Children and adolescents, 1930-1960

Page 4 – The post-war family

Families after the Second World War

As a consequence of the post-war economic boom there was increasing demand for consumer goods. The 1956 census revealed that more than half of New Zealand homes possessed washing machines, refrigerators and electric ovens. For those families who could afford these time- and labour-saving luxuries, so-called 'women's work' became easier. In addition, women who had been mobilised during the war had a taste of life outside the home.

Although many relinquished their jobs at the end of the war in favour of returning soldiers, some chose to remain, if only part-time, in the paid workforce.

Changing family dynamics

Full employment meant that many families moved to or stayed in cities, purchasing homes in new, low-cost subdivisions. While rural children were usually still required to work around the farm after school, increasing prosperity released many urban children from their commitment to the household economy and they began to enjoy more leisure time and (in some cases) money.

The increasing number of women in the workforce meant that many children were left to their own devices in the late afternoon. Concerns were raised in parliament that the higher cost of living, brought about partly by the increasing desire for material goods, was forcing women into paid employment. Hilda Ross, Minister for the Welfare of Women and Children, commented in 1955, 'Seven or eight beautifully furnished rooms do not make a good home'.

Adolescent culture

Greater freedoms for adolescents led to the emergence of a new market for music, fashion and entertainment. By the 1950s a technological revolution meant that the overseas media began to have a real impact. Rock and roll captured the imagination of many New Zealand young people. Dancing was an important social activity, and milk bars attracted 'teenagers' (as they were now called).

The picture theatre had been a source of youth entertainment for some time; in the 1950s American films such as Rock around the clock and The man with the golden arm introduced new attitudes and fashions. Teenagers adopted a new look—longer hair, brighter clothing—the styles of the 'bodgie' or 'widgie'.

The Mazengarb report

These developments led to the fear that New Zealand youngsters were becoming delinquent—an idea reinforced by sensational news stories.

In June 1954, Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker of Christchurch were convicted of killing Parker's mother. In September that year, Hutt College students were discovered to be having sex in darkened picture theatres and on the banks of the Hutt River. Public concern led to a commission of inquiry into the moral delinquency of New Zealand's youth, led by Oswald Mazengarb. The resulting 'morals report' was distributed free to all New Zealand's 300,000 families receiving the family benefit in November 1954.

Blame was placed on working mothers, excessive wages for teenagers, a decline in family life, and the undue influence of film, comics and American literature. Responding to community fears, the film censor Gordon Mirams banned The wild one, starring Marlon Brando as the leader of a teenage motorbike gang, in 1954, 1955 and 1959. Rebel without a cause, starring James Dean, was banned in 1954 but passed for screening in 1956.

The politics of juvenile delinquency

Into the late fifties juvenile delinquency remained a volatile political issue. In 1955 teenager Paddy Black was sentenced to death for the 'Juke Box Killing' and in the same year, twenty-year-old Eddie Te Whiu became one of the last four people to be hanged for murder in New Zealand.

Mabel Howard, the Labour government's Minister for the Welfare of Women and Children from 1957, challenged the view that parents were to blame for delinquency, and chose to meet with bodgies and widgies to discuss the issues with them. Her attempts to communicate with New Zealand youth met with mixed reactions. Many young people were impressed, but the older generation generally saw her attitude as irresponsible.

Changes in attitudes of and about teenagers in the 1950s were indicative of broader shifts in New Zealand society. Various welfare reforms and economic improvements in New Zealand, coupled with the impact of global youth culture and social upheaval, created new opportunities and challenges for New Zealand adolescents. The expectations and frustrations that resulted were to be influential beyond the fifties.

Shirley Williams