Steven Mintz: The History of Childhood

Roundup: Talking About History

An interview with historian Steven Mintz, author of a new book, Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood; in the Houston Chronicle (12-25-04):.

Fritz Lanham We normally think of childhood as being a stage in the history of an individual. What does it mean to say that childhood itself has a history?

Steven Mintz We assume that human beings in the past were just like us, except, like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic, they wore different clothes. One of the most important lessons of history is that the past is a foreign country and that people are fundamentally different from us. So one of our challenges is to try to understand people who resemble us physically but who psychologically and emotionally are utterly different.

So to say that childhood has a history is to say that the way our parents lived, the way our grandparents lived, the way our great-grandparents lived was fundamentally different from the way we grew up.

Let me give you an example. In 1900, 15 percent of all kids are dead by the age of 1. Nearly a third are dead by the age of 15. Most children will lose one parent by the time they reach the age of 21. That creates a very different outlook on life than the one we have.

Another example. In 1900 half of the kids who enter first grade had left school by sixth grade. In 1900 2.5 million kids worked in factories six days a week, 10 hours a day. And that doesn't include all the kids who lived on farms, which was about a third of all children. Their world was completely different from our world.

Our challenge is to try to enter into their lives, to reconstruct their voices and experiences.

So there was never a golden age of American childhood?

In almost every way we can imagine children are better off today -- except in the ways that matter most.

Children are far less likely to die, have much more leisure time, much more disposable income. Compared to the baby boomers or their own parents, these kids are less likely to smoke, less likely to drink, less likely to use drugs. Even rates of adolescent sexuality have declined modestly.

Yet I want to argue that in what's really fundamental, kids may be worse off. They live in a world that's much more isolated from the world of adulthood, even though they know much more about that world than any other generation of kids ever did. Their school lives are less pleasurable -- about 40 percent of schools have gotten rid of recess, there's a lot more monitoring of kids than there used to be, there are a lot fewer sock hops and other events.

But the biggest problem of all is that kids have fewer and fewer ways to demonstrate their growing maturity and competence -- except unproductive ways.

What were some of the ways in the past whereby kids could demonstrate their growing maturity?

Kids worked. Let me give you an example. Mark Twain, by the time he is 11, has lost three siblings and his father, so he drops out of school and goes to work. By the time he is 18, he has worked in New York City, Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, St. Louis and Keokuk, Iowa. He went through experiences that, for most kids, are unimaginable until they're in their 30s.

So, later, he would have a wealth of experiences to draw on when he writes. And he had the satisfaction of genuinely helping to support his family, not just washing the dishes or putting away his laundry.

My sense is that for many kids in the past, growing up like that was deeply meaningful.

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