Today there is a huge industry that looks to support children from unfortunate backgrounds. These can be kids who come from broken homes, have learning disabilities, and or from a generally poor background. Whatever the case, these problems have been around in one way or another for a long time. In this post, we will look at how such unfortunate were supported in the past.
During the Middle Ages, families in Europe were primarily patriarchal in nature. The father had a great degree of authority over his family. Among the poor, most children had to endure harsh discipline and no real sense of childhood. As soon as possible a child was expected to work and help the family. Boys would learn blue-collar skills such as farming or blacksmith while girls would learn domestic skills such as cooking and caring for children.
Among the wealthy things were slightly better. Wealthy children received a superior education being able to study such things as the classics and Latin. Boys of the upper class would focus on warfare while girls would continue to develop domestic skills. One thing the rich had in common with the poor was harsh discipline.
Things Begin to Change
During the Enlightenment, there are some changes to the structure of the family. The extended family gave way to the nuclear family. Schools become more common and even higher education becomes something that the middle class can take advantage of.
Various thought leaders (could philosophers in those days) began to share new views on child-rearing. Rousseau, Lock, and Voltaire all spoke of “childhood” as a unique part of life and how there should be more leniency in disciplining children. The ideas of childhood being a separate part of life and the need for different methods of disciplining children would influence reforms in juvenile justice.
Supporting Unfortunate Children
During this same time of the Enlightenment, there were several efforts to support poor or disadvantaged children. England had poor laws which allowed a family to care for a neglected child and teach them a trade. The neglected child had no choice and had to work for this family. An entire industry sprang up to identify children who were neglected. Naturally, there were times when this system was abused by the family and even by the children at times.
Another similar way of supporting children was apprenticeships. It’s hard to tell the difference between poor laws and apprenticeships. The main difference may be that apprenticeships were available to anybody and not just poor children.
Both poor laws and apprenticeships were used in Europe and the USA. Such a system helps to keep kids off the street and gives them a skill by which they can support themselves and maybe a family one day. Eventually, this system of supporting young people would give way as many master craftsmen were put out of business by the rise of factories which negated the need for an apprentice. Children could skip this process and go straight to the factories to work and this is what happen for several decades before laws were passed to require school attendance.
Children will always make mistakes and challenge authority. However, the blatant disrespect of today was not found in the past. The harsh discipline that children experienced during the Middle Ages helped to temper disrespectful behavior. Of course, children were still found to commit crimes and hurt each other but the contempt for authority was not as strong as is found today.