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Young Americans

Huck's Raft:
A History of American Childhood

By Steven Mintz
Belknap Press, 2005

In order to understand the evolution of popular thought regarding the private and social duties of American mothers, it's helpful to have an overview of how changing social and economic conditions have shaped and reshaped our collective assessment of children's essential natures and irreducible needs. There is perhaps no better or more inviting introduction to this topic than Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood (Belknap Press, 2005). In a lively cross-cultural survey spanning the Colonial Period to the Columbine High School shootings, historian Steven Mintz reveals that for most of the nation's history, the emotional and economic dependency of American children was rarely cultivated -- and in the not-so-distant past, the kind of child-centric family life so sought after by today's middle class would have been discouraged as unhealthy and utterly bizarre.

The history of how white, African American, Native American and immigrant children of all ages have lived, learned, worked and played over the last 400 years is fascinating, and Huck's Raft is worth reading for the richness of detail alone. But the Mintz's underlying objective is to tie his research to the larger framework of the invention of childhood as we now know it. Childhood, he writes, "is not an unchanging biological state of life but is, rather, a social and cultural construct that has changed radically over time. Every aspect of childhood -- including children's household responsibilities, play, schooling, relationships with parents and peers, and paths to adulthood -- has been transformed over the past four centuries." Nor, Mintz notes, has there ever been a period in our country's history when there was complete agreement about what constitutes a "proper" childhood, or the extent to which children should be shielded from the cares and responsibilities of the adult world. The author also reminds us that -- just as with motherhood and mothering -- at no point in time has childhood in America been a uniform, or uniformly idyllic, experience. What is most characteristic of American childhood in earlier centuries and today, Mintz explains, is its tremendous diversity across race, gender, social class, religion, and geography.

Rather than rolling out a lifeless timeline, Huck's Raft meanders its way through an engaging and enlightening narrative in chapters describing childhood during the American Revolution, African American children under slavery, the nineteenth century "invention" of the modern middle-class child, the post-war pursuit of the perfect childhood, and the 1960s Youthquake -- just to mention a few. Throughout the book, Mintz flags cultural factors, social conditions and economic shifts that gradually reduced American children's instrumentality and opportunities for self-governance to an all-time low at the end of the twentieth century.

The concept of childhood as an innocent and carefree phase to be cherished and protected by adults has a fairly recent history, and Huck's Raft examines how the constant redefinition of childhood over time is linked to changing interpretations of parental authority and responsibility. In this respect, Mintz agrees with other family scholars and historians who theorize that as children's economic value as household and paid laborers gradually declined and mandatory school attendance became the norm, children's sentimental value took on new meaning in family life and the culture at large. This is not to suggest that parents of yore were indifferent to their children (although by present-day standards, the child-rearing methods favored by parents of past eras might seem dangerously neglectful or even brutal). In fact, contemporary observers reported our foremothers and fathers harbored uncommonly tender feelings toward their offspring and deeply mourned their loss. But apart from their apparent devotion, American parent's motives for investing material resources and cultural training in their sons and daughters have altered dramatically over the last four centuries, particularly since the advent of the industrial revolution and the division of human labor into separate spheres of public and private activity.

Mintz seems especially sensitive to the postmodern cultural construction of adolescence and emerging adulthood as a period of extended dependency. America's young, he insists, "have become more knowledgeable sexually and in many other ways" and face more "adultlike choices" than children of earlier generations. Yet, "contemporary American society isolates and juvenilizes young people more than ever before," providing teenagers with "few positive ways to express their growing maturity and gives them few opportunities to participate in socially valued activities." Mintz complains that rather than allowing a vibrant youth culture to flourish, today's adults are more likely to censor or co-opt it. He adds that once upon a time in America, childhood was considered valuable in and of itself as a kind of self-guided journey of discovery, rather than a lockstep preparation for adulthood. Now, he remarks, "we expect even very young children to exhibit a degree of self-control that few adults had 200 or more years ago. Meanwhile, forms of behavior previous generations considered normal are now defined as disabilities." Furthermore, Mintz reports, "American society is unique in its assumption that all young people should follow a unitary path to adulthood."

While concerns over children's exposure to unwholesome cultural influences -- and developmental and academic setbacks suffered by kids who have either under- or over-involved parents -- have reached a unusually fevered pitch of late, Mintz recognizes the present state of agitation over the moral fitness and psychological adjustment of young Americans as part of a longstanding pattern of recurrent panics over children's well being. Periodically, such episodes of heightened alarm have been related to actual threats to children's health and welfare (as an example, the author cites public concern over the spread of polio in the 1950s). But more often, Mintz asserts, "children stand in for some other issue, and the panics are a more metaphorical than representational, such as the panic over teenage pregnancy, youth violence, and declining academic achievement in the late 1970s and 1980s, which reflected pervasive fears about family breakdown, crime, drugs, and America's declining competitiveness in the world."

In other words, it's probably unwise to take reports of the national "epidemic" of childhood obesity, "meth" babies, mean girls and overscheduled children strictly at face value. While there are undeniably subsets of American children -- those of the urban poor, for example -- who remain at high risk for hardship and failure, Mintz stresses that overall, the nation's young are now safer, healthier, have more equal opportunities and a higher standard of living than children of any previous generation. Yet as a society, we remain beset by free-floating anxiety about children's welfare, frantic that our kids aren't getting enough of the right things (parental attention, moral guidance and constructive play) and are soaking up too much of the wrong things (sex and violence in popular media, junk food and materialism). We worry about child abduction, sexual predators, and whether our infants and toddlers are spending too much time in day care. As Mintz writes, "It is not surprising that cultural anxieties are often displaced on the young; unable to control the world around them, adults shift their attention to that which they think they can control: the next generation." In reality, the author argues, social problems and cultural strains that threaten America's children cannot be segregated from those affecting their parents: "Our society tends to treat young people's problems separately from those of adults, as if they were not interconnected phenomena."

Writers as diverse as Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels (The Mommy Myth), Janna Malamud Smith (A Potent Spell) and Judith Warner (Perfect Madness) have connected the dots between growing angst over the supposed disintegration of American childhood and the escalating demands of intensive mothering. Warner even goes so far as to suggest that in certain affluent enclaves, intensive mothering has become something of a competitive sport. The days when average middle-class parents were proud to have above-average children seem to be over and done with; in a winner-take-all society, nothing less than a "winner" will do. And the myth of maternal omnipotence -- still alive and kicking since the dawn of Republican Motherhood in the late 1700s -- assures that mothers who raise winners get to share the glory, even though who wins and who loses in America in the age of the widening wealth gap is generally a matter of luck.

Indeed, the history of American childhood belies the popular conviction that truly exceptional people (as opposed to those who simply inherit a sense of entitlement) are first and foremost a product of conscientious parenting. For much of our nation's history, children's living conditions, access to education and child-rearing norms were deplorable by twenty-first century standards, yet every era managed to raise the usual complement of geniuses, criminal masterminds and visionaries. This presents the controversial possibility that exceptional people -- and even reasonably successful ones -- actually create themselves through a combination of innate potential, self-discipline and self-discovery. Caring parents and other members of society clearly have an opportunity -- and even an obligation -- to support children's development, but the most valuable parenting skill may be knowing when to step out of the way.

While today's hovering parents strive to give their children a leg-up on the social ladder by insulating them from the normal difficulties and disappointments of childhood, Minz recommends an entirely different approach. Whether we like it or not, he argues, American children are completely enmeshed in the social fabric of the adult world and deserve a more active and visible place in it. The message bobbing in the undercurrent of Huck's Raft is that rather than giving our children everything of ourselves, perhaps what they need most is enough freedom to explore the complications and possibilities of their own lives.

Judith Stadtman Tucker
September 2005

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