To better understand what factors have contributed to the prolonging of childhood in Britain, it is important to have an understanding of what is meant by the term childhood. When we think of a person’s childhood we tend to conjure up images of children from toddler age to around early to mid teens. The old fashioned postcards from the Victorian era depicting images of fresh faced children, gathering flowers or playing with soft fluffy animals might enter into our minds when we think of the work childhood. A childhood should involve play and education, provided in a structured setting such as schooling. The social surroundings that children grow in all play a large part in the shaping of children and this allows children to focus on their education without taking on the responsibilities of an adult. However, there is a positive to children taking on some of the responsibilities, as this helps them develop life skills which play a large important part in adult hood.

Looking back through history, childhood was not always thought of in a positive way. Schooling was for a very brief time, usually until the child/children were old enough to go out to work, or schooling was never even attended. Many families had children so that they could go out to work and help bring in an income to the family unit and it is from here we can obtain evidence about child labour to back this suggestion. Britain was the first country to combat the problem about children working in factories and mines, these prompted long discussions about the type of schooling which should be made available and the amount of education that each child should have.

In pre-industrial Britain, there were no laws which governed young people in the work place, this meant that when families wanted to send their children out to work they could freely do so and send them wherever they wished them to. The manufacturers or farm owners had no rules in which to follow to protect these young children at work and so many were forced to partake in roles which needed physical strength and stamina, roles which were much better suited towards fully developed adults. The impact working from such a young age would have an effect on the child’s development, both physically and mentally. For example, a child sent out to work could have had an impairment on their growth and also would not be able to comprehend simple mathematical questions or even read or write. Some novelists at around this time attempted to bring the plights of child labour to people’s attention. Charles Dickens was renowned to write about the plights of the working class family.

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The people who ran the factories and other places of work where child labour was used claimed that children were ideal for their employment roles because they could squeeze themselves into smaller spaces or fit their delicate hands into small parts of machinery to mend or fix them, as opposed to adults whose hands and body size was considerably bigger. Nowadays, we would view child labour as being wrong and almost as a type of abuse of children, this is because as a society we hold stronger values on childhood and what it means to be a child.

By the end of the nineteenth century, full time education was being made compulsory and although there were laws in place to protect children from child labour, not all forms were covered, for example, backstreet workshops and street traders could get around these laws. Parents who did not send their children to school would have been brought before a court to explain why this was so. For this to happen, attendance officers were enlisted to carry out routine visits to houses to check children were at school. As Phil Gardener wrote, ” few houses escaped a visit and the primary target were the working class family”(Gardener, pg 125)

It was around this time that there can be seen a noticeable shift in the amount of child labour which was taking place. Some of the reasons for this decline were new technology that was being brought to the workplace, thus taking the roles of children. Adults in a family may have seen a rise in their wage and so the need to send children out to work to bring in an extra income was no longer such an issue, parents could see the need for the importance to send their children to get an education which would help them get a good position within a company upon leaving school. Different cultures across countries was also a key factor, whilst in Britain it was almost ‘the norm’ to send children into employment from a young age if they were from a poorer family, in Japan at around the same period of time, it would have been seen to be a terrible thing to do as children were viewed as being precious and a thing to be cherished. This plays into the theme of a romantic discourse of childhood, where children should be provided with a safe, happy environment and where they could view the world as a safe place to be brought up in and grow as a person.

The arrival of the public schools most probably played a large part in prolonging childhood too, at many of these schools the standard leaving age was 18 years, after which the ‘child’ was sent off to find paid employment and become an adult. Many of the pupils who attended these schools could not believe that their working class equivalents lost their childhoods and arrived at adulthood on the very same day they began work, which was, for many, at a very young age.

By the 1950s, children and most notably teenagers were not viewed by families as needing to contribute to the family economy; this resulted in changes being made within the parent/child family roles. Parents were now allowed to be seen as just that, parents. With children bringing in a wage to the family, they could have been viewed on as having a higher status within the family network. Children now rely upon their parents to provide for them and so allowing them to behave ‘like children’.

One of the reasons for the prolonging of childhood in Britain could be linked to the age range we use to define the ‘child’. During the 1820s boys were considered for it to be okay to sweep chimneys after the age of ten because that was the age when childhood was supposed to have ended and yet just thirteen years later, this age range was raised to fourteen. The Royal Commission in 1833 gave the age in which they believed childhood to have ended as being fourteen, in their British Parliamentary Papers they wrote, “for the most part they cease to be under the complete control of their parents and guardians and they begin to retain some of their wages”. (British Parliamentary papers,1968 pg 52). In reality, it could have been said that once a child begin employment, their childhood ended as the fluctuation in age ranges over time varied to coincide with this.

Another factor which could have an effect on the prolonging of childhood could have been the raising of the age at which children left school, in 1944 the Education Act which was brought into force raised the age to fourteen and then raised it again in 1973. Although the level at which children went on through their schooling was determined by tests carried out at the age of eleven, where they either went on to grammar school, secondary modern or technical schools. However, this was considered to have been an unfair of allowing children to attend school and so the comprehensive schools were opened during the 1970s, these schools allowed children to attend them without the pressure or the stresses of having to sit an entrance exam.

During 1904, a new factor came into play which would be seen to have a major impact on childhood and this was brought into the fore by psychologist G. Stanley Hall. Hall introduced the term ‘adolescence’. Adolescence means in simple terms ‘to grow up’ and is usually given to a child after they have hit puberty and before they hit adulthood, Hall gave this at ages 14 to 25. Hall claimed that during these ages it was important to maintain a child’s dependence on adults because if they went ‘off the rails’ at a young age, it would have a detrimental affect on them when they become adults. The raising of the school age and the arrival of adolescence were linked in how they helped prolong childhood, children were, from that time onwards, to be kept within the education system which would allow them to develop skills which would see them into the transition from childhood, through adolescence and onto adulthood.

Around the similar time, youth movements were underway which helped to prolong the transition to adulthood. Clubs like Scouts, the Boy’s Brigade and the Girl Guides all enlisted children to join them and so kept them within a controlling ‘childhood’ framework which presented the children with the chance to pursue hobbies or converse with other children across the world if the organization they belonged to were world widely recognised. Also, there was the introduction of the children’s employment market which opened up areas which held jobs designed for children, such as paper rounds, these jobs would be suitable for children as they could do their round before or after schooling and not allow their employment to affect their education. From these job roles, the children could earn a wage which they could use for themselves.

In conclusion, the past two hundred years have seen a large shift in what the term childhood means. Children were at one stage viewed with the opinion that they should leave the education system and go into the labour market to provide a wage to the family income. The roles into which they were employed would have seen the children take on an adult – like role and would have made them make the transition into an adult arrive at a lot earlier stage than we would now consider for it to be allowed to happen. The quality of the standards of living into which children are raised has also seen a large rise over the years, housing conditions have improved and the quality of which has seen an improvement too. With family size decreasing over the last fifty to one hundred years, there has been a significant fall in the infant mortality rates which meant that children had a much better chance of survival and so with this came the opportunities to be in their ‘child’ roles for longer, as the need to support an ever growing family fell.

The arrival of rights for children would also prolong their childhood as it helped children stay in school, on a compulsory measure, which kept them out of the work place. Childhood should be about balance, to learn responsibilities and respect for others whilst being allowed to make mistakes and learn from them along the path to adulthood, this path being vital for the child to become a well rounded adult. To be guided by adults who are prepared to show them the ‘right paths’ and for an education system to allow them to stay within the schooling system from an early age through adolescence and into early adulthood where it would be hoped they would continue their education into higher education factors such as college and university. The factors that will contribute to the prolonging of childhood in Britain will, as has in the past, constantly be changing over time, with new laws and guidelines to protect children. Childhood is essentially a creation of society and so society can depict what happens within it.

Reference List:

British Parliamentary papers, 1968b, pg 52/Childhoods in Context, J. Maybin/M. Woodhead 2007.

P. Gardener, The Lost Elementary Schools of Victorian England. Croom Helm 1984/Childhoods in Context, J. Maybin. M. Woodhead 2007


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