Book Review

Born in the USA


When my son was born earlier this year, a colleague with grown children pulled me aside to offer some free parenting advice. “What we really tried to do with our kids,” he said, “was raise them to deal with the world.” Yes, it would be nice if their lovely offspring found a cure for cancer, or won a Nobel Peace Prize, or became renowned novelists. But, he was saying, teaching children to negotiate a world that so many people found utterly daunting was–when you thought about it–a truly remarkable accomplishment. Sleepless and sunken in a muck of dirty diapers, mounds of laundry, and a bewildering pile of Blue Cross/Blue Shield claims, I paid about as much attention to his kind words as I did to the drool and puke that now regularly splotched my shirts.

But Joseph Illick’s American Childhoods reminded me just how timeless his advice was. Illick, a historian at San Francisco State University, surveys and synthesizes the approaches that Americans have taken toward a responsibility that requires far fewer formal qualifications than operating heavy machinery: child rearing. In emphasizing the impressive diversity of these approaches, his analysis ultimately confirms the universal goal that parents have pursued throughout history: helping kids deal as independent adults with life’s confounding complexities. Whether this meant teaching children to kill and gut a buffalo, plant cash crops under threat of the master’s whip, practice biblical self-control in the face of hideous religious strictures, or arrive at the factory floor on time, parents worthy of the designation have worked to instill their progeny with a pragmatic sense of autonomy.

It’s never been easy. “[E]ven assuming a certain parental desire and competency with respect to fostering autonomy in youngsters,” Illick writes, “there have always been social barriers to its realization, obstacles related to gender, status, class, race, and ethnicity.” He is wise to filter his research through these categories, and his analysis tugs the reader through the text with fascinating anecdotal treats, but Illick ultimately misses an opportunity to critique that all-encompassing myth known and loved by cultural conservatives throughout the nation: traditional family values.

American Childhoods argues that American economic development slowly undermined the autonomy that children once enjoyed during the colonial and early American periods. Factors ranging from poverty and class formation to bourgeois morality and the pressure to attend college have all, in their own ways, hampered the child’s individual quest for independence. This claim is an original interpretive tack on an under-explored topic, and Illick develops it well. However, there’s an obvious social reality that he regretfully keeps hidden in plain sight–that is, as his evidence overwhelmingly shows, there has been no consensus on what kind of family arrangement works best. Maybe Illick thinks the point too obvious; maybe he personally wants to believe in the idea of traditional family values–it’s unclear. In any case, by failing to acknowledge the white elephant in the living room and politicize his findings, Illick, who has been teaching and writing for more than 40 years, remains one of the profession’s foot soldiers rather than a maverick leader.

Fortunately, historians need foot soldiers too, and Illick trudges over a lot of ground. The book’s first and most interesting section compares the childhood experiences of Native Americans, European Americans, and slaves during the pre-industrial era. Although Illick never mentions it, an example from the 17th century sharpens the contrast between the first two groups. Many European Americans were confronted with a cultural conundrum when Indians raided their towns and took their children hostage. The white children would very often refuse to reintegrate into their families after a deal was brokered for their release. Native American habits too often fit more comfortably than they were supposed to. This phenomenon, not surprisingly, occurred most often with Puritan children.

In light of Illick’s findings, it’s really no wonder the kids wanted to go native. In an effort to “break the child’s will,” European Americans who settled the colonial frontier fostered independence through the time-honored tactics of restraint, denial, and discipline. “Corporal punishment,” Illick writes, “was pervasive.” Preparing boys to run the family farm and girls to manage domestic duties required parents to follow the mantra that “Indulgence is the very engine of the devil.” Babies were bound in a cradleboard until they could walk; parents strove to be “physically present but emotionally absent, as sentiment could only cloud responsibility. Schools could only function with a master whose primary educational implement was a birch rod and toys and other playthings were verboten because dolls were considered devils and other superfluous objects dangerous talismans. The project of raising kids to replicate the habits of English life out on the wild and woolly frontier, in short, ensured a “mental manipulation of the child” more intense than anything practiced back in the motherland. The “parental armory” was thus especially well stocked.

The Native Americans must have found it very strange. They surely would have scoffed could they have read John Cotton’s theory that Indians were “out of measure indulgent towards their children.” After all, their child-rearing approaches were also commensurate with the working lives that men and women were expected to lead–lives rooted in a pre-industrial, highly spiritualized environment. But for Native Americans, life’s work and spiritual strivings shared little with the European invaders, as their efforts were not expected to yield financial profit or offer appeasement as sinners in the hands of an angry God. Accordingly, Native American parents allowed children to wallow in the natural world as an appropriate education for acting individualistically while “conforming to the demands of a communal, conservative, homogenous society.” One European marveled at how Native Americans “abandon [their children] entirely to themselves; not out of hard heartedness…. but from a persuasion that nature ought to be suffered to act upon them, and that they ought not be confined in any way.” Another remarked how they “go stark naked where-ever they have a mind, through woods, water, mire, and snow; which gives them strength and agility, and fortifies them against the air and the water.” What fun.

Illick portrays both the European and Native Americans as highly accomplished parents. In a pre-industrial economy where change came reluctantly and generational rebellion was non-existent, parents instilled the habits of autonomy well enough to sustain traditional cultural objectives for hundreds of years. For European Americans, though, such parental accomplishments before the Civil War came at a cost, one that African American families were forced to pay. “The basic psychological point,” Illick writes, “is that for the African American child, the mother was frequently inaccessible.” The father’s power in the slave family diminished as well because “owners were too powerful and parents too subjugated for slave children to look anywhere but toward the owner for status and self esteem.” Violence, furthermore, was a constant fact of life, and it took an enormous toll on slave children. “Certainly,” Illick explains, “slave children saw their parents beaten, and their parents in turn beat them–whether because this was traditional practice or to prepare them for their adult lives.” A slave child’s rite of passage into adulthood was often the bitter experience of being sold down river. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how this shared history shaped the development of the African American family after the Civil War, and Illick sketches that development to the current challenge of preparing black children “to survive in the intimidating white world.”

Illick’s transition to the “modern” era occurs abruptly, probably too abruptly, but in the book’s second section he carefully highlights two complementary changes essential to American childhood: industrialization and the fall of patriarchal authority. As more Americans began to squeeze a living from the factory rather than the farm, the customary authority that fathers once practiced declined substantially, as they now worked away from home. This change, as historians have long noted, clearly enhanced domestic power for mothers. As Illick explains, though, it also opened a power vacuum that schools and other institutions moved to fill. Additionally, industrialization drove a wedge between white Americans, placing the “urban working class” and the “urban middle class” on opposite sides of the industrial process. The economic consequences for these groups naturally differed, but, in terms of child rearing, the industrialized economy and the institutions that emerged to serve it undermined the autonomy that parents once successfully provided for their kids.

For the members of the urban middle class, those who financed and ran the factories, managing childhood primarily became the school’s responsibility. You might expect that spending more time away from home would have fostered greater independence, but not so. “It did not render them more independent,” Illick writes, “instead, institutions… began to be developed which since then have delayed youth in its achievement of adult status.” High schools “extended control over extracurricular life” so oppressively that they came “to undermine student autonomy.” Related organizations like the YMCA made every effort “to take over the spare time activities of youth.” And colleges, with the emergence of such mindless distractions as fraternities and sororities, bred a stifling conformity rather than autonomy. Together, such institutions supported “a lengthening of childhood” that, in the end “yielded neither the order nor the discipline adults wished for.” When, throughout the twentieth century, the urban middle class sprawled beyond the city, this seemingly perpetual adolescence only intensified, eventually culminating in our current cultural ideal of suburban bliss. This ideal, with all its dull accoutrements, has become the rubber stamp for nothing less than the American dream.

Not that the working class fared any better. While the middle class slouched toward suburbia, polishing the myth of traditional family values along the way, the working classes picked through the tax-depleted urban dregs, and, in the process, unwittingly became the antithesis of the suburban ideal, the American dream, and effective child rearing. Children of the working classes in the nineteenth century went to work. They had to. But work, unlike in the pre-industrial era, was away from the home, and thus: “[W]orking class families could not supply shelter from the outside world…. its corruption and poverty bred dependence and deviancy.” The twentieth century manifestation of this trend was the urban slum, with debilitating poverty as “the most evident badge of their difference.”

What’s so interesting is that the suburban gated community and the urban slum, as Illick handles them, equally diminish the quest for autonomy. What’s so uninteresting, however, is Illick’s failure to explore the political consequences of this otherwise fascinating argument.

James McWilliams’ son does not know how to kill and gut a buffalo. Yet.