An exhibit about Swiss "verdingkinder" ("contract children") is presently touring that country, and creating some controversy. Excerpts from a BBC report:
A dark chapter of Swiss history is getting increased attention, with the release of a feature film about "Verdingkinder" or "contract children" and an exhibition about them which is touring the country. A common feature of Swiss life until the mid-1950s, Verdingkinder were primarily children from poor families in the cities, forcibly removed from their parents by the authorities and sent to work on farms. There, many of them were regularly beaten and even sexually abused. They had little education and consequently, as adults, little chance of making careers for themselves...My wife found this link, and pointed out the many similarities to American "orphan trains," featured on a segment of the American Experience television program (an excellent series, btw...):
"Up to the 1950s there were regions in Switzerland that were really poor," he explains. "The Verdingkinder were taken from poor families in the cities. "Families were deprived of custody if they didn't live according to a middle-class family model - unmarried mothers, or divorced people, or people who weren't able to keep their money together. "The authorities took away a lot of children and placed them in agricultural environments where they had to work really hard." Some children were lucky enough to stay in farming families who cared for them, but by and large they were used as child labourers, in an era when, as Mr Weidmann points out, Swiss agriculture was not mechanised, and a great deal of work had to be done by hand...
The exhibition "Verdingkinder Reden" or "Contract Children Speak", contains first-hand testimonies from former Verdingkinder, memories they have now shared with Ruedi Weidmann and his colleagues to draw attention to what happened...
Other rooms show a variety of farm implements - rakes, wooden shoes, leather straps, cast iron pans. These, explains Mr Weidmann, were things the contract children mention regularly because they were used to hit them. Other exhibits include small toys, and letters and postcards sent to the children by their real parents. "These were nearly always taken away - presents for Christmas they were not allowed to have… to interrupt the contact with the real family," says Mr Weidmann...
Meanwhile the feature film Der Verdingbub (The Contract Boy) is bringing what was once a taboo subject to a wider public. The film has been number one at the Swiss box office for weeks. "It's time to talk about it," says Mr Weidmann. "Since we began working on this exhibition we talk about it, we tell our friends, and I would say every third or fourth person we talk to says 'yes, my mother', or 'yes, my grandfather was a Verdingkind'." "It's something that affects a large part of Swiss society in one way or another."
Eighty years ago, Elliot Bobo was taken from his alcoholic father's home, given a small cardboard suitcase, and put on board an "orphan train" bound for Arkansas. Bobo never saw his father again...
Between 1854 and 1929, more than 100,000 children were sent, via orphan trains, to new homes in rural America. Recognizing the need for labor in the expanding farm country, Brace believed that farmers would welcome homeless children, take them into their homes and treat them as their own. His program would turn out to be a forerunner of modern foster care...
Placement into new families was casual at best. Handbills heralded the distribution of cargoes of needy children. As the trains pulled into towns, the youngsters were cleaned up and paraded on makeshift stages before crowds of prospective parents...The separation from families, the beatings and the abuse were unspeakably cruel, but I have mixed feelings about how the labor aspect per se should be viewed. In those days children were incorporated into the labor force much more quickly than most people (most first-world people) can imagine nowadays. I can cite this example from a brief biography I posted about my mom several years ago:
She was born in 1918 to a classic 2nd generation Norwegian immigrant family in southern Minnesota, in an era when children were expected to help work the farm. She wore a huge bonnet in the summer sun, so that neighbors said it looked "like a big hat was driving the rig." She learned to drive that team of horses in a straight line so the cultivating tines wouldn't disturb the planted corn. She was 8 years old at that time.That wasn't considered either abnormal or unloving at the time; children were expected to assist with the support of the family when they were capable of doing so. School was closed during key harvest times.
I often think today's youth are actually deprived of the experience of various forms of family-related work. I see neighborhood children reaching their teen years never having raked a leaf or mowed a lawn because hired crews do that. Housekeepers do the household cleaning. A truck with a blade arrives after a snowstorm to clear the driveways. They don't seem to have summer jobs like I had, selling door-to-door or working in a factory or washing bedpans. I'm not saying it's a better or worse experience for them, but it's different.
Please don't anyone forward this link to Newt Gingrich.ReplyDelete
A few years ago I spent some time in a former Soviet Bloc country of Eastern Europe where it was quite normal for children of farming families to help look after the animals, assist with the harvest and so on. This was purely pragmatic, not political. A neighbour's 14 year-old daughter used to harness a pair of stallions and drive them. Young boys herded sheep and drove them to be milked. From what I saw, the children were proud of the skills that they gained, and they tended to be capable and confident. I also saw mentally handicappped children and adults in the villages helping their families with simple tasks, in that way being an integral part of society and feeling valued. Of course "health and safety" in the West would now stop children from doing "adult work", though I saw very few injuries and mishaps out east.ReplyDelete
Here in rural France it is still a bit the same. Children 8yrs old driving huge Tractors and ploughing fields and really chuffed to be doing it.Delete
Even on British farms over here the kids are expected to muck in and help.
That is the original reason for school holidays.
In Scotland when I was a lad there was the Tattie Holidays when the kids helped lift potatoes.
Here in Texas, kids still work on the farm/ranch. My husband learned to drive a tractor when he was 5 or 6 on the dairy farm and helped with the milking before school every morniong. I was a town girl,(the town being a community of 1,400) but still had to weed the vegetable garden for mom and grandma. Our 10yr old is just learning, now that we've moved out of town. Local kids here work cattle, feed, help in the gardens, and haul hay for their parents in the summers. You can't hire kids to haul hay any more (costs too much $$$) but you can make your own do it! It is just part of their chores. Luckily, they don't get pulled form school for harvest and end school at Jr High as they did in Grandma's generation! She (now 97yrs old) tells of being pulled from school for spring planting and not getting to go back until after Thanksgiving - unlike the town kids who started in September and stayed until May.Delete
Another dirty little secret the Swiss would love the rest of the world to never find out about. Like their endemic xenophobia and racism, their laundering of God knows how many trillions in dirty money over the years, and their vaunted "neutrality" that somehow doesn't preclude their manufacturing and sale of sophisticated weaponry to the highest bidder. Neutral, my ass.ReplyDelete
I'm really glad my daughters all helped around the house and on their grandparents' ranch. All babysat, cleaned houses, and had part-time jobs when they were old enough. We had some tough times financially, and they gained real insight into "real life". I think it was very positive for them, and they agree.ReplyDelete
You shouldn't generalize so much. Perhaps you're thinking more of suburban youth, but most farm kids are still expected to help out with the daily chores. I didn't grow up on a farm, but my brothers and I still were expected to help out with household chores and get a job as soon as we were able. I'm sure it's nothing like it was in the past, before the child labor laws of today, but I don't think we're the "deprived" youth you picture us to be.ReplyDelete
The children I was thinking of are suburban youth.ReplyDelete
Can you legally hire a kid under 16 in the city or suburbs? Other than babysitting or mowing/raking a lawn? In the country you can get away with skirting the child labor laws.Delete
The legal age that a kid can get a Work Permit is at age 14[i got my Work Permit and first warehouse job at age 14, back in 1983]. But he/she isnt able to work in some jobs for a variety of reasons.
Construction jobs often involve power tools. And i think that the age for using power tools is 16[i could be wrong]. And many convenience stores no longer hire anyone under 18, because in many states no one under 18 can sell cigerattes or lottery tickets.
Pete from Baltimore
I was born in Wisconsin where we raised bees for a living and everyone helped out as soon it was possible to do so. It was hard sweaty work, but the experience has been a huge benefit for me even though I work a white collar job. During the summer many of the kids, city and farm, would work detasseling corn to earn extra cash. This wasn't that long ago, 70's and 80's, I don't live there anymore so I don't know if the corn detasseling is still done by hand or who does the work.ReplyDelete
Fred, here's some info on modern detasseling -Delete
- but I don't know the details re how it's done here. Good question, though. I'll ask next summer when we go to the local farm to pick up our sweet corn.
Having read only the first paragraph of this post, my thoughts flew to two Australian movies about parts of our country's history of which many Australians are ashamed: Rabbit Proof Fence (about Aboriginal children "The Stolen Generation" who were taken from their parents and made to work in similar situations to these Swiss children), and Oranges and Sunshine (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1438216/) about English children who were sent to Australia and made to work, again, in similar conditions, often in Catholic boarding schools. This is the first time I've heard of this happening in other countries though.ReplyDelete
also, there is a BIG difference between helping out as society expects on your family or community farm or getting paid to work during the school holidays at a young age (and developing skills that may be useful in your future), and being taken away from your family or familiar environment and being forced to work and treated cruelly and not being offered a useful future from that work.ReplyDelete
You know, this type of migration of children was done for centuries - try googling "Schwabenkinder" (cf. short Wiki entry on that topic).ReplyDelete