for individual freedom and autonomy. The safety, health and wellbeing of the children must always be the priority in any discussion of childhood, but the fact remains that children in the 21st Century ought to be provided a balance between restrictive control and liberating chaos.

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