Beyond the Century of the Child: Cultural History and Developmental Psychology

By Willem Koops; Michael Zuckerman | Go to book overview

Chapter 4
Patterns of Childrearing in America

KARIN CALVERT

Members of any society carry within themselves working definitions of childhood, its nature, limitations, and duration. In fact numerous, even contradictory conceptions of the nature of childhood may exist simultaneously in a society, a family, even an individual. Adults may not explicitly articulate such paradigms or even consciously conceive of them as an issue, but they act on their assumptions in all their dealings with, fears for, and expectations of their children. The process of education in the broader meaning of the term is one in which children who have reached the age of reason learn to adapt themselves to accepted personas, to be feminine or masculine, obedient or mischievous, humble or arrogant, innocent or worldly, as their society or their parents expect of them. The degree to which any particular child meets such expectations and his or her ease in doing so depends on a wide range of factors including the compatibility between the child’s personality and the roles assigned by social convention, the level of commitment of the parent to those conventions, and the consistency and clarity of the expectations.1

Infants and toddlers, however, lack the necessary comprehension and skills to conform to social expectations in even a rudimentary fashion. Children do not always look or act in accord with prevailing social constructs. Where little children are unable to conform, caregivers rely on exterior means, including material objects, to maintain the accepted images and ensure the desired behavior of their children. In fact, only a small part of children’s physical environment deals primarily with their physical needs. A great deal, including much of children’s furniture, is used to direct, contain, and control a child’s behavior. Similarly, toys underscore or encourage specific class or gender roles. Artifacts are also used to maintain a perception of the child compatible with common cultural assumptions regarding the nature of childhood. Clothing, for example, often conveys social signals regarding a child’s gender and age, and may either link children to the

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