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 a different experience from Pākehā children.

Childhood and the law

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

Early puberty

In the early 2000s 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 different family structures – one study found children living with stepfathers reached puberty earlier than those living with biological fathers. Earlier puberty meant that children often had to deal with feelings, emotions and physical changes before they were mentally ready.

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 certain age restrictions or allowances were not affected.

The age at which someone was considered a child in law varied over time. Until 1961 a child could be criminally responsible for most crimes, an adult responsibility.

From 1877 children had to attend school from seven until the early teens.

Different ages

By the 2000s laws affecting children varied widely. Various responsibilities and culpabilities were applied at different ages:

  • 10 – could be prosecuted for murder or manslaughter
  • 14 – could be prosecuted for any criminal offence, could be left alone without an adult and could take care of younger children
  • 15 – could gain a driver 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 – 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 cheque and credit accounts
  • 20 – 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 12–13.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Childhood - Defining childhood', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 November 2017)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 5 May 2011