The History of Concepts concerning Child Care

By David Lane

Date Posted: Monday, 14 June 2010


In the course of his career David Lane was a residential child care worker for eight years and a senior manager in Social Services for eighteen. Since 1993 he has been a free-lance consultant with fingers in many pies. Among them, he is Chair of the Child Care History Network and Editor of Children Webmag. David is indebted to Robert Shaw for his many comments and amendments to the paper.



The History of Concepts concerning Child Care

In the course of the history of child care a number of fundamental ideas have underpinned legislation, theories of child care, government policies, professional thinking, working methods and practices. These concepts have provided the motivation for action. Some ideas have been around for a long time; others are fairly new. Often we think an idea is new when it was first thought of a long while ago, but equally we may assume that people in the past thought about children in the same way as ourselves when there are in fact some major differences.

Some ideas emerge as new, while others come round cyclically, or perhaps as the pendulum swings, such as the alternating hard and soft treatment of young offenders. The concepts listed here often overlap, abut onto each other or are linked, but they are listed separately in order to identify them. Some of them originate in other fields, such as services for adults. Some of them relate to specific forms of service, but in this note it is the concept which is the focus and not the service.

This note should be read with a deal of caution. It consists of first thoughts and jottings, rather than considered systematic analysis. The work may already have been done by someone else, and it may be that I have not read their book. If not – if this subject has not been addressed before – I think it merits closer examination by a researcher or PhD student. Unless we understand the basic ideas underlying what we do, how do we know whether we are achieving our aims or whether our working methods are the most suitable?

As the list stands the concepts are not in any specific order, but when written up there may be an argument for treating the subject historically, based upon the periods when concepts were first introduced.


1 Children as miniature adults

Up to the end of the 13th century there are no children in pictures, just miniature adults, and no differences between child and adult dress. Children were not important because accepted you would lose some of them. During the 14th century adults abandon the robe for the short coat except for ceremonial purposes but children continue to wear long robe. Throughout this period everything in a child’s life including games and pastimes was shared with adults. There was no separation between the lives of adults and children.

The issue is still current, however, as witnessed in the recent flurry of complaints when padded bras were being marketed for seven-year-olds. Children play in adult roles in games, and adults sometimes treat them as such.


2 Children as innocents

From the end of the 16th century a child saying grace becomes a common theme and expurgated versions of classics begin to be produced for school. This leads to the ideas that children need education and discipline.

It is assumed the basic literacy and numeracy will be taught at home before the child goes to school around the age of 10; but school in effect becomes an alternative to apprenticeship or domestic service in another family. So school encourages a longer connection with the family of origin and leads to greater involvement between parents and children and a stress on parents’ involvement in schooling. This in turn changes ideas about the function of a family in society.


3 Children as subjects of education and discipline

Schools keep discipline largely by using some boys as informants and corporal punishment; in France ‘little schools’ develop to give children the elements of literacy and numeracy before they enter ‘secondary’ schools. The ‘little schools’ are also deemed appropriate for the education of the working classes. In large households children often undertake the same duties as servants, hence the modern French garçon for ‘boy’ and ‘servant.’

The lower classes also tend to preserve older children’s games and stories which are abandoned by the middle classes.

With the abolition of corporal punishment in the 18th century, military discipline is brought into schools, which are aimed at adolescents cf. Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro being sent off into the military to make him into a man.


4 Children as a potential nuisance

The idea that children might be a nuisance dates from at least 1756 in England and from earlier in France where it was not uncommon to clear the streets of all the vagrant children and ship them off to the New World. It may well have influenced Sir John Fielding to set up the arrangement which was later taken up by the Marine Society to divert petty offenders into service in the Navy.

One of the motivations for the Feeding Industrial Schools in Aberdeen in 1840 and the Truant Schools in the late nineteenth century was the wish to clear young people off the streets so that they did not present a threat to older people. In the mid-twentieth century mods and rockers caused alarm with their threats of violence. Most recently there has been the demonisation of young offenders and their gangs, and successive Home Secretaries have taken a hard line with them, such that we now have record numbers of under-18-year-olds in prison. Other English-speaking countries do not seem to apply the same pejorative overtones to the word youth which we do in Britain.


5 Children as contributors to the economy

The idea that welfare services might help the economy is first expressed in the late 17th century and becomes focused on children in the 18th century. As an expanding imperial power Britain needed men for the merchant navy, the armed forces, running the Empire, the industrial revolution or other employment. Jonas Hanway set up the Marine Society to support men going into the navy. In establishing the Foundling Hospital, Thomas Coram was motivated in part by the country’s need for manpower and the waste when babies were left to die in the gutter. To focus on this concept does not, of course, mean that people such as Hanway and Coram did not have other motives as well underpinning their philanthropy.

Throughout the nineteenth century, child care institutions continued to train thousands of girls for work in service and boys to enter the forces or populate the colonies. The placement of children in Canada, Australia etc. is well documented, and continued until 1968. Even in the mid-twentieth century it was possible to place children leaving care in jobs where relatively little skill was required. There were still nautical training schools for young offenders. These outlets are now largely gone, and helping young people to find work on leaving care is a matter of planning in the interests of the individuals. The economic motive for training children for the good of the national economy now appears to be defunct.


6 Children as dangerous

Children, or more frequently young people, have been seen as a threat throughout history. In the mid-nineteenth century Mary Carpenter referred to “the perishing and dangerous classes,” by which she meant the deprived and the depraved. At the time the Australians were refusing to take the most recalcitrant children and Parkhurst was opened to civilise them. Unfortunately, no one quite knew how to do this and, after one failed attempt at a more humane regime, armed guards had to be drafted in. This provided Mary Carpenter with the ammunition to argue for a reformatory system instead.

During World War II there was a rise in offending by young people both in the occupied countries and in the countries of the allies and this ultimately led, via the creation of detention centres in the 1950s, secure units in the 1960s and ultimately secure training units in the 1990s.

7 Children as potential future burdens on the state

There is also the double-negative side of the economic argument – that it is worth investing in good services for children and young people in order to avoid their financial dependence on the state as adults, whether through reliance on benefits as unemployed people, or as prisoners as a result of continued offending, or in mental hospitals because of mental health problems. The corollary economic argument is that if the children are well brought up, they will contribute to the wider community as workers, taxpayers, partners and parents. This argument is most clearly articulated by Harold Skeels in his 1966 follow up to the placements he made in the late 1930s.

8 Children as objects of care

The idea that children should be objects of care emerges in the 17th century at a time when, for most people, the expectation was that most of their children would die before adulthood and develops in the early 18th century initially alongside the idea that they might ultimately contribute to the economy.

Linked with a generalised concern for weaker members of our species, it can create a strong emotional response, especially for those who are smaller, weaker and more vulnerable. So, for example, the development of services for children with learning difficulties initially arose out of a belief that, by providing them with more specialised care, they would eventually turn into useful members of society.

The problem came when this ideal was not achieved and people were not sure whether to carry on treating them as objects of care or as worthless.


9 Children as objects of preventive measures

This concept entails the use of measures to prevent future problems, for example, by preventing their entry into brothels, certain types of entertainments or smoking or drinking alcohol. The first measures of this nature were taken at the start of the 20th century and the approach has been broadened, particularly since the 1963 Children and Young Persons Act to supporting families under stress or in need of finance so that the families do not break up and to avoid children being taken into care.

In the second half of the 20th century measures like the SureStart programme have extended the principle to areas traditionally assumed to be part of normal parenting.

The problem with preventative measures is that it can be hard to demonstrate what has been
prevented, other than through overall statistics, which may be vulnerable to the influence of
other variables. Such work is at times, therefore, vulnerable to cuts as if it were an extra, the
icing on the cake, rather than a positive and very real influence on the lives of children.


10 Children as members of their families

Until the 19th century, the norm was for children to leave home after seven either to become apprentices or domestic servants – one reason why there were so many abandoned children. Parents did not see themselves as having a responsibility for their children after they were old enough to work. Only with the development of schools and the need for children to remain within their families of origin until they had finished school (initially around 14) did the idea of children being part of a stable family emerge.

One response to this was to seek stable alternative families, firstly through fostering and later through adoption, for those who appeared not to have a stable family of origin.

In the 1920s the Home Office discovered that the children in approved schools whose families kept in touch with them did best. The major problem has been how to interpret this:

· to continue the 19th century practice of finding alternative families, now designated ‘permanency planning’
· to provide treatment for the family of origin to make it possible for the child to stay at/return home
· to maintain contact between family of origin and whatever alternative placement (foster, adoptive or residential) in which the child happens to be

In the latter part of the 20th century, the first choice became keeping the child at home if at all possible with a permanent alternative placement as the second choice.

This model was not always so dominant. In the early days of Children’s Departments there was a greater willingness to take children into care, and until Kathy Come Home, families were split up and children were sometimes taken into care solely on grounds of housing problems.


11 Children as individuals

There is sometimes a tension between the previous concept and that of children as individuals. The emphasis on the individual is in keeping with much western thinking concerning rights, personal salvation, economic self-reliance and so on. Legislation tends to consider people as individuals with rights and responsibilities, rather than considering families or other social groupings. In child care terms it entails individual assessments, care plans, life story books and keyworkers. Overemphasis on individual needs has sometimes separated children from their families, or underestimated the strength of family ties, even when a child has been abused.

Since the 1959 UN Declaration on the Rights of the Child the idea that children might have rights began to develop, particularly in the 1970s with the Who Cares? Project. Until the 1970s staff were expected to control children, and adults were generally expected to be obeyed. Since then, children’s wishes and interests have been observed and taken into account much more, notably in the reviewing and planning of their care.

The concept of rights affects all children, not just those in care. The emphasis on the positive things which all children need in Every Child Matters indicates that the movement to ensure that children have rights is not just a shift of power or a freeing up of outdated controls.

A recent variant on the emphasis on rights is the recognition that children also have responsibilities. This could be treated as a separate concept or as the other side of the same coin. The current popularity of restorative practice reflects the recognition that social relationships rely on people having a combination of rights and responsibilities towards each other if social groups are to be able to live harmoniously.


12 Children as members of social groups

This complements the concepts of the child as an individual and as a family member, seeing both the child and the family in a wider context. The focus on individuality has sometimes been at the expense of seeing the child as a member of peer groups, needing to learn to socialise, or being defined by his/her relationships. Youth work, with its emphases on work with peer groups and communities has been based largely on this concept.

A related concept is inclusion which entails positive steps to overcome problems which prevent a child from being able to function socially, whether because of poverty, disability, social isolation or other factors. It is closely linked with the concept of normalisation, which offers excluded people the opportunity to be included.


13 Children as objects of protection

This concept is the opposite of the concept of children as dangerous but has the same effect of justifying the isolation of children for specific treatment under the guise of care. In the last thirty years, it has focused first on baby-battering, now termed physical abuse, and later on incest, now termed sexual abuse. There have been concerns about networks of abusers, about ritual abuse in the 1990s, and recently about Internet abuse and bullying. This concept focuses on the priority being given to ensuring that a child is not at risk, nor being abused, physically, sexually, emotionally or through neglect, and it underpins the child protection system.

Its major impact has been on the scope of the relationships which children are permitted to engage in both with peers and with adults outside the family. This concept has dominated much recent social work practice, and the way in which has been applied has a had a somewhat deadening effect. Maybe it has run its course.


14 Children as needing holistic care

This concept underlines the need for all aspects of a child’s functioning to be considered – physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, developmental, potential. It has been demonstrated in Every Child Matters and the growing emphasis on aftercare or throughcare. It is also a key tenet of social pedagogy, which may be why this professional approach is now under increasing consideration as a good professional model.


15 Children as objects of corporate parenting

This concept arose as a result of failures in state care identified in the 1990s, but it is doubtful whether it has ever motivated people much, except as caring individuals who happen to look after children on behalf of the state. The sense of responsibility on the part of the state for children requiring protection of services to meet their needs is not well formulated. The corporate body is disparate and the child usually has to rely on specific people who act as the corporate parent’s agents.


15 Children as developing beings

The fact that children develop may seem an obvious idea to us now, but the idea has emerged over time, with the identification of stages of development, physical growth, emotional growth, growing independence, ability to make choices and so on. Our understanding is now more sophisticated than in the past.


16 Children as spiritual beings

In the nineteenth century much of the philanthropic work with children was started by churches or individual Christians, and one element of their thinking was the saving of children’s souls. It was believed by many child care workers that children, as well as adults, are sinful and needed to be redeemed. This was of course coupled with the wish to give good living and working conditions, education and health care, to result in healthy minds and healthy bodies. The Regulations still recognise that children have the right to follow their own choice of religious observance, but this concept is now less significant as a source of motivation.



It must be emphasised that this is a starter paper, designed to trigger further thinking, and responses – to fill out, add or amend – will be welcome. If analysing the fundamental concepts in this way proves to be useful in furthering discussion (and has not been done before), it is suggested that there needs to be discussion to map out these concepts, to identify their interrelationships, and to add or subtract or redefine concepts. Their origins and influence on the history of child care then need to be researched, to determine whether any patterns emerge, and ultimately to see whether there are any lessons for the way in which child care should go in the future. And if anyone wants to take up this approach as a basis for a book or thesis, please keep us informed.