When I hear people comment that life is tougher for kids today than it was 30 or 50 or 100 years ago, I have to wonder why someone would say such a thing.
The fact is growing up has always been difficult, and it always will be. However, life in general is, on the whole, much easier for children of the later Twentieth Century and early Twenty-first Century than it was for kids who grew up in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century.
Children of the past often died in infancy and early childhood. They were struck with diseases which are often curable today.
One of the problems which plagued the children of a hundred years ago was homelessness and the loss of parents. Diseases, unsafe working conditions and other events caused the deaths of their parents and these children were then left to fend for themselves. Many of them were immigrants who had difficulties with new languages and different ways of life.
"A Partner's Promise," one of my historical novels for young people, details life for an 11-year-old boy who was orphaned at 8 and eventually placed on the orphan train after he'd been arrested for stealing a loaf of bread. This books clearly illustrates just how difficult life on the streets could be for a young boy.
"The Trading Game," another of my historical novels for young people, tells the story of a young girl who struggles to take care of herself and her little sister. Here is a snippet from the novel featuring Lacey at one of the worst moments of her life. She's in an alley in New York where she lives with her baby sister.
Gina’s forehead was hot. Her cheeks were fire red. Each breath she took sounded like it was being dragged over rocks.
Lacey held her sister closely and prayed she’d be well again very soon.
A rat nibbled at the garbage sitting near her, and Lacey envied the rodent the food he enjoyed. Hunger tore at her insides. The last time she and Gina had eaten was when they’d visited Salina two days ago. Gina came down with the fever the following night as they’d hovered together in their alley during a rainstorm.
Since then, Lacey could not leave her little sister to earn their daily food. If she did, who would keep the rats away? Who would protect Gina from the bad men who smelled of whiskey? Who would dry her sister’s tears?
Lacey began to cry. Gina needed to eat. She’d never get well if she didn’t eat.
She wiped her cheeks. She couldn’t cry. She had to be strong. Gina needed her. She depended on her.
Gina cried out. Her arms flailed around.
Lacey knew she was having another bad dream. Fevers often brought about bad dreams.
She settled Gina back to a quiet sleep.
She leaned her head against the building supporting her back and closed her eyes. She needed to sleep. Exhaustion consumed her. She promised herself she’d close her eyes for only a few minutes.
As she rested, she held Gina close. Slumber quickly overtook her and held her in its grip until she felt something walking on her leg.
Lacey’s eyes popped open. Two rats were crawling through Gina’s hair and one was nestling inside the skirt on Lacey’s leg.
Lacey sat up and pulled the rats from Gina’s hair. She threw them against the wall of the building on the other side of the alley. She kicked at the rat on her leg, and it scurried away.
She stood, holding Gina tightly.
This misery had to stop! Failure bore down on her. She was not taking care of Gina properly. Neither was she caring for herself properly.
She had to do something, and she had to do it now.
Growing up has never been easy, but conditions such as these (and even worse circumstances) have been a living reality for children for thousands of years.
Let's hug the children in our lives, help them endure whatever hard knocks life sends their way and love them each and every day.
Fran Shaff, Award-Winning Author