Inventing Adolescence: 20th Century Concepts of Youth Development

By Shaklee, Harriet | Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences, January 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Inventing Adolescence: 20th Century Concepts of Youth Development


Shaklee, Harriet, Journal of Family and Consumer Sciences


Although the concept of childhood innocence was well established by the start of the 2e Century, Americans were less sure about adolescence. However, consensus soon evolved that adolescence was a pre-adult stage of development, when young people should be protected from the burdens of adulthood and trained for future adult roles. The development of youth clubs, initiation of juvenile courts, passage of child labor laws, and expansion of high school participation all show the growing consensus about adolescence as a period of development. A look at today's adolescents reveals gaps in access to the opportunities of adolescence for many American youth.

Key Words: Family history, Adolescence, Transition to adulthood, High school education

How Americans define childhood and adolescence has changed greatly over the past two centuries (Macleod, 1998; Youcha, 1995). In pre-Civil War America, children and youth were helpmates to their parents, joining them in family production on farms and home-based crafts. They put in long days at the side of their parents, growing and preserving food, raising animals, and caring for younger siblings, among other responsibilities. Others left home to learn work roles as apprentices and servants in the shops and homes of other families.

The Industrial Revolution brought changes in family roles as fathers began to spend long days away from home, earning the income required to support the family. Separation of home and work was especially common in the growing urban areas, where factories became the site of production. With only one parent at home, many mothers became full-time homemakers, dedicated to developing a comfortable environment for their families. In urban areas, work and home were viewed as worlds apart, the former a source of stress and frustration, the latter a much needed refuge for family from the outside world.

At the same time, childhood came to be regarded, not as a time for work and responsibility, but rather as a unique period of innocence and joy. Children needed nurturing during these childhood years, and moms had a full-time job providing the love and care necessary to meet those needs. Mothers were responsible for sheltering their children during these critical years and providing the opportunity for play necessary for proper development. Childhood also came to be seen as the learning years, as reflected in the growth of public schools and the initiation of compulsory education for children.

Concepts of childhood innocence were first popular in the latter half of the 19th Century in urban middle and upper class families, where father's income could provide sufficiently for the family, freeing both mothers and children from the need to work. However, these days, Americans across the income range share these ideas about childhood that were established in the final decades of the 19th Century. Though family roles for mothers and fathers have changed in many ways, childhood innocence and the central importance of nurturance, play, and learning continue to define Americans' views of children.

ADOLESCENCE

While there was growing consensus about the nature of childhood at the turn of the century, there was less agreement about adolescence (Demos, 1986; Kett, 1977; Macleod, 1998; Modell and Goodman, 1990). Public high schools were available, but only 11% of eligible young people were in attendance in 1900. In rural areas, where half of America's children lived, few families could afford to have their older children in school when they could be helping with family production on the farm. In the city, older children in low-income families worked alongside adult family members in the paid workforce: 1/6 of teenagers 10-15 years of age were in paid employment in 1900. A study of youth in Philadelphia showed that the wages of Irish children contributed 40% of their total family income in the late 1800's (Griswold, 1993).

It was not until the early decades of the 20th Century that the nation became concerned about burdening teenagers with so much adult responsibility. …

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