Story: Childhood

Page 1. Defining childhood

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New Zealand has often been described as an ideal place to bring up children. The outdoor lifestyle, clean natural environment and suburban living on spacious sections were reasons regularly cited. Some children’s novels, and autobiographies that reminisced about childhood, supported this view. Children’s experiences are influenced by family dynamics and composition, and socio-economic status. Children can be faced with adult-like responsibilities at an early age. Māori children can have different experiences from Pākehā children.

Childhood and the law

In New Zealand childhood is defined in a formal sense by legislation. In the late 20th century international children’s rights conventions were influential.

Early puberty

In the early 21st century girls in New Zealand reached puberty between 9 and 14 years old, and boys between 11 and 16 – earlier than their parents or grandparents. Scientists had various theories to explain this change: increasing height and weight caused by different diets, television-watching causing hormonal imbalances and the challenges of negotiating different family structures. Earlier puberty meant that children often had to deal with feelings, emotions and physical changes before they were ready for these challenges.

Most laws did not specifically define childhood, but by providing particular ages at which laws affected people they set up a distinction between childhood and adulthood. An exception was the Age of Majority Act 1970, which states, ‘For all the purposes of the law of New Zealand a person shall attain full age on attaining the age of 20.’ This meant that people were legally children (or minors) until 20, though other laws which contained different age restrictions or allowances were not affected.

The age at which someone was considered a child in law has varied over time. Until 1961 a child could be criminally responsible for most crimes, an adult responsibility. From 1961 children 10 and over could be charged with murder and children 12 and over were treated as criminally responsible for other offences. Children aged 14 to 16 were defined as 'young persons' if charged with a serious offence. The upper limit was extended to 17 in July 2019. 

From 1877 children had to attend school from seven until their early teens. In the early 21st century schooling is compulsory from age six to 16, but most children start on, or shortly after, their fifth birthday and remain at school until they are 17 or 18.

Legal ages

In the early 21st century laws affecting children varied widely. Various responsibilities and culpabilities were applied at different ages:

  • 5 to 19 – free education in state schools for New Zealand citizens or permanent residents
  • 6 to 16 – compulsory schooling
  • 10 – could be prosecuted for murder or manslaughter
  • 14 – could be prosecuted for any criminal offence, could be left alone without an adult present, and could take care of younger children
  • 15 – could gain a driver’s licence
  • 16 – could leave school and home, get married or enter a civil union, legally consent to sex, and work full-time for the minimum adult wage after a period of probation
  • 18 – were legally independent of parents, could work for the minimum wage immediately, vote and stand in local and general elections, buy and use alcohol and cigarettes, enter contracts and open everyday/cheque and credit accounts
  • 20 – were legally classed as adults under the Age of Majority Act 1970.

Everyday life

Events and changes in everyday life marked the transition from child to young adult. Most people still saw younger teenagers as children, but by this time they were expected to act with some independence and personal responsibility. Another marker was the movement from primary or intermediate school to secondary school, which usually occurred at the age of 12 or 13.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Childhood - Defining childhood', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 July 2024)

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