Guest Editor's Introduction: Children's and Teen Culture

By Eiss, Harry | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), March 2006 | Go to article overview

Guest Editor's Introduction: Children's and Teen Culture


Eiss, Harry, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Milk for Babes: Drawn Out of the Breasts of Both Testaments, Chiefly for the Spiritual Nourishment of Boston Babes in Either England, but May Be of Like Use for Any Children by John Cotton, 1646, is considered the first book published in America for children, and even just the title of it suggests the strong Puritan belief that children needed to be saved from damnation by a harsh regiment of moralizing. The famous New England Primer, at 1691, put it bluntly in the alphabet rhyme used for each child's first introduction to language, "In Adam's fall/we sinned all."

Damnation, hellfire, sulfur, and brimstone-the fiery, fear-filled sermons of the Puritans saw Satan everywhere, even in the innocent faces of young girls, who, after all, might well be concealing their true identities as witches, agents of the Devil, caught in a life of sin, children to be exposed, to be cleansed or hung for their own good.

And these views were not just those of the infamous Salem witch trials. Less highlighted misapplications of this dark view broke out throughout early America. An interesting example occurred in Stamford, where Kate, young woman maid, caused a great stir by claiming Satan was speaking through her. Interestingly, this example gives us a curious twist on the position of children, as it shows how the evil child could actually empower herself by claiming to be bewitched, and use this demonic possession against adults by simply accusing them of being witches.

Harsh, terrifying, and dark as it was, this view of children as vulnerable and in danger of going to hell if they died before they had been saved was the first to separate the child's world from that of the adult and to take on the task of helping children get safely through it. Misdirected as it was, the intent was to comfort children and make them feel secure in the avoidance of hell and assurance of heaven.

And though at first glance it might seem an obviously outdated view, in many ways it is still with us today. Maintaining the belief that children should be taught what to think, not how to think, powerful conservative religious groups such as Educational Research Analysts (formed by Mel and Norma Gabier) and Citizens for Excellence in Education have led today's rapidly accelerating rate of censorship in the United States, especially in the schools. But today's censorship, based on the same passive image of the child, is not as strictly religious as was the traditional Puritan image. It often extends into nonreligious (even antireligious) concerns, such as male/female roles, multiculturalism, and even environmental concerns.

Fortunately, other views also exist. It might be fair to say that modern child psychology began with Charles Darwin's Expression of the Emotions in Men and Animals, 1872. However, it really began, as did all of modern psychology, with the work of Sigmund Freud. His theories, mainly dealing with how personality disturbances in later life are generally the result of early childhood experience, set in motion an ever growing concern with childhood experience; and though subsequent psychologists have disagreed with certain aspects of his theories, they have pushed and continue to promote his views on the importance of childhood experiences until today, children are seen as highly complex, very psychologically delicate, and easily damaged by the intentional or unintentional actions of adults. Fragile! Handle with care!

Today, child development is generally divided into four aspects of human growth: physical, mental or cognitive, personality, and socialization. …

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