A History of Children

By Tim Lambert

Life for children in the past was hard and dangerous. In the past, many of the children born died before they could grow up. As many as 25% of children died before their fifth birthday. As many as 40% of the people born died before they were 16. Even if they survived life was hard for children. Most did not go to school. Instead, from an early age, they had to help the family by doing some work. Both parents and teachers were very strict and beating naughty children was normal. However, the children did have some time to play and enjoy themselves.

Children in Ancient Egypt

Egyptian children played similar games to the ones children play today. They also played with dolls, toy soldiers, wooden animals, balls, marbles, spinning tops, and knucklebones (which were thrown like dice).

Most children in Egypt did not go to school. Instead, boys learned farming or other trades from their fathers. Girls learned sewing, cooking, and other skills from their mothers. Boys from wealthy families sometimes learned to be scribes. They learned by copying and memorizing and discipline was strict. Teachers beat naughty boys. The boys learned reading and writing and also mathematics. Girls from well-off families were sometimes taught at home.

Because the climate in Egypt was very hot children often did not wear clothes. Also, they often shaved their heads except for one plait of hair on the side of the head.

Children in Ancient Greece

In Greece when a child was born it was not regarded as a person until it was five days old when a special ceremony was held and the child became part of the family. Parents were entitled, by law, to abandon newborn babies to die of exposure. Sometimes strangers would adopt abandoned babies. However, in that case, the baby became a slave.

Girls married when they were about 15. Marriages were arranged for them and often their husband was much older than them.

In ancient Greece, girls learned skills like weaving from their mothers. Boys from better-off families went to school. They started at the age of seven. Boys from rich families were escorted to school by a slave. Girls from well-off families were often educated at home.

The boys learned reading, writing, and arithmetic as well as poetry and music. The Greeks also believed that physical education was very important so boys did dancing and athletics.

Discipline was severe in Greece and children were often beaten. In Sparta, children were treated n harshly. At the age of 7 boys were removed from their families and sent to live in barracks. They were treated severely to turn them into brave soldiers. They were deliberately kept short of food so they would have to steal – teaching them stealth and cunning. They were whipped for any offense.

Spartan girls learned athletics and dancing – so they would become fit and healthy mothers of more soldiers.

In Ancient Greece when boys were not at school and girls were not working they played ball games with inflated pig’s bladders. They also played with knucklebones. Children also played with spinning tops, dolls, model horses with wheels, hoops, and rocking horses.

Children in Rome

Many of the inhabitants of Rome were slaves. Prisoners of war were made slaves and any children slaves had were automatically slaves.

Boys and girls were given a kind of necklace called a bulla. It consisted of a charm inside a pouch. It was worn around the neck. When a boy became a man he discarded his bulla. A girl wore hers until she got married.

The children of well-to-do Romans went to a primary school called a ludus at the age of 7 to learn to read and write and do simple arithmetic. At the age of 12 or 13 boys went to secondary school where they would learn geometry, history, literature, and oratory (the art of public speaking).

Teachers were often Greek slaves. The teachers were very strict and they frequently beat the children.

Roman children played with wooden or clay dolls and hoops. They also played ball games and board games. Children played with toy carts and with animal knucklebones.

Children in the Middle Ages

Children from noble families saw little of their parents. When they were very young nurses looked after them. When they were about 7 they were sent to live with another noble household. Boys became pages and had to wait on lords and ladies. They also learned to fight. At 14 a boy became a squire and at 21 a knight. Girls learned the skills they needed to run a household.

In upper-class families, young men and women did not normally choose their marriage partners. Their parents arranged their marriage for them.

Children from poor families might have more choice about who they married but by the time they were about 7 or 8, they had to start helping their parents by doing simple jobs such as chasing away birds when crops had been sown or helping to weave wool. Children were expected to help the family earn a living as soon as they were able.

Aztec Children

Aztec children were treated very harshly. If they misbehaved they could have cactus spines pushed into their skin or they were held over a fire containing chilies and were forced to inhale the smoke.

However, the Aztecs believed education was important. Boys learned jobs like farming and fishing from their fathers and girls learned skills like cooking and weaving from their mothers. However, both boys and girls attended schools. (Although they were taught separately). The ordinary Aztec children went to a school called a telpochcalli. They learned about history and religion but also music and dance. When they were older boys learned to fight.

Noble children went to a school called a calmecac. They learned to read and write. (The Aztecs made paper from the bark of fig trees. Their writing consisted of pictograms or pictures that represented sounds). Upper-class children also studied religion, mathematics, and astrology.

Inca Children

Inca children were treated harshly to toughen them. They were severely punished if they misbehaved.

At about the age of 10, the most beautiful girls were selected to be chosen women or Aqllakuna. They were taken from their families and sent to a house of chosen women or Aqllawasi. They were taught the Inca religion and skills like cooking and weaving. When they were about 14 some of the girls became priestesses or married important Incas or even the Sapa Inca himself (the Sapa Inca often had hundreds of wives).

Girls left behind learned skills like cooking and weaving from their mothers. When they reached their teens they were old enough to marry.

Boys learned farming, fishing, and other trades. Noble boys had tutors called Amataus who trained them to rule. When they reached the age of 14 boys were given a loincloth which symbolized the fact that they were now young men.

Children in Europe in the 16th Century and 17th Century

In the early 16th century, many boys went to chantry schools. Rich men left money in their wills to pay priests to pray for their souls. After the religious changes of the 1540s the chantry schools were closed. However many rich men founded grammar schools.

Tudor Boys usually went to a kind of nursery school called a ‘petty school’ first then moved on to grammar school when they were about seven. The school day began at 6 am in summer and 7 am in winter (people went to bed early and got up early in those days). Lunch was from 11 am to 1 pm. School finished at about 5 pm. Boys went to school 6 days a week and there were a few holidays.

In the 16th century, many children learned to read and write with something called a hornbook. It was not a book in the modern sense. Instead, it was a wooden board with a handle. Fixed to the board was a sheet of paper with the alphabet and the Lord’s prayer (the Our Father) written on it. The paper was usually protected by a thin slice of animal horns.

Discipline in Tudor schools was savage. The teacher often had a stick with birch twigs attached to it. Boys were hit with the birch twigs on their bare buttocks.

At about 15 or 16 the brightest boys might go to one of England’s two universities, Oxford and Cambridge.

In the 17th century, children from well-off families went to a form of infant school called a petty school. However only boys went to grammar school. Upper-class girls (and sometimes boys) were taught by tutors. Middle-class girls might be taught by their mothers.

During the 17th century boarding schools for girls were founded in many towns. In them, girls were taught subjects like writing, music, and needlework. (It was considered more important for girls to learn ‘accomplishments’ than to study academic subjects).

As usual poor children did not go to school. By the age of 6 or 7, they were expected to do some jobs e.g. scaring birds away from newly sown seeds. However at least when they were not working they could play the same games children had played for centuries.

Children in the 18th Century

Things changed little for children during the 18th century. Children from poor families were expected to work as soon as they were able. When they were not working children played simple games. Discipline was still very strict and corporal punishment was normal.

In the early 18th century charity schools were founded in many towns. They were sometimes called Blue Coat Schools because of the color of the children’s uniforms.

Boys from well-off families went to grammar schools. Girls from well-off families also went to school but it was believed it was important for them to learn ‘accomplishments’ like embroidery and music rather than academic subjects.

In the 18th century Punch and Judy shows and circuses became a common form of entertainment for children.

Children in the 19th Century

In the early 19th century the textile industry in Britain boomed. However, when children worked in textile factories they often worked for more than 12 hours a day.

In the early 19th century parliament passed laws to curtail child labor. However, they all proved to be unenforceable. The first effective law was passed in 1833. It was effective because for the first time factory inspectors were appointed to make sure the law was being obeyed. The new law banned children under 9 from working in textile factories. It said that children aged 9 to 13 must not work for more than 12 hours a day or 48 hours a week. Children aged 13 to 18 must not work for more than 69 hours a week. Furthermore, nobody under 18 was allowed to work at night (from 8.30 pm to 5.30 am). Children aged 9 to 13 were to be given 2 hours of education a day.

In coal mines, children as young as 5 worked underground. In 1842 a law banned children under 10 and all females from working underground. In 1844 a law banned all children under 8 from working. Then in 1847, a Factory Act said that women and children could only work 10 hours a day in textile factories.

In 1867 the law was extended to all factories. (A factory was defined as a place where more than 50 people were employed in a manufacturing process).

In the 19th century, boys were made to climb up chimneys to clean them. This practice was ended by law in 1875. Gradually children were protected by the law more and more.

Families were much larger than today. That was partly because infant mortality was high. People had many children and accepted that not all of them would survive.

In the early 19th century the churches provided schools for poor children. From 1833 the government provided them with grants. There were also dame schools. They were run by women who taught a little reading, writing, and arithmetic. However many dame schools were really a childminding service.

The state did not take responsibility for education until 1870. Forsters Education Act laid down that schools should be provided for all children. If there were not enough places in existing schools then board schools were built. In 1880 school was made compulsory for 5 to 10-year-olds.

However, school was not free, except for the poorest children until 1891 when fees were abolished. In 1893 the minimum age for leaving school was raised to 11. From 1899 children were required to go to school until they were 12.

Girls from upper-class families were taught by a governess. Boys were often sent to public schools like Eton.

Middle-class boys went to grammar schools. Middle-class girls went to private schools where they were taught ‘accomplishments’ such as music and sewing.

Discipline in 19th-century schools was savage. Beating children was normal although in the 19th century the cane generally replaced the birch. Furthermore, children who were poor at lessons were humiliated by being forced to wear a cap with the word ‘dunce’ on it.

In the late 19th century town councils laid out public parks for recreation. The first children’s playground was built in a park in Manchester in 1859.

Before the 19th century children were always dressed like little adults. In that century the first clothes made especially for children appeared such as sailor suits.

Children in the 20th Century

Things greatly improved for most children during the 20th century. They became much healthier and better fed and better clothed. They were also better educated.

Sweets were a luxury in 1914. They became more common in the 1920s and 1930s. Sweets were rationed in Britain during the Second World War but sweet rationing ended in 1953.

In the 20th century, children had far more toys than ever before. In 1900 Frank Hornby invented a toy called Meccano. In 1907 Robert Baden-Powell formed the boy scouts. In 1910 the girl guides were formed.

In 1900 children sometimes left school when they were only 12 years old. However, in 1918 the minimum school leaving age was raised to 14. Between the wars, working-class children went to elementary schools. Middle-class children went to grammar schools and upper-class children went to public schools.

In 1948 the school leaving age was raised to 15 and in 1973 it was raised to 16.

Following the 1944 Education Act, all children had to sit an exam called the 11 plus. Those who passed went to grammar schools while those who failed went to secondary modern schools. However, in the late 1950s, public opinion began to turn against the system, and in the 1960s and early 1970s, most schools became comprehensive.

Until the late 20th century teachers were allowed to hit children. Corporal punishment was phased out in most primary schools in the 1970s. The cane was abolished in state secondary schools in Britain in 1987. It was finally abolished in private schools in Britain in 1999.

In Britain, in 1987 the Family Law Reform Act gave children born outside marriage the same legal rights as children born inside marriage.

Last Revised 2024