Thursday, May 12, 2016

Paula S. Fass's "The End of American Childhood"

Paula S. Fass is professor of the Graduate School and the Margaret Byrne Professor of History Emerita at the University of California, Berkeley. The author of Kidnapped and Children of a New World, she recently edited The Routledge History of Childhood in the Western World.

Fass applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, The End of American Childhood: A History of Parenting from Life on the Frontier to the Managed Child, and reported the following:
Childhood and parenting have changed in significant ways in the United States over the course of the two hundred years examined in my new book on the subject, The End of American Childhood. Early in their history, Americans set a cultural norm that emphasized individualism and the autonomy of the young. Today, that belief has faded and is in retreat.

The change in attitudes was becoming evident by the turn of the twentieth century. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century one of the most dramatic and consequential sources for this change resulted from the demography of child survival. In the nineteenth century, almost every household could expect to lose one or several of its children and all American parents, including those as prominent as Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain, were familiar with the uncertainty and sorrow that accompanied this loss. These American parents never lived with the illusion that they could control their children’s future. By the first two decades of the twentieth century, however, child mortality was radically reduced with notable consequences for parenting.

On page 99, I discuss how this revised expectation profoundly influenced the nature of parenting advice. From providing advice aimed at child survival such as proper diet, sleep, bathing, etc., child-rearing advisers began to shift their attention to developmental and psychological matters and to enlist parents in a campaign for child improvement. Once children could be expected to survive, “the stage was set for the dramatic spike of interest in childrearing advice aimed at emotional health and sound personality development that came in the decade of the 1920s." Parents were now set on the path of becoming more self-conscious and self-critical. Over the course of a century, this has led to a rise in parental oversight, increased anxiety about children’s welfare, more medical interventions, and a gradual decline in an earlier American commitment to treating children as independent and resourceful beings. Parents today often emphasize control as the drive toward perfection has become a middle class obsession.
Learn more about The End of American Childhood at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue