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Childhood dangers: then and now

By Peter West - posted Wednesday, 8 August 2007

An increasing number of children are breaking their arms in the playground, according to a report issued in late July that calls for park equipment to be reduced to a safer size. Last week millions of toys had to be recalled because they contained lead that could poison children.

A report on accidents in New South Wales playgrounds found the rate that children were admitted to hospital jumped by 56 per cent between 1993 and 2004.

The review found there were almost 17,000 hospitalisations following playground falls in children under 15. This was a rate of 106 incidents for every 100,000 children. Children aged five to nine years had the highest rate of falls. Many were boys: there were almost 200 hospital visits for every 100,000 children.


What happened in earlier generations? When they weren’t asleep, in school, or playing sport, children did household tasks. There was a clear demarcation by gender, as I found when doing research for my book Fathers, Sons and Lovers. “Boys worked outside, girls worked inside” was the summary given by the men and women I spoke to about growing up in the era before 1970. Boys were simply junior workers on the family farm. They might do any of dozens of tasks: such as bring in the cows from across the swamp. Or prepare the sheep for shearing. Or act in dad’s place when he had to go away.

Fathers would generally show boys how to use hammers, saws, and chisels and often gave them some pointers for playing organised sport. But accidents did happen and it was clearly difficult getting kids to hospital, such as they were in those times. People had to know how to fix a sprained ankle or backache or even a broken limb - until medical assistance could be found, if at all.

Older brothers and sisters acted as parents. So did grand-dads and grand-mums. We are mostly living longer these days, but most of the grand-dads don’t last terribly long and the older grand-mums are in nursing homes. (Go and see for yourself!)

Girls helped in the kitchen, did the laundry, and would help out in the fields at harvest time. Here too, there were many chores and frequent accidents.

Even boys who grew up in the suburbs, as I did, did a range of tasks. I fed the chooks for many years. I helped in the garden and mowed lawns. My sisters cooked and cleaned. You came home from school and work started. I often had to do shopping - what my mother still calls, for some mysterious reason, “doing the messages”. Something could go wrong and often it did. I burnt myself one day putting the kettle on - without any water in it.

So much for chores - what about play? We played in the local park, and had many adventures. One day my sister came home chewing gum. “It’s OK, mum” she said “we found it in the park under the seat. But Peter Carpenter chewed it first.” My mother was horrified.


We walked to and from school, unless school was more than a couple of miles away. I often had interesting conversations with people and animals I met along the way. Several of us in the family roamed around the suburb: on one occasion I was dragged home by an irate brother after wandering three suburbs away. I walked along a fence and opened my legs as I fell on it. Ouch! Once I was brought home bleeding in a truck after I rode really fast down a hill on my bike, only to find that the street stopped dead at the bottom of the hill. So did I.

Sometimes we fought in the back of the car: five children in the back of a Holden were bound to argue about whose elbows were digging into whom. So my father (formerly a sergeant major) would make us all walk a mile or two up the road. We awful boys would amuse ourselves stirring up bull-ants and trying to lure each other onto the nest. Or teasing our sisters until they cried.

Maybe children were tougher in those days. We used to hear every day about bleeding Catholics: Saint Whatsit died because of a rain of arrows. Saint Thingammy was burned alive.  Lions chewed off the limbs of Christians, who sang hymns as they went bit by bit down the lion’s throat. Some crazy woman in France developed stigmata and her hands would bleed when the moon changed.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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