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News

Anthology on Childhood in America Helps Define the Country's Past, Future

By Janet Gilmore, Public Affairs
Posted February 2, 2000

The new millennium has spawned countless articles chronicling leading figures in history, important technological advances and key historical events.

But, according to two Berkeley professors, how America views children is perhaps the best indicator of how far we've come, where we're headed and who we are.

In their new book, "Childhood in America: Past and Present," history Professor Paula Fass and social welfare Professor Mary Ann Mason write that, "The means we devise to teach and to socialize children and to protect them define who we think we are as human beings and as a society."

Their book, released this month, is an anthology comprised of social reports, book excerpts, court papers, laws and other data that document the history of American children over the last 400 years, with emphasis on the last 200.

"Our treatment of children has changed as we have changed," said Mason.

Parents today tend to view their children as dependable emotional assets, and a link to the community via school and sports, said Fass.

"Our children provide a means for emotional identification and connection for each of us as our community structures and even family relations become more tenuous," she said. "Our identities have become very bound up with our children."

Both Fass and Mason agree that the emotional value of children has increased dramatically despite, and perhaps because of, the breakdown of marriage.

This contrasts sharply with the 18th century and early 19th century, when far fewer parents were divorced and children were viewed as economic assets. Back then, many middle-class children obtained little schooling. They toiled away in the fields or in the household industry, earning wages that were the property of their parents.

"People lived so close to the bone in terms of survival that they had to use every hand they could find," said Mason.

Orphans and other children fared far worse one-fifth of all children were slaves, the property of their masters.

In the middle of the 19th century, during the Industrial Revolution, middle-class households changed. Fathers went off to work in the cities, and mothers took on the duty of supervising the children at home. In law and social attitudes, the authors contend, mothers were elevated as child nurturers and caretakers of children.

During the second half of the 19th century, women gained legal rights to their children, including the ability to gain custody following divorce.

Still, it was not until the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century that adults began to value children for their emotional worth. Children were viewed as an investment for a brighter future.

It was then that new child labor laws were enacted, allowing for longer schooling. Schools and other institutions began to emphasize play. Parents were having fewer children and were expected to put more emphasis into raising them.

Children were viewed as tender innocents in need of nurturing and protection. And it was during this era that scientific theories of optimal child rearing practices first emerged.

History shows that Americans always have used children as a means toward an end. The authors said that children are used to make laws, to make points, and as convenient symbols of our better selves.

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February 2 - 8, 2000 (Volume 28, Number 20)
Copyright 2000, The Regents of the University of California.
Produced and maintained by the Office of Public Affairs at UC Berkeley.
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