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An Analysis of American Childhood in The 20th Century in The Photograph of Lewis Hine

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‘Struggling Families: A family working in the Tifton Cotton Mill. Four smallest children not working yet. The mother said she earns $4.50 a week and all the children earn $4.50 a week. Husband died and left her with 11 children. Two of them went off and got married. The family left the farm two years ago to work in the mill. Tifton, Georgia.’

What can the above photograph and accompanying caption tell us about American childhood at the beginning of the 20th century?

The above photograph was taken by an investigative photographer named Lewis Hine. Hine worked for the National Child Labor Committee and used this photo for a campaign against exploitation of children across the USA. The photograph shows a struggling working class family, it is evident they may be struggling as the children are wearing no shoes and their clothes are looking scruffy and dirty. The accompanying caption goes on to give us some more information about the family. This gives us a greater insight into the family’s lives. The four smallest children are too young to work yet and the two eldest children have got married and have left home, therefore no longer contributing anything to the family budget. The husband has died which would have had a significant impact on the family’s income. Thus it would have been important for the eldest children that still remained at home to supplement their father’s wages by working themselves, contributing to the family’s income. Children’s wages had a massive impact on a family’s income and were used to benefit everyone within the family. Many historians such as Hugh Cunningham, looked at child labour and the impact that a child’s wages could have on a family’s income (The Open University, 2015).

The photograph and accompanying caption gives us an idea of what it would have been like for a child to grow up at the beginning of the 20th century. Although it only gives us an idea of what it would have been like for a child of a working class family in the 20th century. Therefore does not represent American childhood on the whole as children from upper and middle class families would not have had to go to work to help support the family income. Life for children of a working class family was completely different and some children may have felt pressured to help their families. Jane Taverner recorded her experience in the 1920s and spoke about how she deliberately passed up the opportunity of going onto secondary school and went into service instead to make room for her brothers to sleep as they got older (The Open University, 2015).

By the nineteenth century child labour was an unrelenting social issue with many people campaigning for child labour to stop. Cunningham (2003) quotes evidence given to the Factories Inquiry Commission 1833 by a surgeon at St Thomas’s Hospital in London. He argued that child labour was both physically and morally damaging to children. Although he believed that some children did need to work (2003, citied in Brockliss and Montgomery, 2013, p.60). This is evident from the family in the photo that the children needed to work to provide an income for the family, as the adult male breadwinner had died and was no longer able to provide for the family. Children from an early age were usually put under pressure to make a contribution to the family income. Although many children were usually proud that they could make a financial contribution for their families. Burnett (1982) quoted what a boy named James Brady had said, born in 1898, Rochdale, Lancashire, Brady had spoken about how his father brought home less than 30-bob a week. It pleased him to know he would soon become a breadwinner to help the family budget (1982, citied in The Open University, 2015).

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century there was a considerable amount of pressure on working class children to contribute to their families. Poverty was less likely in a family if the children that remained at home were working providing an income for their family. A survey carried out across the USA and Europe in the late 1880s showed that children in the USA were contributing about one-third of family income and over 40 per cent in Europe (1880, citied in The Open University, 2015). This survey shows that many working class children became the supplementary wage earners within their family. Cunningham explains that by the beginning of the twentieth century there was a significant change in the way adults thought about children. The state began to play a role in children’s lives, encouraging children’s health and education. Adults began to value children for emotional reasons instead of looking at them for economic reasons and their ability to contribute to the family income. Cunningham (1995) believes this was probably the most important change to have occurred in the history of children (1995, citied in Kehily, 2013, p.13).

Part B

What are the strengths and limitations of taking a developmental approach to understanding children’s lives in the majority and minority worlds

In this essay I will discuss some of the strengths and limitations of taking a developmental approach to understanding children’s lives in the majority and minority worlds. The term ‘minority world’ refers to the west, these are wealthier countries such as Europe and North America. The term ‘majority world’ refers to the non-west which are developing countries, such as Africa and Asia. There are many different studies on children’s development including numerous theories and also scientific research. Although there research methods may be different they are all interested in a child’s development, these methods enable us to understand children and the way they develop. A scientific approach allows us to understand a child’s psychological and emotional development. Thus enabling us to identify children’s needs and what they are capable of at different ages, which allows us to support individual children to the best of our abilities. Theorists have also given us a better understanding of a child’s development, which to this day many professionals who work with or alongside children incorporate into their own practice. Although many researchers do not look at the ‘universal’ child therefore causing limitations to taking a developmental approach when understanding children’s lives from the majority and minority worlds.

One of the most influential developmental theories was established by Jean Piaget, who was interested in children’s thinking abilities. Woodhead (2013), explains how Piaget wanted to understand why young children all seemed to make the same mistakes on simple reasoning tasks and how they managed to correct the same mistakes they had made a year or so later on. Piaget believed that children were active learners, learning through play and exploring and that they progressed through developmental stages. Piaget’s idea of stages in intellectual development has been significantly influential in minority world societies and is used as a starting point for judging individual children’s abilities and how they should be treated at different ages. Piaget’s theory aids professionals working in education, medicine and welfare services and helps shape their understandings about children. Piaget’s work has been tried and tested many times over the years, in which his main ideas surrounding child development have been supported by many researchers. Researchers have supported Piaget’s conclusions for operational thinking and that children have to pass through certain stages of development. Although many different studies have questioned Piaget’s approach and if his ideas supported the universal child or children from the minority world. Dunn’s studies of child development are based on close observations of children’s engagement within their everyday cultural lives. She also questioned some aspects of Piaget’s work as his work was carried out in a test situation whilst Dunn focused on children within their own environment (The Open University, 2015), therefore getting more accurate results on children’s development.

Lev Vygotsky challenged Piaget’s theory and believed that the idea of development was a universal, natural process. He argued that child psychologists should study the ‘historical child’, and that their social relationships, sense of self and their ways of thinking were ingrained in the social and cultural contexts of their lives at a certain point in history (Woodhead, 2013). Although Vygotsky’s view of child development is based mainly on children from a minority world and therefore does not give us a clear idea of childhood around the world. Woodhead (2013), expresses that some researchers may argue that children’s development is established within their own environments and that we need to take into consideration the diversity of all children and their cultures. Most researchers have based their studies on children that are growing up in societies in the minority world, therefore judging children’s development on the lives, experiences and expectations of children in the minority world and not taking into consideration children growing up in majority world societies. Although theorists such as Piaget and Vygotsky have been influential in the studies of children’s development within majority world environments and have enabled us to put into perspective minority world beliefs which has looked to of generalised what a child’s ‘natural’ needs and wants might be (The Open University, 2015).

Scientific theories recognise that a child’s development is shaped through internal and external influences such as their economic and social surroundings, and are interested in how these influences can impact on children’s development. They look at how children develop through ‘milestones’, looking at cognitive, social, physical and emotional development in children and how children typically achieve developmental milestones by a certain age, based on children’s average abilities or performance. Boyden (1997), explains how the global influence of developmental approaches to understanding children’s development and promoting a child’s rights can be seen as a positive sign of the value that is attached to scientific based theories (1997, citied in Kehily, 2013, p.109). Social context is important as it enables individuals to develop moral understanding of the world around them. Furthermore, social anthropology explores how cultures can shape the lives of children and young people, focusing on a child’s agency and experiences of their childhood. Although, Hammersley (2013) explains that many anthropologists try to steer clear of evaluating other cultures, as they do not want to judge other cultures by their own beliefs and standards. Therefore it is important that researchers try to understand other cultures and see things from the perspective of the people that they are studying so that they can evaluate and get results from the correct point of view.

In the video clips ‘Children on childhood’, each clip looks at three different locations, Chittagong, Oakland and Cape Town (The Open University, 2015). These clips show some of the diversity of children’s experiences in different geographic and sociocultural contexts. It is apparent that issues of gender, education and their communities all have a significant impact on the children in these locations. In which three experts tell us that structural inequalities and lack of resources may affect children’s educational opportunities (The Open University, 2015). Which is why it is important that researchers do not assume that children’s development is universal. Woodhead (2013), conveys that Dunn herself acknowledged that children’s experiences of early social interactions may be different for children from other settings or cultures. Thus, showing that we cannot make generalised assumptions that majority world children develop the same way as children from minority world societies. Children from the minority world lead very different lives and are usually finically supported within their family environments, education and health care. Therefore we cannot equate what children from the minority world do with not only the financial support they have but also other factors such as their social environments, ethnicity etc. with children from majority world societies who usually cannot afford the same luxuries.

There are many strengths to taking a developmental approach to understanding children’s lives which have influenced many different roles that play in children’s lives, such as education and health care. Although, many researchers have based their ideas on children from minority world societies, assuming that research on children from the minority world is applicable to children that are growing up in majority world societies. We cannot generalise about the nature of childhood as children live in diverse locations, therefore we have to take into consideration many different factors such as poverty, social class and ethnicity which all have a significant impact on children’s development. There seems to of been some neglect towards the studies of children’s lives from majority world societies, although Montgomery (2013) explains that anthropologists have contributed to what has become known as the ‘new social studies of childhood’. Which anthropologists describe as analysing children’s lives as a ‘child-centred’ or ‘child-focused’ approach, looking at children’s experiences in their lives and recognising that all children have agency.

Although most research in children’s development is mainly based on children growing up in minority world societies, it has been used to look at children’s development more widely from majority world societies who are growing up in very different circumstances and therefore will have different developmental milestones. Research within children’s development within minority and majority world societies has enabled us to understand children’s lives and the way that they develop. This has had a significant impact and been influential on health care, education and welfare services for all children ensuring that we can support children’s needs to the best of our abilities.

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An Analysis of American Childhood in the 20th Century in the Photograph of Lewis Hine. (2019, May 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved July 29, 2021, from
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