Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

How Americans Raise Their Children: Generational Relations from the Revolution to the Global World 1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

How Americans Raise Their Children: Generational Relations from the Revolution to the Global World 1

Article excerpt

As children became important subjects of historical inquiry, some scholars began studying childhood as a Western phenomenon broadly understood. My own work has strongly encouraged this perspective, and two books I recently edited, which examine childhood in the Western world since antiquity and the changes in children's experiences since World War II, embody it.1 In this view, the history of childhood in the West is part of a single evolving cultural system. At the same time, I have been engaged in a very different sort of investigation, one that emphasizes the subtle historical and cultural differences among Western societies and takes as its subject the unusual way in which parents and children in the United States have related to each other over the past 200 years. The following is based on this project.

In the United States, much earlier and more emphatically than elsewhere in the West, authoritarian controls over children gave way to a more relaxed relationship between the generations. This pattern and its consequences had already drawn the attention of European and American observers by the early 19th century. Europeans often described American children as rude, unmannerly, and bold; even very young children were described as unnervingly confident. Some commentators were delighted, calling such display a refreshing sign of American vigor, but others were less charmed. One English woman defined it in a vivid contrast:

English children in the presence of strangers are reserved and shy . . . . They feel that the nursery and school room are their proper sphere of action . . . . Most unlike to these is the sentiment of the American, both parent and child. The little citizen seems to feel at a surprisingly early age, that he has a part on the stage of the world, and is willing enough to act a little before his time.2

American children, it seems, already had attitude. And their parents apparently stood by and approved.

Alexis de Tocqueville famously described parents in the United States as treating their children more equally than parents did elsewhere, with the result that fathers and sons behaved toward each other with far less formality. He was hardly alone in his opinion; in the 1850s, two decades after de Tocqueville offered his observation after traveling through the United States, American children were described by Polish Count Adam de Gurowski as being early "emancipated . . . from parental authority and domestic discipline." Accustomed to familiarity with their parents, they behaved in the same manner with other older persons, thus, in his words, depriving "the social intercourse of Americans of the tint of politeness, which is more habitual in Europe."3 This attitude led American children to adopt a different vision of themselves, one in which, according to de Tocqueville, independence was "an incontestable right."4 One English woman thought this youthful independence affected even very young children, not just in their manners, but also in their habits of learning and inquiry. Entrusted with physical objects such as porcelain cups, they handled them with care, and even 1-year-olds probed the mechanisms of objects with a kind of focused curiosity that evokes the image of the philosopher or scientist in the crib, which psychologists talk about today. Commentators considered these changes to be the results of various factors and occurrences, such as a successful revolution, the availability of land, the shortage of labor, the absence of an aristocratic class, or the equality of laws.

These visitors, you may object, came to America expecting to see "the new world difference"-a nontraditional society freed of restraint-and they found what they were looking for, exaggerating small differences in demeanor and mistaking these for more fundamental changes. To some degree, this was true, of course, but it hardly undermines either the observations or the facts behind them. Americans did have land, needed labor, put their children to work early, took seriously a political revolution that emphasized equality, and disdained artificial deference. …

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