Loss of Skills and Independence - using stories from 70-100 years ago
Looking back at the stories written about children 70-100 years ago can tell a picture of what skills and experiences children experienced during that time. Stories like Enid Blyton's Famous Five, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys can reveal a startling contrast when compared with the life experiences of highly urbanised children today.
This page is dedicated to analysing one such book - Milly Molly Mandy by Joyce Lankester Brisley.
We analysed her first book of short stories to find the skills and experiences had by the main characters. These stories show of the full spectrum of skills, capabilities and independence that English children were able to experience and achieve by the time they were 8 years old. We work with the assumption that these experiences will have been the same for Australian and New Zealand children of the same time period as well.
At Child Friendly Futures we argue that children today are missing out on developing skills that in the past have been very normal. It is not just freedom of travel and independence that is being lost to the new generations trapped by urbanisation, but key skills as well. These things are not a luxury.
If we want to develop a resilient population, the loss of skills must be addressed.
Milly Molly Mandy Stories - Author Joyce Lankester Brisley
Milly Molly Mandy lives on a small farm, in England, in the 1930s. MMM is around the age of 7 or 8, and lives in a multi-generational with her Mother & Father, Grandma & Grandpa, Aunty & Uncle. . The village has roughly 8 shops and a school, church, blacksmiths, and a bus stop going to the nearby towns.
While very idyllic, Milly-Molly-Mandy's life, and the life skills described in the stories are very typical of what children were getting up to 90 years ago.
Below are some of the activities MMM (and/or her friends) gets up to in the first book.
Challenge: As you read the list, count how many your kids, or kids you know do today.
Common chores and activities of Milly Molly Mandy and friends
- Walks to and from school, alone or with friends
- Cleaning/chores (washing up, laying the table, getting guest room ready)
- Playing with friends unsupervised
- Walking to the village/shops alone
- Owns and cares for pets
- Walks and plays with the dog alone
- Bakes and cleans up (with Mother's help)
- Goes home for "dinner" (lunch) everyday (a way of parents checking in with their kids)
- Friendly with adults, positive interactions, known in the community
- Running errands (going to shops for family, passing on messages)
- Handling money regularly (personal savings, shopping, errands for family)
- Cutting with scissors and colouring (little dolls, paper dolls)
- Plays with toys (spinning top, dolls pram, dolls cradle)
- Shares food with family/friends, which has been personally purchased, foraged or grown (not just something out the family pantry!)
- Memorises shopping list
- Gardening - Plants seeds and watches them grow, weeding.
- Encounters wildlife, and knows how to behave (sitting still and observing)
- Goes food foraging (MMM & Susan)
- Knows locations to pick blackberries - MMM identifying them herself
- Sells own products created themselves (cress and pot holder)
- Makes a profit
- Rides in a pony and trap (no cars back then!)
- Learns new crafts like knitting and feather stitching
- Cuts fabric with sharp scissors
- Sleepover with friend for the first time
- Goes to market, looks at stalls and buys things with own money
- Wears "best" clothes for visiting, including white gloves
- Paints tools so they can be useful again
- Minds a shop for an hour alone ("MMM felt very solemn and careful indeed").
- Cleans a pair of Mothers shoes, as a quiet thank you
- Plans a party with friends for adults
- Works to earn money (sells flowers, cleans brass)
- Mends handles to toys (Billy Blunt - BB)
- Makes money box from wood (BB)
- Children act as waitresses and waiter
- DJs music (BB)
- Organise refreshments, food and drinks, music and decorations
- Buys presents for family members with own money
- Makes presents for friends
- Reads Community Noticeboard
- Learns to count in seconds by watching an analogue clock
- Practises running races
- Looking after siblings (Susan)
These stories paint beautiful picture of what skills and experiences that were gained as an 8 year old child in 1930. These experiences are a startling contrast when looking at the highly urbanised childhood we have today.
Did you count how many skills the children you know are able to do today at age 8?
How many can you say "yes" to for your own children and children you know of the same age?
Of the 44 activities listed here, the author scores only 7/44 for her own 7 year old son.
Children who live in cities today almost completely miss out on all the life skills typical children experienced 90 years ago - because of a combination of bad city design, parenting choices, and changes in expectation of what children ought to be doing.
"Oh well, that is not possible for children anymore".
This is a typical response, a dreary acceptance that children now have to put up with a restricted urban life.
Child Friendly Futures argues that this is not a luxury.
Understandings in child development tells us that is extremely important for children to become independent actors in their lives. We must find a way to bring elements of childhood back into our cities. We must find ways to allow children to have the freedoms they once had, and learn self-reliance skills such as the ones above, so that we have a more child friendly future.