The definition of a child often remains controversial. It can be determined according to the child’s age, physical appearance (for example size and dressing) and also his or her ability to think and reason. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNRC) defines a child as one who falls under the age of eighteen years. Despite the establishment of the legal age, concepts of childhood and children often differ widely between different cultures, societies and communities.
In order to make sense of childhood, scientific and social constructionist approaches have been involved. Scientific approach involves devising theories such as how children’s thinking capacities develop. Thus, it seeks empirical knowledge about children by devising theories and testing them through observations and experiments. At the same time, the social constructionist approach involves looking at the different images and ideas about childhood and how these are products of one’s world view.
In this essay, we will first examine the differences between the scientific and the social constructionist approaches. From there, I will discuss how each approach is applied in the studies of childhood in relation to cognitive development, moral development and criminal responsibility of children. Lastly, I will conclude with the scientific approach being a better and more universal approach to understanding childhood in the aspects of cognitive and moral development.
One point to note is that what we define as the ‘best and most universal approach’ is one that often offers the most comprehensive explanations which can be accepted by most cultures and communities. The scientific and the social constructionist approaches look at children and childhood from different perspectives, focusing on different issues and concerns, thus leading to different ways of answering questions about children and childhood.
The scientific approach views knowledge (Rogers, 2003) as objective, value-free and independent from the process of gaining it. It assumes that childhood can be understood through establishing objective facts. As such, the scientific approach is designed to discover facts. It involves observing phenomena, devising a theory, making certain predictions based on the theory, and lastly testing the predictions through experiments. All these build heavily on systematic research.
On the contrary, the social constructionist approach views knowledge as always being socially constructed and holds that no form of knowledge is universally true. It deems childhood not as a fact of nature but that of social constructions. In the studies of childhood, the social constructionist approach mainly uses discourses to explicate and explore different societal belief systems behind different cultural practices at a particular time frame. In view of the cognitive development of children, the scientific approach seems to have given a more comprehensive understanding.
As understanding of the cognitive development of a child requires us to know what is going on in the child’s mind, the psychologist inevitably needs to provide evidence to illustrate such an abstract subject. Thus, by adopting a systematic research through experiments and observation, the scientific approach has provided grounds for their findings and claims. Piaget, (Rogers, 2003) one of the most influential theorists, developed his theory of cognitive development through systematic observations of children.
Through an observation of a group of boys playing marbles and examining how different boys of different age groups comply with the rules of various games, Piaget proposed that children undergo a series of transformations in how they think, passing through a sequence of stages of development. Other experiments of Piaget include “The conservation of liquid tasks” (Rogers, 2003), which implied that younger children appeared to reason that the change in the appearance meant a change in the actual quantity of an object, thus, cognitively, young children think in fundamentally different ways from adults.
Hence, Piaget’s theory provides a classic illustration of the aptness of scientific approaches to understanding childhood by establishing objective facts through well conducted scientific research. The social constructionist approach certainly cannot shed light in this aspect as the world view of a child would not have any impact on how children think or how children develop their cognitive reasoning.