In order to fully answer this question, I will be firstly be interpreting what makes a child a child and how discourses of childhood shape the way we do this in society. In modern day culture we have an endless supply of media available to us in which children and childhood are portrayed. These images use the differing discourses in order to shape the way we view children. The way in which childhood is portrayed also varies from culture to culture, and so how one culture may view children as vulnerable and dependant on adults, another may view them as joining in with gathering food on a hunt with the male adults of a village.
When we think about what makes a child a child, people tend to think of a small human being, someone who relies on adults to clothe and feed them and provide them with their daily needs. Western Society is exposed to images of children portrayed in this way and yet there is a cross over stage for children where they reach a certain age in which they want to be treated like an adult and yet do not yet have the ability to fully behave like one. Generally, Western Culture describes a child as someone from birth to around the age of 16, whereby, they can still be considered to be an adult but are used under the term “young adult”.
A way in which visual representations of childhood is depicted uses different discourses. A discourse uses no sets of beliefs about childhood; it creates a set of ideas and places children in groups in relation to other age groups. The social constructionist’s approach is to use discourses when answering this question. There are two discourses of childhood that we can adhere to when answering the main question; these are the romantic discourse of childhood and the puritan discourse.
The romantic discourse aims to protect a child’s innocence; it views them as being wholesome and needing protection from the wide world. Visual representations of this particular discourse can be seen whereby children are shown as carefree and almost as if ‘wrapped in cotton wool’. During the Victorian times, this discourse was used to create pictures of children and show them as being in this way. The opposite therefore is the Puritan discourse, this is used to depict children as needing to be controlled and disciplined. It also claims that children lack morals and so need to be taught them.
It is also the case that society tends to lend the Romantic discourse more to girls and the Puritan discourse to boys. French historian Philippe Aries wrote that childhood is a social construction when he penned his book “Centuries of Childhood” (Aries 1962). He challenged that ideas about children and childhood have changed over the years of time. Aries studied Art from the Middle Ages and found that pre 16th century art depicted children as “scaled – down adults, with the posture and muscles of adults” (Pg 55, Understanding Childhood).
After the 16th century art shows children as we would see them today, with their own clothing and toys. Basing his thesis heavily on art, Aries claimed that before the 16th century children were not defined as such were not separate from adulthood. However, we can question Aries thesis to the point that he only used art to base his ideas on and these paintings were compiled by people who had their own ideas on children and childhood. Aries’ own ideas of children may have also hindered his outcome.