|Display at the Lackawanna Coal Mine|
I love doing touristy things and I enjoy re-doing them now that my children are grown. I loved taking my boys to learn about different places and now, without two young children in tow, my husband and I have discovered that we never really heard the tour guides. We must have been busy making sure our boys were listening, not touching what wasn’t allowed, seeking out restrooms…. Now we tour and are struck by what we weren’t paying attention to in the past or what had less relevance in our lives at that time.
This year, we relaxed in the mountains of western Pennsylvania and decided to revisit a coal mine tour that we had taken years ago. I remembered how deep underground the tour took place. I remembered the conditions being dark, dangerous and unhealthy for the people who had mined there for so many years. This time, however, I was dumbstruck by the information about the role of children in the mines.
Young children, as young as 6 years old had to work at the mine to help support their families. The youngest spent 12 hours per day sorting rocks and coal. When they were “promoted,” they were sent hundreds of feet beneath the earth’s surface to run back and forth in the dark amid dynamite explosions. They opened doors for the wagons of coal and led donkeys – none of whom were friendly – through dangerous passageways. These young children, who should have been out in the field and the sunshine playing, had to work. For some, the work supplemented their parent’s income. For others, it replaced the income of a parent who died in the mines. That was their compensation for death – the mine owners might allow your young child to have a job to make up some of the lost income.
I often write about letting children have a childhood. I have an entire keynote speech on the rights of children to a childhood. Since this tour, I cannot stop thinking about the multi-generational struggle for childhood. Are our children – our technology using, standardized tested, aware of so much children – really growing up faster than in the past? Are we really depriving them of a childhood more than in past generations or just differently?
If they weren’t in the coal mines, they were likely in a sweatshop or farming or peddling. We have come so far from those days before child labor laws. There was a period during my childhood when there actually were less demands on children and the world seemed safer (though statistics would tell you that it actually safer today). We freely roamed neighborhoods. We spent lazy days sitting in the grass watching the ants. We flew on the swings and came home when the street lights came on. We didn’t have adult-like schedules with lessons to go to, elite teams to perform for or endless tests to take. We were, comparatively speaking, the free generation. And then the pendulum swung….
Today, particularly in 1st world countries, our children may not be in the dark in the mines or spending endless hours in sweat shops but they are strained and stressed and showing the signs of it. Just because a child isn’t doing manual labor, doesn’t mean that they aren’t being forced to grow up too soon. So I ask it again – Are children REALLY growing up faster today? Has the emphasis merely changed from the physical to the emotional and are we still expecting too much?
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