“Childhood”: Changing and Dissonant Meanings


Thorne, Barrie. 2009. “Childhood”: Changing and Dissonant Meanings. International Journal of Learning and Media 1(1): 19–27.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “childhood,” meaning “the state or period of being a child,” dates to the 10th century. The term is thoroughly entangled with the stem “child,” but the suffix “hood”—also found in words like “sainthood” or “bachelorhood”—shifts the meaning from a type of person to a somewhat bounded state or condition (the hood of a garment is a suggestive image). In the English-speaking world, childhood has come to be framed as a thing or a possession that may be given, lost, stolen, or even disappear. As this essay will elaborate, the reification of childhood as a relatively stable “thing” fuels dichotomous thinking and glosses ambiguity, ideological struggle, cultural variation, and historical transformation.

In 1900, Ellen Key, a Swedish pedagogue, feminist, and writer, published a best-selling book translated as The Century of the Child ([1900] 1909), in which she argued for the need to change the status of children in Western societies in the upcoming century. As I will briefly detail, during the 20th century dramatic changes indeed came to pass through struggles around children’s participation in labor and schooling. As we move into the 21st century, the media, consumption, and issues related to learning have become key sites of controversy about the meanings and future of childhood. In the course of these changes, the desirability of moving beyond stark dichotomies (“child”/“adult”; “passive”/“agentic”; “learner”/ “teacher”) and unitary images of childhood has become ever more apparent.

Barrie Thorne
Publication Date
Tuesday, March 03, 2009