Kids R Us

Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood

There’s a 3-year-old kid in my son’s class who’s a gentle giant. All smiles and sweetness, he lumbers around the classroom knocking things over—blocks, trucks, stacks of books, and pretty much anything between him and the snack table. The mother of another student and I once watched him reach for something on a shelf and accidentally yank a rack of window shades to the floor. The mother, a psychologist, tactfully remarked that he obviously favored “gross motor skills” over “refined” ones. Which of course was just another way of saying that he preferred to pound the walls like a madman rather than sit still and paint between the lines.

Recently, a class mother who’s a professional violinist sent out an e-mail soliciting interest in a violin class. It was a group e-mail and everyone saw the responses. Here is what the gentle giant’s mother had to say:

Thanks for providing us with this great opportunity. I’m afraid that beginning [my son] in any sort of formalized instrument instruction (no matter how informal) may be biting off more than he or I can chew. I tend to have a “you’ve got what you’ve got” philosophy when it comes to my kids. In this case, I’m thinking that what I probably have is a drummer or a singer in a punk rock band—not a violinist.

The gentle giant is a lucky kid. It’s decidedly out of fashion these days to take a “you’ve got what you’ve got” approach when it comes to rearing a child. Instead, in the circles that define the ideal standards of parenthood, the pressure is on to mold children into baby Einsteins designed to impress admissions officers at Ivy League schools. Visit the playgrounds of the privileged any weekday afternoon and you’ll find strung-out mothers with eyes bagged and brows furrowed discussing where their kids stand on elite preschool waitlists. Raising children today, based on my experience with a 3- and 1-year-old, not to mention ample park duty, is about the competitive quest to one-up the punk rocker next door with mention of your kid’s recent Bach recital.

In this quest we’re simply projecting our own goals onto offspring whose preoccupations center on things like how to get the crust off a jelly sandwich. It’s always been that way. More than ever, however, our current goals happen to be maniacally driven by the hope that our kids will achieve conventional professional success. The ironic upshot is that career-obsessed parents are ushering their children toward adulthood while downplaying the more mundane rudiments of child-rearing. As mothers pursue rewarding careers alongside fathers, the dirty work of raising a child is being increasingly outsourced. It’s not only possible to hire someone to change your kid’s diapers, but even to come over and teach your kid how to ride a bike. Parents are generally not trying to figure out what they’ve got—there’s no time for it. Instead, they’re channeling their kids into pre-professional grooves more likely to sap their spirit than set them free.

Not surprisingly, a number of recent books, including How She Really Does It: Secrets of Successful Stay-at-Work Moms, have addressed this sociological concern with considerable insight. Only one, however, places the matter in historical context, explaining how we got to where we are today. Steven Mintz’s Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood offers an impressive and unprecedented synthesis of the relevant scholarly literature. Mintz, who teaches history at the University of Houston and has written extensively on American domesticity, subjects the myths of childhood—symbolized by Huck’s raft—to “the changing flow of historical time and space.” He does so to demonstrate that childhood has never been a stable, innocent, or transcendent experience.

Cover of Huck's Raft

Granted, purporting that “childhood is inevitably shaped and constrained by society, time, and circumstances” is sort of a no-brainer. In academics, though, the most obvious can be the most enlightening. Indeed, in a profession that’s crippled by over-specialization, any serious attempt to boil down a sea of articles and books to its essence, even if the end result isn’t anything terribly revolutionary, deserves applause. Mintz does this well without dumbing down the scholarly meat of childhood history. In fact, he dives into the belly of the academic beast, honoring the race/class/gender kaleidoscope of analysis (while valuing class above all else) and craftily interweaving the distinct experiences of blacks, women, Native Americans, immigrants, laborers, elites, the middle class, and even, however momentarily, gays. Reflecting the prevailing literature, the book is a rainbow coalition of inclusion that arches over the panorama of American history. Anyone tempted to criticize the book as a “clip job” misses the underlying importance of Mintz’s signal accomplishment.

As a synthesis, though, Huck’s Raft can at times provide for a choppy reading experience. Seventeen chapters of distinct childhoods—including emphases on the Puritans, slave children, childhood during the Civil War, the Depression, and World War II and even into the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s—effectively make the argument that “childhood is a social and cultural construct that has changed radically over time.” While highlighting these radical changes, however, Mintz fails to preserve any clear threads of continuity, thus downplaying what the best histories invariably make paramount: a full-bodied story. Mintz’s book, for all its strength, lacks what the great translator and Homer scholar Robert Fagles once called “the elaborate correspondences of structure that link scene to scene.”

Mintz’s interpretive lens is shaken by shifting definitions of childhood (infancy, pre-teen, adolescence, young adulthood), the equally shifting race/class/gender triad (sometimes class matters, at other times race, then gender, then all of them, then one, etc.), and even the shifting of sources, moving as he does from “innocent” documents like letters and diaries to more formal sources in the early twentieth century like psychologist reports and educational manuals. Because every chapter places these myriad factors into a unique arrangement, the “correspondences of structure” are sometimes disconnected. (That said, I’m admittedly hard-pressed to suggest a workable alternative that might have smoothed out the narrative.)

Huck’s Raft’s pivotal moment comes about halfway through the book, and Mintz makes the most of it. Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century and reaching an apex in the Progressive Era (1890-1914), the “middle class childhood” evolved from the purview of the elite into a dominant cultural standard. Although rooted in Enlightenment ideas, it represented a distinct break from the eighteenth century in its emphasis on emotional attention, play time, the minimization of child labor, and the chance to pursue extended educational opportunities. It was an approach to child rearing that demanded kids be kids. No longer would their wills be wrenched into little adults. No longer would kids toil on farms and in factories to support the family. Children were now placed “under the magnifying glass” and childhood became—in theory at least—a pristine world of its own.

How to shape that world and keep it distinct from the trials of adulthood became the defining challenge for twentieth-century parents and children. Mintz does an excellent job of using this critical transition to explain America’s subsequent struggle with childhood, a struggle that leads right up to the “parental panics” that make today’s playgrounds crucibles of anxiety.

Careful historian that he is, Mintz never overdramatizes his case. He shows that, on balance, we’ve managed the struggle pretty well. The evolution of the “teenager” during the Depression, the idealization of the nuclear family in the 1950s, the rebellious kids who trusted no one over 30 in the 1960s, and, in our own time, the hyper-organized tenth grader who owns a patent all benefited from the middle-class standard of child rearing. Throughout the century parents gained access to the most salient child-rearing advice; children started to benefit from an economic safety net and federal educational programs; child labor laws became the unquestioned norm; and the most basic legal rights have been enshrined for children—”due process, freedom of expression, gender and racial equality, and contraception and abortion…” In varying ways, as Mintz shows, kids and parents have used these developments to achieve the middle class dream of making childhood a unique and, for the most part, fulfilling and even nostalgic moment in life.

But childhood, like everything else in life, is fraught with contradiction. As “contemporary American society isolates and juvenilizes young people more than ever before,” it also encroaches upon the sacred space that the middle class ideal has worked so hard to create. The tyranny of precociousness has worried parents sick, leading them to believe that the key to their kids’ future is keeping them ahead of the game. We thus haul them off to violin class and, when they’re older, look into SAT camps rather than letting the kids bum around, be bored, and get in trouble. The bubble is further threatened by consumer culture, which, Mintz notes, tells kids “to grow up fast, but also that they needn’t grow up at all.”

Adding to the pressure is high school, which “[mimics] some of the most disconcerting aspects of adult society, including clearly defined ladders of status and prestige.” It’s no surprise that Mintz ends his book with a short chapter on Columbine and other school shootings. Were these horrific events “symptoms of unacknowledged failings in the ways that Americans raise children”? Mintz suggests they were, noting that “contemporary society provides the young with few positive ways to express their growing maturity and gives them few opportunities to participate in socially valued activities.” An irony results: While a segment of the population dedicates its existence to its kids (with questionable results), society as a whole pretty much ignores children (with consequences that are often tragic).

Most readers of Mintz’s book, I imagine, will use it less to understand Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris than as a chance to reflect on their own roles as parents. That was certainly the case for me. Violin class starts in a week. Preschool starts in a month. My son still sucks on a pacifier. My daughter didn’t feel the need to walk until 17 months. My son hates the smoke alarm. My daughter is scared by whoopee cushions. They both love the water. All this small stuff—it seems so mundane. But to any parent trying to figure out what he’s got, the mundane manifestations of an innocent childhood are the clues to life. Mintz’s book makes some sense out of this mystery.

James E. McWilliams is the author of A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America.

James McWilliams is an Ingram professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos.

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Published at 12:00 am CST
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