Kids These Days

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“Kids these days….” The phrase doesn’t need to be completed and usually isn’t. But the meaning is clear. Children have disappointed their parents. Or, if not their own, other parents’ kids have, with their ignorance, rudeness, and general misbehavior. The older generation too easily believes that things were different in their youth. Their parents would never have allowed them to get away with x. They could never have said y without a rebuke to withering to contemplate. Fear kept them–and their entire generation, apparently–in line. The evidence, as presented in Steven Mintz’s Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood (2004), does not bear them out in this belief.

Science has taught us that memory is fallible. It is a creative process, not a passive one; more story-telling than video recording. Our memories of childhood are especially unreliable. Mintz’s book shows that American childhood has always been hard; parenting always been mostly about muddling through. The general process of “civilizing the barbarians,” in Thomas Sowell‘s memorable phrasing, may not change, but the particulars do, from each child, family, and historical moment. The ebbs and flows and cycling throughs of these particulars are the subject of this post, in six areas of interest: parenting, work and play, school, girls and boys, marriage, and the so-called generation gap.


Cult of Domesticity

The story of parenting in America is not one of unbroken progress toward more enlightened views of childrearing. Still, we have come a long way, baby, since the Puritans. For our New England ancestors, children were miniature adults, fully capable of sin but lacking the adult’s ability to resist temptation. Mintz cites Cotton Mather declaiming, “Are they Young? Yet the Devil has been with them already… They go astray as soon as they are born. They no longer step than stray, they no sooner lisp than they ly.” [11] Far from protecting children from life’s horrors, Puritans made them central to their children’s curriculum. At least John Norris did when he counselled children to “be much in contemplation of the last four things, Heaven, Hell, Death and Judgment. Place yourself frequently on your deathbeds, in your Coffins, and in your Graves. Act over frequently in your Minds, the solemnity of your own funerals; and entertain your Imaginations with all the lively scenes of Mortality.” [20]

Interestingly, Anne Bradstreet‘s words written in the seventeenth century sound almost modern by comparison: “Diverse children have their different natures; some are like flesh which nothing but salt will keep from putrefaction; some again like tender fruits which are best preserved with sugar; those parents are wise that can fit their nurture according to the Nature.” [19]

For all that we Americans look to our Puritan heritage, where childrearing is concerned we would do better to consider the Quakers of Pennsylvania. In them we find the birth of what Mintz calls the Private Family, “bound by common ties of affection.” [49] The eighteenth century intellectual ferment was upending the traditional childrearing model, in any case. Enlightenment writers were repudiating coercive parenting and urging a more nurturing model based on teaching by example and the cultivation of a child’s natural talents. By 1800 the groundwork had been laid for the romantic conception of childhood as a precious time of development and children themselves as a precious gift–at least among the growing middle class. [51]

Accompanying the changes, of course, we hear critical comments that have resounded from various quarters over the last two centuries. Mintz cites an early republic clergyman grousing, “Fathers, mothers, sons & daughters, young & old, all mix together, & talk & joke alike so that you cannot discover any distinction made or any respect shewn one more than to the another.” [74] Two hundred pages and a hundred and fifty years later in his narrative, Mintz cites a sociologist expressing similar qualms about what he called America’s “filiarchy.”  “It is the children who set the basic design. Their friendships are translated into the mother’s friendships, and these, in turn, to the family’s.” [277] Continuity as well as change.

The Romantic view of childhood grew alongside the American middle class, and the protected childhood became the ideal for almost two centuries, at least for those who did not rely on their children’s labor for their well-being. The ideal reached its apotheosis in the mid-20th century when middle class status was a fact of life for a majority of Americans. At about the same time, it became more vulnerable to critique from a growing class of professional psychologists. “For every problem child is a problem parent,” became a common trope. Smothering mothers, domineering mothers, weak fathers, absent fathers, permissive parenting: all came under scrutiny.

The 1970s brought the beginning of the end the protected childhood as dominant ideal. Stagflation, gas lines, “malaise,” and, in 1983, the publication of A Nation At Risk, paved the way for the prepared childhood to take its place. Mintz’s book, published in 2004, ends with a discussion of school shootings, but does not consider changes that have occurred in the wake of the War on Terror, the Great Recession, the iPhone, social media, deepening political polarization, or the pandemic. We do know that children’s literature authors and publishers are tackling weightier social and psychological issues, A Series of Unfortunate Events (1999) being one possible marker for the beginning of a trend. We still protect our children from adult concerns, but we are more willing–even driven–to be frank about them in a way that the Puritans might recognize.

Bureau of Labor Statistics

Work and Play

Before the middle class Private Family, Mintz avers, there were three family structures in colonial America. By far the most common was the Farm/Artisanal Family, which included servants, apprentices, and possibly other wage laborers sharing a roof with parents and children. Children in this familial “unit of production” lent their labor as much as they were able. Work, what schooling could be had, and simple play were the three legs of their stool of life. Puritans might have been nonplussed by their children’s “inordinate love of play” [19], but other immigrant groups had no such qualms.

Whatever happened to the apprentice system we all read about in Johnny Tremain? Mintz teaches us that the Revolution itself had a great deal to do with its demise. The revolutionary ideology–distrust of (patriarchal) authority and a jealous regard for liberty–made fewer young men willing to sell their service to a possibly tyrannical master for seven years. (See: Benjamin Franklin.) Economic factors contributed, too, but the end result was a steep drop of (white, male) youth entering the skilled trades. Instead, they became assistants and errand boys, or entered a life of factory work. Or, those who could afford to stayed in school longer with the expectation of a clerkship or management job on the other side. The experience of work and play was diverging for children of the middle class and those of the working poor.

Iowa Dept of Cultural Affairs

Middle class children were the beneficiaries of protected childhood, as discussed above. Yet Mintz argues that freedom from work came with a loss of personal freedom. Farm and urban working class children had less privacy in the home but more freedom to roam outside of it. They had more responsibility to help support the family but less parental intrusiveness within it. Among the working poor, Mintz informs us, children were often responsible to bring in 20% or more of the family income. We learn that many wage labor jobs were seasonal and, into the twentieth century, fathers might be unemployed an average of three months of the year. [136, 204] Post-emancipation African American children’s labor were possibly their parents’ only assets, forty acres and a mule, notwithstanding. They were put to work, sometimes contracting with a former planter in slave-like conditions.

Mintz cites a few memories of former farm children. They seem to speak to a recognizable truth: growing up on a pioneer farm was lonely and hard. Hamlin Garland’s family moved around the plains in very much the random pattern of the Ingalls family. Garland uses a tone not unknown Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing but, here at least, without a hint of nostalgia: “It was lonely work…. There is a certain pathos in the sight of that small boy tugging and kicking at the stubborn turf in the effort to free his plow. Such misfortune’s loom large in a lad’s horizon.” [151]

We (I!) tend to think of child labor laws coming out of the Progressive Era. In fact, the (minimally restrictive) Keating-Owen Act of 1916 was struck down by the Supreme Court after just two hundred and seventy-three days in operation and was followed by Congressional dithering throughout the 1920s. It took the Depression and the Wages and Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 to outlaw child labor below age sixteen. There weren’t enough jobs for grown men, so it couldn’t have been too hard a sell to American businessmen. Children stayed in school longer, and the high school population grew through the 1930s. For the first time, a majority of American seventeen-year-olds would graduate from high school. The trend would abruptly reverse during the war years when two million more teenagers entered the labor force and  more than a million left high schools. [259]

In 1953 twenty-nine percent of sixteen- and seventeen-year-old boys and eighteen percent of girls held down jobs. By 2004 these percentages had risen to forty-four and forty-three, respectively. But Mintz points out this back-to-work trend is largely a middle class phenomenon. Mintz cites a figure of forty to sixty percent youth unemployment in poor urban neighborhoods. [353] This flips the situation of a hundred years ago (of Eddie Rickenbacker and his dozen jobs by age 16) on its head. (Sort of.) Today’s middle class kids work, not because they have to to supplement their family’s income, but for spending money (OK, Eddie’s mama would sometimes allow him a quarter to spend a Saturday at Olentangy Park), for big ticket items like cars or college, and for the work experience they need to sell themselves to future employers. Too few of today’s urban poor benefit from any of this. In today’s world, the rich keep getting richer.


The Puritans were not our ideal of sensitive parents, but they were progressive childrearers in at least two ways. First, Mintz tells us, they were among the first societies to criminalized child-abuse. Also, they made the establishment of schools a legal requirement. If children were to be saved from perdition they had to be educated. If the colony was to survive as a community of believers, education was paramount. Though the requirement was not universally enforced, the foundation of American public schooling had been laid.

Reader’s Digest

In the early years of the Republic, only about a quarter of children, ages five to nineteen, attended school. (I don’t believe this datum includes African American children, for whom schooling was actively forbidden.) But by mid-century the fraction had risen to one-half, though regional differences could be pronounced. The South was still under fifty percent attendance at the end of the century. By the turn of the twentieth century, the public school had become the great assimilator for the rising tide of immigrant children flooding American urban centers, especially. Some New York City teachers faced classes of sixty or seventy children, many of them speaking little or no English. Mintz says one school had to find classroom placements for a hundred and twenty-five new students admitted on a single day in 1905.

High school took much longer to become a normative experience for American children. In 1915, only about twenty percent of teenagers attended high school, more of them girls than boys. These secondary schools were already becoming more adult-controlled than they had been. In the nineteenth century, sports teams, debating clubs, and school newspapers had been largely student organized and run. In the early twentieth century, high school students began trading autonomy for better facilities and coaches, a trend that would never be reversed. High schools reached half of American teenagers beginning in 1928, though Mintz stresses that it wasn’t until the Depression years that high school became truly normative for American adolescents. The  dramatic rise of the American high school is made clear by this datum provided by Mintz: Between 1900 and 1930 about 11,000 new high schools were opened, an average of one every day of the year for three decades. Just as quickly, the transformation was (temporarily) reversed by the country’s entry into the war. A million and a quarter teenagers dropped out of school and entered the labor force. [175, 199]

Today we are used to perennial hand-wringing over the state of American public schools. Life magazine’s lament from the 1950s sounds like it could have been written  last year: “United States high school students are…ignorant of things [elementary] school students would have known a generation ago”) The complaints and recriminations go back many decades, but not indefinitely. Mintz made me think our goals for education were much more modest in the first part of the twentieth century. A 1918 report on secondary schools contended that practical and vocational training were all that was needed for the great bulk of high school students. A consensus toward tracked secondary schooling prevailed through the war  years. Even after Sputnik, the Conant Report of 1959 essentially endorsed a meritocratic, tracked basis for the American high school, along with other, more novel recommendations.

The eighty percent might have been deemed unfit for post-secondary education, yet college attendance quadrupled in the years between 1946 and 1970. Here is the genesis of some of our educational woes in the United States. We fail at two ends, doing both things badly. We have made college and college-prep the one track to get ahead, “the surest ticket to the middle class,” in President Obama’s words. At the same time, we track our students into those we believe can and those we don’t but pretend like we do. We beat the latter down with twelve years of schooling, rubbing their nose in the fact that they are the losers in the lottery of school ability, completely overlooking the skills and talents they have that might not include the analysis of Shakespearean plays. We have to provide multiple viable paths through adolescence to adulthood and the world of work.

Girls and Boys

Early American infants and toddlers were not discriminated by sex. Both boys and girls wore long tresses and  ankle-length dresses. It wasn’t until the 1920s, Mintz says, when babies were color-coded at birth: blue for boys and white for girls. (I’m not sure if he says when white was replaced by pink. The 1940s?)

In the colonial era, girls were given limited access to education. They were taught to read, but not even a third of women, in 1700, could write their own names.

Colonial Society of Massachusetts

As parenting customs liberalized in the next century and more (see: “Parenting” above), many girls enjoyed carefree childhoods but could look forward only to a straitened and staid motherhood after marriage. In the early 1800s, when the industrial revolution forced families to send their daughters to work for wages, some of those girls found a certain liberation being on their own among peers, even in the rigid structure and long hours of a textile mill. At least some girls of all classes began to speak of the “marriage crisis.” Would they or would they not marry? Mintz quotes a brief diary entry that speaks poignantly to the quandary girls faced: “And now these pages must come to a close, for the romance ends when the heroine marries.” [84] Frances Willard, future founder of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, described her passage from girl- to womanhood no less affectingly: “My ‘back’ hair is twisted up like a corkscrew: I carry eighteen hairpins; my head aches miserably; my feet are entangled in the skirt of my hateful ne gown. I can never jump over a fence again, so long as I live.” [86]

Meanwhile, Mintz says, boys’ education stressed “physicality, dirt, and violence.” Even so, the American male was so poorly trained in marksmanship, the National Rifle Association was founded after the Civil War to ensure the men of the future would never again be caught unprepared for war. As the Frontier was declared closed in 1890s, many American men (See: Theodore Roosevelt) wrung their hands over what the loss would mean for the education of the American boy. Athletics arose to allow boys to prove themselves on less deadly fields of “battle.” The Boy Scouts was established in 1910 to teach the wilderness skills that had been lost by the previous generation. Even so, some Americans continued to worry that boys were being “feminized,” according to Mintz. Young men were no better prepared physically and mentally for the armed forces in 1941 than they were in 1917 or 1861. More than five million prospective enlistees were rejected for service in World War II.

If the possibilities for women remained largely circumscribed through the 1800s, those for girls opened new vistas, at least in the literary imagination. In the flowering of children’s literature which ended the century, girl heroines were spunky and bold, but also ingenuous and without guile. Their power, Mintz says, was their ability to redeem curmudgeonly men and women.  The theme continued well into the twentieth century. Think: Marilla Cuthbert in Anne of Green Gables. Think, too, of the classic roles of Mary Pickford on the silver screen. The reality for girls was almost certainly less exciting. Mintz cites a thirteen-year-old’s diary entry from 1890: “We  cannot do anything in this house[;] as soon as we start to have any fun we are stopped. …It seems as though we are kept in a glass case.” [223]

Girlish innocence gave way to a certain decadence in the 1920s. Girls and young women became more active in asserting their independence, notably by drinking and smoking. Mintz points out that many of the trends we associate with the Roaring Twenties had begun twenty years earlier: short hair, slim figure, even the term flapper. The 1920s brought a new independence but also new tyrannies to live under. Many would argue the same for our girls in our own era. Mintz’s book comes too early to address the effects of social media, especially on girls’ mental health. Nor does he address the new focus on boys’ special developmental needs that has cropped up among both male and female cultural observers, or the yet more recent awareness of transgender children and teens.

Best Life Online

Courtship and Marriage

The median age of marriage has risen and fallen throughout American history. In Puritan New England, a religious community trying to survive in a wilderness, women typically married at about twenty, five years earlier than their compatriots back in England. As a result, they bore more children, four or five more four than they would have had they not emigrated. The average age of marriage rose steadily through 1910, when it passed twenty-four years of age. At the same time, the fertility rate fell from eight to two. World War II initiated a steep decline in marriage age when young couples rushed to the altar before the men were deployed overseas. The trend continued through the 1950s and into the 1960s, accompanied by the Baby Boom of lore when fertility approached four births per woman (and by a boom in divorces in the 1960s and 1970s). Since then, the age of first marriage has risen steeply, and the birth rate dropped quickly to a level below replacement where it has fluctuated for the past forty years.

Like flapper, dating was a term coined in the 1890s that came into full usage in the 1920s, enabled especially by the automobile. Unlike Victorian courtship, in which a male caller visited a young woman in her parents’ parlor, dating meant leaving home, unchaperoned, usually to a commercial amusement of some kind (moving pictures, the town fair, a vaudeville show), paid for by the young man. Dating, Mintz says, introduced a new double standard, in which young men expected sexual returns (often just kissing!) in return for their financial investment and young women were responsible to set the limits on how far sexual intimacy advanced.

Going steady was a new thing in post-war America. The way Mintz tells it, it was a fraught concept. Parents scorned it. Children were probably ambivalent. By then, they could expect to be married shortly after their twentieth birthday, if not before, so dating held a “special urgency,” according to Mintz. [286] In that light, going steady was akin to a trial run, testing the waters of an impending monogamy. I can only imagine this would have led others to shun the practice, just as their parents wanted them to

Dating went on the endangered species list by 1970, and was more or less extinct by the 1980s. In its place: hanging out and hooking up. The age of first sexual activity dropped sharply through the 1970s but has risen ever since. Mintz’s book was published too early to discuss the role of texting in children’s courtship behaviors, or remark on the overall drop in sexual activity among the young.

“Blackboard Jungle”

Generation Gap

I come to the raison d’etre of this entire post. Adults decrying children is a story as old as time, to borrow Mrs. Potts’ memorable phrase. Here, Ezekiel Rogers in 1657: “I find the Greatest Trouble and Grief about the Rising Generation. Young People are stirred here; but they strengthen one another in Evil, by Example, by Counsel.” [25] There, the Atlantic Monthly in 1865: “What shall we do with our children? …The Slaveholder’s Rebellion is put down; but how shall we deal with the never-ceasing  revolt of the new generation against the old? And how to keep our Young American under the thumb of his mother and father without breaking his spirit?” [186]

But Mintz doesn’t discern a true split in the interests of the young and their elders until the mid-twentieth century when youth became its own demographic for commercial marketers. A discomfiting thought, that. We saw above how parents were increasingly concerned to provide a nurturing environment for their children and give them the material comforts denied to themselves in the Depression years. Spaces for youth (drive-in theaters, roller rinks, diners) and time to hang out in them, youth products (toys, TV shows, and records) gave youth their own culture for the first time. We have never looked back.

National print media, also on the rise, took note and editorialized. “Are We Trapped in a Child-Centered World?” blared a Newsweek headline in the 1950s. “Is the Younger Generation Soft and Spoiled?” trumpeted another.    [315-316] It wasn’t just that this latest crop of American youngsters was overindulged; they were unruly. “Let’s Face It: Our Teenagers Are Out of Control.” [291] Juvenile delinquency and gang violence became common concerns in the allegedly staid 1950s. In fact, the number of gangs in cities “exploded,” according to Mintz, and their activities became more racially charged. There is a reason West Side Story was produced in 1957. Yet, Mintz also makes clear that evidence of urban youth gangs goes back to 1807, and the gangs of the early twentieth century were also numerous and virulent.

Juvenile delinquency had had its ups and downs, as well. In the wake of the Civil War it rose steeply, as orphaned children often roamed the streets, uncared for. Eddie Rickenbacker bemoaned the rise of delinquency beginning in the war years. In 1944, he noted a thirty percent increase in youth crime since Pearl Harbor. Six years later he called the current trend “the greatest crime wave of young people in [American] history.” But Mintz cautions that the apparent surge in juvenile delinquency is as likely a result of increased number of psychologists and social workers, as well as their heightened attention to such problems. Besides, Captain Eddie would have done well to recall his own Horsehead Gang from turn-pf-the-century Columbus. Breaking streetlamps up and down Miller Avenue definitely counts as delinquency.

And we haven’t even talked about the Sixties yet.

Today’s Parent

Jean Twenge, professor of psychology from San Diego State University, has built a career on the study of twenty-first century youth and the young adults they are becoming. The generation she describes is less sexually active, less into drugs, and less intent on asserting independence than their Baby Boom or Gen X parents. They are also more programmed, more goal oriented, and more comfortable with adults. In short, they are far from the little hellions we Boomers and Gen-Xers were when growing up. Even so, today’s their parents undoubtedly uttered those time-honored words at least once in their upbringing: “Kids these days….”



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