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Has Childhood Changed?

How children’s lives have changed since the late 19th century.

July 26, 2022

A recent piece by the dean of historians of American education, Larry Cuban, asks a provocative question: Are Today’s Children Different Than Children in the 1890s?

His answer is no. Sure, he acknowledges, the experience of childhood has changed in noticeable ways.

  • More children are raised in single-parent homes and experience their parents’ divorce.
  • Most children have working mothers, which has had the ironic effect of both increasing and decreasing time spent in each other’s company (since when moms and children are together, working moms actually devote more attention and time to their children than did their 1950s counterparts).
  • Children do spend more time in front of screens, and their ready access to cellphones, social media, video games and video streaming means that most have largely unmediated exposure to adult realities.

Three somewhat inconsistent ideas now shape parenting and teaching:

  • That children’s intellectual growth benefits substantially from conscious cultivation and enrichment and that it’s therefore a mistake to assume children will grow up naturally.
  • That in order to develop into well-behaved, responsible adults, children need structure, adult supervision and character education (now called social-emotional learning or civics education).

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  • That children are naturally curious incipient scientists who need and profit from opportunities to learn actively, engage in hands-on inquiry and work collaboratively on relevant, useful tasks.

One of Cuban’s most interesting points is the ways that these three ideas have shaped children’s school-going experience.

To his list, I’d add several other instances of change in children’s lives:

  • Certain kinds of disabilities and disorders that were previously unrecognized have apparently become much more common, as has the prevalence of certain chronic disorders. Here I’m not just referring to sibling rivalry (which was only “discovered” in the 1920s), but autism (which wasn’t recognized until the 1930s), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (not diagnosed or treated until 1902), dyslexia (“word blindness” was first identified as a problem in 1877), or peanut allergies (which only became prevalent after 1990).
  • There has been a long-term shift from an environment in which children were expected to love and assist their parents to one where parents seek to earn their children’s love.
  • We have witnessed the triumph of a therapeutic discourse, which uses psychological categories to understand children’s behavior and focuses on children’s emotional interior.

Yet none of this, in Cuban’s view, means that children have changed fundamentally. In his words:

“Biologically, babies are born with the same heart, brain, and other organs that humans have had for millennia. Psychologically, children then and now have always needed to feel physically and emotionally safe and loved by those that care for them.”

We should certainly be wary of facile generalizations about how childhood has changed. Have children’s attention spans declined? We don’t know. Are kids more resistant to reading? The evidence remains unclear and contradictory. Are children more disrespectful and impulsive? Probably not.

But as a historian of childhood, I’d like to respectfully disagree with Cuban’s insistence that children today are more or less similar to those in 1890. I believe that today’s children do differ in meaningful ways from their predecessors. Nor is my disagreement with Cuban simply a matter of terminology. It reflects fundamental disagreements about how childhood is defined, understood, treated, institutionalized and experienced.

Every facet of childhood has changed over the past 130 years: in the access to and the duration of schooling, in the availability of store-bought toys and commercial amusements, and in the ways that children spend their time (with much less outdoor, unstructured, unsupervised group play and much more solitary time inside their own home).

The language of childhood has also changed. In 1890, the term “adolescence” had not yet entered popular parlance. The word “girl” was a remarkably elastic term, which included any yet-unmarried young woman even in her 20s. (Also, the words “boy” and “girl” were still used pejoratively to refer to anyone in a subordinate position.) Nor were infants yet color coded, with girls associated with pink and boys with blue.

So, what is childhood? It’s:

  • A life stage defined by biology and physiology. To say that childhood is a biological and physiological stage does not mean that childhood’s biology is unchanging. Not only does the age of menarche, on average, occur years earlier than in the past, but it appears that the average age of the onset of a host of psychological issues, including depression, emerges much earlier, too.
  • A social status. To be a child is to occupy a role and a status defined by adults, a status that is internalized, to varying degrees, by children themselves. Today’s children, unlike their baby boomer predecessors, are less willing to think of themselves as kids—that is, as dependent and immature creatures who need to be cared for by adults.
  • A developmental stage. Beginning in the 1920s, developmental psychologists began to divide childhood into a sequence of stages (early, middle, adolescence), each characterized certain milestones, skills (involving speech, fine motor, visual motor and dressing and grooming skills) and characteristic emotions.

Jean Piaget added another dimension of development, in cognition, which he argued evolved from a sensorimotor stage to a preoperational stage, followed by a concrete operational stage and a formal operational stage.

What we’ve subsequently discovered is that these vectors of development are not simply biological or genetic, but are influenced by shifting circumstances, institutions and treatment.

  • A legal category. Childhood is a status defined by law and institutional treatment. In 1890, the juvenile court, with its emphasis on rehabilitation rather than punishment, still lay another nine years in the future. There was still wide variation across the states in whether any formal schooling was required and, when attendance was compulsory, the age at which mandatory attendance ended. Today, as we all well know, the legal status of children is in flux and hotly contested. There are intense debates over the topics that can be introduced in school depending on children’s age, exposure to sex education, children’s privacy rights and especially about the appropriateness and legality of gender-affirming care.
  • An age-defined set of experiences. In 1890, childhood was not defined by schooling and leisure. It was probably the case that a majority of children over the age of 8 or 10 worked, planting and picking crops, milking cows, shepherding animals, toiling in mines and factories, tending looms, and sometimes engaging in various forms of street labor, such as hawking newspapers, delivering packages or selling petty items. Today, in contrast, schooling and childhood are largely synonymous, with solitary play and adult supervised play far more common than in the past.
  • A phase of life characterized by distinctive ways of thinking and behaving. The differences between adults and children aren’t restricted to physical development or experience or a command of society’s rules, values and roles, but in the very ways that children think, act, reason, perceive and understand the world.

This is, of course, a truth universally acknowledged by every parent that I know, by myriad poets, novelists, artists and filmmakers, and increasingly by scientists as well.

You don’t need to fully agree with Piaget that children have different schemata for understanding, or that they are more prone to blurring the lines between fantasy and reality. What’s significant is to view children’s ways of thinking not as less mature or developed than adults’, but as fundamentally different—and shaped, in part, by historical and social context.

There’s a tendency to view children as deficient in certain ways: that they’re more impulsive, with a lesser capacity to manage or regulate emotions due to an immature prefrontal cortex, or that they’re less able to fashion generalizations or engage in abstract thinking, or that they possess an underdeveloped theory of mind, rendering it difficult for them to understand that others think differently.

But we also know that infants’ and children’s brains are more elastic, that they’re able to form neural connections faster, making children able to master languages more rapidly.

It’s certainly the case that today’s children, in certain respects, are more like their late-19th-century counterparts than their baby boomer predecessors. They’re almost as diverse demographically as children in the 1890s, even though their actual experiences across class, ethnic, racial and gender lines today are far more uniform than was the case then.

Around the turn of the 20th century, the experience of childhood was diverse in ways that we can scarcely imagine. Social class and geographical location defined childhood in ways less true today. The lives of a child on the Western frontier, in a mining or factory town or on a farm, differed radically from that of an urban, middle-class child in terms of access to, the duration of and the actual experience of schooling and in the availability of store-bought, manufactured toys and games. Adult supervision was far less consistent and sustained.

Thanks to the internet and a popular culture that is less age-segmented and sanitized than it was half a century ago, even young children are much more knowledgeable about the adult world. They’re also surrounded by the allures of consumer society and bombarded with commercial messages by marketers who prey on the young with all the wiles previously reserved for adults.

At the same time, however, most children also have far less hands-on experience with the world of work.

Childhood today embodies a series of contradictions:

  • The young grow up faster than those 50 years ago, but many don’t want to grow up—that is, become stereotypical adults—at all.
  • Children are regarded as more capable than their predecessors, yet most have few productive ways, apart from sports, to demonstrate their growing maturity and competence.
  • Childhood is valorized as a life stage of unequaled value.
  • But normal childish behavior is frequently labeled, medicalized, psychologized and even pathologized.
  • The notion of age-appropriate learning has eroded and replaced by the expectation that even the youngest children are capable of advanced learning.
  • Advertisers and marketers prey on young children with wiles once reserved for adults and eroticize young girls.
  • A sixth of American children are allowed to grow up in poverty, often accompanied by ills that come with poverty: family instability, hunger, unsafe environments coupled with early exposure to violence and chaotic or overly authoritarian school classrooms.

Three myths cloud our understanding of childhood.

The first is the myth of progress.

There is a tendency to conceive of the history of childhood as a story of steps forward over time: of parental engagement replacing emotional distance, of kindness and leniency supplanting strict and stern punishment, of scientific enlightenment superseding superstition and misguided moralism.

The second myth is the inverse of the myth of progress: that childhood is disappearing or that childhood is evolving for the worst.

This is the widespread notion that children are growing up too quickly and wildly and losing their innocence, playfulness and malleability.

Both the myth of progress and the myth of decline are profoundly misleading. Historical change invariably involves trade-offs; all progress is achieved at a price and involves losses as well as gains. We are certainly the beneficiaries of dramatic declines in rates of infant and child mortality and increased control over childhood diseases. But it is also apparently the case that more children than ever suffer from disabilities and chronic conditions than in the past.

The third myth is that childhood hasn’t changed, at least not in ways that are significant.

Not so.

Since 1890, American society has become much more age-conscious, age-graded and age-segregated. We have divided and subdivided childhood into ever smaller phases (for example, toddlers, preschoolers, tweens or preteens), which largely serve as marketing categories.

We have also relegated the young to separate institutions, like schools, where they are largely cared for by specialists: teachers, pediatricians, child psychologists and the like.

Nominally, these reforms were justified on the grounds that separate child-centered institutions would shelter and protect the young and provide expertly designed environments where they could grow up in carefully calibrated stages. But, of course, these environments were also instituted to insulate adults from children and insure smooth operation of the economic order.

History offers dynamic, diachronic, longitudinal perspectives that are quite different from those generally advanced by the disciplines of psychology or sociology. By treating concepts and behavior patterns as constructs, history underscores the radical contingency of all social arrangements and modes of thought.

In addition to stressing the importance of change over time, history also emphasizes the significance of social and cultural context, which has always been crucial in shaping the nature and timing of key life course developments that are more important, in my view, than any innate states of psychological or physiological development. History reminds us that conceptions of childhood and children’s essential nature, theories of child development, and approaches to childrearing—all have shifted profoundly over time.

The history of childhood is of more than antiquarian interest. Too often, history is regarded as preface—that is, as a source of fascinating anecdotes—or as mirror, a stark contrast to our supposedly more enlightened present. But history, including the history of childhood, is of more than antiquarian interest. With its emphasis on four C’s—change over time, the significance of context, the role of contingency in shaping historical development (and the rejection of any notions of teleology), and the ever-present reality of conflict—history greatly enriches and, at times, challenges, the insights gleaned from other social sciences.

The recognition that childhood has changed in important and irreversible ways, that the very context in which children grow up differs drastically from the past and that the world that we’re preparing them for will be wholly unlike their parents’ is the essential first step toward realizing that education needs to undergo profound transformations—and not just at the K-12 level.

  • We do need to treat students not as passive recipients of knowledge but as investigators, problem solvers and creators of knowledge, who are moving from novice to expert status.
  • We do need to give children (and their college counterparts) more opportunities to engage in active inquiry and to undertake meaningful, public projects.
  • We do need to reimagine the relationship between students and teacher not simply as a guide on the side, but as mentor, expert adviser, feedback provider, learning architect and educational partner.

Yes, childhood has changed. But unfortunately, American society has not adapted to this shifting reality in commensurate ways. This country has failed to figure out how to properly balance children’s need for independence and supervision or how to give the young more positive ways to express their growing maturity or how to overcome the rigid age segregation that does so much to distort relations between the young and their elders. This country, which claims to love children, continues to treat all too many in ways that are damaging and detrimental to their development.

Childhood at its best is an odyssey of psychological self-discovery, growth and adventure, a perilous, risk-filled, tempest-tossed journey that is among life’s greatest undertakings.

Today, adults impose ever-increasing demands on the young for self-discipline, cognitive development and academic achievement, even as the influence of the mass media and consumer culture has grown.

All of us who are teachers or parents need to take steps to give all children, irrespective of their socioeconomic class, nationality, ethnicity, race or gender, experiences that combine risk, freedom, experimentation, exploration and opportunities for accomplishment.

We owe them nothing less.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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