Childhood


A miniature adult of 1864: Sarah Bisdee at Sandhill, Jericho (ALMFA, SLT)

During the nineteenth century, childhood became a separate category to adulthood, a time of nurture, preparation for life, innocence, and absence of adult responsibilities, especially work. By the time of Tasmanian colonisation, this view was accepted among the middle classes but, since it required a reliable family income, spread slowly to the working classes. As the century progressed, the ideal was reinforced.

A turning point was the Woman's Christian Temperance Union's campaign for the vote in the 1890s in justifying citizenship on the grounds of motherhood, the Union emphasised women's importance as mothers. In doing so, they portrayed children as in need of even more nurture, moral training and protection. Another turning point was the improvement in working men's wages. The trade union movement argued successfully that prosperity was achieved by one properly paid breadwinner, instead of entire families working for low wages, making it untenable for children to work. A campaign to preserve infant life in the face of the early twentieth-century population scare made health a characteristic of childhood, symbolised by plump, rosy-cheeked, white infants.

Legislation underpinned these philosophical changes, placing boundaries between adulthood and childhood. Education was made compulsory for most children under twelve in 1868. The school-leaving age was gradually raised, reaching sixteen in 1954. Over a similar time period, children were precluded from various categories of work, made less responsible for their offences, entitled to be tried in a children's court, removed from gaols, exempted from the death penalty and prevented from purchasing alcohol or tobacco. In 1879, it became illegal for anyone to drive a cab aged under seventeen, which later became the age limit for holding an automobile licence. In 1978, the age of majority was reduced from twenty-one to eighteen. The moment that childhood began was also defined. In 1924, the Criminal Code stated that a human being is a child who 'had completely proceeded in a living state from the body of its mother'.

Although many worked, an activity which invested adult men with political rights, children had no political and few civil rights. Protection and control, if not by their parents then by the state, was seen as more important. Children in the state's care did not have access to habeas corpus. Although children were protected from 'cruelty', they could be assaulted. The Criminal Code specified that parents, guardians or schoolmasters could use force 'reasonable for correction'. Following the Children, Young People and their Families Act (1997), which drew on the United Nations' Declaration of the Rights of the Child, a Children's Commissioner, Patmalar Ambkapathy, was appointed. The commissioner sees no contradiction between children's protection or control and their rights. They are entitled to 'care and protection whilst living in a safe and stable environment' in order to 'maximise their full potential'. The Commission opposes corporal punishment and organised the first 'No Smacking Day', held on 30 April 2003. A Children's Consultative Council advises the commissioner, demonstrating children's right to be heard about matters that concern them.

Caroline Evans