How has childhood changed since the 19th century?

How has childhood in the UK changed since the 19th Century, and have these changes been positive?

There have been several changes to the lives of children since the early 19th century, and we can break these down as follows:

  • Work – Policies which regulated and restricted child labour, leading to the eventual exclusion of children from paid work.
  • Education – The introduction of compulsory education and the increase in both funding of education and the raising of the school leaving age.
  • The Medicalisation of childbirth and early childcare – Rather than high infant mortality rates, the NHS now provides comprehensive maternity and early childcare to mothers and children.
  • Legislation has emerged to exclude children from a whole range of potentially harmful and dangerous acts.
  • Parents spend more money on children than ever – a range of specialist products and services have emerged and increased which are specifically aimed at children and child development.
  • Parents now spend more time with their children, actively engaged with ‘parenting’.
  • Child Welfare – The introduction of child protection and welfare legislation, and its expansion into every aspect of child services through recent Safeguarding policies.
  • The recent growth of the idea of ‘rights of the child’ has given children more of a voice in society.
Mind Map of eight changes to childhood since the 19th century, for A-level sociology, families and households option (AQA)

Most people see these changes as representing a ‘March of Progress’. They see such changes as gradually improving the lives of children by giving them more protection from the stresses of adult life. It seems that we have moved towards a ‘child centred society’.

However, there are sociologists who point to the downsides of some changes, especially in the last 50 years.

This post mainly adopts a March of Progress perspective, with the critical perspectives dealt with in my other posts on ‘Toxic Childhood’ and ‘Paranoid Parenting’. I wrote this post primarily for students studying the Families and Households option for A-level Sociology.

Childhood in Victorian Times

During the early 19th Century, many working-class children worked in factories, mines, and mills. They often worked long-hours and in unsafe conditions, which had negative consequences for their health, and could sometimes even result in children suffering injuries or dying at work.

At home, children were also often required to take on adult-work, doing domestic chores and caring for sick relatives.

Social attitudes towards children started to change in the middle of the 19th century, and childhood gradually came to be seen more as a distinct phase of life, separate from adulthood, with children needing protecting  from the hardships of adult life, especially work and provided with more guidance and nurturing through education.

Along with changing attitudes, social policies and specialist institutions emerged which gradually changed the status of children.

The changes below happened over a long period of time. The changes discussed start from the 1830s, with the first factory acts restricting child labour, right up to the present day, with the emergence of the ‘rights of the child’, spearheaded by the United Nations.

A March of Progress?

One perspective on changes to childhood is that children’s lives have generally got better over time, known as the ‘march of progress’ view of childhood.

This is something of a ‘common sense’ interpretation and students should be critical of it!


There were several ‘factories acts’ throughout the 19th century, which gradually improved the rights of (typically male) workers by limiting working hours, and many of these acts had clauses which banned factories from employing people under certain ages.

The 1833 Factories Act was the first act to restrict child labour – it made it illegal for textile factories to employ children under the age of nine and required factories to provide any children aged 9-13 with at least 12 hours of education a week.

The 1867 Factories Act extended this idea to all factories – this act made it illegal for any factors to employ children under the age of 8 and provide children aged 8-13 with at least 10 hours of education a week.

The 1878 Factories Act placed a total ban on the employment of children under the age of 10, fitting in nicely with the introduction of education policies.

Today, children can only work full-time from the age of 16, and then they must do training with that employment. Full adult working rights only apply from the age of 18.

Government policy in 2023 discourages younger people from taking on full time work because younger people receive lower wages.  

The minimum wage by age in the UK IN 2023:

  • £5.28 for under 18s.
  • £7.49 for 18-21 year olds.
  • £10.18 for 21-22 year olds. 
  • £10.42 for those aged 23 and over. 

This means that those under 18 can’t realistically expect to earn enough to survive, and so are effectively not able to be independent. Those aged up to 21 are in a similar position. 

These lower wages encourage young people to stay in education for longer, until at least 21.

Children aged 13-15 can work, but there are restrictions on the number of hours and the types of ‘industry’ they can work in. Babysitting is one of the most common jobs for this age group.


The 1870 Education Act introduced Education for all children aged 5-12, although this was voluntary at the time.

In 1880 it became compulsory for all children to attend school aged 5-12, with the responsibility for attendance falling on the Local Education Authorities.

The next century saw the gradual increasing of the school leaving age and increase in funding for education:

  • 1918 – The school leaving age raised to 14
  • 1944 – school leaving age raised to 15 (also the year of the Tripartite system and massive increase in funding to build new secondary modern schools)
  • 1973 – The school leaving age increased to 16.
  • 2013 – Children required to remain in education or work with training until 18.

Today the UK government spends almost £100 billion a year on education and employs around 500 000 people in education.

Children are expected to attend school for 13 years, with their attendance and progress monitored intensely during that time.

The scope of education has also increased. The curriculum has broadened to include a wide range of academic and vocational subjects. There is also more of a focus on personal well-being and development.

The Medicalisation of childbirth and early childcare

Rather than high infant and child mortality rates as was the case in the Victorian era, the NHS now provides comprehensive maternity and early childcare to mothers and children.

In the United Kingdom today it is standard for pregnant women to have a dozen ante-natal appointments for health checks and ultrasounds with National Health Services. 

After birth, the government expects parents to subject their newborn children to extensive health checks to measure their development. 

There are several of these in the first weeks after birth and then:

  • A monthly health review up to 6 months.
  • Every two months up to 12 months.
  • Every three months from there on. 

During early reviews experts discuss things such as vaccinations and breastfeeding with parents and administer full health checks.

Later reviews are more light touch and may just involve general health checks, height and weight monitoring. 

Legislation protecting children

The government introduced several policies over the last century which protect children from engaging in potentially harmful activities:

  • Children under the age of 14 cannot work, but at age 14 they can do ‘light work’.
  • Children can apply for the armed forces at 15 years and 9 months, but they can’t serve until they are 16.
  • 16 years of age is really where children start to get more rights – you can serve. with the armed forces, drive a moped, get a job (with training) and change your name at 16.
  • At age of 18, you have reached ‘the age of entitlement’ – you are an adult.

For more details you might like to visit the ‘at what age can I’? timeline.

More money spent on children

This could well be the most significant change in social attitudes to childhood, specifically in relation to the family.

A range of specialist products and services have emerged which are specifically aimed at children and child development.

Children use to be perceived as people who needed to bring money into the family home. Today adults are happy to spend more money on children.

According to one recent survey, the average family spends half their salary on their children.

Expenditure by parents on their first newborn child (on things such as push chairs) increased by almost 20% between 2013 and 2019.

table showing how much it costs to bring up a child in Britain

According to CPAG  it cost £70 000 for a two parent family to raise a child to 18 in 2022; and it cost £110 000 for a one parent family. This is not including housing or child care costs.

Parents spend more time with their children

Research from 2014 found that fathers spent seven times longer with their children compared to 40 years earlier in 1974.

Statistics from Our World in Data shows an increasing trend too. 

graphs showing how much time parents spend with their children

Child Welfare

The introduction of child protection and welfare legislation, and its expansion into every aspect of child-services through Safeguarding policies.

The Stats below Public Spending on Children 2000-2020 show how a lot of the recent increase comes from more ‘community spending’ – in light blue.

bar chart showing how much public money is spent on children UK

The ‘rights of the child’

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child outlines several rights children have including the right

  • to be heard.
  • to an identity
  • not to be exploited
  • to an education.

There are several more, as outlined in this child friendly version of the document…

United Nations rights of the child graphic.

A Child Centred Society

Changes such as those outlined above suggest our society has become more child centred over the last century or so. Children today occupy a more central role than ever. The government and parents spend more money on children than ever and children are the ‘primary concern’ of many public services and often the sole thing that gives meaning to the lives of many parents.

According to Cunningham (2006) the child centred society has three main features (which is another way of summarising what’s above)

  1. Childhood is regarded as the opposite of adulthood – children in particular are viewed as being in need of protection from the adult world.
  2. Child and adult worlds are separated – they have different social spaces – playground and school for children, work and pubs for adults.
  3. Childhood is increasingly associated with rights.

If we look at total public expenditure on children, there certainly seems to be evidence that we live in a child centred society! (Source below).

Criticisms of the March of Progress View of childhood

The common sense view is to see the above changes as ‘progressive’. Most people argue that now children are more protected that their lives are better, but is this actually the case?

The ‘March of Progress’ view argues that yes, children’s lives have improved and they are now much better off than in the Victorian Era and the Middle Ages. They point to all the evidence on the previous page as just self-evidently indicating an improvement to children’s’ lives.

Conflict theorists, however, argue against the view that children’s lives have gradually been getting better – they say that in some ways children’s lives are worse than they used to be. There are three main criticisms made of the march of progress view

1. Recent technological changes have resulted in significant harms to children – what Sociologist Sue Palmer refers to as Toxic Childhood.

2. Some sociologists argue that parents are too controlling of their children. Sociologists such as Frank Furedi argue that parents overprotect their children: we live in the age of ‘Paranoid Parenting’.

3. There are significant inequalities between children, so if there has been progress for some, there certainly has not been equal progress.

A further criticisms lies in the idea that childhood may now be disappearing – for more details check out this post: The Disappearance of Childhood.


Childhood makes up part of the families and households option in the first year of A-level Sociology.

To return to the homepage –


The National Archives

Child Labour: The British Library

UK Child and Labour Laws: a History

Child Employment

Public Spending on Children 2000-2020

National Minimum Wage Rates UK

Office for Budget Responsibility : Welfare Spending

NHS: Your baby’s health and developmental reviews

Children’s Commissioner: Spending on Children in England and Wales.