Culture & Religion
December Wed 29, 2010
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On the day of the Feast of the Holy Innocents, let us consider the situation of children in the modern world.
Elizabeth Marquardt raised the fundamental question in the title of her ground-breaking report, The Revolution in Parenthood: The Emerging Global Clash Between Parents’ Rights and Children’s Needs. Most homilies preached in Catholic churches today will focus on abortion, in which the lives of millions of children are sacrificed for the needs – and legal rights – of adults. Marquardt’s 44-page monograph provides a larger context which helps to illuminate the political struggles around the issue. She studies the needs of the children in opposition to the desires and rights of parents. How did this opposition come about?
Social scientists place the heart of that change in the Industrial Revolution. Until that time, children were often part of the domestic economy – whether on the farm or in a craft or service occupation or business. From an early age, children participated in the work of the family, both contributing to the family’s livelihood and the learning the myriads of skills they would need as adults. The children of cooks learned to cook; of farmers learned to farm. Children were contributors to the family, and valued.
The Industrial Revolution caused a revolution in family life. On the one hand, fewer people were needed in agricultural production, as machines operated by a few people did the work of many – and children were unsuited for much of the work because of their size and lower skill level. On the other hand, many types of work left the home and went into factories. For a time, children did find work in factories – in fact, they were prized workers in some of the textile mills and coal mines where their small size allowed them to do some tasks – often dangerous ones. In time, child labor laws were enacted to protect children from long hours in dangerous jobs and to make sure they got a basic education – laws which also helped bolster the wages of adults.
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