Virtually every news cycle seems to feature children as victims of military actions, gun violence, economic injustice, racism, sexism, sexual abuse, hunger, underfunded schools, unbridled commercialism—the list is endless. Each violates our sense of what childhood ought to be and challenges what we believe childhood has always been.
But the ideas that shape our notions of childhood emerged less than a century ago. Reformers and policy-makers had struggled toward creating a modern childhood since the 1830s. They sought to build an extended, nurturing childhood, one that freed children of responsibility and allowed them simply to be children. Their efforts led to modest improvements in education, efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor and somewhat better medical care.
By the early 1900s, enough progress had been made—both in terms of material improvements and rising expectations—that the American social worker, civil rights advocate and anti-child labor activist Florence Kelley could declare in Some Ethical Gains Through Legislation that youngsters had “a right to childhood.” But the catastrophic effects of the First World War on civilians in general and children in particular energized child welfare reformers, including Eglantyne Jebb, the Englishwoman who founded the Save the Children Fund. Jebb would be one of the leading figures in the movement that led to the “invention” of childhood in 1924.
Of course, there have always been children, and through most of history their experiences have naturally differed from those of adults. Yet, on 26 September 1924, when the League of Nations adopted the “Geneva Declaration of the Rights of the Child,” it recognized not only their different needs and roles in society, but established benchmarks against which communities’ or nations’ treatment of children could be measured. In so doing, the League established the standards for a childhood that resembled one that we would recognize as “modern.”
The Declaration’s preamble declared “that mankind owes to the Child the best that it has to give.” “Beyond and above all considerations of race, nationality or creed,” children possessed certain rights simply because they were children. It affirmed:
- The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually
- The child that is hungry must be fed; the child that is sick must be nursed; the child that is backward must be helped; the delinquent child must be reclaimed; and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succored
- The child must be the first to receive relief in times of distress
- The child must be put in a position to earn a livelihood, and must be protected against every form of exploitation
- The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of fellow men
The Declaration emerged from empathy for children that had been building for decades. Yet the promises it made would ring hollow in the face of a world-wide depression, and a second, even more devastating world war. Indeed, violence and disorder would plague children’s lives for the rest of the 20th and into the 21st centuries.
Yet the hopeful words of 1924 set a precedent that would eventually create a set of assumptions about children’s rights that would become nearly universal. Of course, many nations struggled to fulfill those assumptions, but the League’s successor, the United Nations, would pass much-expanded statements on children’s rights in 1959 and again in 1989. The ideals articulated in the Declaration would inspire the creation of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in 1946 and the founding of countless governmental agencies and NGOs around the world dedicated to the relief and well-being of children. Despite the many challenges that have emerged during the century since the League issued the Declaration, it remains a beacon reminding the world community of its shared responsibility to advocate for the “right to childhood.”
Featured image credit: “Children forced from their homes in Ekaterinodar (now Krasnador) during the Russian Civil War, 1919.” Public domain via Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,