Posted: March 30th, 2022

Sociocultural Perspective on Childhood

Sociocultural Perspective on Childhood


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“Children’s capacity to choose appropriate behaviour is influenced by their developmental ability, temperament, interactions, life experiences and environmental factors.” (Government of South Australia, 2004)


Children’s behavior is a reflection of a constellation of different factors, including but not limited to: genetics, environment, and epigenetics (the ways in which the environment interacts with and affects biology). The concept of what is a ‘badly’ behaved child is not a universal construct. During the Middle Ages, children were often viewed as potentially malevolent creatures in need of civilizing; in the Victorian era they were often viewed with sentimentality (Porter, 2009, p. 11). Both of these contrasting beliefs have lingered on in our own era, as well as other culturally-constructed ideas, including the notion of children as possessing a limited capability (Porter, 2009, p. 12). Many of our beliefs about childhood are actually quite contradictory, such as the idea that children are the future and must be carefully cultivated so that they mature properly, contrasted with the idea that childhood must be eternally preserved (Porter, 2009, p. 13). All of these assumptions ignore the individual nature of each child and the unique circumstances he or she is born into. The quote above stresses the degree to which a variety of influences shape the child but the concept of appropriate itself is a highly mutable construct.


In earlier eras, the notion that children should be seen but not heard was embraced; today, an entire subculture revolves around entertainment created solely for children and child-safe spaces where children can ‘just be kids.’ Both of these two extremes reflect the extent to which childhood is a culturally-bound notion that changes over time. In the sociocultural concept of childhood, “Knowing’ is linked to ‘doing’ and that the relationship between understanding and social action is symbiotic. The knowledge of everyday life assigns children to childhood by their parents, guardians and other adults … child or childhood is associated with and structured by a variety of assumptions, meanings and understandings that relate to that particular social world” (Kenninson, Goodman, & Metcalf, 2008, p.1). Children do not create the concept of childhood, nor do individual adults; childhood is a cultural product.


The problem with a solely disciplinary focus upon shaping and molding children’s behavior in today’s society is that it does not instill the capacity to choose between right and wrong in the child and does not treat the child like an independent organism; children need a sense of self-efficacy if they are going to be willing to regulate their emotions and engage in cooperative relationships, as is expected of adults in our society (Porter, 2009, p. 13). Sociocultural conceptions of childhood education and childhood stress the contextual nature of adult assumptions about children. Adults are demanded to be equally self-critical of their own assumptions and children must be willing partners in the socialization process. Through this, they are much more likely to attain the type of autonomy that is so prized within our individualistic Western society. While on one hand we prize independence as a culture, many of our assumptions about childhood seem to focus solely upon making children continually dependent upon their caretakers, leading to a constant sense of frustration for both teachers and parents.


The sociocultural perspective, it should be noted, does not deny that there are certain aspects of a child’s education which cannot be changed and are hard-wired into their neurological functioning. For example, all infants seem to be born egocentric in the sense that they have little sense of subjectivity outside of them: an awareness of others, including the sense that others have feelings different from their own only comes with time, along with other developmental constructs such as object permanence (Dougherty, 2009, p. 379-380). There are also certain temperamental components which seem partly genetic and partially learned, like shyness. Although human beings are said to be innately social animals, introversion and extroversion exists on a continuum. Some children are more apt to be outgoing although their parents and experiences with peers can cause this trait to be cultivated or suppressed. Similarly, more introverted children may learn to be more social while if they have similarly introverted parents and negative early experiences, this character trait may be reinforced. The desirability of extroversion or introversion as a trait, however, will vary cross-culturally.


But parenting styles can also encourage or inhibit aggressive or prosocial activities in children: authoritative, authoritarian, and permissive parenting may influence children in different ways: authoritarian parents set reasonable boundaries for their children; they reward positive behaviors but still respect children’s autonomy. In contrast, authoritarian parents are rigid and unyielding in their expectations and give little praise; they take a suspicious view of their children and are inflexible. Permissive parents allow the child to dictate the household and set few limits. And some parents, of course, are virtually uninvolved with their children at all times (Dougherty, 2009, p. 396).


Children from households with authoritative parents tend to have higher self-esteem; in contrast, children from authoritarian households have low self-esteem, given the constant belittling they receive given their inability to conform or meet their parents’ demands. Children with permissive parents often have little sense of being able to gratify their own wishes or the desires of others, given their parents always capitulated to them and children with emotionally absent parents who do not satisfy their needs are more likely to be asocial and hostile (Dougherty, 2009, p. 396). Interaction with parents is not the sole determinant of the child’s behavior — as well as the child him or herself, peers, other relatives, and teachers also have an influence but the sociocultural perspective strives to explain why there is so much variation in children’s behavior, even children from the same society who are subject to similar socialization experiences and expectations.


The sociocultural perspective for understanding childhood behavior is also very useful for unpacking the assumptions attached to why and how children engage in play and how play is viewed within our societal context. Although play is generally viewed as something positive and innate to a normal childhood, there has also been a drive to attach a purpose to the behavior. “Lev Vygotsky viewed play as important in building up mental structures using culturally specific tools, such as language. Albert Bandura saw play as rehearsal and preparation for skills in later life. Jean Piaget allied play to the development of cognition, as an activity that only higher mammals can participate in,” and there have been various attempts to classify play according to a typology (Dougherty, 2009, p. 382). But once again, it must be asked why we as a society demand a reason for play, and why there must be a justification for including it in a child’s daily school routine, versus more obviously productive activities. The idea that children’s education must be structured and ‘work’ and even play must have a practical function is yet another assumption of our society.


Just as views of the value of play for children have shifted and changed, so have views of aggressive behavior in childhood and other negative actions and emotions: once it was assumed that ‘boys would be boys’ and such behavior was normal. A child’s race, religion, or ethnicity may influence the extent to which his or her bullying is viewed as just teasing or as consciously malicious. There may also be unconscious rewards for physically aggressive behavior in boys but not in girls. “Social learning theory tells us that reinforcement is important, i.e. giving rewards for sharing – sweets, money and verbal praise all increase the likelihood of these behaviours being replicated. Social learning theory also points to other factors: the importance of modelling and imitation” (Dougherty, 2009, p. 411). Children who are continually exposed to violent behavior and are taught by example that such behavior is normal (even if they are harshly disciplined for acting out against their parents) are more likely to replicate such behaviors. The media may also play a significant role in shaping children’s perceptions of the world, particularly during early grades when children may have a more pliable sense of what is fact versus fiction (Dougherty, 2009, p. 402).


There have been a number of criticisms of social learning theory. For example, “behaviours such as sharing or helping another child do not happen frequently enough to be reinforced so are not powerful enough to explain adequately the scope and rapid development of moral behaviours in childhood” (Dougherty, 2009, p. 406). There must be a sense of positive reinforcement beyond that of simply replicating behaviors, either because empathy has survived as an evolutionarily useful skill in sustaining the species or because of the pleasures it bestows to the giver. Its critics believe that it gives insufficient weight to biology in terms of shaping the human character. According to Dougherty (2009): while “an emphasis on genetic determinants in general receive little support although we have already seen how temperament is integral to how children respond emotionally to others;” in other words, genetics is not destiny for the child although social influences are not exerted upon a purely blank slate (another model of childhood character and development which has since been rejected (p.11).


Sociocultural conceptions of children’s character may be distinguished from previous views of how character is shaped, such as behaviorism, which sees character as evolving due to a series of shaping rewards and punishments. This does tend to conceptualize character in a very narrow fashion, given that there are few allowances made for individual differences in this construction. The sociocultural perspective naturally produces a different view of how education should function for children as well, given the assumption that there is a need to take into consideration the child’s individual nature, rather than administering a ‘cookie cutter’ behaviorist program in terms of shaping the child’s character. But sociocultural conceptions are also quite distinct from humanist constructs which stress the unerringly positive aspects of children’s character and behavior. The sociocultural emphasis is always upon the dialogue between nature and nurture, and the fact that as culture changes and adapts, so must the ways in which children are socialized. A classroom fifty or a hundred years ago would not necessarily be appropriate for instilling the types of values that children need to embrace today. The sociocultural construction is also a challenge to stage-based assumptions of developmental psychological and moral behavior, given that many of these stages-based theories (such as those of Piaget and Kohlberg) were created in a largely Westernized context and based upon their creators’ assumptions of what constituted a correct trajectory of development.


Assumptions about how children’s behavior should be will continue to change in the future, and parents and educators must likewise change in their responses. This does not deny the need for socialization. However, adults that interact with children (and not just parents or educational professionals) can benefit from being more self-conscious about their point-of-view of what constitutes correct behavior from a child. This can create more realistic and positive experiences with children for both themselves and the children they encounter.




Doherty, J. (2009). The social and moral world of the child. In Child development: Theory


and practice 0-11. London: Longman, 377-423.


Kenninson, P, Goodman, P., Metcalf, C. (2008). Constructing childhood and child abuse


In Children as victims. Exeter: Learning matters, 2008: 1-14


Porter, L. (2008). Contrasting ideas about discipline. In Young children’s behaviour:


Practical approaches for caregivers and teachers. (3rd ed).NSW: MacLennan & Petty, 9-18.

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