The Evolution of Childhood

From the Puritans to the DVD generation, a look at children in America

By Steven Mintz
Autumn 2006

Americans are great believers in progress in all areas but one. For four centuries, adults have feared that the younger generation is going to hell in a handbasket. Today, the young, we are told, are growing up too fast and are facing choices for which they are unprepared emotionally and psychologically. Marketers have transformed them into consumer drones, and the mass media have made them more violent and hedonistic and less innocent, knowledgeable and motivated than any previous generation. Their language is foul; their TV shows, movies, and music are crude, violent and sexist; their styles and fashions are shockingly inappropriate. Their role models are stoners, burnouts, losers and underachievers, and proud of it.

Adults’ concern about contemporary children’s lot needs to be corrected. Nowhere is nostalgia more pronounced than in our perception of childhood. If we are to think accurately about contemporary childhood and separate genuine concerns from illusory or exaggerated problems, some myths and misconceptions need to be abandoned. Many adults imagine children in America have generally
been carefree and innocent and lived in stable families. As the following historical survey shows, this is not the case.

Revolutions in Children’s Lives

Of all the revolutions that have taken place American life over the past four centuries, the most radical involves the lives of children. Let’s trace the changes that have taken place in children’s experiences and in adults’ views of kids.

The Puritans
The Puritans have gotten a bum rap as cold, emotionless and humorless. One reason: their attitude toward children. The Puritans saw children as sinful, even bestial creatures that needed to grow up
as quickly as possible. As the Reverend Cotton Mather put it: “Are they Young? Yet the Devil has been with them already…. They go astray as soon as they are born. They no sooner step than they stray, they no sooner lisp than they ly.”

The Puritans regarded crawling as animal-like, toys as devilish and play as totally lacking in value. They placed infants in walkers to ensure that they didn’t crawl. They placed rods up children’s spines to ensure that they stood upright. They expected children to attend religious services for hours on end. They took children to hangings and graveyards to prepare them for death. They sent kids as
young as 6 or 7 to work in other families’ home as servants or apprentices. None of this means that the Puritans lacked concern for children. Quite the contrary. The Puritans were obsessed with children. They regarded children as a trust from God and as the key to creating a godly society. In more secular form, this remains the American attitude today.

Romantic and Brutal Times
By the time of the American Revolution, a new conception of childhood was emerging. Middle-class parents began to regard their offspring as innocent, malleable and fragile creatures who needed to be sheltered from the adult world. They kept their children at home much longer than in the past. Instead of putting them out to work, they put them in school.

At the same time that middle-class parents romanticized their children as little angels, working-class and farm children had to work harder than ever. No group worked harder or led more difficult lives than slave children. Slave infants died at twice the rate of white infants, owing to inadequate nutrition. Half grew up apart from their fathers. Many were put to work as early as the age of 3. Most
were sold away from their families during their teens.

Yet slave children succeeded in stealing a childhood. Like children of the Holocaust, they played games that helped them deal with the traumas of slavery, games like mock auctions and whippings.
About 10 percent taught themselves to read and write. The Industrial Revolution depended on child labor. The first American factory, in Pawtucket, R.I., had a work force that consisted of five boys and two girls, ages 8 to 12.

Working-class children under 15 earned about 20 percent of their families’ income. They worked not because their parents were heartless, but because their wages were indispensable to their families’

Modern Childhood
In the 20th century, Americans invented the teenager, youth culture and dating. Parents started dressing boys in blue and girls in pink. Toys that we think of as traditional were invented, including the Teddy Bear, the electric train, the Erector Set, Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys. Authors published book series for children featuring the Bobbsey Twins, Tom Swift, the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, not to mention comic books. Another invention was trick-or-treating on Halloween.

It is a shock to consider how different childhood was at the dawn of the 20th century. In 1900, 15 percent of newborns died by the age of 1, and 2.5 million children ages 10 to 16 worked six days a week, 10 hours a day in factories and shops and on street corners. Millions more toiled on farms. Half of all children who entered first grade left school by sixth grade. Fifteen to 20 percent of children lived in single-parent homes, owing primarily to parental death or desertion. At least 10 percent of early 20th century Jewish immigrant fathers abandoned their families after arriving in the United States. As recently as 1940, one in 10 children lived with no parents—they grew up with relatives
or in institutions. We may think that our families are disintegrating, but the fact is that American families have always been fragile and unstable.

In the early 20th century, a small group of reformers who called themselves Child Savers succeeded in universalizing a middle-class childhood. They convinced the states to open a new high school every day for 30 years. They made school attendance mandatory and required students to remain until the age of 16. After 40 years of struggle, these reformers persuaded Congress to outlaw child labor. By the 1950s, it seemed that America was well on its way to creating a child-centered society. Between 1940 and 1957, the birth rate rose 50 percent. The birth rate for third children doubled and for fourth children tripled. Rates of divorce, single-parent families and illegitimacy were half of what they are today. Reacting against Depression-era poverty, the upheavals of World War II and the instability of the Cold War, couples placed a new emphasis on children and family as the pre-eminent
source of fulfillment.

Many positive trends of the period were not to last. The high birthrates and stable divorce rate of the post-World War II era were an aberration, out of line with long-term historical trends toward lower birthrates, higher divorce rates and more working mothers—trends that reappeared during the 1960s and 1970s, producing dramatically new patterns of childhood.

More importantly, the 1950s themselves were not entirely a golden age, despite the gains. The infant and child mortality rate at the end of the decade was still four times as high as it is today.
In 1955, two-thirds of black children and more than one-fifth of their white counterparts lived in poverty. Nearly a million children with disabilities were denied public schooling as uneducable, and 40 percent of kids dropped out of school before graduating high school. Happy sitcom reruns to the contrary, the parents of 50 years ago were not insulated from fears about youth violence or children’s poor academic achievement. In 1955 alone, Congress considered nearly 200 bills aimed at
combating what was seen as an epidemic of juvenile delinquency. Rudolph Flesch’s 1955 bestseller, Why Johnny Can’t Read, announced that “3,500 years of civilization” were being lost to bad
schools and incompetent teachers. It is neither feasible nor desirable to return to the patterns of mid-20th century childhood. When we wax nostalgic about a mythic past, we obscure real gains made in child welfare since then.

Childhood Today
Contemporary childhood differs radically from childhood four decades ago. Today’s children are much more diverse than ever before: Fully 20 percent are immigrants or the children of immigrants,
and nearly one-third are members of minority groups. Nearly half of all children experience their parents’ divorce, about one-third are born to unmarried mothers, and the overwhelming majority have working mothers. Over one-fourth have no siblings. Attending a preschool or a day care center has become a nearly universal experience.

Disruptive changes in family life have produced great anxiety, apprehension and alarm. But there is no clear-cut evidence that divorce, single parenthood, working mothers or day care have had the negative consequences that some claim. In fact, the most important shifts are in other areas:

  • Parents have adopted a more hovering style of parenting and have higher expectations for their children’s achievement. Parents have become more involved in running their children’s lives. Especially among the upper middle class, play dates have replaced more informal, kid-structured play arrangements.
  • Children increasingly oscillate between periods of close monitoring and periods when they are totally unsupervised.
  • As a society, we have grown much more risk-averse. We impose labels on behavior that previous generations considered normal and are much more willing to use medication to treat
    childish behavior.
  • The key forces in children’s socialization are not just parents, siblings, and peers—but television, toys and popular culture. Children spend more time watching TV than they do in school or interacting with family or friends. Today’s children acquire information and communicate in new ways. They have access to instant messaging, cell phones, DVD players, VCRs, computers and video games—not to mention radio and TV. In a world in which they are bombarded with information, kids learn how to surf, scan and skim. They multi-task and deal with distractions in ways that their parents cannot.
  • Free, unstructured play declined 40 percent between 1980 and 2000. It was replaced by organized play—in the form of soccer or other sports leagues—and by electronically mediated play, including video games. Screen time has replaced many face-to-face interactions.

A More Realistic View
Despite high rates of divorce, single parenthood, out-of-wedlock birth and working motherhood, by many measures, children are doing better than ever. Adolescents are less likely to smoke, take drugs and become pregnant than their parents. Juvenile crime rates have fallen; school achievement has improved; college attendance has climbed substantially.

The explanations are straightforward. Today’s parents are better-educated than their predecessors. Fathers are more nurturing. Mothers, in general, are happier and more fulfilled. In addition, fewer children means that parents can devote more resources to the children that they have.

In important respects, though, the young are surely worse off. Today’s kids are more isolated from adults than any previous generation. They have less access to free spaces outside their homes. They have fewer opportunities for free play and fewer chances to display their growing maturity and competence. Even in the area of children’s health, where gains are most obvious, more children now suffer from chronic illnesses, congenital problems and physical and psychological disabilities than in the past. Most experts believe that we are seeing an earlier onset of clinical depression, a genuine increase in attention deficit disorders and autism, a rising incidence of asthma and an increase in certain kinds of destructive behavior, such as eating disorders. One possible explanation is increasing levels of childhood stress. Children are acutely sensitive to their parents’ stress, whether financial or marital. Many children also feel excessive academic pressure or simple loneliness.

Superficially, the United States is exceptionally child-centered. No other western society has a greater range of institutions, products and services devoted to children—from Chuck E. Cheese and Celebration Station to children’s museums, Happy Meals, movies and television shows. No society worries more about children’s safety and wellbeing or spends as much on children’s education, healthcare, child care and toys—or on juvenile justice and children’s protective services.

Yet while parents treasure individual children, as a society, Americans are more ambivalent. No other advanced society allows as many children to grow up in poverty. No other advanced society makes fewer accommodations for children while parents work. Despite talk about children’s rights, children have little say in custody decisions and frequently face longer punishments for crimes than
adults. American children are more sequestered from the adult world than their foreign counterparts, and their parents are more likely to approve of corporal punishment. At the same time, a hyperaggressive economy, which markets rebelliousness and attitude as it would any other products, has colonized youth culture to a remarkable degree.

A particular definition of childhood is disappearing. This is a conception of childhood as a protected, prolonged stage of innocence and dependence. The idea contributed to many social advances, but it is an idea that has outlived its time. Children can no longer be sheltered from the realities of the adult world. Nor is it possible to privilege children’s lives at the expense of their parents’. Nothing can
bring back the sheltered childhood of the 1950s—no V-chip, school uniform, mandatory drug test or zero-tolerance policy. In 21st century America, a sheltered child is a naïve child, and a naïve child is a vulnerable child.

From an early age, entertainment companies and advertisers inundate the young with sexual imagery and exploit highly sexualized images of children and teens. Older notions of age-appropriate
learning have been jettisoned in the name of accountability, assessment and early achievement. In the interests of giving children a leg up in the race for success, anxious parents overschedule and overpressure (and sometimes overindulge) their offspring.

There is an alternative to the goaldriven, overstructured realities of contemporary childhood. Americans need to re-envision childhood as a period of risk, freedom and experimentation, as an odyssey of psychological self-discovery and growth.

Steven Mintz is the John and Rebecca Moores professor of history and director of the American Cultures Program at the University of Houston in Texas.

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