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Is There Really Such a Thing as an Ideal Childhood?

Natalie Frank, a Ph.D in clinical psychology, specializes in pediatrics, health psychology, and behavioral medicine.


What Exactly Is "Normal"?

When we consider the area of child development, we need to recognize how we view childhood from an adult point of view. This is the obvious point of view, as adults are the ones who create these discussions and develop definitions of different aspects of childhood. But could it add accuracy and a more complete understanding if we first look at things from a slightly different perspective? I want to consider the experiences of children based on what are considered to be "normal" expectations of what children should be like. This is based on several different factors and perspectives, including those of the children themselves.

But first, let's consider a different question. It's a basic question, at least on the surface. However, if you stop to think before answering, you may discover there have been things you didn't take into account when asked previously and times when you may have responded automatically with an answer you'd been using for quite some time with no thought at all. The question is simply this: Did you have a normal childhood?

Take a minute and really think about it. See if anything comes to mind that you hadn't really thought about before. Did you discover you automatically answered without ever reconsidering if it was entirely true? Or perhaps you realized that an answer you believed to be true in childhood doesn't seem entirely accurate at this age. Did you possibly come up with anything in regards to the question itself that you'd never previously considered? But how about the most fundamental question of all: Who gets to define "normal"?

How Do We Define "Normal Childhood" and Who Defines It?

It appears that before we can answer any of the questions posed above, we have to define what is considered "normal" in terms of childhood. But that's tricky, as it changes depending upon what is being considered as the criteria. Definitions of "normal" change based on time and place as well as on a child's class, race, and gender. Also, it should become evident that the "ideal" childhood experience is relative.

The study of childhood is unique in that childhood is one social category we all have experienced, albeit differently. It is also one of the few social groups that everyone eventually passes out of and looks back at through the lenses of our personal histories. This touches on how we have traditionally conducted research on childhood issues. Childhood was traditionally studied by examining changes that occurred throughout childhood. Specifically, characteristics specific to children, or particular populations of children who changed over time differently than other populations, were analyzed.

Yet historically, those used to provide the data that was expected to demonstrate this changing world of childhood were adults. While we found children worthy of study in order to gain a better understanding of this crucial time in development, we didn't trust them to tell us about it accurately, though they were the ones actually experiencing it firsthand. Thus, large research studies were initially retrospective—adults were asked to recount experiences from their childhood.

A New Way of Studying Childhood

The way adults think and evaluate events is obviously quite different from how children do so for many reasons. A primary explanation utilized is that of cognitive maturation. This factor was used as a defense for why children were left out of the equation—they were too immature to understand their experiences and more so to express these experiences descriptively. Yet it soon became clear despite this concern having adults tell the story of childhood was less than ideal, and investigators began designing longitudinal studies. These follow the same children over time to document actual changes in each individual as they occur. Yet this method poses another difficulty—the cohort of children followed at one time may not have experiences that are the same as those of a cohort of children followed at another time.

Childhood is something that most of us have taken for granted as a phase of biological changes that lead to adulthood. But it is much more than that. Understanding the way a society makes meaning of the period we call childhood is vital to understanding society in general. Childhood is as much a social phase as a biological one; the way that we make meaning of both tells us a great deal about ourselves. So understanding the method we are using to study this era of development and what factors may alter the findings for different groups of children is paramount if we are to ever understand children in a fluid manner as opposed to viewing childhood as a static construct that all children have in common.

There is not complete agreement on the understanding children have of the world around them and the interpretations and judgments children make about their world. Because of this, many of the most intense social and political debates surround attempts to determine what goes on in the mind of a child. Without knowing these things, answers to questions considered crucial can be hard if not impossible to agree upon.

For example, should children be kept away from information about sex for as long as possible? If not, who should teach them, and what should they learn? Are same-sex couples a threat to children? What about divorce? Single parenthood? Violence on TV or playing violent video games?

Take the last one, for example. A question that was raised when school shootings began to become more commonplace: Are school shootings linked to playing violent video games? The anecdotal evidence suggested that there seemed to be an association between the two. So for years, that was used to suggest that while some had previously suggested that playing such games was cathartic, this was false. Instead, violent video games or television were pointed to as a potential negative influence on children, which could lead to violent outbursts.

Later studies refuted these findings, showing that it was more likely that it was children who already displayed certain characteristics such as preferring to be alone, anger outbursts, or some sort of instability that might be potentially affected by violent games or television. We all probably have opinions about these issues. Yet it is important to hear the voices of young people themselves through research that places children fully in the center.


What Is the Preferred Meaning of Childhood?

So think again about the initial question did you have a normal childhood? Were you able to come to a conclusion as to how you would define normal? Were your experiences of childhood the same as your parents? Grandparents? Did you have a lot of contact with your grandparents or great-grandparents? Did they ever describe their childhoods? If so, what were their experiences like? How different were they from yours?

As you think about this, you can probably start to see some important changes that have already taken place. The experiences children have and our perceptions of childhood overall shift based on economic, political, and social changes. Our ideas of what constitutes an ideal childhood change to meet the needs of our culture or society.

Although children are active in constructing the meaning of their experiences and their lives, the construction of the broader meaning of childhood is largely created by and for adults. For example, when a large proportion of children were needed in the American labor force in the 19th Century, work was defined as normal, while leisure was defined as wasteful. By contrast, most children now are expected to be in school, as our economy now requires a highly educated labor pool.

Growing up, it was not unusual to hear stories told by friends about grandparents who left school before high school to work and help support the family. Many of them were immigrants coming to a new country with their relatives. One of my own grandfathers left school after 8th grade to work at his family’s business. We're not sure when the other one, who immigrated from Russia with his family, left school to work, but we know he did not attend high school.

From today's perspective, these individuals would be considered dropouts, doomed to lives of poverty and, possibly, to be put in prison. Or perhaps we’d consider the parents abusive for requiring such a thing. But at the time, most children in this country left school well before high school graduation to help their families, so my grandfathers and those of my friends were considered good sons for doing what was needed and expected of them, as opposed to delinquents.

So when we think about the ideal childhood, we have to keep in mind our construction of the meaning of childhood based on many factors: the economic needs of society, beliefs about gender (my grandmothers didn't go out to work in business but stayed at home to help their mothers with the running of the household), socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religion, and where we live. Ultimately, childhood is a social construction, something to which we ascribe meaning and which is the basis of our views and definitions. This doesn't mean childhood is an illusion, though; it's a very real experience that we view through the lenses of specific ways of seeing children and childhood itself.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2017 Natalie Frank


Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on September 26, 2017:

Good point about couples and modeling of relationships. A lot of times I think we forget how important observational learning is. Thanks for the congrats. So did you find my articles so obscure? (:

Nadine May from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa on September 26, 2017:

Wow, that is some post. From a marriage counselor point of view, couples seem to copy what they have learned about relationships between their parents when they were kids... Congrats for winning - Hubber with Most Obscure Knowledge award: the word obscure drew me to find out what was so obscure...

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on September 25, 2017:

All very good points Mary. That idea that "you can have it all" I think did affect women't beliefs about what they "should" do and "should" be. It wasn't enough any more to want to be housewives and in fact that term took on a negative connotation. I have always had a problem with this and the feminist movement's role in it. I think it was good and important to make strides toward allowing women who chose to to have careers and make strides toward equal pay for equal work thought we are still working towards the latter. At the same time assuming that women who chose to be homemakers, were suddenly made to feel as if they were holding women back and not living up to their full potential. I always wondered if the feminist movement was largely about giving women choices how saying you shouldn't be a homemaker but should have a career because you can. I think there are different things that are right and "ideal" for different families and different children. Thanks so much for your comment.

Mary Wickison from USA on September 24, 2017:

Hi Natalie,

Linda is right, this is a thought provoking article.

For my generation, I believe that television played a crucial part in what children and adults perceived as 'normal life'.

Shows like "Leave it to Beaver" and later "Happy Days", showed a nuclear family sitting down to dinner together. Shows such as these gave white lower/middle class Americans a bar to gauge themselves by. I also think it is important to note that in these shows the mother stayed at home and appeared to be content.

Advertising, during the commercial breaks, led to a must have wish list which included new appliances, cars and homes. This required a family with two incomes and I think this is one of the reasons for many of the problems we see now.

Although I think women have changed the workforce for the better, their role as caregiver in the home suffered and so did the children.

The thought of, 'you can have it all' as advertisers told a listening public, set an unacheivable standard and led to unhappiness.

As you say, in our grandparent's era, they knew they had to go out to work from an early age in order to help the family. There was a sense of working together and mutual support for a common goal.

I think what it comes down to is a sense of gratitude for what we already have.

Natalie Frank (author) from Chicago, IL on September 23, 2017:

Thanks Linda. I'm glad to know it got you thinking.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on September 23, 2017:

This is a very thought provoking article, Natalie. I'm going to be thinking about about some of the questions that you've posed for some time!