Collecting hens’ eggs, fetching the mail and feeding animals were common rural chores. Rural children were also important contributors to the family economy during seasonal activities like shearing and haymaking. Urban children mowed lawns, put the rubbish out and washed dishes. Some received pocket money for these tasks.
Children also looked after younger family members. In the 19th century when families were large, older children (usually girls) acted as surrogate parents to a succession of younger siblings, especially if one or both parents had to leave the house to work. This practice continued into the 20th century when families became smaller, but it was less common in later decades.
For many children family was the anchor of their lives, drawing them back into the fold at the end of the day. This sense of family was captured in a memoir by writer Maurice Gee: ‘Childhood was weaving between two places, home, outside. I see myself on the creek, in the abandoned orchard, in the culvert under the road, in the pine trees spying on the nuns; and then I see myself at home in the kitchen, warming my feet on the oven door while Dad reads the paper at the table and Mum stirs the stew with a wooden spoon.’1
For some children this was an accepted part of family life, but others resented the burden, especially if left with the baby while other siblings played outside. By the late 20th century if a child under 14 (the legal minimum age for babysitters) was found looking after younger children community disapproval was widespread.
Children from immigrant families had particular responsibilities. They often acted as intermediaries between their families and the outside world, especially if older generations had limited or no English.
Before the Education Act 1877, which made school attendance compulsory for children from seven to 13, many children did not attend school. Those who did either came from well-off families (who could afford fees) or lived near schools run by religious organisations or provincial governments. Some Sunday schools taught children to read and write. Urban children had better access to schools than rural families. Even after 1877 school attendance was not universal – it took a few decades for this to happen. Family and work commitments often kept children out of school.
On 10 February 1905 the logbook for Horoeka School in the Tararua district recorded ‘[o]nly fourteen children present today owing to a large number of them going to the Pukehinau School Picnic.’2 Five years later teachers were resigned to the annual absence: ‘School closed on account of Pukehinau picnic as there would be no attendance.’
The age at which children had to attend school progressively extended from seven to 13, to 14 (1901), 15 (1944), from six (1964) and to 16 (1989). Attendance was required half the time schools were open. Subsequent laws required progressively more until children were expected to attend five days a week during term time. Though six remained the legal age at which children had to attend school, most started at five.
Children who did not attend school for unjustified reasons were labelled truants. Truancy officers were paid to find them. Truancy was a common but relatively minor problem from the early 20th century. Primary school children were less likely to be truants than intermediate and secondary school students.
Children from minority immigrant cultures often found navigating the different worlds of home and school challenging. Jean Gee, a New Zealand Chinese girl who was born in Blenheim, did not understand English when she started school in 1944 because it was not spoken at home. Her first day was ‘traumatic. I still remember standing alone, shy and feeling afraid, staring out through the glass panes of the classroom door. There were no other “foreigners” in school and few Maori.’3
In the 19th century many children were in paid employment. This was an essential source of income for their families. Rural children were unpaid labour on family farms. They sometimes worked on other farms or in domestic service for money. Urban children had a wider range of employment opportunities, and worked in private homes, factories or shops. Some ran messages, shined shoes or sold newspapers.
From 1875 children had to be over 10 (12 from 1877) to work in factories, and could not do night shifts if under 14. Compulsory schooling from 1877 reduced the pool of workers, though rural children continued to do farm work before and after school. Children’s agricultural work was not restricted until 1936, and this restriction did not apply to family farms.
Part-time work like newspaper and milk deliveries became common in the 20th century, mainly for boys. Children also worked informally to earn money for themselves. Mowing lawns and weeding for neighbours and relatives was common. In the 21st century there was no minimum age of employment, though children under 15 could not do hazardous work. There was no minimum wage for children under 16.