Do poor kids get to have a childhood?

Jul 26, 2013

Lewis Hine was a sociologist and photographer at the turn of the 19th century. He used his pictures to help change child labor laws in the US. This picture was taken Jan 19th 1909 at Bibb Mill in Macon, Georgia.
Lewis Hine was a sociologist and photographer at the turn of the 19th century. He used his pictures to help change child labor laws in the US. This picture was taken Jan 19th 1909 at Bibb Mill in Macon, Georgia.
Credit Lewis Hine / Library of Congress: National Child Labor Committee Collection

We all know the sequence of life stages: Infant. Toddler. Child. Adolescent. Young Adult. Adult… But historically we haven’t always marched through these stages. We are adding steps like ‘adolescence’ and ‘young adult.’

‘Childhood’ in general is also a relatively new concept. One hundred and fifty years ago, childhood was not a distinct life phase – kids were simply seen as ‘little adults.’ This intrigued me, so I delved into the historical and academic literature. I was particularly curious about how our evolving notion of childhood relates to issues of wealth and poverty.

Where did our idea of childhood come from?

Up until the late 1800s, kids were largely viewed as servants and workers. These ‘little adults’ were expected to perform useful tasks around the house as well as work on farms and in factories. Viviana Zelizer, a professor at Princeton University, called them ‘useful children’ since they contributed economically to their families. Indeed, in the US in the 1880s and 1890s, children’s wages regularly made up one third or more of their family’s income.

Starting around 1900, the notion of a ‘childhood’ – where kids study and play – began to take hold. Kids were increasingly seen as students, exempt from work, protected from financial concerns, and sheltered by a new legal status. It was a fraught transition and it is disputed what triggered the change. Some scholars say it was an influx of immigrants who competed with children for jobs. Or perhaps technological advancement diminished the need for unskilled labor. Others argue it was compulsory school legislation. Still others point to increasing parental wages. By the 1930s ‘childhood’ had become a bona fide life stage. Since these children did not contribute financially, Zelizer calls it the age of the ‘economically useless but emotionally priceless child.’

With the dawn of the twenty-first century, academics wonder whether society has created the ‘consumer child.’ The childhood experience is getting more and more expensive. Leisure activities are often consumer activities – going to the movies, joining sports teams, playing pricey video games, and chatting on expensive cell phones and computers. Tess Ridge, a professor at the University of Bath in the UK, calls this ‘the commodification of childhood.’

Only rich kids get to be kids.

The wealthy essentially created our notion of childhood. The affluent members of society were the first to dress children in special clothing, create age-specific institutions, and separate kids from adults.

From the very beginning, their notion of childhood posed a challenge for working-class families. Up until 1929, many states’ child labor laws, which were designed to protect children from working and give them a childhood of study and play, exempted poor children. Poor children were allowed to work if their wages supported a widowed mother or a disabled father. Poor children didn’t get the same childhood that all the other kids were legally entitled to.

Now the legal structure protects all kids from performing child labor. But the reality is more complex. Often kids in poor families do plenty of work. For example, children in single-parent households, where poverty is much more likely, spend roughly twice as much time doing household work compared to their counterparts in two-parent households. Researchers also highlight the ‘undocumented work’ of children who help in their family’s business – whether it is a restaurant, a liquor store, or a food stall. This is especially evident in immigrant families, where kids can offer language skills, cultural knowledge, and technology abilities. Such kids often accompany their parents to doctors’ appointments, parent-teacher conferences, and other meetings serving as translators and interpreters. These kids spend their evenings and weekends doing real, valuable work.

Even if children in poverty aren’t working the price tag of a ‘normal’ childhood can be prohibitive. Ridge’s research found that the mounting cost of childhood means poor children are left out. They cannot afford to go bowling with friends. They cannot afford clothing they feel comfortable in. This makes them vulnerable to social exclusion and isolation.

Even though childhood is now a universally accepted life stage, it is still not available to many kids living in poverty. As Pavla Miller, a professor at RMIT University in Australia, says, “the priceless child is probably being wiped out among the poor and near poor. In the middle and upper classes, in contrast, the priceless child still reigns.”