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UC Berkeley professor's book on childhood in America helps define the country's past, future
18 Jan 2000

By Janet Gilmore, Public Affairs

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

But, according to two University of California, 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 S. 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 (New York University Press, $24.99), 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 years.

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

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

"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.

"The Victorian mother and child came to dominate sentimental representations of family life," according to the book.

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

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

Today, parents have become more skeptical of faddish child-rearing theories, the authors contend, and busy schedules prevent many middle-class parents from devoting much time to researching the latest child psychology theories.

And while parents may not spend as much time with their children as they'd like, Fass said, the parents' need for that strong emotional bond is more important than ever.

"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," Fass said. "Our identities have become very bound up with our children."

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 used as convenient symbols of our better selves.

Meanwhile, Mason said, more and more children are being neglected, live in poverty and have inadequate medical care. The attention, Mason and Fass agreed, should be redirected from a single person focusing on a single child to a society focusing on all the nation's children.

Said Fass, "We as a society need to become more careful about the lives and futures of all our children as a common endeavor."


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