our everyday life

What Does "Kids Should Be Seen & Not Heard" Mean?

by Karen Hellesvig-Gaskell, studioD

The phrase that kids should be seen and not heard infers that a child's place is to be quiet and well-behaved. This was a widespread sentiment during the Victorian era of 1837 to 1901 when the typical family raised about a half dozen kids, points out Asa Briggs in her book "Victorian People: A Reassessment of Persons and Themes, 1851-67." According to the University of Liverpool, the idea that children shouldn't have a voice in their lives lingered well into the 20th century.


Victorian era values prescribed that every facet of a child's life should be governed by his parents or guardians, says the University of Liverpool. At the time, little distinction was made between children and property, and so there was no reason for children to speak in company, as they were expected to merely do as they were told without question. The tide slowly began to turn when the Nazis’ abuse of Jewish children and young people with mental and physical disabilities was revealed following World War II, as the disclosure set in motion a less stringent type of parenting and new thoughts on children's rights, notes the University of Liverpool.

Blank Slate

The conviction that a child's words were unimportant was implied long before the Victorian period. Only experience could furnish the mind with character and ideas, noted John Locke in “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding" penned in 1690. The concept of “Tabula Rasa” -- the Latin term for “Blank Slate” -- proposed that a child's mind was like a blank sheet of paper, void of all reason and knowledge. Because children were not considered to have valid opinions of their own, they were not encouraged to engage in public discussion or to speak in the presence of their "betters." Instead, they should listen and gain instruction without comment.

Rules To Live By

Impeccable manners were expected of the Victorian child. One tale from the time, titled "Table Rules for Little Folks," admonishes children to sit still, to be patient, to "not speak a useless word," to be polite and clean and to leave quietly when meals are over, for example. Interrupting a conversation was forbidden because the children were expected to merely listen quietly and learn.


Failing to adhere to the directive that children should be seen and not heard was often seen in the school house, resulting in discipline that was intended to enforce compliance and meekness. The Victorian teacher would use a cane to discipline a child who spoke out of turn, talked back or for just about any other infraction a disgruntled teacher deemed worthy of punishment. While more than 223,000 U.S. students were subjected to corporal punishment -- defined as "any punishment in which physical force is used and intended to cause some degree of pain or discomfort" -- during the 2006-2007 school year, according to a “Time” magazine article published in 2009, society's views are shifting away from the idea that children should be seen and not heard. As of 2013, children are more likely to have a voice in what happens to them and many teaching strategies now work to foster intelligent discourse among children and between children and adults.

About the Author

Karen Hellesvig-Gaskell is a broadcast journalist who began writing professionally in 1980. Her writing focuses on parenting and health, and has appeared in “Spirituality & Health Magazine" and “Essential Wellness.” Hellesvig-Gaskell has worked with autistic children at the Fraser School in Minneapolis and as a child care assistant for toddlers and preschoolers at the International School of Minnesota, Eden Prairie.

Photo Credits

  • Polka Dot Images/Polka Dot/Getty Images