Reinventing Childhood after World War II

By Jackson, Kathy Merlock | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), September 2012 | Go to article overview

Reinventing Childhood after World War II


Jackson, Kathy Merlock, Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Reinventing Childhood after World War II. Paula S. Fass, and Michael Grossberg, Eds. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.

Reinventing Childhood after World War II, a collection of seven essays edited by Paula S. Fass and Michael Grossberg, is a welcome addition to the growing body of study exploring attitudes toward childhood and influences on children's lives. In their preface, Fass and Grossberg acknowledge the "centrality of children and childhood to fundamental matters of law, social policy, politics and political symbolism, institutional life, and cultural production" (x), noting how children's lives changed dramatically after World War II. "Studying children" they contend, "is crucial to understanding the complex developments of the [postwar] period," a period that has been a "distinct and extraordinarily rich episode" for the United States specifically and the West more generally (xi).

One of the key themes in this volume is childrearing. In the volume's first essay, Fass reflects on the changing demographics of the American family, characterized by "new gender roles, sexual behaviors and mores, marriage patterns, divorce trends, and birth rates" (11). She argues that in earlier eras, "child-centered" referred to parents' encouragement to their children to be independent and chart their own lives. By the 1950s that began to change as Americans took greater control over their children's affairs, "circumscribing their range of choices, patrolling their behavior, and supervising their activities" (11). The ramifications were stunning. Greater parental involvement led to more organized activities and less free time, more pressure for success and perfection, greater use of drugs to control behavior, more monitoring due to safety concerns - and ultimately more adolescent rebellion. The volume's second essay - in which coeditor Grossberg argues that America is embroiled in a clash regarding children's rights - logically flows from Fass's themes. According to Grossberg, "liberationists" support granting youths more autonomy in matters related to education, health, welfare, and decisionmaking, while "caretakers" support legislation designed to protect children and teens, subsequently limiting their autonomy.

The next two essays in the book address differences in children's lives during and after the Cold War caused by changes in average family size, gender roles, consumer practices, media use, and technological advancements. Whereas many speak glowingly of American childhood in the 1 950s, Steven Mintz argues that the era, with its bullying, racial prejudices, and gender stereotypes, need not be sugar-coated. While Mintz addresses ideology, Stephen Lassonde focuses on child development and marketers' practice of blurring age boundaries to increase profitability. …

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