Through my ongoing study of the roles of young people throughout society, including youth action, youth voice, youth involvement, and youth engagement, I have learned that we have seen children in a charitable light since the Victorian era, when they were first placed on a particular pedestal by the upper class.
In this position, children were seen as sub-human, incomplete and undeveloped, in need of protection and yearning for safety. Simultaneously, lower class children were seen as miniature adults, incapable of working as hard as adults, but still responsible for taking care of themselves and their families.
Youth As Adults
During the four centuries between 1400 and 1800, teenage youth weren’t particularly identified as such: Young women were married off as young as 12 years old, and young men routinely joined the military, struck out on their own, or (rarely) went to college at the age of 14. They were apprentices in the trades who were growing into professionals, and frequently they occupied the same roles in society as people in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. They attended town hall meetings, served in capacities as teachers and ministers, and even ran for elected offices.
There was discrimination against age, though, and it was rampant. In arguing against the popular vote, future President John Adams wrote in 1776,
“Depend upon it, Sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation as would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end to it. New claims will arise; women will demand the vote; lads from 12 to 21 will think their rights not enough attended to; and every man who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to one common level.”
Now, it’s important to see that Adams was contextualizing youth discrimination with gender discrimination and discrimination against poor people (he didn’t even fathom the prospect of people of color voting). This actually shows what was happening in America, and throughout the Western World, at that crucial turning point in civilization. This turning point was the beginning of the Industrial Age, which in turn collided with the colonization of western North America. Immediately after the U.S. Civil War, in which the U.S. and the confederates regularly enlisted child soldiers, adults began to change their minds about how to treat children and youth.
The values of life in the North America quickly changed to accommodate newfound prospect of getting rich. With adult immigrants suddenly flooding their countries, the U.S. and Canada forced assistance into the lives of children and youth, and subjugated them as never before. Poor kids who copied adult behaviors were pitied; slave children were disallowed from being educated for fear of their desire to have better lives.
This was a crucial turning point for the roles of young people throughout society: Where before poor children and youth were left to fend for themselves, suddenly there were advocates and activists rallying to place them in orphanages and rectories across the hemisphere. Instead of having to rely on kids to work in factories and mines in the East, suddenly there were schools and movements to get students into those schools (John Gatto has written extensively about this).
Rather than letting teens get married, there were suddenly social norms and laws preventing early marriage, as well as getting them off farms and into high schools. Instead of being able to hold office, lead families, make a living and manage their own money, children and youth were suddenly relegated to sub-human treatment and almost fully incapacitated from making decisions on their own, and incapable of affecting change in the world around them.
From this place, a charitable attitude towards young people arouse. The Children’s Aid Society started it in the 1850s. It took further form by way of schools and the Big 7 youth organizations, all of which grew popular in the early 1900s, in addition to the Children’s Rights Movement, which held that there were basic . This consciousness continued to grip America through the 1970s, when organizations like Children’s Defense Fund and other groups began “crusading” on behalf of children and youth in North America and around the world.
They worked to feed hungry kids, stop child labor, get students into schools, provide healthcare for poor kids, and stop child abuse. These advances, though, marked the end of progress on behalf of children in many ways. However, as Saint Augustine wrote, “Charity is no substitute for justice withheld.”
I first found an awareness of injustice caused by age emerge among young people in the 1880s. Starting in that decade, children working for the newspaper empires in the American East began seeing that the adults they worked for didn’t have their best interests in mind. These 8-12 year olds, called newsboys, protested in 15 major cities, managing to shut down the distribution of several major newspapers.
They continued random efforts for more than 50 years after, forming a longstanding campaign for youth justice. For the first time in I can find in recorded history, young people were organizing for the benefit of young people.
This is the beginning of the movement for youth voice, youth involvement, youth-led activism, youth organizing… and the place from where our society planted the roots that have become a global phenomenon that is re-envisioning the roles of young people throughout society.
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