The Status and Welfare of Children

The distinction between adulthood and childhood and the associated notions of maturity and immaturity are obviously not fixed but vary with the particular cultural or social group. Many pictures of children who lived during previous centuries depict them as dressed in the same sort of clothing as adults. Prior to the seventeenth century in Europe, and to some extent even later, children were viewed as miniature adults, frequently "full of the devil" and not to be spared beatings when necessary ("Spare the rod and spoil the child.") (Aries, 1962). Children were expected to be dutiful, obedient, and hardworking and were sternly disciplined when they failed to live up to familial or social expectations. Most received little formal schooling, and the lessons were usually accompanied by heavy doses of moral and virtuous pronouncements. Depending on the social class into which they were born, children might be expected to work and assume many of the other responsibilities of adulthood by age 10 at the latest.

Due to scientific, technological, and economic progress during the industrial revolution of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the demand for uneducated physical laborers declined. Workers with at least enough education to run "assembly line" machines and to manage the production and marketing activities of an industrially developing economy were needed. Consequently, children were now expected to spend more time doing school-work and less time in physical labor. Those who continued to slave at menial tasks in sweatshops came increasingly to the attention of social reformers and elected officials who were concerned with the exploitation and welfare of children. These social and political concerns were stimulated and disseminated by writings and researches on all aspects of childhood.

In response to increasing public interest in child welfare, the child study movement, designed to gather information about age differences in physical and psychological characteristics and to study children in their own right, was launched toward the end of the last century. The early years of this movement witnessed the establishment of numerous social programs-children's aid societies, juvenile courts, orphanages, child health programs, societies for the prevention of child abuse-designed to improve the treatment and living conditions of children (Siegel & White, 1982). Concern for the welfare of children led to scientific studies of the physical, mental, emotional, and social characteristics of children by educators, physicians, psychologists, and social workers. Professional associations focusing on the rights and welfare of children were established, and legislation designed to protect those rights was also passed.

The societal and scientific interest in children that was associated with the technological and economic changes occurring in Europe and North America was not immediately shared by the less developed nations. However, during this century, most of the underdeveloped nations of Africa, Asia, and South America have become more westernized in their attitudes and practices with regard to the health and education of the younger members of their societies. Yet, thousands of children are still found throughout the world who are illiterate, labor physically for long hours, become addicted to drugs, work as female or male prostitutes, commit crimes that are more characteristic of adults, and, because of poor nutrition and unhealthful living conditions, have little to look forward to other than chronic poor health and an early death.

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