3.2 Childhood is not only a legal concept — a period of limited legal capacity while a person is under the age of 18 — but also a social concept. The characteristics that constitute childhood and differentiate children from adults are significantly influenced by political and ideological perspectives, economic conditions, social, and particularly family, relations and assumptions about what constitutes experience and knowledge.[2] Childhood refers to the place and condition of children in society and encompasses notions of how society views a child’s maturation and development and responds to age differences.

3.3 In contemporary western societies, childhood is taken by some to be a time of innocence, during which children are in need of protection and are not fully self-reliant.[3] This representation of childhood has produced laws that make parents responsible for caring for and protecting their children and justifies state intervention in families when children are being neglected or abused. Western societies also view childhood as a period of irresponsibility, during which children are in need of firm, often coercive control. This image has justified corporal punishment of children and, increasingly, laws that control or prevent children from gathering in places where it is considered they may be susceptible to adverse influences.[4]

3.4 These co-existing though contradictory views are manifest in contemporary Australia. Both views of childhood are reflected in legislation and practice affecting children. Where appropriate, this Inquiry questions these underlying assumptions in examining and making recommendations concerning law and legal processes.

[2] C Smith ‘Children’s rights: Judicial ambivalence and social resistance’ (1997) 11 International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family 103, 133.

[3] ibid.

[4] See paras 18.67–72.