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Michael Dirda

By Michael Dirda
Sunday, December 12, 2004; Page BW15


A History of American Childhood

By Steven Mintz. Harvard Univ. 445 pp. $29.95

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All of us recognize that our childhoods were different from those of our parents. How could we not? Parents are constantly reminding their offspring of this very fact: "You kids today don't know the value of a dollar. . . . Do you and your brothers think money grows on trees? . . . All you teenagers care about are clothes. . . . There's more to life than just playing the guitar. . . . Girls used to have a sense of modesty. . . . Boys tried to earn their father's respect. . . ." And so on.

I heard phrases like this when growing up and, to my astonishment, find myself mouthing similar ones to my own sons. I used to assume this was something hormonal -- that adults were obliged by their aging biology to look upon youth as feckless, irresponsible and profoundly annoying. No doubt envy plays its part too. Unlike us, the young have yet to squander their lives. So we lay into them, hoping to rescue the apparent yahoos from their downward slide and somehow transform them into what they really ought to be -- which is roughly ourselves, but better, smarter, richer. Sadly, we grownups can't help these shameful desires. To feel proud of one's children -- this is the drug that every parent hungers after. Only when the kids start to disappoint our expectations, as must eventually happen, do we settle for wanting them to be merely happy.

This view of children as "social capital" lies at the heart of upper- and middle-class attitudes toward the young. By contrast, the children of the indigent have traditionally been thought an integral part of a familial work force and used as physical or financial helps in life's bitter struggle. "Far less sentimental in their conception of childhood," writes historian Steven Mintz, the poor "did not believe that parents should make economic sacrifices for their children without reciprocal labor from their offspring." Alas, this belief (or need) often led to the sacrifice of young lives to hardscrabble farming and factory sweatshops. Under such conditions kids didn't necessarily grow up, but they certainly grew old, old before their time.

What do we expect of our children? This is the social question at the heart of Huck's Raft. Among the Puritans a family's paramount obligation was to ensure the spiritual well-being of its young souls. What else could be of any earthly, let alone heavenly, importance? Among baby boomers today, our main goal is to do everything possible to guarantee that Jared or Chelsea is admitted to Yale. The outlook has changed, but whether for the better is moot: What does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his immortal soul?

As Mintz reminds us, middle-class adults have never been sure whether to protect their children from harsh realities or to prepare them to face life's challenges and ugliness. In the past, the young seldom had these options. Ask the worn-out 10-year-olds who went down into coal mines, or the school-age African Americans forced to watch their fathers and mothers kowtow to vulgar rednecks. The idyllic Norman Rockwell/Andy Hardy childhood is largely a post-World War II myth.

That said, the children of the past did possess something lost to their descendants of today: freedom. Once kids were allowed to ride their bikes all over town or idle away the summer in daydreams; they could fail a course or even a grade, and no one got overly excited about it; they might even make serious mistakes and find themselves pregnant or working on the line at Ford rather than studying lines of poetry at college. But now, in our test-driven, increasingly regimented educational system, we forthrightly aim to leave no child behind, which means that we leave no child alone. Slow learners must be sped up, dreamy kids must be made to focus, all must wear uniforms, and, eventually, all must have prizes -- or at least AP courses. In the past, parents might exploit their kids as little more than indentured servants or simply ignore them. Today we are their chauffeurs and social secretaries. Little wonder that teenagers complain they are bored, with nothing to do. But when have they ever done anything for themselves?

Once, writes Mintz, the "path to adulthood was far less clearly delineated and much more irregular, haphazard, and episodic than it subsequently became." He adds sadly that contemporary "American society is unique in its assumption that all young people should follow a single, unitary path to adulthood," then calls for us to review the current totalitarian approach to maturation. "Our challenge is to reverse the process of age segmentation, to provide the young with challenging alternatives to a world of malls, instant messaging, music videos, and play dates. Huck Finn was an abused child whose father, the town drunk, beat him for going to school and learning to read. Who would envy Huck's battered childhood? Yet he enjoyed something too many children are denied and which adults can provide: opportunities to undertake odysseys of self-discovery outside the goal-driven, overstructured realities of contemporary childhood."

Mintz presents this wise counsel only after more than 350 information-filled pages about children during the American Revolution, under slavery, during the early industrial period, the Progressive Era and the Great Depression. He touches on sexuality and vice -- "In New York City in the middle of the nineteenth century, an estimated 5 to 10 percent of young women in their teens or early twenties engaged in prostitution for at least a brief period" -- and notes that as "late as 1900, 20 to 30 percent of all children had lost a parent by age fifteen." Even "as late as 1920, only 16 percent of seventeen-year-olds -- less than one in six -- graduated from high school." He ends by describing the imprisonment of the Scottsboro Boys, the Leopold-Loeb thrill murder, the shootings at Columbine.

Though Mintz writes clearly, his pages can make for slow reading: Virtually every sentence tots up another historical anecdote, fact, statistic or datum of some sort, making the pages feel like lists -- fascinating lists, admittedly, but lists all the same. Still, he occasionally pauses during his positivistic barrage for a more reflective paragraph. For instance, he notes that in the 19th century, children organized their own sports teams, clubs and educational associations like the Mechanics Institute -- without adult aid or supervision. But as "high schools grew more important as placement agencies and assumed a more all-encompassing role in middle-class lives, students began to see themselves as juveniles and became more and more acquiescent. It seemed appropriate that adults who knew better should organize their leisure as well as their academic activities." As our century advanced, he also notes (with, perhaps, an implied private conviction) that a "concern with personality development replaced an earlier preoccupation with shaping children's moral character."

This is, then, a rich and stimulating book, revealing how much childhood has changed over the centuries and how much some things never change. Mintz notes that Cornelia A.P. Comer, a Harvard professor's wife, complained in the Atlantic Monthly that the younger generation "couldn't spell, and its English was 'slipshod.' Today's youth were selfish, discourteous, lazy, and self-indulgent. Lacking respect for their elders or for common decency, the young were hedonistic, 'shallow, amusement-seeking creatures,' whose tastes had been 'formed by the colored supplements of the Sunday paper' and the 'moving picture shows.' The boys were feeble, flippant, and 'soft' intellectually, spiritually, and physically. Even worse were the girls, who were brash, loud, and promiscuous with young men." This was published in 1911, but it could be -- old-fashioned diction aside -- Tom Wolfe inveighing against college freshmen in 2004. Sigh. I suppose that every generation of adults tends to feel, when regarding the young people around them, that the barbarians are at the gates. But really, there's nothing for us to worry about: One day our children will have children of their own. •

Michael Dirda's new collection of essays, "Bound to Please," has just been published, and his memoir "An Open Book" is out in paperback. His e-mail address is dirdam@washpost.com.

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