History of American Childhood
Childhood had been described long ago in America as a period in the life of an individual whereby he or she requires a generous amount of affection, separation from adult world, and the freedom of working hard. However, children always had to deal with various demands from the society. Across all eras and even in all geographical locations, children were continually subjected to lots of expectations by the society that nurtured them.
In the book, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, Mintz has outlined various myths that according to him, have dominated the public view of American childhood. The five myths are the myth of carefree childhood, myth of home as a pillar of stability in the continually changing world, myth that childhood is the same for all children irrespective of ethnicity or gender, and myth of progress and decline.
In the myth of carefree thinking, the perception was that many years ago, the period of childhood of a person was determined by freedom. It was also believed that the youth were living a carefree life. The childhood of an individual was long and never involved responsibilities associated with adulthood. Factors like diseases, early entry into the working class and family disruptions began becoming part of family life after WWII. Despite these challenges, childhood was always considered to be carefree. For instance, in Eastern Woodlands, Indian children enjoyed freedom from household chores and all forms of corporal punishment. Another example from the book that shows freedom among the youth is words of the French traveler, Alexis de Tocqueville. He made a comparison between the French girl and the American girl, and came to the conclusion that the American girl was more carefree and only changed her ways of life after motherhood. The diary of a young Philadelphia woman sums it all up when she says that since she is getting married, her stories will end.
The myth of the home as a pillar of stability and bastion is another myth. In England, children had stable families that were strengthened by the church and the society at large. This support is what shaped the experiences of the young people in childhood and nurtured them for the life ahead. In can also be said that in England, the family units had great value in society and were used as a basis through which children grew up. Healthy environments and a balanced ratio of sex were always encouraged as a means of promoting stable environment for the growth of children.
The third belief is the myth that childhood is similar in all children regardless of their age, ethnicity or class. In fact, class, gender, religion and ethnicity play an important role in shaping childhood. It can be better understood as a stage in life, shaped by a given geographical location and time. In the colonial era, childhood was greatly impacted by class and ethnicity. Most of the African youths that moved to America during the colonial times did not enjoy the freedom that other white youths enjoyed. For example, Sally Dawson who was sentenced to eight years indenture service in the home of Elizabeth Drinker and Henry at only nine years of age.
The other myth is the myth of progress and decline. Under this myth, childhood was always considered as a continuous process of development where a new concept was learnt every day. For instance, children were expected to show progress in all the aspects of their lives including education. The reverse is sometimes seen whereby children become more playful and begin losing their innocence.
The myth that the United States is a friendly society is yet another myth. The truth is that the society resents the intrusion of children on the time and resources.
The conceptions of childhood have significantly changed over time. The new middle class childhood notion looks at childhood as a sentimental period and that, which should be protected and sheltered. These attitudes are quite different from the older ones of the pre-colonial times. The image of the 17th C puritan viewed a child as a depraved being that required restraints.
The puritan child life is full of responsibilities. Mintz makes a comparison of his life to that of some Indian captives who had refused to return to their puritan villages since life was unbearable back there. They say that their Native American life was quite hectic with crude form of clothing that even hindered them from walking. The puritan image of a child suggested that the next conception that is imparted to a child is the enlightenment that is shaped by environmental factors. The parents also played an important role in shaping the thoughts of their children. The next conception of children was as romantic creatures. They were considered as innocent souls that were redeemable. Portraits that usually showed children as adults created the new emphasis of the innocence of children. They were viewed as symbols of purity and emotional expressiveness. They required parents who would nurture them on the right path. This expression of children was clearly portrayed in infancy. The Darwinian concept followed and this created the difference between children in various stages according to their cognitive, psychological and their emotional development. The Freudian concept considers children to be seeking beings who are keen on their instincts. Contemporary notion is also another concept, whereby emphasis is placed on the competence of the child or her capacity to learn different life concepts at an early stage in life.
At the middle of the 18th C, a new set of attitudes surfaced that described the contemporary child. Several features characterized the new model middleclass childhood. Foremost, it was the awareness of child abuse. The ancient puritan practices that recommended heavy punishment on children were gradually altered by other methods of correction. Reform societies that had emerged to social issues like child abuse and child neglect were effective. Because of this, parents became protective of their children. Education was also another feature that characterized the middle-income childhood. There was increasing need for children to begin acquiring formal education. The other feature is end to child labor. After the industrial revolution, there were more campaigns aimed at ending child labor. Another feature that also characterized the middleclass childhood is the need for helping those children who lived in poverty. An example is Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society that is focused on poor children. Other organizations had also come up to help in footing some of the expenses for school children.
The new ideologies of the modern childhood in middleclass income families altered the way children behaved and even the treatment that they received. Formal education became accessible to them, and children were no longer belittled. They had respect and were no longer subjected to hard labor. The children who were less advantaged also benefited since they were also able to gain access to basic services.