Atlantic Books, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

Songs of Innocence. The Story of British Childhood, By Fran Abrams

Changing roles for children within the family, and society, are charted in this insightful study

We are born with evil in us and cruelty is part of this", William Golding said, in an interview shortly before his death about the child murderers of even younger James Bulger. As author of the seminal novel Lord of the Flies his views carried weight, even though only a couple of the fictional all-male juniors marooned on his fated island are described as determinedly wicked – the rest simply follow the pack.

Contrasting adult views on the true nature of the early years, veering between a belief in essential innocence to a conviction of underlying depravity, form the starting point for Fran Abrams' well-written survey of British attitudes to childhood over the last two centuries. But the more persistent argument coming up in her book is over assessing the proper balance between vulnerability and resilience in the young – an issue still debated in disputes about the benefits or otherwise of Health and Safety regulations.

The resilience faction includes those former Rugby pupils in the 1890s who continued to defend compulsory 12-mile runs for all even after a junior boy had dropped down dead at the finishing post. Those supporting vulnerability drew strength from the establishment of the RSPCA in 1824. How, they argued, can it be right to allow animals better protection than children when it came to reported cases of cruelty and starvation in the home? Such arguments finally lead to the establishment of the NSPCC, more than 60 years afterwards.

There was a wider issue here. Over time children, rather like house pets, have gradually relinquished their former role as economic necessities to working families in favour of becoming the prime emotional focus for the parents and grandparents looking after them. This passage from potential wage-earner as soon as possible to long-term scholar and hoped-for loving companion was also influenced by the way families were getting smaller. Surviving offspring now had a scarcity value as well.

For Abrams, one of the offshoots of these changes in attitudes to childhood was an acceptance of psychology as the right way of understanding the young. But politicians and tabloid editors for a start still often find this way of thinking untenable, particularly when it comes to assigning blame for juvenile misdeeds. British reactions to children therefore continue to vary from near-medieval to the sort of opinion found in the latest progressive article in the Guardian, a newspaper much quoted in this book and for which the author is a frequent contributor. This wide divergence of views operates from family to family and sometimes within the same one. Any sweeping generalisations about over-all attitudes towards children therefore remain suspect, although there are plenty of them still to be found in these pages.

Abrams finishes her book on a glum note, drawing attention to the current unemployment figures for the young – 22 per cent this year compared to 3 per cent in the 1960s. She wonders whether parents who once welcomed babies into their lives might come to regret their continuing presence when these have turned into ageing cuckoos still taking up space in the family nest. Used to possessing spending power, these young people now often lack an offsetting earning capacity to match. She is also concerned about their state of mind. More British children currently live in a single-parent or a step-family than any others apart from American children. They are also less likely to sit down to a family meal on a regular basis. A UNICEF survey on child 'wellbeing' conducted across a range of rich countries, found UK children the worst behaved and the least content with their family lives.

Economic privation always impacts on childhood for the worse, and it is of course tragic that so many young people can no longer see a clear way forward in terms of regular and satisfying employment. But it is also possible for determined governments or even individuals still to make a difference whatever the odds. For all his idiosyncrasies Lord Baden-Powell brought about massive changes for the good in many children's lives with the introduction of his Boy Scout movement. His sister Agnes achieved the same success with the Girl Guides. With today's Youth Services cut and demoralised, could someone of B-P's enormous energy and self-belief arrive on the scene one day to put in place some similar magic?

Nor will tomorrow's children necessarily remain passive. In 1911 there was a wave of school strikes organised by pupils in protest at injustices in the classroom. Something like this briefly resurfaced in 1968 when crockery was smashed and thrown at the Newbold Infants' School after children bullied out of their dinner tickets could no longer bear to watch their tormentors tucking into their food. One hundred and sixty children rampaged through the school, pelting dinner ladies with bean bags. Surveying the scene next day, Alderman Cyril Smith, chairman of the Local Education Committee, opined that the pupils involved needed "a bloody good hiding". On this occasion, he did not manage to administer this himself. Might the next riots of disaffected youth take place in schools rather than the streets?

There is never going to be a perfect state of childhood. Eliminating infectious diseases with antibiotics and better housing conditions did nothing to stop new problems of affluence like road traffic accidents, air pollution and obesity. Limiting long working hours can seem a hollow victory once the only alternative is a three day week. Focusing attention on once hidden child sexual abuse can also lead to some parents keeping their children indoors at the weekends and teachers becoming afraid of applying sticking plaster to pupils' cuts or bruises, even though there is nothing in any existing ruling against doing this.

But from the evidence of Abrams' at times provocative but always thoughtful book, there is still much for any contemporary child to be grateful for. Routine social prejudice against illegitimacy, with sailors in the First World War docked sixpence a day for their wives and children but only fourpence for any bastards, ignoring or scorning the disabled and actively discouraging girls to achieve in education all belong to the past. Improved health care and living conditions, nursery classes and free school meals for the needy, abolishing corporal punishment in schools – the list of positive developments goes on. Whether today's children also see it like this is another matter.

Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Prince and 3RDEYEGIRL are releasing Plectrum Electrum next month

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Arts and Entertainment
John Kearns winner of the Foster's Edinburgh Comedy Award with last years winners: Bridget Christie and Frank Skinner
comedyJohn Kearns becomes the first Free Fringe act to win the top prize
Arts and Entertainment
Professor Sue Vice
booksAcademic says we should not disregard books because they unexpectedly change genre
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Muscato performs as Michael Crawford in Stars in Their Eyes

TV
Arts and Entertainment
‘Game of Thrones’

TV
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone
    Amazon is buying Twitch for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?

    What is the appeal of Twitch?

    Amazon is buying the video-game-themed online streaming site for £600m - but why do people want to watch others playing Xbox?
    Tip-tapping typewriters, ripe pongs and slides in the office: Bosses are inventing surprising ways of making us work harder

    How bosses are making us work harder

    As it is revealed that one newspaper office pumps out the sound of typewriters to increase productivity, Gillian Orr explores the other devices designed to motivate staff
    Manufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl records

    Hard pressed: Resurgence in vinyl records

    As the resurgence in vinyl records continues, manufacturers and their outdated machinery are struggling to keep up with the demand
    Tony Jordan: 'I turned down the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series nine times ... then I found a kindred spirit'

    A tale of two writers

    Offered the chance to research Charles Dickens for a TV series, Tony Jordan turned it down. Nine times. The man behind EastEnders and Life on Mars didn’t feel right for the job. Finally, he gave in - and found an unexpected kindred spirit
    Could a later start to the school day be the most useful educational reform of all?

    Should pupils get a lie in?

    Doctors want a later start to the school day so that pupils can sleep later. Not because teenagers are lazy, explains Simon Usborne - it's all down to their circadian rhythms
    Prepare for Jewish jokes – as Jewish comedians get their own festival

    Prepare for Jewish jokes...

    ... as Jewish comedians get their own festival
    SJ Watson: 'I still can't quite believe that Before I Go to Sleep started in my head'

    A dream come true for SJ Watson

    Watson was working part time in the NHS when his debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, became a bestseller. Now it's a Hollywood movie, too. Here he recalls the whirlwind journey from children’s ward to A-list film set
    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    10 best cycling bags for commuters

    Gear up for next week’s National Cycle to Work day with one of these practical backpacks and messenger bags
    Paul Scholes: Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United

    Paul Scholes column

    Three at the back isn’t working yet but given time I’m hopeful Louis van Gaal can rebuild Manchester United
    Kate Bush, Hammersmith Apollo music review: A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it

    Kate Bush shows a voice untroubled by time

    A preamble, then a coup de théâtre - and suddenly the long wait felt worth it
    Robot sheepdog technology could be used to save people from burning buildings

    The science of herding is cracked

    Mathematical model would allow robots to be programmed to control crowds and save people from burning buildings
    Tyrant: Is the world ready for a Middle Eastern 'Dallas'?

    This tyrant doesn’t rule

    It’s billed as a Middle Eastern ‘Dallas’, so why does Fox’s new drama have a white British star?