Story: Childhood

New Zealand has always been seen as a great place for children, although the days when they roamed far from home to play in forests or on beaches with no supervision are largely over – more controversially, so are the days when parents were free to beat their children as punishment for bad behaviour.

Story by Kerryn Pollock
Main image: Children playing bullrush

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

New Zealand has often been called a good place to bring up children, because of its outdoor lifestyle and clean environment.

School and play

In the 19th century many children roamed the countryside without supervision. But children were also often expected to work. By the 21st century it was not considered safe for children to stray away from home to play. Some parents also considered activities like climbing trees dangerous.

Children often made many of their own toys up till the 1950s. Later, shop-bought toys were common.

School first became compulsory in 1877. Truancy officers were paid to find children who did not turn up at school.

At school girls and boys often played in separate playgrounds. There were crazes for games like hopscotch, skipping, marbles or bullrush.

Developments in communication technology – telephones, and later text messaging and internet chat-rooms – enabled children to keep in touch more frequently outside school hours. Mobile phones could be misused for bullying.

Sport

Children played sports at school, and games like rugby, cricket and netball became popular with children in the 20th century. In the 21st century children had a wide range of activities to choose from, and fewer children played sport.

Youth groups

Up till the mid-20th century many children attended Sunday school. Churches also ran youth groups for older children.

Children belonged to groups like the Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, Boys' Brigade and Girls' Brigade and learnt things like bushcraft.

Children’s work

In the 19th century many children worked to help support their family. Children did chores before and after school. Farm children collected eggs or helped feed animals. Laws were changed to prevent children being employed to do dangerous work but they often did gardening work, paid babysitting, or paper delivery rounds and sometimes retail work after school. In the 21st century children could not do dangerous work till they were over 15. Once they were 16 they had to be paid the minimum adult wage after working for a probationary period.

Children and discipline

In the 19th and 20th century children could be smacked by teachers as well as parents. From 1987 schools could no longer punish children physically.

Parents who were taken to court for harming their children could say they were using ‘reasonable force’ to discipline their child as part of their defence. In 2007 the law was changed, and they could no longer do this. Some people opposed this change, however a review of this legislation found that it was working well. In the 2010s most parents used positive methods of discipline like praise for good behaviour and time out or withdrawal of privileges and treats when children misbehaved.

Children and crime

Until 1906 children who committed crimes were charged in open courts alongside adults. After this children’s trials were in closed courts. In 1925 a separate children’s court was set up.

Until 1961 children could be charged with murder if they were over the age of seven. After that the age was raised to 10 years. Those aged 12 and over can be held criminally responsible for other serious crimes.

Children who have committed their first crime are often not taken to court. Minor offences are dealt with by community police who issue warnings and set up action plans that include paying for damage, community work, writing letters of apology, counselling or attendance of courses.

Serious crimes by young people (those aged 14 to 16 years) leads to appearances in the Youth Court – a division of the District Court which is not open to the public. Charges of murder or manslaughter may be heard in the Youth Court and then transferred to the High Court. From 1 July 2019, 17-year-olds charged with a serious offence will also appear in the Youth Court and are defined as 'a young person' in the criminal justice system.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Childhood', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/childhood (accessed 15 December 2018)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011, reviewed & revised 12 Dec 2018