‘Tell me a story!’ What child has not expressed those words? Children find the fantasy world a story transports them into, comforting, entertaining and enlightening. As a prelude to sleep stories allow them to dream the impossible. They explain the strong emotions children experience as they grow up, teach them about their tribe, their culture and their place in the world and give them a shared sense of purpose. Throughout human history, stories have been the glue that has civilized and bound people together in a community as humane beings. Stories stimulate our imagination, opening up the infinite opportunities that life presents. Developing imagination, Albert Einstein believed, was more important than imparting knowledge, as wondering is the basis of invention, of all development and understanding. It would be a dystopian world without stories.
But stories have had different functions over the centuries and ‘children’ have been variously defined and regarded. Western notions of childhood have changed dramatically, especially in the past 300 years, as has the way stories have been presented and enjoyed. The idea of childhood as a special stage of life is a relatively new middle-class phenomenon. Before the 18th century children were seen as little adults, dressed as adults and expected to work like adults. They got no special consideration at law; until 1780 over two hundred offences were punishable by hanging for children as well as adults. The youngest convict on the First Fleet was John Hudson, a nine-year-old chimney sweep who had been convicted of stealing clothes and a pistol. The reality of life for young children has been an economic, social and cultural construction over centuries.
So, given the current Australian and Children’s Screen Content Review, which is to determine the future of regulation for children’s media content, it is important to ask some fundamental questions. Is childhood today a chronological stage or a system of constructed values? Has childhood changed since the Children’s Television Standards (CTS) were introduced in the early 1980’s? Do we still mean the same thing when we talk about a children’s program in 2017 as we did when quotas were implemented in 1984? And what special functions do such defined programs fill that warrant ongoing regulatory protection in a dramatically changing digital world?
The rise of childhood can be traced back to the Reformation. The Puritans of the 17th Century were the first to stress the child’s moral autonomy. They believed children had to be taught to think for themselves; to internalise moral values and to make choices for which they were personally responsible so they supported the need for education.
During The Age of Enlightenment, in 1762, Rousseau published his treatise on education, Emile, arguing his theory of the innocence of childhood. Liberal and permissive attitudes to children began to take root, but the ideals of the time didn’t match social practice. Rousseau left his five illegitimate children in foundling homes. ‘Woman is especially made for man’s delight’, he wrote, and ‘for that reason there is no need even to teach girls to write’.
By 1830, despite calls for education, half Britain’s workforce in the cotton mills was child labor. The English Factory Act of 1833 limited child labor to 8 hours a day, but because adults argued for the same terms, the limit remained at 10 hours. Child exploitation only came to an end with the passing of The Education Act of 1870, which required children up to the age of 10 to attend school. It was a start toward the protection of the youngest in society, but it was also because factory owners needed more literate workers who could read instructions for using machinery safely and efficiently. Many needy parents protested and absenteeism from school was common.
The poor continued to be exploited while the children of the affluent middle-class were shipped off to boarding schools, separated from adults and sheltered from the real world. But by the late 19th century, following the industrial revolution, in Australia as well as Britain, growing economic demand for an educated and relatively healthy workforce had produced education for all, and altered the nature of childhood.
In the pre-industrial age stories were told by bards orally and the experience was shared by all ages. The stories, although often cautionary tales, were told uncensored. Fairy tales were not about beautiful princesses in gauzy dresses but ‘about child murder, cannibalism, starvation, deformity, desperate human creatures cast in the form of beasts, or chained by spells, or immured alive in thorns’. Continue reading