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Kids These Days: The Changing State of Childhood

The path from innocence to experience is inevitably complicated: we are tempted to think that the world has become treacherous, not that we ourselves were once blazingly naive. But if we fail to recognize our own glorious grandiosity, then as the years go by we are liable to fall victim to a peculiarly hazardous nostalgia: yearning for a past that never existed.

Such quirky nostalgia surrounds our cultural past no less than our personal histories, and no where more powerfully than in questions about the history of the family. Both historians and sociologists have been warning about this for years. There is no lost Golden Age, they contend, in which families had fewer problems than families have now. (The problems change, but that's about all.) We must not dream, they insist, that we can solve contemporary problems by reverting to a past that never was. The childhoods we remember, like the childhoods our parents and grandparents recount, are inevitably colored by the limitations of our youthful perceptions. People were not more trustworthy and responsible once upon a time, for instance. But once we did trust more easily than we do now. Growing up is always, to some extent, a loss.

Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood, by Steven Mintz, offers an exponential advance upon the clarity with which we can now understand the history of families in this country. Mintz, who holds an endowed chair in history at the University of Houston, has written a substantial tome: three hundred eighty-four pages of text, plus almost eight hundred footnotes. Although Huck's Raft is more of a compendium of information than a sustained argument, it's a reasonably lively read, because he knows how to tell a story. He leavens his accounts with adept little anecdotes about individual children and their households, bringing his data to life with portraits of Native American children, slave children, immigrant children, children fighting in the Civil War and children working in factories, orphaned children, refugee children, children hawking flowers on street corners, children of the poor, the wealthy, and the religiously obsessed. As he documents repeatedly, children have always shared in the fortunes of their families, for better for worse--and often, as history has it, for worse.

It's a sobering message. Children have always suffered right alongside their parents when public health measures have been inadequate, when the economy has not supplied living wages, when violence has erupted from any of its many sources. The vagaries of history plus the harshness of the American economy have always wreaked havoc with the lives of remarkable percentages of American children--and Mintz has collected a stunning array of evidence explaining who, how, where, and to what extent. He offers particularly engaging documentation for his central contention that "childhood" is a social construct whose meaning changes to accord with changes in the larger cultural definitions of human nature.

Two of his seventeen chapters concern the last quarter of the 20th century, and these are inevitably the most interesting for general readers. The first laments what he calls a "grossly inflated and misplaced sense of crisis" regarding children's well-being. I certainly agree that polemicists in the culture wars are often as careless with historical fact and with epidemiological data about children as they are with facts generally. It's a long American tradition: we have always argued about childrearing, because the "American experiment" depends upon it. Nonetheless, I think Mintz glosses over a body of very serious evidence that would refute his sanguine claim that "By most measures, the well-being of youth improved markedly between the early 1970s and the late 1990s."

For instance, in Life Without Father, David Popenoe offers stunning evidence of negative child outcomes due to father absence, whether from divorce or from a failure to marry--and increasing percentages of children are either born to single women or face the divorce of their parents. The negative impact of divorce itself is recounted in The Divorce Culture by Barbara Dafoe Whitehead and by Judith Wallerstein, et.al, in The Legacy of Divorce. Mintz himself cites one study showing that "serious social, emotional, or psychological problems" were two and a half times as frequent in the long term among children of divorced parents, but that's buried in a footnote. In the text itself, he says--correctly--that the majority of children do not demonstrate problems.

In parallel fashion, Mintz observes that most child care is poor to mediocre, which true but in fact the best possible formulation of the case. Quality care is most crucial in the first two years, and major studies show that only 8% of infant child care rates as good or excellent. Mintz does not refer at all to research by developmental psychologists such as Jay Belsky at the London School of Economics, Alan Sroufe at the University of Minnesota, or even the huge, multi-center National Institutes of Child Health studies--all of which suggests that child care more than twenty hours a week, beginning prior to age one, correlates with an increased percentage of children who demonstrate interpersonal difficulties, including violence, by early grade school.

And yet, in 1998, annual in-state tuition at the University of Illinois cost half of what a young parent would spend for a year of licensed, accredited child care for a child less than three years old. Given the growing numbers of single-parent households, given stagnant to falling median income, given the increasing instability of employment in a 24/7 global economy, the prohibitive cost of quality child care becomes a matter of national well-being in the long term. And then consider this: child-care workers themselves are paid poverty-level wages, which leads to remarkably high levels of turnover in such jobs. We pay parking-lot attendants and kennel workers more than we pay child care providers.

And parents have no choice. Like generations of American parents before them, it is beyond their reach economically to provide for their children as well as they would wish to provide. The money just isn't there. As Sylvia Ann Hewlett and Cornell West contend in The War Against Parents, current policy requires parents to be stunningly irrational actors--and thank heavens that so many are. Nonetheless, it's a shaky basis for national policy. As Arlie Hochschild contends in The Commercialization of Intimate Life, massive economic forces are now arrayed against family life.

Even though many children cope successfully, the growing dysfunction of a rapidly-growing minority of children takes an increasingly dangerous toll upon child well-being generally. Mintz gets to this in his last chapter, which begins with a long description of the Columbine shootings, followed by a very sober account of the severely dysfunctional social dynamics permeating many schools. During the 1990s, for instance, school shootings with multiple victims increased in frequency from an average of two per year to an average of five per year.

He attributes this pattern to the extent to which children and youth now have very few ties to adults other than parents or teachers, and even fewer opportunities within the broader culture to demonstrate and exercise their developing maturity. Meanwhile, a semi-autonomous "youth culture" (backed up, I would add, by massive marketing to children) endlessly demands a sexualized precocity that mimics adulthood without meeting genuine developmental needs. The psychological cost to children of this situation, he concludes, has steadily grown more apparent; and he calls for the familiar array of policy changes: more widely-available healthcare, education reform, subsidized quality child care, family-friendly employment policies, living wages, a limit to the work-week, and economic support to the impoverished.

I think this call would be more persuasive had he not just spent an entire chapter insisting that recent accounts of a crisis in child well-being are nothing but moral panics and polemical distortions. Furthermore, a darker and more accurate assessment of child well-being in our own day would accord more consistently with what his entire history reveals: the economic and social trends that afflict adults' lives have an even more negative impact upon the lives of children. In our day, declining social capital, broadly defined, has a disproportionate impact upon children, because their needs are social-capital intensive. Furthermore, children today are more likely than any other age group to live in poverty, which is to say both their physical and their social needs are apt to go unmet. As Mintz recounts in such excellent detail, that has always been the fate of children.

Those of us whose early needs were adequately satisfied must always remember that we are exceptions to the history of childhood. The fate of children is often quite grim, because they are exceptionally vulnerable to the fates of their parents. When real wages are falling, when the gap between rich and poor grows wider every quarter, when parents across the board are working ever-longer hours at jobs that are increasingly insecure, we need to remember that the problems involved are inevitably amplified in the lives of the young. To paraphrase the famous 1983 study, we are indeed a nation at risk.

Note: this review is somewhat longer than published version. The additional material concerns other books also discussing the well-being of American children.

Kids These Days: The Changing State of Childhood
Published in Christian Century, vol. 118, no. 35 (December 19-26, 2001), p. 31. A review of Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood, by Steven Mintz.