Friends and peer groups
Developing friendships is a critical activity for children. Communal spaces like churches, town centres, schools and early-childhood centres brought children together. Children living in isolated districts often had to rely on siblings and animals for companionship.
Children’s friendships were shaped by their peer groupings at school, for example single-sex schools could limit children’s choice of friends.
Communication with friends became increasingly dependent on the use of cell phones and other digital devices in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. Teenagers frequently acquired their own cell phones and sent one another cheap or free text messages and accessed social media platforms like Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube. Older teens were more likely to use Facebook, Messenger and Tumblr. For some young people it was very important to know that others were reading and commenting on what they communicated or shared digitally.
Digital communication enabled older children to communicate with their friends even when they were not physically present but the stresses of managing these forms of communication became an increasing emotional risk for young people. A survey of New Zealand teens found that 70% had experienced at least one form of unwanted digital communication in the last year – this included being contacted by a stranger, accidentally accessing inappropriate content, being called names or being excluded from an online social group. Girls aged 14 to 17 were more likely to have these experiences than boys.
Bullying and stalking using digital devices generate concern, but also prompt young people to develop strategies that avoid the negative aspects of digital communication. Most teenagers in a recent survey highly rated their knowledge of digital safety.
Most children liked to blend in with their peers. Immigrant children were one group who sometimes found this difficult, because their family lives and practices were so different to their Kiwi counterparts’. Lucie, who immigrated to New Zealand with her parents from Bratislava in 1940, aged eight, would pretend that cottage cheese (then an exotic food) was custard, called Wiener schnitzel ‘crumbed cutlet’1 and forced her mother to make scones and pikelets when she had friends over.
Organised sport for children started in schools. It was intended to improve the health of children and instill values like leadership, competitiveness and teamwork.
Games like rugby and cricket were played in most schools from the early 1900s. Early sports were mostly for boys. Girls’ indoor basketball was widely played from about 1910. The popular game netball evolved from basketball. From the First World War organised sport was an established element in the New Zealand school curriculum. Many children also played sport outside school – rugby clubs, which divided children by age and weight, were popular.
In the early 21st century children had a wide range of sports to choose from. New sports like surfing and skateboarding often combined recreation and competition. At the same time, children were less likely to play sport because they had more active and sedentary recreational options than in the past.
Shinty was an early form of hockey played by children (mainly boys) in the 19th century before organised school sports became the norm. It was not a game for the faint-hearted: sticks of any size and shape were permitted, swings in any direction allowed and injuries expected. Referees were unheard of. An ex-player described it as a craze. ‘In the heat of willing contests, someone would suffer serious damage and Shinty would be proscribed. Few indeed escaped without hard knocks and losses of skin. But under the pressure of eager spirits the embargo would relax until another casualty imposed the ban.’2
Early organised youth groups were usually religious. The Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA from 1855) and the Boys’ Brigade (from 1886) gathered children and teenagers together for religious instruction and physical activity – at first just boys, but later girls too, in separate groups.
Many children attended their local church’s Sunday school and Bible class, for social and educational as much as religious purposes. Attendance was high in the past – between 1896 and 1911, 67% of New Zealand children were enrolled at a Sunday school. By the 1960s the rate had dropped to 40%, and continued to decline. Churches also ran denominational youth groups which held activities and socials for older children.
The most significant youth groups were Boy Scouts (from 1908) and Girl Guides (started in 1908 as the Peace Scouts Movement). Both had separate divisions – cubs and brownies – for younger children. The original aim was to prepare children to defend their countries at war. Girl Guides also taught domestic skills like making beds. Over time this was replaced by an emphasis on life skills through physical activity, bushcraft, leadership and friendship development.
Both organisations grew rapidly after the Second World War but declined later in the century as children’s recreation diversified and parents had less time to volunteer. At its height in the mid-1970s Scouts had over 53,000 members. In 2017 it had around 15,500 youth members – including Keas, Cubs, Scouts, Venturers and Rovers.