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Story: City children and youth

Children and young people have always been a vital presence in cities, whether at work – in 19th-century factories, on paper rounds or milk runs, or in McDonald’s – or at play. Cities came to be seen as a bad influence on young people, and families headed for the suburbs.

Story by Ben Schrader
Main image: Playing on the street, Ponsonby, Auckland, 1971

Story Summary

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Families with children were encouraged to emigrate to New Zealand, because they were more likely to settle down and stay.

Young people at work

Some children have always worked – using their wages to contribute to their families, buy toys or have fun. At first there were few laws about when and where young people could work. Teenage girls cleaned, cooked and minded children for rich people. Other young people had jobs in factories, shops and offices. Later, laws were made to protect child workers from being exploited.

In the 20th century children delivered milk and newspapers. In the 2000s, teenagers often work in shops and fast-food restaurants.

Different groups

Children from rich and poor areas have often been in conflict with each other. Catholics and Protestants sometimes formed separate groups – so did children of different races. Young people often dress in different ways to show what group they belong to.

Playing in the city

In early times, children played in the streets – ball games, chasing, running, and racing hoops. They fished off wharves and swam at city beaches and in rivers. In the 2000s young people still enjoy sport, swimming, visiting libraries, going to movies, and hanging out in the city.

City and suburbs

Some people thought the central city was bad for children – that the people there were poor, immoral and violent. Many families moved to the suburbs. Parents worried about the dangers of traffic and strangers, and in the 2000s some children (known as ‘cotton-wool kids’) are not allowed to play on the street or even walk around their neighbourhood.

In the 2000s, a few families have returned to the central city, where they live in apartments.

Bad behaviour

In small towns, it was easy for adults to keep an eye on children. In cities, this was harder. Some young people, mostly boys, became larrikins – they upset adults by playing sport in the streets, being noisy, smoking and drinking, throwing stones, and knocking on doors then running away. Others joined gangs or wrote graffiti.

How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'City children and youth', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/city-children-and-youth (accessed 27 June 2017)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 11 Mar 2010