But are their lives any better now than then?
They may have more material goods, the poorest are no longer sent out to work up chimneys and have rights enshrined in law to prevent their abuse and manipulation by adults, but perhaps those 19th-century kids who were wheeled out to be shown off in their Sunday best before being sent back to the governess in the nursery actually had the best of it.
Nowadays it seems that while we’re being told that kids are so central to their parents’ lives – cossetted to the ridiculous extent that they don’t know how to cross a road but are happy to go and meet a complete stranger they’ve befriended on Facebook – they are also falling victim to adult lifestyle choices in the name of entertainment.
As a result, any innocence they may have possessed is thrown out with the teddy bear before they even hit double figures.
This last month has been a particularly bad one. First there were the eight-year-olds cage fighting in a labour club. Their bouts were announced by a scantily-clad ring girl and they were cheered on by grown men to hurt each other – while being given no head protection.
One boy was repeatedly kicked in the head while his arm was twisted by his opponent. Sounds a lot of fun doesn’t it?
Last week we had the revelation that a pub in Leith is to hold a pole dancing competition that girls as young as 16 can enter.
At that age they can maybe make up their own mind if they think sliding their way up and down a metal pole is or is not a sexual act. But can they really? It’s highly likely that they’ll have been brought up on a sexualised diet of music videos in which provocative dancing of a style that used to only be found in a strip club has become commonplace. Why should gyrating around a phallic symbol suddenly be an issue for them?
That tale got worse, though, when it transpired that girls as young as nine were already attending classes to learn such “skills”. Perhaps the parents of these girls are the people who buy Playboy-branded t-shirts and believe it’s funny for them to emulate raunchy dance moves before they’ve even learned to skip?
Then there’s the X Factor, where Gary Barlow has just “realised” that 16 is way too young an age to enter such a high-pressured contest after one young boy broke down, totally distraught because he fluffed his audition – and all in the name of entertainment.
It should send chills down any parent’s spine that Simon Cowell is apparently considering reducing the entry age even further to 12 – especially as these kids go to the judges’ homes with no parental support.
Football is another arena where children are exposed too early to the worst of adult behaviour. The story this week that the young boys with Livingston Hearts – some only 11 – were verbally abused by Celtic fans at Tynecastle as they did a lap of honour, is another example of how children are no longer considered to be children, but mini-adults who should be able to deal with the bad language of football terraces just because they happen to love the game.
Children have always wanted to grow up too fast – that’s why it’s been the responsibility of the adult world not to let them. Childhood passes in a mere blink of the eye, particularly when adulthood can now stretch into nine decades for increasing numbers. So what’s the rush?
Even the former chief inspector of schools in England has got in on the act. Sir Chris Woodhead has said that less academic teenagers, or those who cause schools problems because of their behaviour, should be allowed to leave at 14 so they can learn a trade.
The Victorian middle-classes would have loved him. That was their thinking for poor children, while their own were educated at home. Start them at five, then at 14 they’ll be able to read and write enough to work in factories.
Perhaps the real problem with how our children are treated lies in the fact we all want to stay younger for longer. That way it’s ok for kids to attend pole-dancing classes and to cage fight, because we like to pretend that it wasn’t that long ago that we were their age.
And if such lifestyle choices are ok for us, then they must be ok for them. It’s a warped view that has to change.