The Evolution of Childhood: From the Puritans to the DVD Generation

Article excerpt

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.


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 to percent taught themselves to read and write.

The Industrial Revolution depended on child labor. The first American factory. …