Cheerleaders and Child Labor Laws

Four Cheerleaders on a 95 degree day. 2010.

Bailey and her friends were the cheerleaders for the 8/9 year old football team this fall. They practiced twice a week and did a great job. It was great fun watching them do their routines. This photo was taken at Bronco stadium on a hot Saturday.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my kids and what they are capable of doing. As I thought about the role of children in society I remembered the work of Lewis Hines. Who is Lewis Hines? Lewis Hines (1874-1940) was a photojournalist/sociologist whose photography of working children was instrumental to the establishment of American child labor laws.

When working children were as common as working adults he was, in his time, a radical do gooder seeking to bring mercy to the plight of children working in factories and on the street corners of America.

March 1910. Hartford, Conn. "John Pento, 14 years old, has been selling for seven years. Daniel and Angelo, his twin brothers, are 7 years old, have been selling one year. Sell until 8 p.m. some nights." Photo by Lewis Wickes Hine

It was a noble effort. Who can disagree that having children selling papers on street corners til 8PM is a bad idea? Who can dispute the need for regulation in the glassmaking factories or mines? Especially for working children.

These photographs illustrate a childhood (in America) that is now completely removed from society. The changes that have taken place are amazing.

Child labor laws prompted a brand new concept to mankind. They transformed childhood into something that it had not been from the beginning of time. You might say the notion of childhood was born with these new laws.

April 1913. Rome, Georgia. Neil Power, 10 years old. Said “turns stockings in Rome Hosiery Mill.” A shy, pathetic figure. “Hain’t been to school much.” Photo and caption by Lewis Wickes Hine.
January 1909. Augusta, Georgia. "Noon Hour. Workers in Enterprise Cotton Mill. The wheels are kept running through noon hour (which is only 40 minutes) so employees may be tempted to put in part of this time at machine if they wish." Photograph and caption by Lewis Wickes Hine.
July 1909. Baltimore, Md. "One of the small boys in J.S. Farrand Packing Co. and a heavy load. J.W. Magruder, witness." Photo: Lewis Wickes Hine

Children used to be small adults learning the ropes of life, learning how to work and be productive. Born to work. You’ve heard the idea of farm families having many children to work the farm. The daily labor requirements of life were so intense that adults needed help. This condition existed from the beginning of time until the last 60 years when technology lifted mankind out of the strenuous toil of life.

Think of it. From Adam until the early 1900’s children were working long, hard hours. In the history of humanity only the last few generations haven’t worked. Their childhood has changed into something else.

There are different ways to look at it.

You could argue that it was a horrible injustice to rob these kids of their childhood. Working in the fields and factories deprived them of free time to play and loaf around. Without the luxury of unlimited free time some might say that their sorrowful young lives were tragic.

You could also argue that childhood, the way it’s established now, is a fabricated falsehood of life and a disservice in the development as adults.

Some of my questions:

Should children be responsible for producing? Or are they perfectly acceptable only consuming?

Has the nature of a childs potential changed to the heights of schoolkids, piano players, basketball players and video game experts?

Are their capacities underestimated? What should/can they be expected to do?

Is it a disservice in their development to fabricate a false reality so they can frolic in fantasy? Should they work?

January 31, 1917. "Exchange Luncheon. Delia Kane, 14 years old. 99 C Street, South Boston. A young waitress."
August 1908. "Night Shift Leaving for Home. Indiana Glass Works, 8 a.m." Photograph and caption by Lewis Wickes Hine.

I don’t know the answers to these questions they’re only questions that I ponder. Here’s what I believe:

Growing up is the gradual removal of innocence. The expression “he turned into a man” means that a child lost a piece of his innocence. The speed of that removal varies from person to person. Some lose their innocence quick, others lose it slow.

A sad, disappointed adult is a child who never lost the innocence of a fantasy life. Life is tough and demanding. Children who are guarded from that fact to preserve their innocence are at risk of becoming disappointed adults. Life’s too big to hide from a person forever.

The kids Lewis Hines photographed lost their innocence real quick. Just look at that guy in the image directly above with the mustache. He looks like a professional innocence remover.

It’s a complicated topic: Converting my kids into responsible adults. I think about it often. These photos and thoughts are part of that process for me.

I don’t have it all sorted out but when my kids whine about their workload tell them this: I’m not raising kids. I’m raising adults.


  1. “He looks like a professional innocence remover”

    I was greatly pondering everything until that, then I lost it. If I had been drinking something, you’d owe me a new keyboard. :)

    I’m really enjoying reading everything and seeing your pictures. Keep it up Jon!

  2. Up until about 60 years ago, hard work was what life took. Today, just working hard doesn’t get it. You can’t be an uneducated laborer and ever do more than struggle to survive. I think that the work of childhood is now education. A high school diploma is the entry-level ticket to having a chance at having a life that goes beyond a day-to-day fight to survive.

    But I also think that it’s important for children to participate fully in the running of the household. My kids help me make dinner and do the dishes, and we clean house together and work in the yard together. They don’t mind the kitchen duties so much but hate the rest. Funny, when they complain about the yard work I tell the same thing you said in your last paragraph above.

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