The History of American Childhood

Rebecca Onion is the history writer for Slate.com. Her book, Innocent Experiments: Childhood and the Culture of Public Science in the United States, will be published by the University of North Carolina Press in 2016.

Contemporary American attitudes about childhood are rife with paradox. We’re convinced that our children are overprotected (this is a sentiment that seems politics-proof, reaching across party lines), yet parents find it impossible to step back from the many protective measures put in place over the past century. (Who wants to be the first one on the block to let their kid walk to school alone?) Or how about this: we’re convinced that our children are overprotected, yet 22 percent of American children live in families whose household incomes fall beneath the poverty level. These children, as well as black kids like Tamir Rice (shot to death by police at age twelve), are denied the protections accorded their upper- and middle-class counterparts. What is “childhood innocence,” and who gets to benefit from it?

Historians of childhood can offer crucial context, showing how children’s lives have changed over time. But the field of childhood studies, which blends a strong historical perspective with critical assessment of the evolution of attitudes and ideologies around childhood, is full of interesting theoretical approaches to the kinds of paradoxes above.

Here are ten books that can help you figure out how we came to be so confused about childhood.

Places to Start

This is a synthetic history of childhood that surveys a lot of finer-grained historical work on the social, political, and cultural changes that have affected American children’s lives between the colonial period and the present. Huck’s Raft is a great starting point if you want to know the historical basics—What was it like to be an enslaved child? What kinds of protections did children working in industrial workplaces have? When did a majority of American children gain access to public school?—and offers a solid bibliography with leads to the foundational work in the field.

Another broad history, this one of American parenting advice in the twentieth century, amplifies some of the discussions in Huck’s Raft. Hulbert traces the influence of religion, psychology, and social science on American ideas about the proper shape of a good childhood. The sources Hulbert taps—infant-care manuals, government pamphlets, the famous Dr. Spock—are invaluable in revealing how concepts about childhood manifested themselves in pragmatic advice to those directly responsible for children’s care. Raising America, which is a trade book written by a journalist, is also very fun to read.

A book by a sociologist that you will find cited in almost every history of American childhood, Pricing the Priceless Child has a simple and irresistible thesis: just as American children were removed from the workforce in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, becoming what Zelizer calls “economically useless,” they were sentimentalized—made “emotionally priceless.” Zelizer looks at life insurance rates and the outcomes of wrongful death suits, showing through the seemingly impersonal records of courts and actuaries how children’s lives took on new significance.

When I took a graduate seminar in childhood studies with Julia Mickenberg at the University of Texas at Austin, she assigned this dense book, which initially terrified and then deeply engaged everyone in the class. Steedman looks at the way the figure of Mignon, the child acrobat character who appears in Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795-6), popped up across genres in the nineteenth century. But Steedman also taps archives of performance, medicine, science, law, and psychology, drawing connections between Mignon’s various appearances in literature and on stage and new ideas about what it might mean to have a self. I’m including this as a “Places to Start” book, despite its high level of difficulty, because it is a book that shows how ambitious childhood studies can be.

Digging In

Most of the books on this list are about the twentieth century, but Karen Sánchez-Eppler’s Dependent States is (like the Steedman) an inspiring example of how to write about the theory of childhood within a specific historical period. Sanchez Eppler shows how nineteenth-century American adults thought through ideas about dependence, freedom, and citizenship by using children—real and fictional—as exemplars. The author is also great at writing about the way we can, or can’t, hear the voices of children while writing the history of childhood—another theoretical question that will pop up in most childhood studies books.

Starting at the end of the nineteenth century, psychologists and self-appointed “boy workers” at organizations like the YMCA, the Boy Scouts, and 4-H conversed among themselves regarding the correct conditions necessary for the production of an “upstanding” American boy. There are other histories of the Boy Scouts that are more complete, but Kidd’s book explores the way that ideas about ferality and domesticity, stemming from psychoanalysis and literature, shaped the pronouncements of those put in charge of “making boys.” Kidd makes it clear that the normative ideas about gender and age that still govern our conversations about growing up had deep roots in this era.

More work on constructed ideas of normality, but in this case intertwined most fascinatingly with a history of Disney. We commonly think of media as a corrupter of children, but Sammond shows how, in the early evolution of the American children’s media marketplace, developmental science was a key player. Disney’s ability to market itself as Better For Children was made possible by its alliance with social scientists who claimed knowledge of children’s minds, and its evocation of ideals of patriotism that focused on the child as the symbolic American. Read along with the Hulbert for maximum impact.

A collection of essays about twentieth-century purpose-built environments for children, ranging across the United States and the world. Each essay, whether by a social historian or a historian of architecture or design, keys into the idea outlined in John R. Gillis’s epilogue on “The Islanding of Children”: kids in Western cultures have been increasingly sidelined in “mythical landscapes” of their own. Essays on postwar “adventure playgrounds” in the UK, children’s hospitals in Canada, and birthday parties in the United States offer scope for imagination.

New Moves

This book left blisters on the hands of my grad school reading group when we tackled it while preparing for oral exams. It’s probably the most abstract of the titles I have recommended here (it’s not really a history). Many books in childhood studies explore the way children come to stand in for “the future”—especially white, middle-class children—and talk about what that has meant for the shape of American politics and literature, and for children themselves. Edelman looks at that common association and shows how it’s been deployed against queerness. The argument turned everything we had been reading about on its head, in a most satisfying way.

The paradigms of performance studies come to bear on childhood in Bernstein’s book about violence, innocence, and race. The idea of childhood innocence—another through-line in the literature of childhood studies—was crafted in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Bernstein shows how the quality came to adhere to white children rather than black—trying to illustrate everyday attitudes by analyzing material and visual culture, and making arguments about how their uses transferred these qualities of innocence to their users. You will never look at a Raggedy Ann doll the same way again.

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