child labor

Labor Day and Child Labor

The pendulum of the mind alternates between sense and nonsense, not between right and wrong.
Carl Jung

When I was a camp director I took a call one day from a mother who wanted to interview me to determine whether or not she would send her eight-year-old son to our camp for a week. I described a typical camp day and asked her if she had any questions. She did. “Do you apply sunscreen to the campers?”

“Well, of course, if they need it. They spend quite a bit of time outside. But I suspect there’s something behind your question.” There was. It seems the camp she’d sent her son to the previous summer had initiated a “no touch” policy, meaning the staff was forbidden to touch a camper for any reason. She reported her son came home looking like a lobster because no one helped him apply sunscreen.

I told her I was removing my camp director hat and talking to her mother to mother. “That is ridiculous. If a child needs sunscreen on his back, the counselor will make sure he has it on.”

In Search of Common Sense

As a camp director I understand the “no touch” policy. Camp directors go to workshops and heard the horror stories about summer college age staff being accused of molesting innocent children in their care. In response, camps now assign two staff members to be with campers anytime they aren’t participating in a large group activity. Some adopt “no touch” policies.

But still, this “no touch” policy seems over the top to me. Humans need human touch. This is especially true of children. Pendulums swing from one extreme to the opposite extreme. We can see this clearly in the way our attitudes toward children have changed over the past couple centuries.Today’s children are so over-protected and restricted there is now a Let Grow  movement gaining traction. Co-founders Daniel Shuchman and Lenore Skenazy believe children are smart, strong, and at least as capable as their parents were at their age. They formed Let Grow  to encourage parents, teachers and other adults to let kids get out there, on their own to explore their world and practice solving their own problems. Our modern excessive concern about every detail of their lives is an over-action to the fear peddling that exaggerates the dangers of the world. This attitude stunts their emotional growth and teaches them to be very afraid of everyone and everything around them. Yes, there are real dangers. Yes, we need to protect our children, but not by programming every minute of every day of their lives.

From Over-worked to Over-Protected

A century ago children not only weren’t over-protected, they were considered cheap labor and sent off to work – often in dangerous situatons. We just celebrated Labor Day. We typically celebrate this annual September holiday with picnics, pools, and shopping. Few remember the oppressive, and often dangerous, work conditions that led to protests demanding improvements for the conditions of workers, including children. Prior to the reforms, a typical work day was twelve plus hours in hazardous work environments for low pay. Children were a regular part of the work force.

Oppressive work conditions led to strikes and protests that eventually resulted in better hours and pay. Ten thousand workers took a day off without pay on Tuesday, September 5, 1882 to parade from City Hall to Union Square in New York City to pay tribute to American workers. That was the first, unofficial, Labor Day parade.

Social change rarely happens with out a fight. Some of the ensuing rallies turned violent. In 1894 workers who built Pullman train cars in the Southside of Chicago went on strike when 4,000 workers had their wages reduced. Their strike, coupled with a massive boycott against trains, led to a national transportation crisis. The strike involved a quarter million workers in twenty-five states, with riots in many cities. President Grover Cleveland called out Army troops, resulting in a twelve people getting killed in the riots. After the situation was finally resolved, President Cleveland urged Congress to designate the first Monday in September as Labor Day, a national holiday.

Competing Work Place Agendas

The on-going tensions between employers and employees escalated with the Industrial Revolution. Employers want to maximize profits by keep wages low. Employees want to maximize wages to improve their quality of life. The Industrial Revolution led to the formation of large factories. Factory owners realized children, who could be paid less than adults, could operate some of the new machines, increasing productivity and keeping costs low. By the mid-1800’s child labor was a major problem. Children often went to work in factories at age seven, or even younger. They sometimes worked twelve to eighteen hours a day, six days a week, for a dollar ($31 today) a week. Such long work hours left no time to play, go to school or get adequate rest.

The United States started legislating laws outlawing child labor in the late 1800s. Congress passed laws in 1918 and again in 1922 banning or limiting child labor, but the Supreme Court declared the laws unconstitutional. Congress tried again in 1924, but the states did not ratify it. In 1938 Congress finally passed a Fair Labor Standards Act that set the minimum work age at 16 during school hours, 14 for some after school jobs, and 18 for work deemed dangerous.

Swinging Pendulums

Now, nearly a century later, neighbors report parents to Child Protective Services or the police when they see children outside without an adult. One mother was investigated for letting her grade-school-age daughter walk the family dog around the block alone. In another neighborhood someone called the police when a twelve-year-old boy was shooting baskets in his own driveway when his parents weren’t home.

Pendulums keep swinging. Attitudes regarding children have swung from considering them cheap labor to treating them as helpless, fragile beings incapable of doing anything on their own. I hope I live to see the day when children are neither abused nor isolated from the world beyond their homes, schools, or parents’ cars. There must be a healthy balance between denying children a childhood for the sake of profiting off their labor and denying them the freedom to learn by doing because of our exaggerated fear they might get hurt.

Meanwhile, Labor Day is a good time to give thanks to the people who keep our economy going through their work. And to let children have a childhood before they join the work force.

Some information for this blog comes from “Child Labor.” Reviewed by Milton Fried. The New Book of Knowledge.Grolier Online, 2014. Web. 04 June 2018.

How did you spend your free time as a child? My friends and I often roamed our neighborhood, playing in empty lots or unsupervised at the school playground.


One Comment

  1. Growing up on a farm, we were definitely allowed to roam far and wide. Yes, we got ourselves into trouble, occasionally, when we fell and hurt ourselves with no way to call for help…or when cows with young calves tried to chase us out of their fields. My dad wasn’t pleased when we rearranged all the bales in the barn’s hayloft to make our forts or to create jumping platforms.

    The creeks were a favorite spot — we stacked rocks to divert water into channels, then watched our crude “boats” made of sticks and leaves as they raced downstream. We made “Indian war paint” by rubbing colored rocks against flat, hard rocks and painting ourselves with wild markings. We made lean-to shelters out of branches and mosses and sometimes confiscated empty tree trunks to pretend they were tanks or look-out posts. I’m amazed we didn’t get more snake or spider bites!

    But for the most part, we learned so much by being given the space (literally and figuratively) to grow up and explore the streams and fields, rocks and ridges, of our farm and neighboring farms.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane and for the perspective..think I’ll use it as a basis for my own blog post! The perspective on labor and childhood were very thought-provoking.

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